Year A, Advent 1 November 27, 2016 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“You know what time it is, how it is the moment for you to wake from sleep. …the night is far gone, the day is near.”
I bring some skills and talents to my ministry as your priest. I have my good moments. My not so good ones, too. One thing that I do not bring is subtlety. The past two weeks I preached rather unequivocally that we are entering a time of trial as a nation; we are at a precipice and it could go a lot of different ways, some of those possible futures being rather terrifying, and if there is even a chance of that, like in Pascal’s Wager, we must be vigilant. I seem to have gotten some of your attention. Paying attention is very important in moments of transition like we are in as a nation and a world.
Not everyone is comfortable with this kind of talk, of overtly political talk coming from a pulpit. I haven’t gotten any specific push back, but I know some are not comfortable with the content and tone. Someone brought up concern for our not-for-profit tax status… no worries, the IRS is only concerned if a religious organization is stumping for a specific partisan candidate. I can’t be accused of that.
There is some general discomfort with political talk at church, that it is not the place of the church, that the church should be concerned with more “spiritual” issues and not so much political ones. Political talk is often uncomfortable, I agree, but uncomfortable or not, we cannot be reminded often enough that the Christian story of salvation culminates in Jesus Christ, in God, being arrested by police, tormented by soldiers and put to death by a governor for failing to bow to civil authority. “Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asked. ‘You say that I am.” He answered and they killed Him. Not for religious talk, not for claiming to be God’s Son, not for any spiritual or religious message He spread, but for challenging the authority of Caesar. That is our central story of God and it is base politics. Christianity is a political religion, deeply concerned with the doings in the realm of time and space, of right here and right now.
William Stringfellow was one of the greatest theologians the Episcopal church produced in the 20th century. In his classic, An Ethic for Christians and other Aliens in a Strange Land, he writes, “The biblical topic is politics. The Bible is about the politics of a fallen creation and the politics of redemption; the politics of the nations, institutions, ideologies, and causes of this world and the politics of the Kingdom of God; the politics of Babylon and the politics of Jerusalem; the politics of the Antichrist and the politics of Jesus Christ; the politics of the demonic powers and principalities and the politics of the timely judgement of God as sovereign; the politics of death and the politics of life; apocalyptic politics and eschatological politics.” Christianity is a political religion because it heralds the arrival of the Kingdom of God in the person of Jesus Christ as a corrective, as salvation from this fallen world. And yes, our hearts are the site of the greatest change in the coming of the Kingdom, but the Kingdom arrives fully only as the world itself changes, too, and it is us, with God’s help, that affect that change one act of mercy, one act of forgiveness, one act of selfless loving-kindness at a time. “First you pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That is how prayer works.” Baby steps to the Kingdom.
The Kingdom of God (or Commonwealth of God) arrives as the Law and the Prophets are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The Prophets are fulfilled in unrelenting and piercing critique of injustice, un-Godliness, and the culture of darkness and death. The Law is fulfilled in ordering the world in accordance with God’s command. The Law constructs a culture of light and life, making it a place “…where justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” In Jesus Christ these vocations are one and we are saved. In moments like this, we must remember both of these Christian vocations; to be critical of the principalities and powers of the world, and to be constructive, to build the Commonwealth of God here on Earth, to make straight the paths of the Lord right here, right now.
“You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” You do know what time it is, it is the First Sunday of Advent. We are entering the evening of the year. It is dark. The rains have closed in as they always do, just as the harvest is brought in. Our granaries are full, but just like the sun is furthest from its zenith for us, we are also at the furthest point from next year’s harvest. What we have has got to last. Joy, yes, but reserved, thoughtful, pensive. This is the Advent mood. It is not the red and green and twinkling lights and catchy tunes that our consumer culture would have us believe. The Advent mood is dark, not dreadful dark, but Oregon winter dark, longest night of the year dark, waiting for the return of the light dark. Diana Butler Bass wrote in the Washington Post yesterday, “Advent recognizes a profound spiritual truth — that we need not fear the dark. Instead, wait there. Under that blue cope of heaven, alert for the signs of dawn. Watch. For you cannot rush the night.”
No, we cannot rush the night. Listen, and you can hear the soil drinking in the winter rains. We can’t rush that. Like we can’t rush our own pause in the flow of the year. Not living seasonally, not living based on food supply, on harvest and planting is a new thing for us humans. (And not all humans are on our calendar, don’t forget). And forgetting those cycles is dangerous. This time of year is a time to pause, to breathe, like the soil, to drink in the wonders of this life, but here is the Jesus flip, we do this not for rest’s sake, not for leisure’s sake, not even for the sake of a few holy breaths. This is not a time of passive waiting. We do this for preparation’s sake.
Our passage from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome frames the activity of our Advent observance quite well. He writes that the time is now, the time is now to put aside darkness and put on light, “…to live honorably, as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ…” What he is saying, explicitly, is that now is the time to stop our fooling around and get to the business of being God’s people.
This points is in the same direction as our reading from St. Matthew’s Gospel. “But about that day and hour no one knows…” This whole reading is about being ready. It is about putting aside that which is not important and taking on what is, or as Paul says, “…lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
Now we all have darkness in our hearts. We all do things that we are ashamed of, things that we know that we should not do. But I don’t think that is the main sin that this community faces: active evil doing. That’s why I so appreciate the confession we use, which speaks of repenting “…of the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.” Apathy is our principal enemy here. Not wanting things to change. Accepting the benefits of evil things being done on our behalf. Being content, not in a peaceful, equanimeous way, but in an ossified, deluded one. “It’s not my problem. (or “I don’t even see a problem”).” “I’m just not interested in it.” “There’s nothing I can do about it anyway.” Those are sure signs of apathy, and it will not do. That is not what Jesus calls us to.
We need to trade our apathy for faith. We’ve got to have faith. Faith that life has meaning. Faith that you have a place in this world. Faith that the arc of the universe is long and it bends towards justice. Faith that what you do matters and faith that it is going to be OK. Faith that the world is, as one commentator writes, “full of both judgement and grace, and it moves towards the time when God will make all things new.” We need to have faith that God in Christ will not forsake us; that we are in fact God’s people and that the story we are living, the history in which we are part of, is the history of salvation, “…that the history in which we live is God’s story, moving from God to God.”
Jesus had faith. Granted He knew how His own story ended. (But knowing the ending and still marching forward… Impossible without faith). Now whether it was because he saw everything though Divine eyes or because He just knew that if you taunted the beast it would devour you, we don’t know. What we do know is that Jesus steered His entire ministry to the fulfillment of what needed to be fulfilled, and He did it with what and who He had before Him. So Jesus’ lesson to us is to have faith and be prepared. We need to be prepared to do God’s work right where we are, right when we are there and with those we are there with. And we don’t know when anything will happen. We don’t possess a God’s eye view, we can’t even predict a presidential election, but we need to fulfill our individual and collective ministry as Jesus did, which means to the end; and that takes preparation.
Advent is a season of preparation. For those who work the earth, now is the time for fixing tools, mending nets and changing the oil in the tractor after another season’s round and round passes us by. It is also the time to start work of firewood for next year, and the year after. We need to do the same in our lives, in the lives of our families. We need to prepare, and not just for Christmas, but for the long haul.
Now there are all sorts of individual preparations what we can make, from taking on a spiritual practice to repairing relationships that you will need to an annual desk, closet or garage purge. Today, I’m going to stick with communal preparations. What we as a church can do beginning today, so that we are ready.
Our central practice of this season together is found in our preparations for the coming of the Christ-child. It is time to get ready for Christmas, not as an end, but as a practice. This is a time for church communities to gather more tightly, to join together to make our church beautiful for the season. It started last week with the Choral Evensong offered by the Resurrection Choir. Just lovely. Now wreathes are coming, Christmas wreathes come from Woodburn and Advent wreathes from the kids downstairs after church. Chet needs help with the greens that we put up (appropriately) after Advent! The altar guild needs help doing all that they do. It is a time to come together as a church, for if a storm is building, we are going to have to be able to trust each other, work together, and share not only a litany of complaints, but also a vision of a common future, of what the Commonwealth of God can and will look like.
Another preparation step we need to take is about the Word itself and how it resides here at Resurrection: are we a lampstand or does this pyramid we worship inside act like a giant bushel basket, hiding the light of Christ from the world? This season, I ask you to think very closely about why you are here at Resurrection. Why do you feel closer to Jesus for being here? What do you get? What do you get to give? Then, I’d like you share that. I know, many Episcopalians would rather have a paper cut than invite someone to church, but now is the time. It is a meaty season that can hold one’s attention as we are moved from Advent on to Christmas, through Epiphany and into the drama of Lent and Easter. There is a lot of need out there, just read Facebook. People are grasping, a lot of people feel adrift and are desperately looking for a way to connect to the world, to be active in changing the course of things. We are an engaged community. We are living our faith as a movement, as movement in the world. Invite someone to join this movement of light, life and love. Invite someone to church next week, or at least for Christmas eve. You’ll be doing them a favor. (And in that same vein, be extra, extra welcoming to the many new faces we have around here already. Coming in the door is one thing, being welcomed into community is another thing altogether).
Winter is coming. Whether it will be like the “Game of Thrones” or if it is just an astrological observation, time alone will tell. What is clear is that we do not know when it is coming, or even what exactly is on the horizon, so we must “keep awake.” Ordinary time is over and we are in the season of Advent. Open yourself to the cool Marian blue of this preparatory season. “You know what time it is, how it is the moment for you to wake from sleep.” AMEN