Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How to Stay Awake? A sermon for the first Sunday in Advent.

This sermon was given on the First Sunday in Advent (Year A) at the Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard by Emily Garcia, the Kellogg Fellow. The readings for the day are available here.

Good evening and Happy New Year! It’s the first day of our church year, and tonight begins a full year of the Gospel According to Matthew, a full year of stories we’ve heard before but we’ll hear again with different ears and different lives.

In Sunday school this morning we turned the arrow on our circular church calendar to the first purple square, the first day in Advent. During the lesson I told my littlest students that Advent is a time of waiting, when we get ready to enter the Mystery of Christmas. I said to them, “Let’s go with the Holy Family, the Shepherds, and the Magi, to make the journey that was not just back then. It’s happening now, too.”

This overlap or concurrence of time—past, present, and perpetuity—is central to the season of Advent. What happened then is still happening now is happening always, and we’re present to all of it. Advent has three main stories in the Bible that overlap, and the people or each story are waiting for Christ, the Messiah, in slightly different ways.

We hear the prophets, as they await the Messiah. (Tonight we heard Isaiah.) We hear John the Baptist and the Holy Family as they await the birth of Christ. (That’ll start next week.) And we hear Christ himself, and Paul, and John the Revelator as they predict and await the return of Christ in glory and majesty in the Second Coming, the end and new beginning of all creation.

In our readings, our prayers, our liturgy, we wait with all these voices for all these different things. In the drama of each true story we live and re-live that particular desire for God.  We wait, attentive, urgent, for when God will come—a powerful Messiah to save a people, a small child with a star overhead, the Son of Man crowned in glory.
When will God come? We’re waiting!

But in church, you know, we’re waiting for just less than a month. It’s a manageable little season, scented and festooned, a lyrical rush to and through celebrations of warmth and togetherness. In church, the dramatic waiting ends.

What might it mean to wait like this in the rest of our lives? or FOR the rest of our lives?

As you might know, many of the earliest Christians did in fact live their whole lives waiting for the Second Coming of Christ. This included the Apostle Paul himself, who wrote this letter to the Romans. Their expectations are dramatically staged in the words of Christ we heard: normal everyday life will continue as it always has, until suddenly, it won’t anymore. An act of God will surprise everyone, even the disciples and the angels in heaven. And so we should stay awake, attentive, even if it’s impossible for us to know what’s coming at the unexpected hour.

This piece of Paul’s letter though takes up this need for wakefulness and attention and shows us what it might look like. The first two sentences are thrilling: “And besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”

What does it mean to wake from sleep? “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

My very first reaction to this was to write in the margin, “St. Paul doesn’t want me to kiss my boyfriend.” It’s easy to read it that way; I could also say, Paul doesn’t want me to throw that party for my friends, or have that pastry for breakfast, or try on some fancy clothes, or learn more French swear words, or zone out in an adventure novel, or, yes, enjoy more than just the intellectual presence of the person I’m dating. I could say—and in fact, I have often said—Just another case of Paul being too far gone in intensity and extremity, Paul wanting us to stay as straight-laced as possible.

But of course it’s more complicated than that! Consider what Paul was asking and expecting of these earliest Christians—that they would be a persecuted minority, that they would live   waiting for something they didn’t understand, that they would completely change how they lived and thought and died in a time when that simply did not happen. That they would believe and act in a completely new, unwritten way. That they would live this new way discovering how it worked as they lived it, discovering each day how to be a Christian.
Of course drunkenness—and hangovers, for that matter—would make it hard to think clearly, to pay attention. Fighting amongst themselves wouldn’t help at all—that would be a big distraction. Soaking up the excessive and hard-heartedly sensual Roman culture wouldn’t reveal new aspects of God. And “desires” here is better translated “covetousness”—a serious need for anything that didn’t have to do with God : there simply wasn’t room for this in this final race to the Return of Christ amidst a cruel and confused culture.

Most of us might not find the imminent coming of Christ—which still might happen any day now—to be what makes life urgent. And most of us, people of privilege, don’t find our culture to be as aggressive towards Christianity as pagan Rome was. So what are we waiting for? What reason do we have, today, to be attentive, and urgent?

Well, there is still so much that only God can give us! And we still want and wait for what he gives. Only God gives us perfect love that drives out fear, rescue from all that seems to have power over us, and the grace to love others in the same way.

And so, we’re still waiting for something! We’re waiting what St. Bonaventure, founder of the Trappist order, called the middle advent. This part of the story is the coming of Christ “in spirit and power” into our own hearts. An invisible and hidden advent in our inner selves that has already happened to us and will continue happening. We never know when it will come, and we often miss it when it does, but it still happens—God continues to come into us and say true things, do true things to us, with us, in us.

And like the earliest Christians, there are things that distract us from this quiet middle advent of Christ.  Some, in fact, might be some of those things I mentioned somewhat sarcastically before: things like novels, pastries, kissing, clothes, et cetera. Am I reading so many novels in order to ignore what’s happening in me, in my life? Do I eat only in order to distract or comfort myself, when I might instead look for a real source of strength or comfort? Am I using physical intimacy or using another person, instead of enjoying it in the context of love and affection? Am I trying on fancy clothes as a way of winning the social game, being better than others? If I am enjoying these things in that way, then yes, actually, they might very well distract me from God’s voice in my life.

These are maybe small or silly examples. There are many things that can distract us from the attention and urgency of waiting for Christ. Is there something in our lives that takes up perhaps more attention than it should? Or that takes up attention without giving anything good or beautiful in return? What loud thing is getting in the way of God’s quiet voice? Right now, this week, what’s distracting us from hearing God?

Advent tells us to wake up from these things. The night is far gone and the day is near! Be ready! Be waiting! Pay attention!

You know, the downside of living this way is that we’re always waiting to be caught unaware. The upside is that we’re always waiting to be caught unaware! We’re always the prophets looking forward, always the shepherds about to be accosted by an angel, always Mary right before the Annunciation, always the disciple waiting to see God’s power and glory in the heavens. This middle advent is never over, and every day we get to wake up waiting for something to happen. Who will need our help today? What chances might we have to say a kind word that is dearly needed? What will God say to us?

Let us pray.
Almighty and eternal God, we’re waiting for you. We ask that you would so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated unto you, and then use us, we pray, as you would, always to your glory and the welfare of your people. Amen.

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