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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Christ is coming!

[A scheduling mis-step led to two Advent 1 sermons prepared for November 28th; this one is from the Rev. Pete Berry]

Advent 1 Year A
Isaiah 2:1-5 Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14 Matthew 24:36-44

Let us pray.We give thanks to you God, through your beloved son Jesus Christ, whom you sent to us in former times as Savior, Redeemer, and Messenger of your Will. We ask you to help prepare our hearts for his coming again. Embolden us with confidence as we await his coming. Amen.

Last Sunday was the Feast of Christ the King and the end of Liturgical Year “C” and our encounter with Jesus seen through the eyes of Luke the Evangelist. As Pastor Carri so eloquently said, Jesus kingship is indeed very different and unexpected. In Luke it’s almost as if Jesus reigns in triumph on the cross. He is indeed a very different kind of King. He forgives his executioners and tormentors; he pardons a condemned man, who not incidentally truly recognizes Jesus for the King that he is. And then, not in despair, not in resignation, not in anger or agony, not in a faint whimpering whisper, Jesus cries with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” And he breathes his last, willingly, sacrificially, redemptively. Then Luke says that the centurion, who witnessed what had taken place praised God and said “Certainly this man was innocent.” The Evangelist Mark says it even more strongly: "Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!" The two ends of the social spectrum, the outcast and criminal on one hand, and the representative of political power and military might on the other, now share something in common. They both have experienced truth, and love, forgiveness and they have recognized Jesus. Everything has come to pass. It is completed. It is finished. Christ reigns.

Now suddenly this week we have done a complete 360 degree flip. We find ourselves this week not at the end, but at the beginning of things. In addition to being the start of a new church year we are in a time warp. It’s like we’ve jumped into a worm-hole and come out the other side of time. It’s convoluted, it’s twisted, it’s all very confusing. This is the first Sunday of Advent, the start of Liturgical Year “A” and our year-long encounter with Jesus seen through the eyes of Matthew the Evangelist. And yet what is our Gospel all about today? Not a happy New Year message -- but not something of which to be afraid either, as we’ll see. At least I don’t have to preach on the first part of Chapter 24, which contains some potentially really scary imagery. Matthew provides a very different portrait of Jesus. His message was probably crafted for a primarily Jewish audience, rather than the predominantly Gentile community to which Luke spoke. And for the next eight weeks, adding an additional twistedness to time, the first reading will be taken from the prophet Isaiah. He points forward from a history we know to an anticipated future time of peace and satisfaction, an in-gathering of all the nations streaming to the mountain of the Lord’s house; “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord” says the prophet.

Last year when I preached on Advent 1, I went pretty deeply into the history of the season, and I don’t want to repeat myself. Besides you’ll be able to read it for yourselves -- if I ever get around to fulfilling my promise to Mother Betsy to provide electronic copies, that is.

As I said, Advent is a complex season, with lots of looking forward and looking backward, and looking in both directions at the same time. At times it can all feel a bit schizophrenic. The challenge and the paradox of the season is knowing the reality of promise and at the same time anticipating its fulfillment. That’s a tough tension to maintain. And yet it can be a wonderful preparation for what is to come. And the church marks the season in many ways as I am sure you have noticed.

Of Advent vestments are blue, a slightly brighter variation on a deeper shade of bluish purple that was part of the medieval Sarum Use of the Cathedral at Salisbury. Actually our vestments are much closer to the original. Why this modern change? Well it is intentionally less penitential than the reddish purple of Lent. Besides it looks pretty. The different colors in the two seasons are meant to emphasize that Advent is less about penitence, and more about expectant waiting and anticipation. However one rather stodgy Anglo-Catholic blogger I stumbled across disagrees with the whole idea and accepted story about blue vestments: "There are many who say that blue is the Sarum color for Advent. This is completely incorrect. Advent Blue is an invention of CM Almy vestment makers in order to sell more vestments." Who knows – maybe he’s on to something.

Another sign of Advent in the church is the Advent Candles and Advent wreath. The tradition is three purple, one pink, and a large white candle in the center. Here at St Mark’s we have opted for liquid wax – cheaper and easier on the altar guild. But in the traditional arrangement, if they are properly lit in sequence, as they burn down they almost seem like a spiral staircase from which the central white candle, the Christ candle, emerges. It signifies the coming of the light of Christ into a darkened world. That too is certainly part of what Advent is all about – preparing for remembering the first the coming of the Christ child at Christmas. Yet one more time warp, for we already know that Jesus has come.

Instead of the history of Advent, today I want to talk a little about liturgy. To mark the season we’ve chosen to use Eucharistic Prayer “B.” This is the oldest Eucharistic Prayer in our prayer book, having come from The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus written about 215 AD, but probably describing worship in Rome from about 175 AD. By the way part of my opening prayer today was taken from that same book. I really feel in touch with the early church praying the same way that they did almost 2000 years ago. It’s like looking back in time and seeing the present. That for me is an incredible continuity, and by praying in that way I feel more a part of the communion of all the saints across all ages and time. Another one of those twists of time. As an aside, Prayer “C” is the newest. It was written in about half an hour one summer evening in 1974. The author was Howard Galley who was the General Editor of the Prayer Book series which subsequently became our Book of Common Prayer of 1979. Some say this often and unfortunately-called “Star Wars Canon” was written because he was interested in the space program. At that time ecology was becoming a hot button issue, and Prayer “C” is also the most environmentally-conscious prayer of consecration ever written or prayed on this fragile earth our island home. And it was the first prayer to include both a mention of a woman and active lay participation in the act of consecration. Actually I’ve been told that at least in part it resulted from a bet. A friend challenged Howard and said that nobody could write a good modern prayer of consecration like those of the West Syrian Rite in which the words of institution follow the invocation of the Spirit upon the gifts. Ain’t liturgical trivia grand! Howard clearly won the bet.

So much for the backward glance. Let’s stop for a moment and pause in the present. I will avoid my annual screed about Advent bushes replacing Christmas trees. That’s one battle I’ve come to accept I will never win. But I do want to acknowledge the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas can be really stressful and overloaded. All those family preparations, gift-gathering, holiday celebrations and parties – busy, busy, busy. We run around like crazy trying to get everything done. We behave like if we don’t do it all yesterday Christmas won’t come. Jesus won’t get to Bethlehem. The irony is that we work so hard preparing for Christmas, that we can end up missing Christ. I encourage us all – and that includes me – lighten up and enjoy the anticipation. Christmas will come, not because of what we do, but in spite of it.

What might this look like in practical terms? There are many ways you can use this Advent time to prepare spiritually. You might consider marking the approach of Jesus birth with more intentional prayer, or with additional family time – preferably not just more time spent in the chaos of chasing the commercialism of Christmas. In that family time you might choose to incorporate an Advent calendar or wreath into mealtimes especially with younger children. Another idea – you might consider service to others – and we have lots of outreach possibilities here at St Mark’s. And still one more suggestion -- scripture study. It would be a great time to read Matthew’s birth narrative and see how very different it is from Luke’s, and why that is so. My own intention is to re-read Raymond Brown’s discussion of just that point in his classic work, The Birth of the Messiah. Finally I would suggest that the overall tone and approach for Advent should be one of cutting back on the excesses that will inevitably invite us. But whatever we choose to do – or choose NOT to do – appropriate the anticipation, embrace the expectation.

So we’ve looked at the past, the present, and that brings us to the Gospel for today. To use one of those 25-cent theological terms, this is the stuff of Eschatology, the end times, the end of all things, the conclusion of God’s intention for God’s creation. We are dealing with the Second Coming of Jesus Matthew’s hearers faced a problem – in a 50-cent theological phrase, the “delay of the parousia.” They expected the immanent return of Jesus and it had not happened. They wondered why, how this could be—they were so sure. As re-assurance, Matthew’s Jesus tells his followers that nobody knows when that will be. It will come suddenly and unexpectedly like the flood that interrupted the stuff of daily life in the times of Noah. People then were so fully involved in the busyness and activities of life -- eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage -- that they took no thought of that future which could help define both the character and meaning of their present. That day, the great and terrible day, WILL come to all – the workers in the field, the women grinding meal -- all will be wrenched apart. Ties will be severed and community may be shattered. We are exhorted in this Gospel to be ready, be prepared lest it creep up on us like a thief in the night. Just how we can do that is made clear in the 2 verses just beyond the part we have heard this morning. Matthew tells us the words of Jesus to his disciples: "Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom the master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives."

The message is clear; Jesus is coming, and we don’t know when. So we are to be ready for it whenever it might be -- in a minute, or in a lifetime – almost certainly at the end of our lifetime for each of us; or maybe in some distant future time too far to imagine. If we are to be blessed at that day, we like the servant should be found “thus doing” – that’s what the Greek actually says. In other words we servants should just be doing what servanthood requires of us – to love, and serve the lord; to proclaim his good news to others; to serve the humble and meek. To wait with confidence.

I have to confess that I am a bit of a TV addict. I find it’s a rather mindless way to wind down after a hectic day. There have also been some really great tag-lines associated with specific shows. I used to use them when I was teaching technology. For example, if I asked a question and somebody missed it they were likely to be greeted with “You’re off the island” or “You’re fired.” I wonder what it says about me that I can’t remember the quote a correct answer would evoke. Well y’all know that life’s a box of chocolates – you never know what’s inside. I think one of my favorite tag lines belonged to Jim Nabors backwoods philosopher Gomer Pyle. Anybody remember that show, or seen it on a channel Like “TVLand”? Probably most of you have no idea what I am talking about. His enthusiastically delivered expression -- “Surprise, surprise, surprise.” That too is a part of Advent. Expect, anticipate, hope – and know that in many ways both known and unknown – you WILL be surprised by the incredible love and grace of our Lord and Savior, who slipped into our world as a baby at Bethlehem. And who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. Maybe the surprise, when Christ does return, will be that he was here all along. Maybe the surprise will be that, ahead of time himself, he has been calling us, gathering us, enlightening and sanctifying us. The second Coming in Glory is not something for us to fear. We hope for it, we work for it, we pray for it. Come Lord Jesus. AMEN.

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Monday, November 29, 2010

"About that day and hour no one knows..."

Advent 1, Yr. A
Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

I am, by nature, a planner. I make lists, I devise charts, I love check off boxes, I have spreadsheets with years’ worth of data for future reference, and I keep my calendar in 4 different colors. As my family and my colleagues will confirm, sometimes it’s amazing I accomplish anything because I’m so occupied simply with organizing and planning that I don’t get to the actual execution of the project. On the flip side, I’m not all that enthusiastic about most surprises; I like to know when something is going to happen, how it’s going to unfold, and what I need to do to be prepared for it.

The season of Advent fits nicely with my inclinations, which probably explains part of why it’s pretty much my favorite time in the church year. We neatly count down the days with Advent calendars as we open each door—even if they bug me a bit because they really are December 1st to 25th calendars, not Advent strictly speaking—and we count up the weeks as we light the candles on our wreath. I have a clear mental list of things to be done, from purchasing a wreath from the Altar Guild sale to making sure the stockings, each one filled with memories, are hung over the fireplace. Commercial establishments are more than happy to assist me in the process, reminding me at every turn how many shopping days remain. It’s an orderly and predictable march toward Christmas.

Except that it isn’t. That’s a primary thrust of today’s gospel: "But about that day and hour no one knows…for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour." The first lesson offers no more than a vague "In days to come…"; the reading from Romans conveys an urgency about now being the moment to wake from sleep, but still with no way to check what time the alarm is set for. We may be able to mark off the calendar days until we celebrate Christ’s first coming, but we’re absolutely, utterly clueless about the timing of his second coming, his return in glory to restore the kingdom of God. And when we gloss over that Advent theme, we’ve missed half the meaning of the season.

The Christmas birth in which we rejoice is the beginning of the revelation of the first fruits of God’s new creation. God becomes flesh and lives among us, showing humanity up close God’s way of mercy, justice, and love, of dying and defeating death in the resurrection. If it all ended there, it would be a fabulous, wonderful start without a finish, like an arrow arcing through the sky and then, at its peak, suddenly dropping out of the air rather than finishing its trajectory. The fullness of God’s path is toward the redemption and renewal of all creation and all time in Christ’s second coming.

The average Episcopalian doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about this. We celebrate our past and the riches of our heritage, we embrace the present and the tasks to which God is calling us, we hope for the future joys of heaven for all who die to this world…but we simply don’t do much discussing the last days, even though the topic comes up every. single. year. in Advent.

I’d guess one of the reasons for this is right back to my original problem: it’s really tough to plan and maintain anticipation for something that keeps not happening! 16 years ago this weekend, I was in early labor. By late on Saturday night, I had asked a lay person in the congregation to lead Morning Prayer the next day, because I was pretty sure I’d be in the hospital. Our families knew, the congregation knew, our friends knew, even the guy putting in the new sprinkler system at our house knew. And when Sunday morning rolled around, I was still in early labor. When Sunday night came, I was still in early labor. Ditto for Monday and Monday night…early labor. We all knew this baby was bound to come eventually, and the sense of barely contained anticipation persisted for me and for Tom, but I think some of the other folks might’ve been a teeny bit less on edge; it was, understandably, hard for them to sustain their excitement. Those couple of long days of waiting—and yes, he did come, on Tuesday afternoon—help me set in perspective the millennia over which the Church has been in early labor, waiting for Jesus to return and having it not happen yet.

How am I supposed to know and to keep caring if I’m on track if I don’t have a target date? Maybe the answer is that I don’t have a date, but I do have a target. First, though, a word about where I’m not aiming. A vast quantity of literary last-days sagas have caused people to focus on gospel images like today’s, of two people working side by side when one is suddenly snatched up in the rapture and the other is left behind. I think most of us don’t know exactly to make of those passages, which probably becomes another reason why we avoid talking about the end of time. In a nutshell, my reading is that those parts are there to convey the urgency and necessity of our paying attention to the demands of the gospel, not to terrify us into praying that we’re among the chosen or to cause us to speculate who isn’t.

So what then is the target, one that can inspire us sufficiently to keep our hearts longing and our minds seeking for that gospel truth, even without knowing when its fullness will be revealed? Well, on that day, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and we shall not study war anymore. We’ll learn God’s ways and walk in God’s path. We’ll find true peace in the new Jerusalem, and we will seek good. We’ll put on the Lord Jesus Christ, wrapping ourselves in his Spirit like an armor of light. Those are powerful and potent visions of God’s new kingdom, and they give us a direction in which we can head with hopefulness, even as they beckon us to maintain our sense of anticipation.

The good part about not knowing when Christ will return is that, at my best, it keeps me on my toes. Did I mention the other side of my list-making, organizing ways...that I’m prone to procrastination? Just as the gospel suggests, if I knew when to be ready, I would be, but probably just barely. This way, the motivation to be prepared is more compelling, because I have no countdown timer to give me a deadline.

Every Advent I’m presented with a warning and an opportunity to renew my commitment to living each day in the expectation that Jesus could show up at any moment: boldly living in a manner that reveals God’s justice, living in a way that reflects God’s love, living with the purpose of restoring God’s peace. And if that feels like living on the edge, then I’m probably on the right track, because there’s nothing safe and nothing tame about the end of time. When that day comes, the calendars run out, there’s no more making lists and checking them twice, every illusion burns away, and all the future is present. What remains will be no little baby in a manger, but the wildly magnificent presence of our Savior Jesus Christ, and ourselves in his light and glory.

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