Anticipation & Presence

Isaiah 64:1-9 | Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 | 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 | Mark 13:24-37

Quite unlike our January 1st New Year’s Day, we in the Church have a less festive way of celebrating our turn of the calendar year, for this is a new year. If you’re keeping track of readings, we’re in Year B now, a year we’ll get to read lots from Mark, and for the Daily Office, we’re starting Year Two. But I doubt many of you stayed up until midnight to mark the occasion–no fireworks, singing, or festive parties. Then you come to church (you faithful lot), and solemnly light one candle and proclaim to you to KEEP AWAKE since second coming may be nigh. What does it all mean?

We say “keep awake” as we enter the darkest time of the year. The last thing I do to keep awake is to turn out all the lights and let things get quiet; that’s actually the perfect setting for really good sleep. We do need good sleep. We’re tired and weary from all our worries and concerns and trying to get everything done. We need rest. We need our basics to be taken care of. So “take care of you” is what I often say. I might have borrowed it from Pretty Woman, but the words get at the oft-forgotten need to truly care for ourselves. When we are rested up, taken care of, safe, and prayed up, there’s something about entering into darkness, letting things be shadowed. We’re aware and alert, appreciative for the intensity of the darkness, grateful for our safety in the unknown, and incredibly sensitive to the liminality of space and time when we just don’t know what might happen next.

Liminal times seem to sneak up on us but are pretty predictable. We find them in our traditions. They have a way of taking us out of chronos, out of chronological, sequential time, and putting us into that no-time and all-time, the moments of kairos time. I was fortunate to be able to attend my friend’s funeral this past week. It was an unexpected death, though we all know we will one day die. Hugging his mother outside the church on the beautiful sunny day, she said, “Good morning,” though it was afternoon, and then laughed through grieving eyes as she said she really didn’t know what time it was. I held her arms and smiled, knowing that in birth and death and all times marked by deep love, these are particular times when the separation between heaven and earth and all dimensions seems so very thin–that if we just closed our eyes, we could reach into the unknown. As we listened to the Word, the music, and the homily, our hearts open and vulnerable, the distance between us and our beloved was not far, and the connection between each of us gathered was nearly palpable.

After the funeral, on the way back home, I opted for the road less traveled. But you know how when you gotta go, you gotta go? That was me. Let me tell you, there aren’t many amenities to choose from in the Ouachita Mountains between Hot Springs and Russellville, but there is a campground at Hollis. If I had listened to my body the first time, I could have stopped at the nice visitor’s center, but I didn’t (that’s another lesson: listen to our bodies!). At the Hollis stop, there was what looked like little yellow Post-It notes on the bathroom doors. I thought it was weird but maybe a new thing to leave notes for folks. (You never know what the new trend is!) Bringing my keys and phone with me, I realized that it wasn’t notes but yellow duct tape over bullet holes that went through the door; the ones that didn’t go through just dented the door and removed the paint. Glad I brought my phone with me (because this is obviously how scary movies get made), I also realized there is no light inside this old-school forestry cinderblock outhouse.

When I got out and stepped back into the fresh air, I was caught in a pause. Maybe it was the fresh air tinged with smoke from the forest fires; maybe it was the twilight. Maybe it was the stillness . . . the stillness of being in the woods when I stop walking along making all manner of noise because it feels like I’m the one disturbing the sacred silence for the lives of those all around me. It’s a feeling of being watched, knowing I’m not alone but also of being unafraid. It’s still. I’m keenly aware, with heightened senses, actually. Looking around expectantly but also waiting patiently because I know I don’t know, but I might just feel the presence of Spirit in my goosebumps or in the swell of my heart or a deep sigh or in an even deeper knowing, though I can’t quite put my finger on it or words to it. It’s a connection to a deep mystery in a brief moment.

I pondered this concept of alertness in stillness and silence and found myself taking a seat at Crystal Bridges in one of my favorite sections of art. Having just been outside, I knew that darkness had settled all around. The lighting in the museum is soft, almost hushed, intentionally angled to highlight pieces, to invite illumination and shadow. We need the light and the dark to see the relief, the detail in the sculptures, the shadows in the painted compositions. It’s amazing and to me conveys the energy the pieces bear. The pieces themselves are alert and vivid but perfectly still . . . silent . . . waiting for the next person to round the corner and engage and notice so that the hidden meanings, the random strokes, every shade and hue can reveal itself to the reaction of another–be it fascination, disgust, or ambivalence. We need light to see, but we don’t need light to feel. We only need relationship, consent to engage one another that we might reveal to the world our beauty of creation, including our shadows, which are part of our beauty. We’re just waiting for the light to come and fully illumine us, that we might be restored in full relationship with God, one another, and ourselves. We yearn to be restored to the fullness of this Holy Presence.

“Show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”

We think we have to go someplace, do something special, say magic words, but as we say in our Psalm (and will say in our prayers Sunday morning), we need only the light of God’s countenance to be saved . . . from ourselves, from resignation, from the sin of turning away from God, losing ourselves in darkness void of Light. How God’s countenance is shown to us–where it manifests–will be many and varied and in moments and places we might otherwise miss, if we’re not anticipating the Presence to be there. The only thing we have to do is consistently be. Maintain wakefulness. Stay alert. Be aware. So that when we encounter those holy moments, we don’t miss them. Let our lights be dim at home this season. Turn off the notifications on our phones. Make space in our calendars to sit in silence or at least to seek stillness. (There are apps to help — Headspace and Calm are a couple.) Listen to the 1A podcast about silence from Thursday morning. Be alert enough to notice what surrounds us.

When we start to feel like we’re drowning in our own chaos, let’s not miss the Presence calling us into wholeness, casting out a cord of light, of hope so we don’t lose our way. This Advent season is about God restoring us through Christ, but we have to be open and alert to hear the message. It helps to slow down and get quiet to hear that still small voice. It’s okay to sit in the darkness, light a single candle, and wait in anticipation for the light to shine in expected and especially in unexpected ways. It’s what we’ve been waiting for, in this moment and the next. We’ve just been trying to get the timing and the light just right to illuminate what’s there all along: God, the presence of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit.

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What Time Is It?

Isaiah 2:1-5 | Psalm 122 | Romans 12:11-14 | Matthew 24:36-44

In our house if someone says, “What time is it?” at least a voice or two will call back, “Showtime!” imitating the voices from the Broadway musical Hamilton before they launch into introducing themselves. I don’t think this is the response Paul is looking for when he’s addressing the Romans. We get the message today that both Paul and Matthew are telling us to take heed and be alert, for the second coming of Christ is near. Is that what time it is today? Is it time to prepare since the end is near?

For Advent is a time of preparation, preparing for the coming of Christ. Before we remember the story of the Incarnation and imagine what it was like to be Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, angels, and everything at the time of the nativity, we get this message of wakefulness and the upcoming weeks’ messages of repentance and prophecy.

So what time is it, exactly?

It is safe to say that we are between times. We are, as our collect says, in the “mortal life” which Christ shared with us when he “came to visit us in great humility,” and we are not yet at “the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead,” when “we may rise to the life immortal.” In typical Episcopal fashion, we embrace the both-and. We both look forward to celebrating the birth of Christ and we also prepare ourselves for judgment.

Judgment isn’t something we talk much about in The Episcopal Church, so let’s first be clear about what we mean by judgment. There are probably some here today who view the last day as something like what the Left Behind series portrays: a rapture where some are airlifted away while the unbelievers are literally left behind. Especially those who are studying the Book of Revelation with CB, you might have a more vivid, somewhat horrifying view of what the end times look like. But Jesus doesn’t give us this kind of apocalyptic imagery.

Jesus tells us we–living and dead–will be judged, and as God did for the Israelites in a way they could try to understand, through Jesus God teaches us the Way so that we might walk the path of righteousness. We are given a promise, a covenant, and we are also given the conditions of our contract. Like the Israelites, we try to walk in the light of the Lord. In our collect we pray for the “grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.” We’re not going to battle on a particular day; we work through our struggles on a daily basis.

Rather than focus on an unexpected and unpredictable time of Judgment Day or the Second Coming, we are given our present time to honor the bodies we have, our temples to God and a gift of God’s own image. Aren’t we also given the gift of a discerning heart and mind so that we can be the obedient disciples we are called to be? When we are at our best walking in the light of Christ, putting on the armor of light, don’t we have a sense of when we give glory to God in what we think, say, and do? I mentioned in Christian Ed last week that during the sermon for the folks at the church service in the county jail, I went out on a limb and guessed that none of them were incarcerated because they were proclaiming the name of Christ. There was a murmur of laughter before they awoke to the grave truth of the matter, which is that they knew they weren’t there because of choices they made for Christ, even if their being there was an act of grace that might be saving their life or giving them another chance. We have the ability to make judgments; we just don’t always make good ones. Most of the time, we’d rather judge others than ourselves because turning that lens inward is painful. I literally pulled my sweatshirt up over my face as I stumbled upon my own weaknesses and truths that I didn’t want to face for myself. Sometimes it’s easier to go back to sleep or stay in the darkness. Don’t you sometimes just want to pull the covers back over your head?

But this is where we work together. Now is the time for us to wake up. Wake up from darkness to the reality that we must walk in the light of the Lord and put on the armor of light. It helps to do this together, knowing that we aren’t alone and that there are others not only to hold us accountable but also to help us when we stumble. As much as we have to wake up, we also have to stop putting layers upon layers of judgment on everyone else and just show that we know what it is to live as a believer and as one who abides in Christ. In action it might look something like putting love before our differences so we can sit around the table at Thanksgiving and not talk about politics but revel in the memories we share, how our lives are intertwined with one another and bound to each other in a way only blood and love can bind us. As we look forward together in hope, maybe we get some clarity in hindsight about our own shortcomings and where we personally have room for improvement. We might even gain insight into where the gaps in our mutual understanding are.

Within the past month I’ve had someone talk to me about what “Christians” believe as if I weren’t one of them because we don’t agree on particular platform issues. That one-sided conversation contrasted greatly with another conversation I had that was approached as a dialogue and in relationship. In our time together, I got the sense that Christ was present between us as we listened to one another to comprehend where we are in our understanding of what is affirmed as love. Perhaps as God saw us, we were two children sitting there with light shining through the cracks of our brokenness. Our human understanding will never be enough to comprehend God, so we approach it the best we can, in all humility and obedience. Had Judgment Day come upon us as we sat there over coffee, I trust we both would have been found to be faithful believers.

What if our invitation today is not to wake up and live in fear of the second coming but to wake up to the peace we share in Christ now. The kingdom of heaven is at hand, and we have an active role in bringing it about even if it is only completely fulfilled when Christ comes again. We receive the power of the Holy Spirit at our baptism for a worthwhile cause, not to lie dormant.

In this season of preparation, I know I have work to do. With the light of Christ, I will carefully examine how I fill my time. It’s a good time to review my rule of life and see how I’m measuring up in my needs and expectations. Keeping awake requires being well in mind, body, and spirit.  Parallel to a spring cleaning, I suppose we could have an Advent clearing, a decluttering from all that distracts us or blocks us from living honorably or from fully wearing the light of Christ.

The contemplative practices CB and I will be sharing are another way to step forward in prayerful alertness and preparation. It might reveal how sleepy we actually are if when we close our eyes we find ourselves nodding off, but it also gives us a chance to look into our darkness with a gentle light, much like lighting the candles one by one on the Advent wreath.

The hardest work this Advent will be in being gentle with ourselves. By the grace of God we do the hard work, but we have to set out to do it of our own accord in the first place. Knowing that the rewards are richness of life and life eternal, one would think we have plenty of incentive, but we are easily deceived by trials and temptations. That’s where good self-care and regular prayer practices help us reset and get re-aligned in our work as faithful disciples.

Maybe we could think of this time in Advent as “Showtime!” after all, waking to greet each day as an opportunity to radiate the light of Christ, introducing ourselves and our gifts for the New Kingdom. Navigating how to do that passionately but not obnoxiously exercises another muscle in discernment, but it would speak to our awareness of showing who we truly are by whom we serve and how we serve in love. As Christians, we don’t live in fear of the last days. It’s time now to prepare for and live with the real and present responsibility of serving God faithfully for all time.

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