December 17. 2017, Third Sunday of Advent YR B

Year B, Advent 3
December 17, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was


“He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”

I don’t know about you, but this Advent is flying by.  Maybe it was this crazy Egan activation, 10 nights, the longest ever.  As busy at it is here and with Windy gone so much, in our family it was sort of a lost week and a half. And hold onto your parkas, it is coming again, another long one.  Or maybe it is that we are greening today, a week early.  Christmas decorations are for the Christmastide, not the Advent season.  Or that Advent 4 is Christmas Eve.  I’d blame the HSK Advent Shrub for throwing me off if it hadn’t focused such amazing generosity from you all.  $2500 in three weeks.  They are back in business.  Though liturgically irregular, that little shrub is a harbinger of the coming season of abundance.  And it is coming fast.

Or maybe it seems fast this year because there is something about this season.  What a year!  In our lives: deaths, births, relationships begun, ended, health restored, health faltering, successes, failures. We’ve experienced the gamut right here in little old Resurrection.  Sandi remarked the other day that life can be so lifey sometimes.  And the world…  Alabama came through, yes, but only by the hair of our collective chinny-chin-chins.  The courts have been helpful, but the tax plan isn’t. It is a very bad sign that a nuclear disarmament organization won the Nobel peace prize.  That signifies that their purpose is not only real, but is pressing.  And our dear leader is still our dear leader and the opposition; I don’t know.  So much seems to be swirling around.

One thing that is holding me steady this year is the season of Advent itself.  In particular, the lectionary this year has pulled me in, and I can feel it pulling us towards Christmas. Advent isn’t about candy canes and waiting for Santa, it is about preparing for the Incarnation of God.  What is that that we must do?  Repent!

That is where the Advent season takes us.  We are broken, sinners. Neither we nor our world are as it should or could be.  This is not about fault, it is about fact.  Roy Moore is not a major political figure because we have our stuff together.  You are not difficult sometimes because you are manifesting the image of God in which you were made as brilliantly as you could.  Your rough edges, sometimes razor sharp jagged edges; we all have them, so we need to repent.  We need to admit that we are in fact broken, and we need to endeavor to change the direction in which we are headed.  And that brings us to where we left of last week… To repent we need to understand, and then act upon the knowledge that we cannot save ourselves.  We need to surrender.

That is the essence of repentance, that handing over to God of everything, ourselves.  People talk about a moment of Zen, a paradoxical moment where your regular thinking brain and feeling heart just can’t wrap itself around something.  Well our Zen Buddhist brothers and sisters don’t have a monopoly on adjusting themselves to holy paradox.  This is one of those moments like the weakness of the cross being the strength of God.  We can’t help ourselves.  That is what Grace is all about, life just flowing, light just shining, that’s the Grace of God.  But what we can do is let that life and light flow through us and shine out of us.  But, we can’t shine our own lights, we don’t have them.  Life can’t flow from us because it’s not our life, it is God’s.  But what we can do, is let God do those things.  Let God do those things in and through us.  That’s the key word: let.

Simone Weil supposedly uttered one of the most useful statements every made about all of this.  She said, “It is not so much that we need to say yes to God, but rather we need to stop saying no.”  God in Christ is ever present, like atmospheric pressure, pushing constantly pushing His way in to our souls, but we have this amazing ability to avoid it. To not hear it.  And sometimes is seeps in and all is well, for a while.  Then we turn away.  Exile and return.  That’s the human story.  Rejection and reconciliation.  It gets exhausting.

In the end, it is about surrender.  Letting go and letting God.  That step off the cliff before your repelling rope has full tension.  Laying down your arms (real, emotional or spiritual) before an opponent as an act of strength.  Letting something you love go, because it needs to be freed.  Doing something knowing that it will be for the best, though you know the near term pain will be great.  You’ve all been there.  That leap.  That is exactly what we are being called to do with our whole lives in relation to God.  To stand on that precipice and let go, leap into that dark abyss into the warm, comfortable arms of God that are just beyond your sight.

That is the culmination of repentance and that is all pretty darn abstract.  What we really need are tools, paths, practices to affect our surrender.  It is much easier, it seems, to keep it all as it is, not rock the boat, not deal with the consequences of the changes that will follow.  It is hard to stop saying no to God.  We need help.  Enormous help.

The lectionary just works sometimes.  This week, St. Paul is right here with us the passage we have from First Thessalonians.  In these eight short verses, Paul lays out a series of things that can ready us for the indwelling of God.  I say things, because these are not so much practices, but are postures, states of mind, filters of what comes in and goes out of you.   By trying some of these ways on, we might be able to assume a posture of receptivity allowing us to relax our guards enough to let the sun shine in.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  Well.  That’s pretty direct, isn’t it?  It is like when people asked Jesus, “How should we pray?”  He answered.  “Pray like this: Our Father, who art in Heaven…”  We don’t get direct answers like this so often.  So let’s go through this passage.  The richness of it is stunning.

“Rejoice always…”  When was a time you rejoiced?  Really rejoiced?  I think of the second day of my sabbatical.  We drove up this crazy switchback road, twenty miles south of Prineville, to this house we had rented for a week, site unseen.  So much seemed to be riding on it being a good spot.  I was fried going on sabbatical, for a lot of reasons, and I, we needed a break, need some time alone together… and we pulled into this driveway and this place was more than we ever could have imagined.  Exactly what we needed.  I rejoiced.  I unclenched all of my muscles and a smile just {ding!} popped on my face.  I’m not a shriek or throw a hat up in the air kind of person, but I can imagine that feeling.  Letting go.  Letting goodwill flow out in response to good will flowing in.  I did, and that letting go in joy, the verb form of rejoice, it started us off on two of the best weeks we have had as a family.  I was just present, with that smile right there.

When you have rejoiced, where was God in that?  God was there, for sure, a new baby, a wedding, an idea falls into place, a project complete in the way you had envisioned, only better.  You felt open, didn’t you?  Receptive to the world. Gentle.  I felt so gentle bouncing off-road across sagebrush country in Windy’s truck.  That feeling (or that feeling with better shock absorbers) that is the feeling of receptivity.  That is the feeling of openness to God.  Imagine giving in to that?

“…pray without ceasing…”  Imagine giving into that all the time?  That is what Paul is indicating.  Prayer.  What does that mean?  Anyone know the official BCP definition?  (Anyone know where to find the official BCP definition?)  [Let’s do a BCP sword drill.  We’ll cheat.  Page 856, right in the middle of the page.  Could someone read it?  “Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.”]  Responding to God, always.  In Judaism, there are prayers for everything, every mundane act has a prayer that goes with it.  I spent 10 days in a Buddhist monastery in Burma meditating.  Sitting in the hall, walking meditation, that was part of the practice.  The other part was that you did everything mindfully.  You consciously pick up the tooth brush. Pick up the toothpaste.  Twist the cap off.  Squeeze the toothpaste.  Watch it go on the brush.  Stop squeezing.  Put the cap back on, twist, twist, twist.  Put it down.  Raise the toothbrush…  There’s 20 minutes of your life lived mindfully.  Noticing, being as fully present as possible in every moment, those prayers some Jewish folks do, it is not very efficient, but man oh man, you are right there, chest deep in the sacrament of the present moment.  That is what Paul is talking about.  Responding to God without ceasing.   That means being open to the world as it actually is.  It means not being cut off, wrapped up, walled off, shut down, our heads in the clouds or in the sand.  Responding to God all the times means being present and open and honest with what actually is.

When you are there, when you are fully present, things aren’t as scary as they are when you bumble along in the half light most of us walk around in, our minds and hearts whisked away by our phones, our entertainments, our fantasies of the future and nostalgia for the past.  Praying ceaselessly, constantly responding to God, you aren’t going to be startled as often, for the unexpected is noticed a lot farther off when you are really paying attention.  What God is offering you is a lot clearer when your vision is a lot clearer.

“…give thanks in all circumstances…”  This is about gratitude.  Always being grateful is a way of life, it is a whole being orientation.  Gratitude is the posture of knowing that it is not up to you, what you have, what you do, what happens to and around you.  Giving thanks always is a first order practice of finding God in your moment to moment life. We always say grace before eating in our home.  That thanksgiving pauses us for a moment, opens us.  At the monastery, we prayed before eating.  And then we prayed after eating.  It is harder to remember to say thanks for the food which you just ate.  Now this is not the same as saying, “Well, God made this happen for a reason!” when something terrible happens.  God’s will does not make tragedy happen.  But it is, even in the face of horror, being thankful for even the breath you take.  Giving thanks for food you have.  For the company of others who grieve with you.  For someone to pray for.  There is always something to be thankful for.  And when we remember that, and when we note something to be thankful for in even the darkest time, your souls loosens, like tightly held shoulders relaxing.  That is a big fat invitation to God to come on in.

“Do not quench the spirit.”  Let it grow!  Let it flow!  Energy, life, love and joy.  Don’t tamp it down.  Don’t drown your fire.  Where you find joy and passion (or where joy and passion find you), follow or welcome it in.  I hear so many stories that begin, “In a perfect world, I’d be doing/working/sailing…”  When I left the Marine officer corps, and not to long thereafter the corporate achievement ladder for the bright shores of ministry, I was scared silly.  What future was I leaving behind?  What prosperity was I forgoing?  How could I ever afford a chenille sweater like the one Windy spilled bleach on again?  You know, important stuff.  (It was a very nice sweater, though).  But I walked away from it and have regretted it exactly never.  Do not quench the spirit, live fully, now.  That is where and when God is.

“Do not despise the words of the prophets, but test everything…”  This is good. This is about giving the benefit of the doubt, but not swallowing blindly.  We need to give the benefit of the doubt.  We need to consciously rely on things, people, outside of us.  We need to heed the call of Isaiah, and know that “Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves,” but we need to see how that fits into our lives, into whatever it is that you have before you.  One of the things I love hearing the most about this place is that many think that this is a safe place for seekers, spiritual seekers.  I strive for it to be.  If you can’t ask the hard questions at church, where are you going to ask them?  And some of the questions get answers we can abide in.  Some don’t.  And that is ok. We’re Anglican.  Just make sure you stand up and sit down when you are supposed to!  Really though, “…hold fast to what is good, abstain from every form of evil.”  That is not advocating salad-bar religion, but it is about self-examination, learning what you need, what will help you develop your relationship with God.

“…this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  All of these ways of encountering the world that St. Paul lays out, rejoicing always, praying ceaselessly, giving thanks in all circumstances, not quenching the spirit, giving the benefit of the doubt but still testing…  can you see how doing those things could open you up to God?  Could bring you into a more intimate relationship?  Could bring the idea of surrender into the realm of possibility?  Some much of this is about trust.   Trust is tricky business, particularly if you have good reason not to trust power, like racial minorities, any kind of minority, actually, women.  Surrender for a woman is a different task than surrender for a man.  You are asked, if not forced, to surrender, to submit constantly.  But surrendering to God, now that can be something completely different.  For the powerless, the lesser powered, it is not groveling before some father-king, no, it is an audience with the source of all creation, you are called into the presence of the God Almighty!    That is a place of honor and awe, not humiliation.  And for the powerful, maybe there is a bit of groveling.  Maybe we men types need to have the experience of humiliation before the almighty, that might be edifying for us to experience.  In either case, we need to open to God enough that God might slip in and soften our hearts, help us change the direction of our lives, help us repent and get on with the brilliant work God has given each of us to do.

Christmas is almost here.  Let go.  Let God.  AMEN