A sermon preached by Rev. Jane McBride, First Congregational Church of MN, First Sunday of Advent, 11/28/10; Matthew 24: 36-44
The snow falls, the darkness intensifies, the cold snaps. We have eaten ourselves into turkey comas and shopped ourselves silly. We rest cozily on our couches, curled up in a blanket, yearning to hear a comforting old story. Say, a tale that involves angels and shepherds, an infant born in a manger. A silent night, a joyful world… ahh!
Just as we settle in for long winter’s dreams of Bethlehem’s shining streets, today’s text intrudes with nightmarish scenes! People drown in floods and disappear into thin air. Friends and loved ones get “left behind”. Thieves break in!
We are culturally conditioned to interpret today’s Gospel text as if it answers questions about these events, but listen again. “But about that day and hour no one knows…” No one knows what? The timing? The meaning? No one but Noah knew to prepare for a raging flood in that day, nor were we ready for the Asian Tsunami or Hurricane Katrina. No one knows where the one is taken while the other is left, or for what purpose. And surely no one understands why one is shot by rival gangs and another is safe in her home. One felled by a massive heart attack and another thriving into old age. There’s so much not to know here. As one commentator puts it, this text expresses “a perplexity that extends all the way to the angels and even to the son.” (Mark E. Yurs, Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol 1, p. 23) This scripture is certain only about one thing: our task is to stay awake and be ready.
Truth be told, the texts that frame Advent on this first Sunday of the church year are never about the cradle or the candlelight. They proclaim the return of the Christ who triumphed over the grave, the final days of earth and the time of reckoning. Yes, a child is coming, but this little Emmanuel (God with us) is powerful as well as cute. This infant grows up to love humanity, but also to judge us. His birth brings birth but it also means death.
This Thanksgiving, we feasted with my partner’s parents and my brother. We all worked in the kitchen to throw together a lovely mixture of traditional and innovative dishes. Turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberries; brussels sprouts salad and pumpkin cheescake with gingersnap crust. Sharing this time cooking and eating with people I love, all seemed right with the world.
The next morning, as we sipped coffee, my mother-in-law picked up the newspaper and began to read aloud, a column by Leonard Pitts: “Good news. An average of 17.7 percent of all Americans were at times unable to feed themselves in the 12 months prior to September of this year. That’s according to an analysis of data from the Gallup-Healthways Index, conducted and newly released by the Food Resource and Action Center (FRAC), an advocacy group. You may be wondering: in what universe does a 17.7 percent hunger rate qualify as good news? In this one, actually. That figure, after all, represents a slight drop from the average 18.5 percent rate recorded at the end of 2009. But even the smaller figure is hardly reassuring, given that it means just under 55 million Americans had to do without food at least occasionally.” (Miami Herald 11/24/10)
My fullness amid the world’s hunger. Wakefulness means living with this tension, living into it, letting the many conflicting truths of this world shape who we are. It is about cultivating gratitude for the gifts of our lives, even as we cultivate awareness of our neighbors’ agony. It requires honoring and tending our own personal pain and struggle, even as we honor and tend the exquisite beauty and goodness that is also in the world. Being awake demands that we get busy creating change and justice. Paradoxically, wakefulness demands that we rest in God’s promise of a newborn world, which, like a child, is sheer gift.
And these days are just like the days of Noah. People are living their lives; we are eating and drinking and creating families. We work in the fields and grind meal; we run businesses, take care of children, program computers, teach classes. In these ordinary days, what does it mean to be awake, alert? To see the extraordinary breaking into the everyday? To perceive the utterly new being born before our eyes?
What does a wakeful spirit look like in these days? How do we live Advent? The three parables that follow today’s scripture offer some possibilities. First comes the story retold in the poetry of our final hymn. Ten bridemaids wait for the bridegroom, whose arrival is delayed. Five are wise, and bring extra oil for their lamps; five are foolish and do not. A wakeful life, a life that embraces uncertain times, needs fuel. This Advent, what can you do to fill your lamp with oil, the oil of prayer, exercise, time with loved ones, and space for renewal and perspective?
Next comes the so called “parable of the talents”. A master goes on a journey, leaving his property with his slaves. Two of the slaves trade the money and make more money. One of the slaves buries his money in the ground. Being awake means multiplying the power of our “one wild and precious life,” as Mary Oliver puts it. This Advent, how might you let go of fear and greed to invest, share and spend your resources with the world?
Finally, the tale of the sheep and the goats. The sheep are judged worthy and welcomed into the kingdom, for, in the words of Jesus: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” The goats are banished because they did not do these things. And yet, both the sheep and the goats ask Jesus, “when did we see you?” Jesus replies: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Those who are awake meet Jesus in the world, and especially in the faces of our most vulnerable neighbors. Those who are awake understand that every day is a day of judgement, that every day is an opportunity to receive the loving challenge of Jesus.
Encountering the real Jesus, the Jesus of both crib and cross, love and justice, is an agitation, a rude awakening, a shift in power that rearranges the whole world. As our scripture muses: “if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” The reign of heaven is coming, ready or not, welcomed or not. And like a thief in the night, the coming of Christ is a threat, to me and to you, to our dull spirits, our snoozing moral compasses and our complacent acceptance of the hunger that gnaws amid so much fullness.
This Advent, let us awaken to the question of whether we are focusing our lives on seeing and serving Christ in our neighbors, or whether we are being “left behind” in a world created of our own selfishness and sleepiness.
This week, I went to a funeral for a friend. He was 55 when he died. The preacher began his sermon by mentioning that this friend’s age. And he continued, “I wonder, is that a short time or a long time?” He made the point that Jesus lived for 33 years, and St. Francis, whom many of us revere as a radical maker of peace and doer of justice, lived about 44 years. He reminded us that this man’s own daughter had lived only for a dozen years. He simply asked, “what makes a life full, complete?”
Advent is a posture of calm alertness, a sense of living “as if”. As if we we are about to die, and be born, tomorrow. As if Jesus is really here in the space between us. As if hunger and pain and sorrow do not get the last word.
A traditional Buddhist tale: “’Are you a god?’ they asked the Buddha. ‘No,’ the Buddha replied. ‘Are you an angel?’ ‘No,” he replied again. ‘Well, are you a saint?’ ‘No.’ ‘Then what are you?’ ‘I am awake,’ the Buddha replied.