Sunday, December 1, 2013

It's Time to Wake Up (Sermon for First Sunday of Advent)

I love the story about the little boy who learned to tell time by listening for the chimes of their grandfather clock. One afternoon he was playing in the house while his mother was out working in the yard. The clock began to chime; he expected three chimes. It chimed once, twice, three times, then four times, five, six, seven, eight – the clock had malfunctioned. Totally disconcerted the little boy raced outside to find his mother, “Mommy, mommy, listen to the clock,” he screamed. His mother said calmly, “Billy, what time is it?” He exclaimed, “I don’t know, but it’s later than it has ever been before.”

It’s true, you know. It is later than it has ever been before. Paul says to his readers, “You know what time it is, it’s time for you to wake from your sleep" (Romans 13:11-14).

May that not be the Spirit’s word to us today gathered in this place this first Sunday of Advent? It’s time to wake up. If it’s time to wake up, then what is it that we are to wake up to? 

It’s time to wake up to a vision of a just world, like that envisioned by Isaiah in the text recited earlier (Isaiah 2:1-5). It’s time to wake up to our responsibility to pray, act, work and participate in efforts to see that vision realized.

Paul says that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” The salvation Paul is anticipating is the salvation of all creation that he already wrote about in chapter 8 of his letter to the Romans. There Paul says that the whole creation is groaning in labor pains, longing for the day of its deliverance, anticipating a time when it will be liberated from decay and death.

We are called to participate in this liberation, to pray and work for its fulfillment. This can be as simple as making an informed vote, supporting a candidate who will champion just social policies such as common sense gun laws, or comprehensive immigration reform, or policies that recognizes the reality of climate change and will protect and preserve our environment. It can be as simple as casting a vote. 

It can be as difficult as engaging in protests against drone strikes or the death penalty or the unjust implementation of law in our criminal justice system.

It can be as simple as cutting back our own energy consumption and as difficult as protesting our dependence on fossil fuels and lobbying for the development of alternative clean energy sources.

It can be as simple as showing mercy and giving care to someone suffering with AIDs or it can be as difficult as taking on a dominant culture that denies equal rights and protection under the law to same-sex couples. 

It can be simple or difficult, but it’s time to wake up to the interconnectedness of all creation and realize that the future of humanity is tied to the future of our planet. It’s time to wake up to the ways we are harming our planet and each other and put on the Lord Jesus Christ by pursuing the common good and working for a just world.

It’s also time to wake up to the reality that God is not up there somewhere, but rather, God is right here, as close as the air we breathe; that God is all around us, with us, in us. It’s time to wake up to this Divine Presence and learn to discern the Spirit’s leading, nudging, wooing, drawing, inviting, and calling to share in God’s redeeming, healing work.  

Nikos Kasantzakis wrote a historical novel about Saint Francis. Working with the materials about Saint Francis is kind of like working with the materials in the Gospels with regard to Jesus, it’s practically impossible to separate history and legend. Kazantankis acknolowedged in his prologue that if he omitted any of Saint Francis’s sayings and deeds and added others that did not actually take place, he did not do so out of ignorance or irreverence, but out of an attempt to match Saint Francis’ life with his myth, thus “bringing that life as fully in accord with its essence as possible.” He was trying to get to the essence of the life of Saint Francis.

Kasantzakis confessed that as he wrote his novel, he felt overwhelmed by love, reverence, and admiration for Francis. He declared: “Everywhere about me, as I wrote, I sensed the Saint’s invisible presence.” He felt as if Saint Francis was with him, guiding him. (I found the quote on The Tony Jones Blog)

Is this not what we should feel and sense with regard to Jesus as he is portrayed in our Gospels. The Gospels and the early Christian sacred writings try to capture the essence of the Spirit of Jesus. I think this is what the writer of 1 John was trying to get at when he opened his epistle by saying: “We declare to you what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.”

It should be humbling to think that right now, we who are Jesus’ followers, who form communities called churches, are called to be the living body and presence of Jesus in the world; that we are called to make visible the essence of Jesus’ faith, hope, love, and joy. I’m afraid we haven’t done very well in living up to our calling, have we?

If we are awake, alert, watchful, mindful, open, and receptive we can discern Christ’s presence, even in the most unexpected places.

Brother David Steindl-Rast, when he was young was forced into the German army. Somehow he was grouped with about two dozen men who had also been forced into the German army when their tiny Russian village had been “liberated” by advancing German troops. The families in this small community still spoke a form of German that had been spoken centuries before. The wives and children were put in a refugee camp while the men were forced into the German army.

Brother David Steindl-Rast wrote that being with that group of men, he witnessed the glory of God - that is, human beings fully alive -even in the midst of the daily grind of boot camp. These men laughed with light hearts, in spite of everything. They dared to weep, and they had plenty of reason for that. They joked a lot, but never in any sort of offensive way. He remembered how they talked at night when the lights went out, about their families; he remembered how passionate they were. Steindle-Rast claimed that they showed one another and himself the spontaneous kindness and caring one might expect from a platoon of monks. “Good monks,” he said. There in the most unlikely of places Brother David Steindl-Rast encountered the presence of Christ. (Essential Writings)

Willie Sordillo is an administrator and minister with the United Church of Christ. He wrote about being on the Jersey Shore one morning, standing on a dune, scouring the wide-open sea before him, where he happened to spot a dolphin not too far off shore. As he watched she was joined by a couple of mates. Soon, they were a pod.

He called to his friend and they hurriedly carried their kayaks down to the water. He didn’t want to scare them off, so he and his friend paddled out to within about 50 yards of what had by then become “an uncountable swarm, a silvery blue swath of constant motion, diving and rising, moving together as one body across the horizon.”

As they sat there in silence, drifting, something unusual happened. Suddenly, they found themselves “surrounded by a mass of moving, playful flesh.” As they paddled, the dolphins swam beside them, seemingly looking them in the eye when rising from their dives. When they turned the dolphins turned. Sordillo wrote, “We were playing together, and it was their idea, having invited us into the game.”

According to Sordillo this was a place where wildlife was usually not found. It had been a place in the past where warnings had been posted with regard to medical waste contamination. It was a good day when one came across an egret. (Still Speaking Daily Devotional, Nov. 25, 2013)

So what if he had not been looking, watching, gazing over the sea that morning? And what if he had decided not to do anything? What if he decided not to listen to the passion of his heart and the wooing of his spirit? He would have missed the invitation to be part of something amazing and beautiful.

How often do we miss the divine Presence, the Spirit swimming in places where we would not normally look or expect? We miss it because we are not looking, or because we decide to not respond and be part of the adventure.

Lastly, it’s time to wake up to the reality that the gift has already been given, that divine acceptance and forgiveness has already been granted. 

It cannot be earned. It’s not about believing or doing the right things. As Jesus taught, the only way to experience acceptance and forgiveness is by entering into the spirit of acceptance and forgiveness, by spreading forgiveness around. The more we give, the more we receive. That’s the basic law of the spiritual life. As we forgive others, we swim in the ocean of divine forgiveness.

The spiritual life has nothing to do with perfection. The spiritual life is nurtured as we own our flaws and imperfections and nurture the capacity to forgive ourselves and others for being so flawed. As we forgive and accept others for their flaws, we learn to receive and accept God’s forgiveness for our flaws, which, on one level, means that we learn to forgive ourselves.

God wants communion with human beings; God wants relationship and our participation in the divine creativity and work, not perfection. I don’t envision myself ever being flawless, certainly not in this life, nor do I imagine I will be flawless in the life to come.

I agree with Franciscan priest Richard Rohr who wrote:

“It’s amazing how much of Christian history sent us on a self-defeating course toward perfection. On the day of my first vows in 1962, the preacher glared at us little novices and quoted the line “Thou shalt be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect!” Most of the guys left within the first few years when they could not achieve it.  

“Many people gave up on the spiritual life when they saw they could not be ‘perfect.’ They ended up practical agnostics or practical atheists, and they refused to be hypocrites. Many of us kept up the forms and the words, we kept going to church, but there was no longer the inner desire, joy . . .” (Taken from Rohr’s Daily Mediation, Nov. 25, 2013)

Unfortunately, most English translations translate the phrase in the verse quoted by Rohr as “perfect.” We tend to think the word means flawless. Rather, the Greek word means to be mature or complete, to reach a goal, to attain an end, to fulfill a design or purpose. The end or goal or design or purpose God has in mind, is not perfection, but communion. God wants us to be in communion, to share God’s compassion and cooperate with God’s loving designs for all the creation.

Ironically, the way we enter into this communion is through our flaws and imperfections. Did you know that there is always one clear imperfection woven into the pattern of an authentic Navajo rug? They believe that is where the Spirit moves in and out of the rug. I think they have it right. It is our imperfections and flaws that open us to divine grace. This is where the Spirit enters and moves and flows. 

A poem by Malanie Jean Junean communicates this well:

Crushed by failure,
An ego shattering,
hope defying
defeat?
Judged on the surface, each endeavor appears to be executed
by an incompetent ne’re-do-well,
trying yet again and floundering.
The result is fiasco, debacle, catastrophe, disaster, blunder,
a plain old botch up.
Call it a washout, dead duck or a lead balloon.
By any other name, it is still
a flop.
Yet, upon further reflection,
this apparent lack of success,
is not a result of a lack of talent,
but like
a fish wanting to fly
in the air.
He will look like a genius
when . .
he discovers a unique way of swimming
in water.    (Readwave.com)

How much better for a fish, rather than waste away in despair because he cannot fly, learn a unique way of swimming in the water.

We are never going to be perfect; that’s not our calling sisters and brothers. Rather, our flaws and imperfections become the medium and means through which we proclaim the gift of God’s grace and forgiveness.

It’s time to wake up, church. It’s time to wake up to a vision of a just world and our calling to participate in its realization.

It time to wake up to the presence of the living Christ all around us, with us, and in us, and to our calling to be that presence, to be the body of Christ in this place.

It’s time to wake up, sisters and brothers, to the divine gift of forgiveness already given, and our calling to unwrap this gift and share it all around.

As Paul says, it’s time to wake up and put on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Gracious God, too often we drift through life asleep, unaware, unconcerned, worried about stuff that doesn’t matter, that’s not important. We get caught up in our own agendas and then these agendas enslave us to a way of life that is self-serving. Help us to wake up so that we don’t miss the adventure of life you want for us.

May we dream of a just world and have the courage to do our small part to advance your kingdom on earth. Give us the discernment to see your presence in others, in creation, in our own flawed humanity, and help us to be the body of Christ right here, right now. And may we realize that your forgiveness cannot be earned; that it is a gift that can only be received, and it can only be received as we give it away. Help us this first Sunday of Advent to be intentional about staying awake. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen. 


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