III Advent Year B RCL
14 December 2008
The Reverend Anne K. Bartlett, Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Ashland, Oregon.
In the name of our Holy Triune God, who was and is and is to come. Come, Lord Jesus, for we are waiting. Amen.
It’s a strange season this year, isn’t it? It looks like Christmas, with white fairy-lights twinkling all over town, store-windows decorated with presents to give and to get, Santas in their places ready for children to climb into their laps, have their pictures taken, whisper what they want for Christmas.
I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t feel much like Christmas-as-usual this year. Considering our national economic free-fall with no end yet in sight, the daily news of loss – loss of jobs, of omes, of the worth of retirement savings, on and on, it’s hard for me, and perhaps for you, to go on auto-pilot this Advent in preparing for Christmas, especially when it comes to buying gifts for people whom I dearly love but who, frankly, have everything they really need. This week I got a phone call from a newsperson from Channel 5 who was doing a story about how the economic downturn was affecting local churches. I thought we’d have a short chat on the phone, and that would be that. Turned out the newswoman’s mother is a lifelong Episcopalian in a neighboring small town who is heartsick because she can no longer contribute to her beloved church at the level she has been able to give in the past.
Before I knew it, I had agreed to be interviewed on camera – and had to rush home to put on my collar, because I hadn’t worn one that day. It was an okay interview, I guess. Shown on Tuesday night at 6pm. Lots of lovely shots of our church, inside and out. The segment opened with the tolling of our bell. I liked that touch.
What I said in the interview, when asked how we were coping with decreased income, was not to talk about the fact that we can no longer afford the wondrous luxury of two paid priests on staff. That news was not yet communicated to the parish family nor reluctantly and sadly agreed to by vestry. But in the interview I did talk about how in changed circumstances and in difficult times, the church goes on being the church, no matter what, especially in our ministry to those outside our doors. There was a camera shot of the piles of canned goods and boxes of cereal and rolls of toilet paper that had been given for the food pantry, awaiting delivery. I liked that part, a lot. I talked about our Giving Tree, and how quickly the tags had been taken off the tree and how presents were being brought in and would soon be taken to children in our Valley who otherwise would not receive a gift on Christmas morning. I don’t think that made it on the air.
And of course I wished we could have shown on camera the bags and bags of quilts that the SWAT team made, given to teenagers in residential alternative living, as they try to turn their ives around, and the baby quilts given to mothers who say it’s the only thing they have for their new baby that isn’t second-hand, and how I wished I could have talked about the incredible utpouring of generosity from this congregation for our Christmas Family, to whom we will deliver nearly $1000 of gift-cards for food and necessities and a few Christmas gifts for their three little girls.
I wished I had talked about how we will end the Christmas season here at Trinity with our White Gift tradition on Epiphany Sunday, how each one of us will bring a gift, wrapped in white, to lay at the altar to be given to those closest to our Lord’s heart – the hungry, the cold, the poor. I’ve been remembering the opening lines of my favorite girlhood book, Little Women. Jo – short for Josephine – is curled up by the fire, missing her father who is away fighting in the Civil War; she says, “Christmas won’t be Christmas this year.” And then their wise and compassionate mother helped turn her daughters’ attention away from themselves and their own sorrow toward the needs of neighbors less fortunate than they. And it was Christmas again, of course, and maybe closer to the heart of the matter because times were so hard, as they were that very first Christmas.
Every Advent, no matter what the circumstances of the year, offers us a time and a season to find our bearings once more, to remember what is truly important in our lives, to get clear again about what it means to be a Christian, to be the church. Whenever we take the time to quiet ourselves, whenever we dare to drop below the surface of our lives, even just a little bit, we hear the Advent question: For whom are you waiting? What are you yearning for?
And if we dare, when we dare to listen carefully to our own hearts, we will most likely find there the peculiar Advent mixture of hope and repentance, and the strange connection between them, as strange and real a connection as there is between tears and laughter, sorrow and joy. In this countercultural season of Advent, we are invited to come back to our senses, to re-order our priorities, to remember what is of real value in our lives, to find our bearings again as children of God, the body of Christ. As we re-open to those deeper realities, we are made ready to receive again the coming of God to us.
Advent repentance – which is the short-hand way of talking about this re-ordering, this re-aligning our spirits with the Holy Spirit at work within us – Advent repentance is strangely connected with hope: hope that there is light in and beyond the present darkness, hope that we can embrace the second chances always being offered to us to live more lovingly, more compassionately, more authentically, more alive and awake, more as Christ would have us live so as to taste that peace that passes understanding. Because our repentance is shot through with hope, it is a far, far different thing than mere remorse or regret.
All those people who left the city and hiked out to the banks of the Jordan river to listen to John witness to the Light coming into the world? Those were Advent people, just like us, holding onto hope for a different future, a different way of living together, a deliverance from all that makes the human soul captive. Repentance and hope, tears and the laughter of new life, suffering and joy, the paschal rhythm of cross and resurrection, it’s always all of a piece, the paradox of grace, the promise of transformation, right here upon this earth, right now, as well as forever more.
The church is not an end in itself. In my own fumbling and inadequate way, that’s what I wanted to say the other day on TV. The church’s mission isn’t about our buildings or even our programs, it’s about our mission, our calling, our reason for existing at all exists: to worship God and to love our neighbors in Christ’s name.
How, then, do we live in the meantime? In this inbetween time? How do we wait? This side of the Kingdom fully come upon the earth, we all are waiting. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison, “Our whole life is Advent.” Paul tells us, as he told that little congregation in Thessalonika, how to live Advent lives: “Rejoice always,” wrote Paul, for our joy is grounded not in ourselves but in the confidence that God will keep God’s promises. “Pray without ceasing.” That doesn’t mean we all become contemplatives and live in monasteries but rather than we work on having an awareness of God’s presence with us all the moments of our days and nights. It takes practice.
Say a prayer in the car, waiting for a red light; pray for the person who just cut you off; at the kitchen sink, say a prayer for those who have lost their jobs, as you’re brushing your teeth, pray for the children caught in war, as go for your walk, pray that ways can be found to care better for the sick and the suffering.
Pray while you’re waiting in line at the grocery store; pray for the young mother who looks so tired and frazzled, pray for the elderly man who is paying in rumpled dollar bills and coins for three frozen-food dinners, pray for child who is whining for candy.
The old Celts knew how to pray constantly. They were always saying a quick prayer to the Trinity, when they lit the morning fire and milked the cow and made the bread and swept the floor. They knew that every moment of life is bound up in the bigger pattern of loss-and-renewal, of sorrow-and-joy, one moments having tears in your eyes and the next finding your mouth filled with laughter. Their Christian faith – and ours – is that holiness shines through every moment.
Have you ever seen joy shine forth from the eyes of a person in the midst of fierce suffering?
Now there is a witness to the Light. There is a peace that passes ordinary understanding. Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances. Note: Paul is not telling us to give thanks for all circumstances. That leads to really bad theology, for not everything that befalls us is God’s will for us. We are to give thanks in the midst of every circumstance, for God is with us, even the dark, especially in the dark, and God will have the last word, including over death.
But here’s the thing: we can’t fake this. This joy we are called to, it is not of our making.
It happens to us. This joy has absolutely nothing to do with pasted-on cheerfulness, much less with that kind of saccharine sweetness that makes your teeth ache, and you just know that person is really mad as hell underneath that smile. Know what I mean? We can’t manufacture this joy, we can only prepare for its coming with prayer and thanksgiving and praise and awareness and patience and tending to the mission given to us as God’s people to care for those who need to hear a word of hope from us, who need us to bind up their broken hearts, who need us to feed and clothe and shelter them, in Christ’s name, as Christ’s body.
When Paul says rejoice always, he is talking about keeping ourselves centered in that deep joy that knows, regardless of how dark it is, that we are children of Light rather than darkness, not by our own doing, but because we belong to the Light and to that Light, like John, we are witnesses. “ [So]do not quench the Spirit. … Hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
May the God of peace …make you whole, sanctify you, make you complete, make you holy, body, soul and spirit; and knit us together one to another in Love. This is God’s will for you.
This is God’s will for us.