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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Advent Series – Year C

Mainly for my future reference (and hopefully the links will hold true), I’m posting these links to the Advent series I led at St. Luke’s — Preparing for Advent through Art. I’ve tried to include links to the artwork on the slides, where sources could be found. Many thanks to all who attended and for the wonderful curators who make art accessible to so many and especially to Loyola University for their Arts and Faith Advent resources.

Advent 1: Be Alert

Advent 2: Dare

Advent 3: Listen

Advent 4: Receive

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God’s Grace, Our Mission

The Scripture texts for the First Sunday of Advent, Year B:
Isaiah 64:1-9 | Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 | 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 | Mark 13:24-37

From our turkey slumber, hours of travel, shopping frenzies, or overtime work–
whatever our past week has been filled with – we all meet this morning with the one call to “Keep awake!” We have good reason to be alert today, and we need to set our intentions well, for today begins the church’s new year, in case you missed the silent transition. Just like that we turn the page and begin again, returning to the lectionary for Year B, following the season, and waiting again with expectation for our Lord and Savior who has already come and revealed to us God’s grace.

It would be easy to miss this new day, our new year. The weather has been so
erratic, our schedules so packed, the news full of strife, and the stores signaling Santa’s arrival since before Halloween. But every Sunday morning we mark the day on the hymn board or on the bulletin or on the calendar in the Godly Play room like a slow clock counting the days instead of the hours. We have to pause and think about which day it is. We pause and think about the year, what season we’re in not only in nature but in the church year, too. I like to imagine these four weeks of Advent stretched a bit, creating a small inner loop of the church calendar like an exit ramp or detour—seemingly buying a little time. In this time, we can think about what is going on around us and within us and shed the residue that builds up from too much screen time and air time and general busy-ness that blocks the way for the soul to claim time, too.

For if we heard our soul, it might sound like the prophet in Isaiah, calling for God
not to be hidden from us, to remember that we are all God’s people. Or it might sound like the Psalmist who calls to God to hear us, shine forth, stir up his strength, and help us. “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved” (Ps. 80:3). The people were crying out for God. For these ancient Jews, their temple was destroyed by the Romans. When the world we know is falling apart, don’t we all cry out?

As we give ourselves time this morning, we are privy to Jesus’s conversation with
Peter, James, John, and Andrew. Jesus, too, withdrew to an inner circle and sat and talked with those who had been with him the longest. What he said seemed a bit prophetic and kind of apocalyptic yet also made sense of some of the past events. The disciples did not know it was Jesus’s farewell discourse to them. They must have listened with wonder as Jesus told them things like “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Mk 13:31) and “what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake” (Mk 13:37).

When our suffering is real and crisis surrounds us, it can seem all is dark.  Sickness and death has been coming to those close to my grandmother, among her friends and the elderly in my extended family. Perhaps you, like her, have risen one morning and found it hard to give thanks for all that you have received because what you have is a lot of complications, impossible responsibilities, and a heart weary with sorrow. With faith, we grasp for hope.

I found my thoughts expressed in a commentary on Mark, when R. Alan Culpepper writes that

“what separates believers from nonbelievers is whether one trusts in a God who is working purposefully to redeem humanity.”

When we are watching the world seemingly fall apart around us, if we
believe in the hope Christ gives us—that the Son of Man is coming in glory—then we have a future to look forward to. While it hurts and we suffer in the midst of the mess that is life, we persevere because we know that this isn’t the end. We begin again each time we are confronted with death or loss. We live into the power of the Resurrection that showed us that out of death comes life. When all is gone, there is still the Word.  The Word gives hope because the Word itself is eternal Love. The Word is Love, enduring all things, binding the covenant and promise, and giving forth life and fruit. Love, never forgotten. We are God’s own, to be gathered at the end of days “from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

In case we forget how any of this is even probable, we can attend the words of
Paul: “the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus.” Jesus Christ as Word, as Love, has given us the grace of God, and it is this gift that empowers us all. “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul says. We are blessed with the Holy Spirit at our baptism, empowered with spiritual gifts, and waiting for the Lord attests to our own hope and faith. Paul gives thanks to God, for it is God’s strength, faithfulness, and call that enriches, strengthens, and blesses the people. Vocalizing his prayer of thanks undoubtedly gives the Corinthians assurance to persevere, but he points all thanks to God, lest anyone think it is his or her own will that is glorified.  We all have work to do, gifts to use, and it is a good thing to give thanks and praise to one another where it is due—so long as we acknowledge that all thanks be to God.

Our work is hard, and most times it is thankless. It is easier to let these four
weeks fly by, exchange gifts with a premise of joy, shoot off fireworks with a round of “Auld Lang Syne,” and offer a toast to ring in the next secular calendar year. We can congratulate ourselves and one another on what a lovely holiday we’ve had and get back to our regularly scheduled program. We have a choice.

The alternative is to heed our message from Mark that someone is coming. If we
pay attention—being as attentive as a gardener is to his plants—then we will know the signs. If we accept this mission, we are to be watchful, awake, and aware. We are to be attentive to one another and to the world around us. We are to live into our gifts we’ve been given and live with hope and faith, certain of the Love and Grace we’ve received, even in times of trouble. This is our hard work.

We can step back and breathe in the magnitude of what the word gives us today
and in this season. We are all to keep awake. We cannot afford to go through our lives sleepwalking, unaware of where Christ is trying to break through in our lives to reveal the grace of God. We will miss it if we’re not paying attention. We will miss it if we expect too much, too little, or expect nothing at all. Our gift right now is the anticipation of the birth of the Christ Child, who is himself our greatest gift, God Incarnate. The ongoing excitement drawn from this greatest gift is in finding where Christ is made manifest every day, especially now when the darkness draws early and near. Our challenge is to take enough presence and wakefulness into our lives to give witness and testimony to Christ wherever he appears, whenever that may be.

Only we can proclaim when we see the Light break through and spill forth God’s grace.

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Mother Mary

A sweet friend today shared in conversation that a Bible study she and her husband are going to has brought a greater Christ-focus to this Christmas season, an unexpected emotional and spiritual experience.  In turn, I told her that I was nearly overcome with tears at the Gospel processional, so deeply moving did I find the words, the music, and the sentiment.  Whether it’s by the year, season, or hour, the ebb and flow of our Godly focus varies greatly.

This day when the visitation of Mary is shared, I feel the tenderness radiate through the entire service.  The femininity and tenderness intertwine with the strength and reality of what is and is to come.  Mary answered God’s call with a willingness to serve.  As our priest this morning put it, most of us can relate to an “Oh-crap-what-have-I-done” moment when the reality of our servitude sinks in.  No such moments are related in Mary’s tale, but knowing what we do of the society and culture she lived in, her pregnancy and unwed status were scandalous (not entirely unlike today).  Surely even the mother of Christ had doubts.

We are human.  We doubt and question.  Then the pendulum swings, and we rejoice and praise.  I have a feeling that the trajectory isn’t linear.  I imagine the circle being traced again and again, though at different levels.  Sometimes we might stall, but often once we are set in motion, we keep going, following our path.

May we carry on in God’s will with the faith and willingness of Mary, blessed with a good mother’s love.

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Purple for Preparation

For those unfamiliar with the Anglican tradition, the Church calendar is a circle, a cycle, and it has certain colors for every season.  Naturally, there’s a lovely children’s song to teach the season and the meaning for each.

“Purple for preparation.  White for celebration.  Green is for the growing time.  Red is for Pentecost!”

The four weeks of Advent precede Christmas and its twelve days.  Advent is a time of preparing and waiting.  In that time we ponder the Mystery, the Light, Mary, and the other lessons accompanying the season.

In one of my rare solitary moments, I considered what it is that I need to be prepared for, beyond the religious norm.  What I discover, of course, is that my needs parallel with the lessons.

What needs to be done?  What am I required to do as a member of society?  I have to be counted.  I have to pay taxes.  I have to make sure the family is cared and provided for.  My husband and I do this together, the day-to-day, part-of-society requisites.  We have to follow the rules, even if it results in frustration from waiting in lines or finding businesses to be closed due to holiday hours.  We try again.  We do what has to be done.

What is needed of me?  The children need a more compassionate mother (especially this morning).  They need time and attention, which are hard to provide when one is tired and energy levels are low.  Others need the same of me; truthfully, they deserve the same.  Kindness.  I need this of myself, too.

And what might be required from me in this life?  Am I prepared to fulfill my purpose?  I believe that if I’m still alive, I have work to do for the greater Good.  I still don’t know what that work is, but I sense clues.  Ultimately, every moment is an opportunity to change the world for the better.  This is what makes me an optimist, I suppose.  Take the complacency, anger, animosity, even hatred and replace it with awareness and compassion.  It aligns nicely.

The advice given Mary and Joseph works for me, too.  “Do not be afraid.”  Do the work.  Be present to, for, and with others and myself.  Trust the Mystery and live the Magic.  Goodness is here, in every moment, but I have to be prepared if I want to see it.  I have to be prepared to experience it.  I have to be prepared to be surprised, which ironically I am every time I experience true Grace, Light, and Love.

May we all be so blessed.

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“Here am I”

Since I’ve heard the story of Mary’s anunciation at least three times this month, it rings loudly in my ears.  It could be that last year all my ears could hear was the “holy s**t!” factor Mary must have felt, the “you-want-me-to-do-what?”  This year, however, I was given the opportunity to truly listen to the story, and like doing deep dream work, I was able to close my eyes and enter the story, the scene, the characters, and the energy present on that holy night.

I could feel the dry desert air in Mary’s mouth, in my mouth, the sandy breeze.  I could feel the weight of the day but the relief that comes when all that can be done is done, and it’s time to rest.  There’s stillness and a quiet acceptance of what is.  Then there’s this overwhelming encounter with an angel?  Could that be what that was?  Did anyone else see?  Did anyone else hear?  Could the racing of my heart be betraying me?  Have I not just heard a commission from God through one of His glorious angels?  Didn’t I just accept the call to be a mother to the child of God, me a young innocent?  The curious look from a neighbor makes me question, but my heart assures me it is true.  True, also, was the look of awe, sympathy, and adoration on the face of the angel, in his voice.  Returning to the stillness of the night, it was like a dream, but now my life is changed forever more.  I cannot know the depth of this responsibility, what it might fully entail.  I just know that in the moment, in the presence of what is Holy, I knew I could make no other choice, for “Here am I . . . servant to the Lord.”

Then I realize that the anunciation of Mary is quite similar to our own stories when we are answering a call that aligns with God’s will.  Often it comes to us when we least expect it, when we are still and accepting of the present.  But it could be when things seem most in chaos.  When we hear that tumultuous stirring in our hearts, experience the ecstatic joy of co-creating with God, we know we are where we are meant to be.  What comes down the road, we may not know, but we continue in faith and trust and hope.  Most importantly, we continue in Love.

I don’t know anyone personally who has had the clarity of purpose as Mary, through an angel’s visit.  If you’re like me, you would welcome an angel’s visit telling you what to do, what God wants you to do.  But it seems even as it seems harder to hear God’s voice these days, God’s trust in us is just as present, if not moreso.  God seems to trust each of us that Jesus was enough to teach us how to be in relationship not only with each other but with God as well.  And example after example in the Bible shows us people, servants to the Lord, who are simply present, hear a call and respond, “Here am I.”

May we be that strong, that trusting, that faithful.  May the joy of the season inspire us.

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Advent Calendar!

Many thanks to my German friend for introducing my family to the advent calendar even before we fully embraced the tradition.  This year, however, I came up with something each day for the children to do before they get their daily treat.  Sundays are busy for us, so I decided to make use of the Christmas cookie sheet molds I received as a gift and make tasty sugar cookies as a treat for all.

Advent is a season of waiting, of preparation.  I also think it’s a time of excitement, merriment to be spent with family and friends, not without consideration of those in need.  Of course, I encourage you to make your own list, but to jump-start your brainstorm, here’s our list, some names removed.

May your December start with a heaping of kindness.

  1. Do a kindness for a sibling.

  2. Donate clothes to shelter.

  3. Send a letter to a friend.

  1. Make sure the house is especially clean.

  2. Be kind to your Dad.

  1. Happy St. Nicholas Day!!!

  2. Make cards for teachers.

  3. Do a chore not on your list.

  4. Help Mom prepare Christmas cards.

  5. Draw a picture for a grandparent.

  6. Spend 5 minutes in prayer before school.

  7. Give thanks outdoors! Play outside if you can.

  8. Enjoy your cookie!

  9. Call Grandma and Uncle.

  10. Mark cards for a nursing home.

  11. Call Grandma and Uncle.

  12. Call Grandpa and Papa.

  13. Call Nana&Papa and Cousin.

  14. Call Godparents.

  15. Enjoy your cookie!

  16. Get thank-you notes ready.

  17. Spend 30 minutes in prayer.

  18. Do something kind for Alexander; it is his birthday.

  19. Help Mom in the kitchen.

  20. Merry Christmas! Rejoice!

  1. Do a kindness for a sibling.

  2. Donate clothes to shelter.

  3. Send a letter to a friend.

  1. Make sure the house is especially clean.

  2. Be kind to your Dad.

  1. Happy St. Nicholas Day!!!

  2. Make cards for teachers.

  3. Do a chore not on your list.

  4. Help Mom prepare Christmas cards.

  5. Draw a picture for a grandparent.

  6. Spend 5 minutes in prayer before school.

  7. Give thanks outdoors! Play outside if you can.

  8. Enjoy your cookie!

  9. Call Grandma Arnold and Uncle Alan.

  10. Mark cards for a nursing home.

  11. Call Grandma Donna and Uncle Wayne.

  12. Call Grandpa Bill and Papa Stan.

  13. Call Nana&Papa and Cousin Angye.

  14. Call Godparents – Bill & Pam and Christine.

  15. Enjoy your cookie!

  16. Get thank-you notes ready.

  17. Spend 30 minutes in prayer.

  18. Do something kind for Alexander.

  19. Help Mom in the kitchen.

  20. Merry Christmas! Rejoice!

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Season of Waiting

Yesterday began the church’s new year with the first Sunday in Advent, the season of waiting.  It’s at times like this when I gladly lead the Sunday school class.  I get to learn right along with the four- and five-year-olds.  I’ve been doing it for three years now, but it’s a new experience each time.

Not only is it time to put up the traditional Christmas decor, but last night we made our family Advent wreath.  My older daughter was most excited about the new candles, actually getting a rose-colored one this year.  We will light the first candle at meal times this week, lighting another candle each week until Christmas morning when we get to light the white candle as well, watching the light dance as we eat our cinnamon rolls.

As we wait for the birthday celebration, however, the sermon we received yesterday encouraged us to remember that we can be rebuilt, that we are the potter’s clay.  Our sermon was an invitation from an organization to adopt a child or aging person in another country.  Could we be so selfless as to truly extend our giving to another family?  Will we allow ourselves to experience the growth that such giving can bring?  Would we go visit these people to see how we can affect their lives?

We all await such growth.  If you can give to the CFCA, blessings to you.  There are always those in our own community who need help, too.  Children’s shelters, community meal programs, homeless shelters, women’s shelters, community pantries.  Opportunities abound.

While waiting, we must not forget that there is work to be done.  I don’t mean the typical hustle and bustle of checking off your Christmas to-do list.  This is another new year, another opportunity to evaluate where you are, to look around through the eyes of a child and see things anew.  When we think we cannot give any more, is there a gift, a talent you can share/volunteer?  You don’t have to have a lot of money to help others.  Sometimes your time is just as valuable, if not more so. 

And when you’re waiting, all you have is time.

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