Sunday, November 28, 2010

Look! Weep! Live!

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
November 28, 2010

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

Look! Weep! Live!

Well, we made it - we’ve arrived at the start of a new church year. Today we begin the sacred season of Advent. Now that Thanksgiving has passed and the crowds have poured into the malls on “Black Friday,” the world has begun what it thinks of as preparing for Christmas – the busyness of buying and wrapping gifts, decorating, holiday parties and all the rest that leaves most of us pretty well wiped out by the time Christmas actually does arrive.

Here in church, it’s true that preparing for Christmas is part of what Advent is all about. Each Sunday we’ll light another Advent candle as we countdown to the day we celebrate Jesus’ birth.

But preparing for Christmas is just one part of what Advent is all about. The other part – and, really, the more important part - and also the part most of us would probably like to ignore – the other part of Advent is preparing for the end.

During Advent we’re supposed to prepare for the return of the Son of Man. During Advent we’re supposed to prepare for the last day - when in the words of today’s collect, Jesus will “come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead.”

I guess most of us don’t give much thought to Jesus’ return, though it’s one-third of what we call “the mystery of faith.”

The first followers of Jesus expected that his return would happen very quickly – certainly within their lifetimes.

But, by the time the Gospel of Matthew was written a couple of generations had passed since the earthly lifetime of Jesus. Obviously Jesus had not returned as many had expected and hoped.

So, Matthew’s emphasis is clearly on the fact that, although they had expected Jesus to come back right away, they - and we – just don’t know when Jesus will return. In fact, the gospel tells us that Jesus himself doesn’t know when he will return.

The essential question for us is: how are we to live in the meantime?

Here Jesus is very clear. We are told to “keep awake.” We are told that we “must be ready.”

But, what exactly does that mean for us? What does it mean to keep awake and be ready?

Taking these words literally is a prescription for exhaustion and neurosis. Let’s face it, there’s no healthy way to live in a constant state of suspense. There’s no sane way to be constantly looking out our window asking, “Is he here yet?” “Is he here yet?” We would quickly drive ourselves - and everyone around us - crazy. Plus, nothing would get done.

So, in all seriousness, what does it mean for us to keep awake and to be ready?

I’ve been reading a book called Soul Making. It’s by Alan Jones, who was the dean of Grace Cathedral, the Episcopal cathedral in San Francisco. His book is about what he calls “the desert way of spirituality” – the Christian spirituality that grew out of the monasteries in the Egyptian deserts.

Jones boils desert spirituality into three great challenges: Look! Weep! Live!

Look! Weep! Live!

And that’s a good way to sum up how we Christians are to wait – how we are to keep awake – how we are to be ready for the return of Jesus at the end of time.

Look! Weep! Live!

Our first challenge is to look – to really pay attention – to see things as they really are.

Let’s face it, many of us consciously and subconsciously do as much as we can to look away – to not pay attention – to not see things as they really are. We busy ourselves with our tasks – some necessary, others not so much. We fill up our lives with noise and stuff. We text away as the world grinds on around us. We do everything we can to not look. We do everything we can to stay in our own little dream world.

But, what do we see if we look? Sometimes what we see is heartbreakingly beautiful. Last week I went to our day school’s Thanksgiving parade. As usual, it was fun to be with the happy children and their teachers. Before the parade, the children had a “banquet” of chicken nuggets and pie. Just before it was time to eat, I had stepped away to deal with some church business. By the time I returned the banquet was over and the tables were being taken down.

I didn’t give it a second thought. But, later a teacher told me that one of the children didn’t want to start eating because I wasn’t there. He protested, “But, what about Fr. Tom?!” Even at a young age, he understood the importance of hospitality and sharing. He understood that everyone has a place at the banquet.

Sometimes when we look what we see is heartbreakingly beautiful.

On the other hand, sometimes when we look what we see is heartbreakingly sad. I don’t need to tell you there is so much suffering and loss in the world and in our lives.

I once knew an elderly priest who became a close friend – he was sort of my spiritual grandfather. After he returned from fighting in the Pacific during World War II, he went to seminary and was ordained a priest. He and his wife had a rich ministry in exotic places ranging from Montana, to Beverly Hills, to…New Jersey.

By the time I knew him his wife had died and he had become blind. Walking had become painful and difficult. For the most part he was stuck in his apartment except to go out for doctors appointments or to church when he was able. He was totally dependent on others. I spent a lot of time at his apartment, benefiting a great deal from his wisdom, experience and kindness.

One day he was lamenting his current circumstances when he said, “My big mistake was thinking that things would always stay the same.”

I was stunned. Here was someone who over decades had been present at life-changing moments for thousands of people – births, weddings, divorces and deaths – someone who certainly knew better, yet, even he was able to fool himself into thinking that in his life things would be always the same – that somehow in his life there wouldn’t be change – that there wouldn’t be suffering and loss.

Sometimes when we look what we see is heartbreakingly sad.

Look! Weep! Live!

When we really look our natural reaction is to weep – to weep with joy at the boy who knows everyone has a place at the banquet – and to weep with sadness that in this life there is so much suffering and loss.

The weeping might take the form of real tears or it just might mean expanding our hearts to truly celebrate life’s joy and to mourn life’s sadness. And then, once we’ve really looked, once we have really wept, then we can really live. Then we can really live because we can see life as it really is. In the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, it is now the moment for us to wake from sleep.

Look! Weep! Live!

Once we awaken from sleep, once we look and weep, then we really know our total dependence on a God who loves us more than we can begin to imagine.

Once we awaken from our sleep, once we look and weep, then we can experience God’s love made present in the child in the feeding trough.

Once we awaken from our sleep, once we look and weep, then we can experience God’s love made present in the innocent man nailed to a tree.

Once we awaken from our sleep, once we look and weep, then we can experience God’s love in the Christ who will return in glorious majesty and in loving mercy to judge the living and the dead.

So this is the start of a new year. It’s Advent. It’s time to wake up. It’s time to be ready. It’s time to look, weep and live.