Year A, Advent 3
December 16, 2013
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? …Someone dressed in soft robes? ”
It has been a snowy week in Eugene, our hometown. Snowy and cold. There are a few things Windy and I really miss about New England. Family, the shore, decent bagels and good pizza, which are notably, nearly tragically lacking west of the Rockies, and winter, New England winter. Falling snow, a frosty nip on red cheeks, the excitement of stocking up at the store before a storm. We both have felt nostalgic for winter right at this time these past three years. Admittedly, snowy weather is easier to handle with snowplows, snow tires, and advanced snow melting technology like salt. Of course it makes no sense for us to invest the millions of dollars it takes to actually handle the heavy snowfall and frigid temperatures we had this past week, once in 40 year storms don’t warrant that kind of spending. So here in Eugene, in these rare moments of snowy weather, we have to handle it in another way, a much more sustainable way, even a very Adventy kind of way: we pause.
Institutionally we paused big time for this storm. Schools were out for a week. Adult ed, book groups, choir practice and a variety of meetings were canceled. At 8 o’clock last Sunday we had one person besides the three of us with roles in the Mass. Concerts, festivals and confirmations were postponed. Some of us got to spend a lot more time at home with our families this week, making forays to the woods or a park to build snow-people, make snow angels and eat icicles, followed by hot chocolate by a fire. Some of us had to spend more time at home; snow-slick sidewalks are murder on older hips. Probably some more of us should have stayed at home, there were how many hundreds of car accidents?
But pause… slowing down, giving a chance for the swirl of our lives to catch up with the actual and sustainable pace of our breath, the pace of the turning of the earth, the rotation of the moon. The weather of this past week was a real demonstration and practice of limits. It forced a time to be content, a time to change plans, a time to make do with what you have in front of you, or in the cupboard because running to the store just became a lot more complicated. That’s the kind of practice that Advent really demands of us; to stop, take stock, look at and ponder the condition of our lives and the world. It is the very kind of practice we need to help us remember that soon, and very soon, a light, the light, the light that enlightens the nations is about to enter the world, again. Come, Lord Jesus! Sometimes it takes a compulsory pause like that that which comes with weather we are not equipped to handle for us to remember to pause.
I witnessed another form of pause this past week, a kind of pause, a deep breath like I’ve never seen before. A week ago Wednesday, at 10 o’clock at night, I was down in our parish hall. I sat on the piano bench for a few minutes, looking, listening to what was going on down there. And what did I hear and see? Sleeping. People sleeping. A lot of people sleeping downstairs at this church. We had just 11 that first night at the Egan warming center, the South Hills Site as we are now called. Eleven was a small, but probably a good number because we were all a bit nervous about getting started, in particular on such short notice. It moved up to 24, then 27, and by the end 40 and 41 people slept on thin mats after being fed a simple dinner all put together by hundreds of volunteers across Eugene and Springfield. Forty different agencies are involved in the coalition: County and City government, LTD and White Bird, Food for Lane County, St. Vinnies and a core of churches providing space that we are now part of. Amazing. And there I sat and paused in our little parish hall, listening to the sound of some very grateful people sleeping. It was pretty warm. Pretty cozy, there was an order to it all. And it was safe, very safe. Warm, cozy and safe on nights that dipped to -13… for some it could be the best sleep they get all year, the nights Egan is activated.
What a pause we helped provide for some people who don’t usually get a pause. The Egan warming center system is amazing. 3500 nights of sleep were provided this past week, 250ish right here; 7000 meals, 500 downstairs. (Then we fed another 285 down at First Christian for 2nd Sunday breakfast.) For some of the guests it really is the best sleep they ever get, being able to rest, relax without fear that they will be assaulted or robbed, or be rousted by the police in the middle of the night. This all happened through the generosity of volunteers from across the city, of a lot of people in this room who spent time downstairs, and all of us who agreed to share this holy space for a very holy purpose. Our society does not make room at the inn for everyone, but this congregation joined a community this past week and we did what we could, we answered what I think was a call from God to do what we needed to do, to share what resources we have with those most in need. We made room at an inn of sorts. From each according to their ability, to each according to their need, right? That’s a gospel truth that can be traced to the 25th chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel.
The snow and cold paused us in some ways and it activated us in others. Some of us slept late because we could, we had nowhere to go because we couldn’t get there. (4 year olds still get up at 6 no matter what the weather dishes up.) Others of us slept late, or went to bed very early because we had that 10 – 3 or 3 – 8 shift downstairs, or we had to walk to First Christian on the coldest morning in 40 years because even though your car was snowed in, you knew that breakfast needed to be served, you knew that some people’s needs are greater than your own comfort and desires. Moments like this, where we are forced to pause and are called to action by the very same force are analogous to the life of the spirit, in particular the life of the spirit in Advent.
God in Christ calls us to pause. To breathe. To pay attention. To notice the seen and unseen and to make meaning of the world we inhabit. That means pondering what is right and wrong; it requires discerning the will of God in the world. It means resting, or at least trying to rest in the loving arms of mystery. Remember being little and learning to float on your back… it was all about relaxing into it, right? Same with God. Pause, relax and rest into God’s love.
God in Christ also calls us to action. To serve the least of these, to do what we can for those who can’t. To not consider what is practical or wise but what is right. We can’t have an authentic religious life focused solely on the love and worship of God as much as we can’t have an authentic religious life focused soley on serving our broken brothers and sisters. We must love God with all of our faculties AND we must love our neighbor as deeply as ourselves, as deeply as we love our people.
Jesus Christ commands this. It is the Great Commandment, actually. And not just go to church on Sunday kind of love of God, not just write a check to a worthy charity kind of love of neighbor, though those can be parts of the plan. An authentic religious life, a true life of the spirit requires loving God until it is uncomfortable, inconvenient, until we are out of time, until it is embarrassing, off-putting even. And loving our neighbor means not leaving the check at the office, but inviting the suffering into your community, into our home here, most importantly, into each of our hearts. As those of us who served at Egan this past week, who serve breakfast on Sundays, who brought dinners folks on Thanksgiving, who deliver Home Starter Kits to people in new homes, those encounters, those opportunities for relationship, those invitations into each other’s hearts … that is the true practice of Christianity that we each need to develop, that we each need to continue. Lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, that is the practice of Christianity that we are all called to, to remember God’s promise of mercy and to pass it on. This parish community is remembering and fulfilling that promise in all sorts of ways. I am immensely grateful to be part of this little slice of the Beloved Community, this little embassy of the Kingdom of God.
Three-quarters of the way through Advent as we are, I encourage you to seek opportunities to pause and to activate. To take a restful break from your routine on one hand, and walk out on thin ice on the other. Try to love God, to worship God in serving your neighbor. And in serving your neighbor, strive to see the face of Christ clothed in anything but soft robes smiling back at you. That’s the kind of love changed the world in the birth of a savior. Open yourself to it. It will change your life and the world. AMEN.