Monday, November 29, 2010

Advent I: Alert in the Threshold

After returning from a family Thanksgiving weekend away, I offered this sermon last evening at the chaplaincy:

Advent 1: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
Cambridge, Massachusetts, November 28, 2010
Rev. Dr. Cameron Partridge

Welcome to the threshold that is Advent. Today, the first Sunday in this season of watchfulness, falls for us here in the United States at the end of Thanksgiving weekend: a time of plenty and need, of origins and colonizations, of mythologies and counter-mythologies. Since at least the end of the Great Depression, this weekend has also been a threshold of its own, framed as the gateway to holiday consumer spending, and an economic barometer of the season to come. And now, as the highest volume travel weekend of the year amid the increase of counter-terror measures, Thanksgiving has intensified the liminal—or in-between—space of airports with such innovations as body scanners and “enhanced pat-downs.” Having now passed through the threshold of TSA screening twice in the last few days, I resist the urge to render today’s Advent message as a liturgical code orange or red and, rather, wonder what it might mean in my various contexts, with their distinctive pressures, to practice watchfulness. How indeed do our various contexts—from our families to our friends, colleagues and church communities – call us to practice watchfulness in the threshold of Advent?

At least one answer to that question, I suspect, is that we are being challenged to watch the watchfulness of our various contexts. In other words we are called to check pernicious and unjust forms of watchfulness that our worlds may take up out of fear of the thresholds in which we stand. Particularly in a cultural matrix that experiences border territories as dangerous, as vulnerable spaces to shore up against intrusion, I wonder how we can learn to practice a watchfulness grounded in the certainty that thresholds can be spaces of holiness, places of peace, even vehicles of grace? I wonder, how can we unmask the anxieties that plague the border territories of our lives, and help reveal and cultivate thresholds as spaces of strength and of growth.

In fact, we stand today at one of the great hinges of the liturgical year, the top of the liturgical clock, if you will, when we begin our sweep once more through the great cycle of readings, prayers, and music. The liturgical year is a narrative of narratives—a cohesive sequence of stories laden with productive incoherences and narrative gaps, calculated to catch our lives up into its cosmic sweep. Advent launches us into this cycle with a message that we – or at least the muzak at CVS — might presume to be straightforward hope and expectation, of looking forward to Christmas. But what Advent actually launches us into—and with which it frames the entire liturgical year—is much more strange and jarring. For starters, the theme of cosmic endings is still with us. And since Episcopalians are not known for exuberant exclamations of eschatology, you may well be sick to death of it and perplexed that here at the beginning of Advent, a term that literally means “coming” or “arrival,” this theme of endings has not gone away. From the macro view of the liturgical year, today is indeed the alpha to last week’s omega (the Sunday of Christ the King), but alpha and omega turn out to be co-present. Ending and beginning strangely bleed into one another at the onset of Advent.

On this peculiarly liminal day, we receive a series of readings that urge us to celebrate and to pay attention to our location. Now is the time, proclaims the prophet Isaiah, the Psalmist, Paul and the gospel of Matthew. The Psalmist calls all the tribes of Israel to go up to Jerusalem to celebrate a day of gladness, of peace and of prosperity. Isaiah envisions a day when all the nations will stream to God’s holy mountain, to a height higher than any other, to learn the ways of the holy one. In this sacred time and place God will become the great arbiter, fashioning harmony in place of strife, reforging weapons of warfare into implements of peace. In the fourth century of the Common Era, the Christian theologian Athanasius of Alexandria interpreted this prophecy through the lens of the Incarnation, transforming it from a future vision to an accomplished reality and a sign of judgment against those who continue to wage war. “By His own love,” Athanasius proclaimed in On the Incarnation, Christ “underwent all things for our salvation” in order to usher in peace. Athanasius found it incredible, in light of the Isaiah vision, how various nations can continue to be “mad against one another, and cannot endure to be a single hour without weapons.” Against this impulse, he argued, the “teaching of Christ” is meant to transform such impulses from warfare to husbandry, from arms raised against one another to hands lifted up in prayer. But what requires watchfulness and elicits legitimate warfare is evil itself, the evil that works upon the very psyches of human beings, intensifying anxieties, inciting inter-personal conflicts and inflaming inter-national strife (On the Incarnation, Ch. 52).

The Apostle Paul issues a similar warning when he declares in our reading from Romans, “you know what time it is, how now is the moment for you to wake from sleep.” Having just summed up all the commandments with the call for love in the verses just prior to ours, Paul is calling out, “the night is far gone and the day is near.” In Paul’s mind, we stand in a cosmic perch akin to those early morning moments when the moon has set, the stars are fading and the sun is preparing to rise. His call to “put on Christ” evokes the foundation of our baptism, the moment of our full incorporation into the body, when our humanity is clothed anew with the one who, as Athanasius put it, “became humanized that we might be deified” (On the Incarnation, ch. 54). In this threshold moment, Paul calls upon us to activate that clothing, to be strengthened by it, as if by armor. But while Paul’s watchfulness grounds us in the threshold in which, he assures us, we know that we stand, Matthew reminds us how much we don’t know, how suddenly and unexpectedly the reign of God will break in to the order of the world as we know it. Nothing we can do can truly prepare us for this in-breaking. The parousia or great arrival—the Advent of the Son of Humanity—is unexpected because it is, by definition, unexpectable. And so the awareness we must cultivate is grounded in both expectation and humility. This threshold is not one that can be mastered, controlled or even, ultimately, known. It is an awareness in the face of profound uncertainty and ambiguity that must be lived, or better, practiced.

One of the moments of our fall semester that suddenly erupted upon us was an awareness rash of suicides across the country among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) young people. For those of us who have long been aware of the increased risks in this community, what was surprising about this moment was not so much that it happened but that it happened in the full glare of the spotlight, and how national awareness seems to have been increased because of that attention. As you know, the Chaplaincy was one of several groups that co-sponsored a rally and a vigil in support of the LGBT community on October 12th. And Harvard was one of a number—probably hundreds—of university campuses across the nation that held events that week. As I stood on the steps of Memorial Church with a large group of faculty, staff, and students at that vigil, wearing both my hats as Chaplain and a Lecturer, I felt as though we were all standing on a threshold, a simultaneously terrifying and holy place, a space in which people had come together to offer one another reassurance and support, determination that what was happening had to stop. When we stand together in this way, and particularly when Christians witness our support for the LGBT community, we begin to transform the legacy of judgment, condemnation and conflict to one of support, hope and growth.

And so here at Advent I, at the beginning of the liturgical year, and even at the top of the three-year rotation of readings we begin in the Revised Common Lectionary that we share with most major Christian denominations, we are invited to be alert in the threshold. Amid whatever ambiguities and intersections we may carry with us, whatever strange permeabilities may pervade the borders on which we stand, and particularly in the face of whatever anxiety or even terror such thresholds may generate in ourselves and in others, the message of Advent is to be alert and to cultivate peace, indeed, to be watchful for the sake of peace. And so may we be alert to, and prepared to combat, the ways in which the anxieties generated by borders can cause people to dehumanize one another, and indeed to cultivate widespread injustices. May we watch for reversals of pruning hooks and plowshares into spears and swords. May we be ready to be an agent of the in-breaking of God’s reign in the here and now, not simply the bye and bye. May we open ourselves to participation in what Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King, and Verna Dosier alternately termed the Dream of God. And even as we prepare the way for this justice-making, may we watch our assumptions, expecting God to invite us into a world we can only begin to imagine. But most of all may we stand together today in awe and expectation, understanding that this threshold on which we stand is holy ground. Amen.

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