Saturday, December 6, 2008

A sermon for the First Sunday in Advent (yes, last Sunday)

Sorry for the delay. I had to fiddle with the middle of this, which I changed as I was preaching it. Didn't have time to fiddle till this evening. It's not 100% the sermon I preached or 100% the sermon I wrote, but it's close. No preaching tomorrow: as I noted below, I am in the Boston area visiting family.

Remember: it's never too late to be mindful. Start now.

First Sunday of Advent (Year B, RCL)
November 30, 2008
St. Mary's House, Greensboro

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. … And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake. (Mark 13:33, 37.)

So much for Advent being a season of gentleness.

Today’s lessons for the first Sunday of Advent
have no expectant young Mary,
no joyful song of justice.The baby Jesus is nowhere to be seen,
not even as a twinkle in someone’s eye.
The Gospel is about as earth-shaking as it gets:
****the sun will be darkened,
****and the moon will not give its light,
****and the stars will be falling from heaven,
****and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

And all this will happen after great suffering
and before the Son of Man
comes at the end of time
and makes his power known to the ends of the earth,
and indeed to the ends of heaven.

This Gospel passage is known as “The Little Apocalypse,”
and its images and vocabulary are not unlike those
in the Apocalypse of John, also called
the Book of Revelation.
They also echo the words of the prophet Joel
in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Even more than cosmic revolution,
these words announce a shaking
of the very foundations
on which we stand,
of the sheltering safety above our heads.
They even announce the extinction
of the lights by which
we usually see.

The biblical passages appointed for today
are not really so different from
those of the last few weeks,
with their end-time themes and disturbing images.

On this first day of the church’s year
are we back at the end?

Is the end of time
what Advent is about?

Well, yes.

Though not only.

In this culture’s season of buying
and buying
and even in our Advent emphasis
on waiting for the Christ child,
it is easy to forget
that Advent is a season of the presence of God
in three ways:
****waiting and hope for the birth of Christ,
****attention to God’s incarnate presence here and now,
****and hope and expectation for the final fulfillment,
****for a future that is God’s future.
It is easy to forget.
Fortunately, we have church.

The liturgy, the scriptures, and the customs of Advent
all focus us on some dimension of the Incarnation.
But another way of looking at Advent,
a way on which I invite you to dwell today,
is that it is a season to examine
the reality of time:
****time in our lives
****and the presence of God in time.

You may have noticed how much the reality of time
is present in today’s readings --
in Mark’s Gospel especially withthe expectation of the Son of Man,
the fig tree and its growth,
the vision beyond this generation,
the view to the future.

Today is the first day of the new year –
--the new church year, that is.
It is a doorway,
a gate
into both mystery and insight.

We remember, in this season,
how God’s time
encounters our time.
They are one time, though we do not always perceive it.
They are one time, though our experience of this time is often painful.
In this time the future belongs to God, though we are a part of it.
It is not, in the Gospel, a reassuring future.
Still, the One whom the Psalmist calls the Shepherd of Israel
shepherds us not just in space but in time.
God shepherds us through time.

In time, too, we encounter our faults and our failings.
The lessons today speak of judgment and sin
in a way we cannot avoid.
Entering this season
We cannot deny
the wounds of the world
or our own.

We know and proclaim God’s goodness
in everyday creation.
Still, entering Advent,
we know our brokenness,
perceive our need for God,
our incompleteness,
the place of despair and grief
where hope is born.

Truth be told,
hope is not born anywhere else.

Long Island and Mumbai
are not about someone else.
It is we human creatures
who rushed to the store
and trampled another human creature;
who fired guns and took hostages ;
who were taken hostage;
who suffered or inflicted suffering
randomly or with intention.

The body of earth is our body
the body of the world is our body
the sky darkens over all of us.

The part of the book of Isaiah we heard
is a book of exiles
bewildered, traumatized.
In the image given to us by the Psalm,
we drink bowls of our own tears --
bowls of tears!

Long Island. Mumbai.
The economy.
The nuclear age.
We cry, with the Psalmist,

Restore us, O God of hosts;
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

…show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

This is not the ordinary light,
not that of electricity,
not even that of the moon and stars,
not that of the sun.
It is
a different light:
the radiant darkness of God
the word that comes to us when the ordinary perceptions have gone.

This may well be why
we have this earth- and heavens-shaking
entry into Advent:
to return us to a different light.

It has become a truism that Advent is a time of waiting
I want to invite you to a quality or practice
that is one of the great riches of another religious tradition,
Zen Buddhism:
is mindfulness.

It is not foreign to Christianity
but its Christian form has a different twist
for us as members of a historically oriented religion

This is not to say that our Buddhist sisters and brothers
have no sense of history.
It is that for us, as biblical people,
remembrance is religious practice
because God lives inside history.
So too living in the perspective of God’s future
is religious practice.
And both of these
are practicesof Advent.

But the present
can get squeezed between honoring the past
and looking to the future.

So there you have one of the paradoxes of Advent.
We look forward,
we look back,
we look forward again.
But we also look to the present,
committing mindful acts,
small ones.

These practices help us to notice
how we live in time.

We rediscover sacred history,
not just as something outside ourselves,
but as our own history.
Or to put it the other way around,
we rediscover ourselves
as part of this sacred history.
We live inside of it.
It lives inside of us.

Advent mindfulness:
****mindfulness of what we do
****mindfulness of Christ’s presence in the world now
****mindful waiting
****mindful hope
*******for the fulfillment of all creation.
Note that the Gospel urges upon us
mindful hope –
not mindless speculation about when this final fulfillment will happen.

Mindfulness is difficult.
The attentiveness and staying awake
of which Jesus speaks
are hard.
Mindfulness, not acting on reflexes
is most difficult of all
with our families,
whether our family of origin
or our family of choice.
is helpful.

Despite the disruptive power of today’s biblical images
most of us do not experience,
and the church does not celebrate,
one great crash landing into the arms of Jesus
though some people do experience this.

But even if they do,
then what?

Advent candles.
Advent calendars.

I will be sending you this afternoon
links to a couple of online calendars for Advent;
there are others, of course.

Advent calendars.
Candles on a wreath.

One small practice,
one gaze at a time,
one focus,
can help us be attentive
to both the mystery
and the plain and daily presence
of God.

Small practices,
day after day, can also remind us:
faithfulness is part of who God is.
Faithfulness is a quality of God in time.
Let me say that again:
faithfulness is a quality of God in time.

I have recently discovered the wonderful Advent blog
of artist, writer, and Methodist minister Jan Richardson.
On it, she writes,
****The older I get, the more I think of God as the Ancient of Days,
****the Holy One of the Long Haul,
****who seems so deeply fond of working things out over vast expanses of time.

This, she adds, is the aspect of God that calls us to trust,
that challenges us to step out
without being able to see what’s ahead.

Taking small steps,
with the cosmic message
resonating within us,
we enter the gateway of Advent together.

We carry our brokenness and our longings
into our prayer.
We let the prayer of the community called church
carry us to the deep places within us,
carry us to the world’s pain,
and see God’s presence
within and with it,
in God’s light,
which begins in darkness.

God’s is a radiant darkness.

Our time is in God’s time.

Stay awake. God is faithful. Walk mindfully.


Magdalene6127 said...

Just beautiful Jane.

I especially loved this line: the radiant darkness of God (I had to go back and look... was it dark radiance?)

Just beautiful. Amen.

johnieb said...

How richly interwoven! I agree with Magdalene; I think "The Radiant Darkness of Godde" could be a title, if you you use them.

This brings up, even more than usual, a point I have noted before in your sermons; they read wonderfully well, with finely wrought practice in every line. How, I wonder, are they paced--how do they flow--in delivery? I find it easy to be lost with even one arresting image or link, should the homily be so gifted (as it sometimes is not). However might I manage with a dozen or more?

Topic change: my best to the old liberals and their loved ones; I join mine in Arizona tomorrow night for a week.

Jane R said...

Dear JohnieB, I write the sermons to be spoken. That's why the short lines: they are breathing places. I read my sermons aloud very slowly when I preach them, in a meditative kind of tone. (That can vary when I am being dramatic or comic.) I also always read them aloud to myself every so often as I am writing them and alway in the final draft. So the writing is a servant to the oral delivery.

Dear Mags and JohnieB - thanks for the compliments. Truth be told, I stole the juxtaposition of "dark" and "radiant" from Vincent Harding, an elder in African American religious studies, theology, and ethics, who wrote much of MLK's "Beyond Vietnam" speech. Harding wrote an essay way back (I think in the late 80s, I have the reference somewhere) entitled "Toward a Darkly Radiant Vision of America's Truth." It was a critique (and a criticism!) of Bellah et al.'s Habits of the Heart from a Black perspective. Superb essay.

Jane R said...

Oops, that should be Habits of the Heart, italicized. And no italics on Harding's essay title, just the quotation marks. Tsk, and me a professor.

Lindy said...

That makes me think about a lot of things.