Monday, November 30, 2009

The Advent Wind

Advent 1-C November 29, 2009
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-9
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

Watch out! It’s Advent! Jesus is coming – and what will he find? Will we be ready?

During these weeks before Christmas, the church directs our reading of the Bible and our prayers to what it means to get ready for the birth of Jesus. It’s a time of anticipation – of being ready on the balls of our feet, the tips of our toes.

Poems about this time of the year, this Advent of watching and waiting, emphasize the changes in the world around us. “Darkness and snow descend,” one poet[i] writes. And another describes how raw the weather can be in December, and perhaps how well it describes the spiritual state we are in these days:

The Advent wind begins to stir
With sea-like sounds in our Scotch fir,
It's dark at breakfast, dark at tea,
And in between we only see
Clouds hurrying across the sky
And rain-wet roads the wind blows dry
And branches bending to the gale
Against great skies all silver pale[ii]

Our lessons, again, talk to us about the end of time. We read again of the apocalypse, about the coming of the day of the Lord. Our culture surely is full of fearful images of these end days. I mentioned a few weeks ago the movie “2012.” There is another one, “The Road,” about a father and son who wander a devastated earth and find not one shred of humanity or hope.

Perhaps such images are what we can expect from a culture as bloated as ours is – bloated with greed and consumerism and one-upsmanship. When we fear that we will lose everything when God comes, who would not be terrified?

But if we look at the prospect of the end times from the other side of history, we get a different set of feelings. The people who have lost their retirement savings in the stock market crash, or the families who have had to move out of their foreclosed homes, or the parents who mourn the loss of their children to gunfire or war or accidental death, surely anyone who has had to live for even a short time in a homeless shelter – these people might see the end of the world as we know it rather differently. I think such experiences can lead us to understand the “end time” not as destruction but as transformation. A world that is unjust is transformed into one that is abundant, with plenty of food and homes and health for all. A world of community and hope and fulfillment. “Surely the days are coming.” Jeremiah reminds us as he reminded the people of Israel many centuries ago, when there will be justice and righteousness in the land, and when the people will live in safety.

Advent is the time to repent. In a few weeks, we will read the words of John the Baptist saying just that. When the Bible says, “Repent,” it does not mean punishment or retribution; it means change. It means turn around. Turn around your head, your heart, your whole way of life. During this time of repentance, the old way of life – of greed, selfishness, false anger, violence – is what comes to an end, as we wait in hope for this new world that is breaking into life with the birth of Jesus.

Now, there are a lot of things wrong with this world, a lot of repentance that needs to happen, and most of that we as individuals cannot affect. We can’t change the war in Iraq, or stop gang violence, or build enough houses to get everyone off the streets. We can only turn around our own personal heads, hearts, bodies, Our Advent repentance has to start here. This is where we get ready for the birth of Jesus. Here. In our hearts, where we live.

But let me tell you something else: God is big. God can take on this world, and the season of Advent is about hope that God is doing just that – and about God’s dream not only for this transformed world, but for how you and I, each of us, right where we are, start working for this transformation right here and now – that we start living as though we really believed that God comes among us as one of us, to show us that there is a better way for us to live, here and now.

It is hard, living in a city as we do, to look up into the night sky and see the stars. Last night, in the early evening anyway, the brightness of the moon cut through the darkness, a moon so bright it could have been seen in Times Square. To even our jaded, urban eyes, focused as we are on our own problems, or on the heartbreaking state of the world we live in, to even our jaded eyes, looking up into the Advent sky, it’s a sign.

Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.

[i] W. H. Auden, For the Time Being
[ii] John Betjeman, “Advent 1955”

Kingship turned upside down

Proper 29-B Nov. 22, 2009
2 Samuel 23:1-7
Ps. 132:1-19
Rev 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37

We're not supposed to like kings and queens and royalty in this country, but there is something about the institution that appeals to us. Think about how the press and public treated Senator Edward Kennedy at his death – so much adulation, so many allusions to the Kennedys as our “royal family.” Like any royal, Kennedy certainly had flaws, but we would overlook them when he was able to do what a leader was supposed to do, especially when he set aside his personal self-interest to serve people who needed the care of the government, to help this nation live up to our ideals of liberty and justice for all. Like the Jews of ancient Israel, or of Jesus’ day, we yearn for an ideal ruler, a king like David, a sovereign under whose leadership our lives and our society would prosper and live in peace and security.

This Sunday, the Sunday before Advent, is called Christ the King, a celebration of the reign of Christ. During this last Sunday of the church year, and just before the beginning of the next, the lessons and collect look at the completion of the ministry of Our Lord and the inauguration of his universal kingdom, the new age when all "the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin [are] brought together under his most gracious rule."

Jews living during the time of Jesus needed a hope like this, a hope that life under God's rule would be better than life under Roman rule. Judaism was barely tolerated, a legally allowed diversion from the worship of the Emperor. The Jews could remember the time when they controlled their own country and so resented the Roman occupiers all the more.

The people hoped for a political and religious restoration which would turn things back to the way they used to be. Would God send a military leader? A divine explosion? A plague of locusts?

None of these hopes came to fruition. God intervened, but not in the way anyone expected. In our gospel today, Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king. Jesus answers that his kingship is not of this world; he said, "I have come to bear witness to the truth," and with this, the king went out to suffer and die. Jesus knew what people expected of a king, something out of Star Wars, like that great final battle between Luke Skywalker and the Dark Side, someone to lead them to victory in Armegeddon. Yet Jesus said, I am the man. Yes, I am the king. Now I go to die. Like the poor young woman visited by an angel, who said yes, I will bear this child, who, though born in an ordinary barn, will become king.

The kingship of Christ celebrates the last victory, but it celebrates a victory that turned the expectations of kingship upside down. Jesus went out as the servant to suffer and die, and the forces of evil thought they had won. Armegeddon was fought and good apparently lost because Jesus died on the cross. Lightning flashed, the veil of the Temple was torn in two, and quiet fell upon the earth.

Three days later, after the smoke had cleared from the battle, the light began to dawn quite literally on those first few who had met the Risen Christ and understood for the first time what he had been talking about. Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it again. Three days later those few followers understood what kingship this Jesus was talking about. Jesus in his suffering had proven his kingship. Jesus was the Son of Man, his favorite title for himself, coming with power to receive the kingdom from the Ancient of Days. A king with humble human origins, who brought about a whole new order of creation, victorious over the powers of death that would pull us down into misery.

Today, then, we come to the end of the story about Jesus, only to turn around next Sunday and begin again: we will hear from the beginning the story of Jesus’ life among us, what it means to follow him in the Way, to carry some of his kingly burden of compassion for the powerless and the least, to spread some of his Good News that the reign God intends for us is one of justice and peace. To follow him is also to do what Jesus commanded us to do in that last supper with his disciples: to gather with our friends and neighbors, to break bread and drink wine in remembrance of him. We do that, then, in remembrance, and in hope, that with all saints and angels, with friends and enemies and beloved ones, past, present and yet to come, we will gather for this feast around the banquet table in the household of God.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

This is NOT the end

Proper 28 B November 15, 2009
1 Samuel 1:4-20 and 1 Samuel 2:1-10
Hebrews 10:31-39; Mark 13:14-23

There is a big ad campaign going on now for the new movie, “2012,” about the end of the world. The apocalypse. The date has some connection to an ancient Mexican Mayan sun calendar, but the concept – well, apocalypse has been with us for a very long time. As a matter of fact, the gospel we read today, from the Gospel of Mark, is full of apocalypse. You could say that the whole Gospel of Mark is about apocalypse, about seeing the signs of the end times.

Mark wrote his gospel to people living in rough times. They were chafing under the rule of the Roman Empire. The combination of a heavy-handed military and local lackeys carrying out the occupiers' rule produced corruption and chaos. The Jewish people began a revolt in the year 66, which produced a four-year siege of the city of Jerusalem by the Romans. The city was defeated, destroyed, and what few people were left scattered to the four winds.

Bloodshed, anarchy, the near destruction of a whole culture -- these were the signs of the times to Mark, who wrote his gospel to help the small the community of Christians make sense of what was going on, to assure them that all this terror was really within the plan of God, and that they, the righteous few, would be vindicated in the fullness of time. This 13th chapter of Mark is called "the small apocalypse," but the whole gospel is apocalyptic, for Mark understood Jesus' coming as the end of time and the beginning of the reign of God.

Scary and final and the end: that’s what apocalyptic movies and stories are all about.

So why do we read the first lesson we read today, the story of Hannah – a barren woman who is finally going to have a baby – a story of new beginnings and hope? No woman would rejoice at the prospect of giving birth at the beginning of the apocalypse. What could it mean that these two stories, along with the song that Hannah sings about the birth of her son, are twinned in our readings today?

The clue can perhaps be found in Jesus’ last words of today’s gospel reading: “This is but the birthpangs.” Yes, what he has been describing, as signs of God’s coming, sounds pretty terrible, but he does not say, “This is the end.” This apocalypse is not like the beginning scene of that 1980s film, “Apocalypse Now,” with napalm exploding Vietnamese forests to the soundtrack of The Doors, “This is the end.” Jesus describes this apocalypse as birthpangs – as the beginning of something – as a time of something difficult, painful, risky, yes, but as the beginning of a new life. Jesus’ apocalypse brings hope.

So what is going on in this story of Hannah?

For a woman of her time and place, thousands of years ago, in a nomadic tribe, life was not good. She had a loving husband, a roof, or rather a tent, over her head, food to eat – but no children. Her husband took a second wife, who produced lots of children – and this made Hannah even more miserable. This lesson is poignant – Hannah is open in her grief at being childless. She feels doomed, and everyone around her seems to agree: God had closed her womb. This is not an apocalyptically terrible life, but it is powerfully symbolic of a wasted life, a useless life; Hannah, although loved by her husband, is a person of no worth.

Now Hannah was a good person, and Hannah prayed to God, and had an honest conversation with Eli, the priest at the Temple. But note that Hannah did nothing extraordinary next. She did not repent, or accomplish a heroic task, or do anything other than be Hannah – and God granted her request. God opened her womb. God allowed her to conceive a child with the husband she loved. God loved Hannah, and heard her request, and turned her barren wasteland of a life into the hoped-for new day. Hannah’s apocalyptic birthpangs ended her misery, and brought her new baby into the world.

The Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus lived and worked and walked among people who were miserable. They were poor and homeless and lived hard lives. You could say that their lives were like Hannah’s: barren, bitter, hopeless. If bad things happened, what could be worse than the lives they were already living?

The hope that Jesus brought to them, and brings to us, is the message that it will not always be this way. Life might be hard now, but it is the birthpangs of something much better, something new and hopeful.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus invites people to follow him “on the way.” Along this way, people who are sick are restored to wholeness, people who are broken are restored to their place in their communities and families. People who choose not to follow Jesus, turn away sorrowful. Jesus doesn’t require much from us, in the Gospel of Mark, but we must pay attention. We must take some initiative. We must at least take up our beds and walk.

To do even that simple thing might feel like the birthpangs of the apocalypse, might feel like the hardest thing we have ever done, but the promise, at the end, is life, in all its rich, abundant newness.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The thin place, between this world and the next

An astounding All Saints Day, really. Many people in the chapel for conversation and theological reflection, and a more for church. Many people wrote out the names of the saints of their lives, and I read them, embedded in the preface to the canon. So many of our parishioners live in the shelter, or on the streets, or in very modest single rooms. So many names of loved ones and heroes and martyrs and blessed ones, "small s" saints all. All of us around the altar. All of us.

Nov. 1, 2009;
Wisdom of Sol 3:1-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

Our history is a mixture of the Christian and the pagan. All Saints' Day, for example, falls on November 1 because the ancient Irish feast of Samhain (what we now call Hallowe'en) happened at this time in the autumn. Samhain was the time when this world and the supernatural intersected – the boundaries between this world and the next were thin, permeable. Trick-or- treaters are remnants of the goblins people truly feared would snatch them or their children on that night: give them a treat or they would take you with them to the other world. The Church, hoping to win more converts by joining the crowd, "Christianized" the festivities by moving the commemoration of All Saints' to this magical time in late autumn. If you're going to get involved in the "other world," the church seemed to say, make it the Christian "other world": the communion of saints.

This world and the other world – when God becoming human is the prime example of how this world and the other world meet and mingle. We speak of the Body of Christ, and mean us, our flesh and blood bodies, in the here and now. The Body of Christ also includes all those Christians who have gone before – the Communion of Saints, which we remember vividly on today of all days, this day when we acknowledge just how close we are to the “other world” and to those who have gone before. Michael Ramsay, the late archbishop of Canterbury, put it this way:

"One consequence of the mystery of Christ is that Christian people don't stand -- so to say-- on the ground of the present moment, and view past generations, or their comrades in paradise, as people some distance away from them. No, we see the present moment more clearly and bravely because our stance is within the Communion of Saints. How closely, how lovingly, they are praying with us today."

I’ve heard another preacher call this day of All Saints a “family reunion:” the family of the body of Christ, the communion of saints, is brought together for feast and party. Our gospel today is the story of the ultimate family reunion, when Jesus brings Lazarus back to life, Lazarus, Jesus’ beloved friend, and the beloved brother of Mary and Martha. Putting the names of those we love but see no more on the altar helps us think of these “small s” saints along with the “Capital S” saints such as Peter, Paul, John, Mary, as part of our family – which includes noisy cousins and disagreeable aunts and bossy older sisters and tipsy grandfathers – as well as heroes, martyrs, teachers, prophets, leaders, soldiers, peacemakers and artists. Remember those you love, who are saints only to you, who have gone before.

Every day, every week, as we stand at the altar, they are around us. But on this All Saints Day, we remember particularly that the boundary between them and us is thin and permeable. On this day, they join their prayers with ours, and we know that the possibility of making this world to be the world God intended it to be – a world of justice, mercy and abundance – the world in service to which the saints gave their lives -- is a very real possibility indeed.