Sunday, December 01, 2013

"Slow Down. Quiet. It's Advent!"

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
December 1, 2013

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

“Slow Down. Quiet. It’s Advent!”
            Today we celebrate the First Sunday of Advent – today we celebrate the start of a new church year.
            And, just like on the worldly New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day that we’ll celebrate a month from now, today is a good day to take stock of where we’ve been over the past year.
            And, today’s also a good day to make some resolutions for the future.
            As I look back over our time together, I’m amazed at all that God has accomplished here at St. Paul’s - all that God has accomplished, in and through us. I’m impressed by all the work we’ve been able to do together, with God’s help. And, I’m so grateful for all the ways that God has grown our ministry here in this special place.
            To get ready for this morning, to prepare for this New Year’s celebration, I looked back over my calendar to refresh my memory – and yours – about all the things that have happened over the past seven or so months.
            We once again welcomed the neighborhood to enjoy a Fun Day on our grounds, with lots of happy children bouncing away in our driveway; we re-started the 8am Sunday service and introduced three weekday services that have been much better attended than anyone dared to expect; we gave a well-deserved lifetime achievement award to Althea Maynard – the first such award given by St. Paul’s in way too many years; we shared the joy of Pauline and Nigel as they made their vows right here at our altar; many of us participated in an interfaith prayer service for our new mayor and council at Mt. Pisgah AME Church.
            We began major work on our 91 year-old organ – cleaning, tuning, repairing, and now replacing the bellows (I’m told one more week to go, by the way); we welcomed choristers from Los Alamos NM; we had another hugely successful summer camp; we hosted the Garden State Episcopal CDC volunteer dinner – dazzling the volunteers and staff with overflowing hospitality; we had a very well-attended and fun book signing for our own first-time novelist, Emily Barker; we’ve collected small mountains of food for the monthly food pantry at Incarnation; we’ve grown closer to our two Jersey City sister churches – a closeness that was manifested at the amazing worship service we shared at Liberty Park.
            We’ve had five baptisms; we’ve blessed backpacks, book bags, a pack of dogs, two nervous cats - and one stuffed animal; we hosted our first JC Friday arts event; we’ve welcomed the awesomely talented Gail Blache-Gill who has given a burst of new life to the music here at St. Paul’s; we’ve begun a powerful and moving monthly healing service at Liberty House Nursing Home; just last week we rededicated the repaired and restored stained glass window outside the parish hall; we had a Celebration of New Ministry to end all celebrations of new ministry; and an Interfaith Thanksgiving Service so beautiful that it sent all of us who were here into a spiritual high.           
            Parishioners who had drifted away have returned to St. Paul’s. And new people have begun to make their spiritual home here with us.
            God’s been really busy here at St. Paul’s.
            We’ve been busy. We’ve been really, really busy.
            The truth is, I like to be busy. And it seems that you like to be busy, too.
            And there’s more to come. Just look in your bulletin. (Not now, that’s rude. But, later on!)
            And there are things ahead that have a sense of urgency – getting the Sunday school going, doing something about the floor in here, and facing up to the need for air conditioning and handicapped access.
            But, while we’ve been doing all these wonderful things and thinking about and planning for all that still needs to be done, sometimes I’ve also been concerned that maybe we’ve been taking on too much. Maybe we’ve been too busy. There’s always the danger of overdoing it, of trying to d too much too soon; of getting overwhelmed, and there’s always the very big danger of church burnout.
            There’s always the danger of getting caught up in all this busyness and losing sight of why St. Paul’s is here – forgetting why we’re here - there’s the danger of getting so caught up in our busyness here and also in the rest of our busy lives that we lose touch with the God who we meet in Jesus.
            And, ironically and unfortunately, the build-up to Christmas that began on the so-called “Black Friday’ makes many of us busier and more crazed than any other time of year. We end up exhausted from running around shopping, decorating, and forcing ourselves to be merry even when we really don’t feel like it.
            But, the Church, in its wisdom, shows us another way – offers us a better way. The Church offers us a break from the busyness of our lives – and even a break from the busyness of church.
            This year we bought copies of a pretty wonderful poster that’s been around for a while. Maybe you’ve seen it before. It offers daily suggestions on how to keep a holy Advent.
            But, the heading says it all: “Slow down. Quiet. It’s Advent!”
            “Slow down. Quiet. It’s Advent.”
            Advent, these four Sundays before Christmas, is the start of a new church year.
            There is the “alpha” part of Advent, when we look back to the events leading up to the birth of Jesus two thousand years ago to a couple of nobodies in an out of the way place, in the humblest of circumstances.
            And there is the “omega” part of Advent, when we prepare for the Last Day when Christ will return in glory. Advent is a time to prepare for the Last Day, which, Jesus tells us, will come without warning – the Last Day, which will probably not come anytime soon, but you never know.
            So, we prepare for the Last Day by paying attention.
            We prepare for the Last Day by being mindful.
            We prepare for the Last Day by being on the lookout for God at work – on the lookout for God at work in the world around us – on the lookout for God at work in our lives.
            And God has surely been hard at work – is hard at work – in this place.
            “Slow down. Quiet. It’s Advent!”
            So my prayer is that during these four Sundays of Advent, a less busy St. Paul’s will be, more than ever, simply a house of prayer.
            My prayer is that over these four Sundays we busy people will look back with gratitude over all that God has accomplished here, in and through us.
            My prayer is that while out there the world goes nuts getting ready for Christmas, in here we’ll really reflect on the wonder of Emmanuel, the joy of God with us.
            My prayer is that while out there the world exhausts itself getting ready for Christmas, in here we’ll really be on the lookout for God at work in the world and in our lives.
            It’s Advent. Happy New Year.
            Slow down. Quiet. It’s Advent!