Sunday, November 27, 2005

The First Sunday of Advent - St.Peter's Eastern Hill

I want to start with a confession, which is that I make New Years resolutions several times every year. This doesn’t necessarily have to do with the post-fifty memory loss, although I do forget my failures more easily than I used to when I was younger, and I thank God for that. But it connects more with the sense that the life I live day to day has a graceful spaciousness that increasingly encourages me to try again, begin again, as if it were the first time, like I didn’t know any better. That is one of the joys of getting older: I now feel more free to take the risk of trying something new or something old in a new way. So I make resolutions for Advent as well as New Years, and will likely continue for Lent, Eastertide and Pentecost as well.

So, as part of my pre-Advent resolution, last week I started doing a series of stretching exercises on an almost daily basis. I follow a videotape that takes me through some yoga motions and progressive relaxation stuff. It’s not very heroic, no Jane Fonda routine, but it already seems to make a difference. For one thing, I am a little sore all the time, and also a little more aware of the grace and gift of my own body, this slightly over the hill and somewhat overweight God given miracle in which I live and move and have my being. So stretching almost every day comes to be a small way to say thank you for one of the amazing and complex gifts of life.

For Life is a complex mystery and I have come to accept that and even love it most of the time. When I was younger, I must admit, I just wanted someone to give me a simple instruction manual, preferably with lots of pictures! I’ve changed on that and I now wish that someone had taken me aside instead and told me some things like, “truth can be very big and very small, and it often has more than one side”. “You’ll find that some things are very important, some things are not important at all; and you won’t always know which is which until you reach the end.” “The one thing that we are absolutely sure of is that nothing is simple to understand!”

So Life is complex and paradoxical. And the reality of God, that ultimate truth, which we know and touch and celebrate here as the creative love, the day to day neighborliness, the sweet conspiracy of God is the biggest paradox of all. The reality of God is both completely simple and clear, and – at the same time - almost impossible to get your mind around. The Good news is that you might not ever be able to understand it, but you can take it into your heart and soul and you can live it out in every part of every bit of all your life. But it is complex, and maybe especially in Advent!

Here’s a story from Joan Chittister that came from our Thursday Night Advent Study series, which, by the way, I commend to you. She writes:

The Talmud teaches that every person should wear a jacket with two pockets. In the one pocket, the rabbis say, there should be a note that reads, "I am a worm and not completely human." And in the second pocket, the rabbis say, the note must read, "For me the universe was made."

That is very similar to what the modern Buddhist teacher Shunru Suzuki used to tell people, “You are perfect as you are, and you could improve a little too!”

But I will admit these simple and complex and paradoxical truths can be small comfort when evil and terror threaten to come round with force and surprise, and peace and hope seems far away. Then it makes sense that we want to be big enough to deal with big threats, that we would seek a mighty God to marshal the forces, battle with all those malignant powers and principalities we see on the nightly news. So, like Isaiah, we might cry: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.”

That just might happen at the end of time, the Scriptures hint at it, or at some equally cinematic vindication, but we don’t get surety. What we do get instead, and what we remember and celebrate, especially in the season of Advent, is a promise of a companion on the way, en-fleshed as a child. For the Good News that comes to live with us, in the very heart of who and where we are, is an ongoing relationship seen in the midst of a human life lived in love. A life that is a light from God, that can be very small, newborn, like a precious gift, but somehow this gift enlivens us to live more deeply and love more freely, right in the midst of being small and human and living and dying. And this means that we, as we are, in the midst of our smallness and our limits and our humanity have enough and are enough.

As Paul writes, “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end... [For] God is faithful; by him you were called into the community of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Again, some more Joan Chittister:

“When Advent seeps into our souls, we come to understand that small is not nothing and empty is not bereft. To be small is to need, to depend on the other. Smallness bonds us to the rest of the human race and frees us from the arrogant isolation that kills both the body and the soul. To be empty is to be available inside to attend to something other than the self. We become full of the blessings of life.

“Then, emptied out by the awareness of our own smallness, we may have the heart to identify with those whose emptiness, whose poverty of spirit and paucity of life is involuntary. Then, we may be able to become full human beings ourselves, full of compassion and full of consciousness.”

So that is the hope of our faith and the shape of our journey, our liturgy and our ministry as people of God, here and everywhere, in this community of St. Peter’s Eastern Hill as well as all the communities where we live and move and have our being. All the places where we stretch out and give thanks for this great complex package of life and death and for the deep love that creates, redeems, sustains us at every step along the way.

Here’s the last hypothetical lesson I wish I learned earlier: “Learn to be still and to move well, learn to stand tall and to bow often.”

There are a lot of us here who bow and light a candle as when we enter the Lady Chapel and this is a good thing. The Blessed Virgin is certainly a primary model for our ministry, both corporately and as individuals. To quote another part of the booklet for our Advent Study:

“God's 'Yes' in Christ takes a distinctive and demanding form as it is addressed to Mary. The profound mystery of "Christ in you, the hope of glory" has a unique meaning for her. It enables her to speak the 'Amen' in which, through the Spirit's overshadowing, God's 'Yes' of new creation is inaugurated. … Mary's 'Amen' to God's 'Yes' in Christ to her is thus both unique and a model for every disciple and for the life of the Church.”

For each of us takes a part in bringing the Word made flesh into our world through the work of our daily vocations. In that we become, in some sense, Theotokos, like Mary, God-bearers, bearers of God in human form. And here is where we all might learn to stretch a bit more in our ministries in this Advent.

In a moment we will gather at the altar for a blessing on the daily occupations where each of us as lay and ordained persons serve as ministers of Christ’s presence in this good world. I hope you will come up and share your ministry and that we may pray together for all the ministries that proceed from this place.
But I ask you one other thing, that before you leave the church this morning, you walk into the Lady Chapel and look at the statue of the virgin and child there, and resolve that you will look for the places where the love, the forgiveness, the healing presence of Christ waits to be born in the world. This can be a surprising exercise, it can stretch your understanding and your ability for ministry. For Christ is coming to be born in surprising places and to live and die and rise in simple and complex ways. And if you take time to see, then it may be that not less than everyone, friend and foe, neighbor and stranger, is a place where God’s grace and glory, hope and peace, is waiting to be born.

So take your place this season, as faithful witnesses and ministers of the place where God’s unquenchable spirit meets our human flesh. Like Elizabeth, Mary, Zachariah, Joseph, Simeon and Anna, take up the ministry of honoring this child who comes to join in our own humanity, this Emmanuel, God with us, to be born in the midst of us, and give thanks for this wonderful Advent.

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