Sunday, November 27, 2016

Spiritual Cataracts

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
November 27, 2016

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

Spiritual Cataracts
            A couple of weeks ago one of our parishioners asked me to pray with him because he was about to have surgery to remove cataracts from his eye.
            As soon as he said the word “cataracts” I was taken back to my childhood. I remembered hearing my grandparents and others of that generation talk in hushed tones about “cataracts,” using the same serious voices they used when they talked about “cancer.”
            Of course, as a little kid, I had no idea what “cataracts” were. It sounded to me like “Cadillacs,” but I knew that couldn’t be right!
            Although I didn’t know what cataracts were I could tell from the way my family talked about it that they were something terrible, something to be feared, dreaded.
            Later, I did learn what cataracts were and I understood why they were so scary: they led to the dimming of vision and perhaps even blindness. There were surgeries available back then but they were dangerous and required a very long recovery time.
            I remembered all of that when our parishioner mentioned his cataract surgery, but, of course, today it’s a whole different story.
            As many of you know, though it’s never a joke to have eye surgery, now, thanks to lasers, the procedure has become pretty much routine with only a very brief recovery time and nearly miraculous results.
            I’ve known people for whom the hardest part of the experience was getting used to not wearing glasses!
            Cataract surgery is just one of the many examples of how our lives are incredibly better than they were even just a generation or two ago.
            So many diseases that were terrifying killers have now been tamed. Some of us here today are still alive thanks to relatively new medicines and treatments.
            We know so much more about the body, about the importance of diet and exercise and the role of genetics in shaping our destinies.
            We’ve made progress in cleaning up some of the mess we’ve made of the earth. Thanks to improved technology and stricter regulations, the air is so much cleaner than it was when I was a kid – and the water, too. Just this past week a humpback whale took a swim up the Hudson, not because it was sick or lost but because the cleaned up water is now teeming with fish, lots of tasty snacks for a hungry leviathan!
            Or, just think about the technologies that are at our fingertips now – tools that were the stuff of science fiction just a few decades ago.
            As a kid I had pen pals around the world. I can remember the anticipation as I waited for my letters to get overseas and for the replies to reach Jersey City. Today that seems downright quaint when we can just exchange emails or Skype in an instant.
             I could pull out my cellphone right now (but won’t since I’m in church!), and look up just about any piece of information, or I could text or call someone living across the country or around the world.
            For all our present-day troubles, we live in an age of wonders.
            But, there’s always a cost.
            For many of us, the cost has been that the pace of life has increased so much. So many of us have to work harder and longer and be ever more efficient, just to make ends meet.
            For many of us, the cost has been we’re on call twenty-four hours a day.
            For many of us, the cost has been that our relationships have become shallower and more superficial. We text each other or keep up on Facebook, poor substitutes for carefully written letters or long face-to-face conversations.
            For many of us, the cost has been that our eyes are so focused on our screens that we miss out on what’s going on around us. We spend so much time on our smartphones and our computers, so much time watching TV, that we have trouble seeing God at work in our lives, God at work in the world around us.
            We’ve developed “spiritual cataracts.”
            Well, today is the First Sunday of Advent, the start of a new church year.
            Out there, the focus is on what the world calls “Christmas,” but here in church during these four Advent Sundays, yes, we keep one eye on the upcoming celebration of Jesus’ birth but we keep the other eye on the end of time, the unknown day and hour when Jesus will return in glory.
            The main Advent message, though, is to keep awake, to watch, to look, to pay attention, to see God at work in our lives, in the world around us, to see God building God’s kingdom of peace, where nations “shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
            But, to see all of that and more, we’re going to need to get our spiritual cataracts taken care of – which, unfortunately, won’t be quite as easy as getting our eyes zapped by a laser.
            So, as we begin Advent, I suggest we cut back even just a little on the smartphone, on Facebook, on the computer, on TV.
            I suggest we make even just a little bit more time, time for prayer, time for reflection, time for rest, time to pay attention to what’s going on around us, time to see God at work.
            And, if we work on our spiritual cataracts what might we see?
            We might see a beautiful interfaith Thanksgiving service with people of goodwill who believe some different things about God, coming together to give thanks for our life together, to make beautiful music, to embrace each other in love and friendship.
            We might see a small army of parishioners, neighbors, and friends – people of faith and people of no particular faith – rallying together to prepare a mountain of delicious food – a Thanksgiving feast for people with no place else to go and people wouldn’t want to be anyplace else.
            We might see this beautiful place – this beautiful place that has been handed down to us by those who have come before – this beautiful place with its walls bathed in prayer – this beautiful place where we hear God’s Word, where we take the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies and souls, and where we see the glory of God in all of these gorgeous faces.
            We live in an age of wonders, when once-terrifying maladies like cataracts can be zapped away.
            Yes, we live in an age of wonders, but it comes at a cost.
            We’ve developed spiritual cataracts – and Advent, the start of a new church year, is the perfect time to zap them away by turning off our machines and paying attention, so we can see the glory of God in Jesus, see the glory of God in the world, and see the glory of God in one another.