“Christ, look upon this city and keep our sympathy and pity fresh and our faces heavenward lest we grow hard.”
This morning of the first Sunday of Advent, with all the high liturgy, wonderful readings, great music, this deep and wonderful connection between art and devotion, I keep remembering a bumper sticker I saw years ago which read, “Jesus is Coming, Look Busy!” It’s a very unworthy reflection for the solemnity of the day and I feel a little sheepish about it. But I did share it with today’s crucifer, Margaret Collins, who said, “But we’re always busy during Advent!”. So maybe the question for the day is this: are we busy with the right things, what should we be busy doing? And, as you might guess, I have two possible responses to this question.
Forty years ago, when I was 21 years old, I was baptized in the Anglican Church. There were many reasons, but part of it was that I felt the need to say two things out loud: “Thank you” and “I am sorry”, and this community offered that place. Over the years my understanding of my relationship with God, and how I live that out, has changed, but these two little phrases, small liturgies (for that is what they were) remain central in my own understanding of the importance of sorrow and thanksgiving, and of the wideness of God’s mercy in the midst of them.
So let’s walk into Advent and the holiday season with two simple ways to keep on the path.
First, say thank you to God at least twenty times a day. Now that may sound simple, but it isn’t easy. Personally, I don’t wake up pretty. I hide with coffee and email, sometimes with good music and sometimes even with stretching and very elementary yoga before breakfast, but giving thanks doesn’t come easy some mornings and oftentimes, if I have to leave here before Morning Prayer, I walk out the door with my life caught on what one writer calls the three ifs: “what if, as if, if only”.
But usually just outside the gate, here on Albert Street, I make an attempt to give some thanks: start on that twenty; 1, 2, 3, 4. For the people walking by or driving by, for the courage of bike-riders, for fresh air, for the green of the trees, for small birds singing in the shrubbery and parrots loudly proclaiming their own kind of Pentecost. And slowly or suddenly I begin to see again that “the world is charged with the Glory of God”. It almost always works before I get to ten! And I recommend it as a spiritual practice for every occasion.
It is not too difficult: you can make it a kind of fireworks prayer ascending to heaven in thanksgiving for wiggling toes, hot water in the shower, good coffee, breakfast; fire up some thanks for friends, family, passing strangers, all through the day, from morning to night. Allow yourself to give thanks for every new facet of creation that catches your eye.
It make sound simple and sweet, but it really can be profound, because, if God is true, then in this thanksgiving we’re joining God in naming the world - just like Adam walking with God in the second chapter of Genesis, name it as a gift, and give thanks for it every day, make it a part of our ongoing Eucharist. This simple practice of thanksgiving keeps the focus both grounded and upward bound.
Give thanks also for the life of Jesus living in us. Athanasius, a bishop of Alexandria early in the 4th century, writes something to the effect that God becomes human so that humankind might be one with God, because the love we see in the face of Jesus is the very face we are called to turn to the world. We may not get it right as often, it may not come as easily, certainly it will not make such a difference, but that doesn’t matter at all. What matters is that we take the chance to be a meeting place, a touchstone, between God’s love and human life, and that we begin to live that ministry of thanksgiving out in our daily life.
It can be difficult too. I think I’ve told this story before, but I will always remember, a few years after my baptism, standing at the kitchen window at my parents house watching my grandmother being carried to the car in her sons arms, her two daughter following after, as she went to the hospital for the last time. I remember watching this solemn procession when two things happened. I heard something like the bells at the beginning of the Eucharist, and, in the middle of the sadness and the pain, I could thank God that it all mattered that much.
There are scenes in scripture that are like that too. Times in the lives of the Saints and in the Lord’s own life where you can see Him looking around at people misunderstanding his teaching, disciples lost in power struggles, religious and secular communities caught in strange pains and priorities; where he probably wanted to flee the scene and find a lonely place - and sometimes he did. But he still found himself face to face with the fact that the world created by God could break his heart. It is enough to make you cry. And that’s very biblical. “If you will, let this cup pass… but let your will be done”. We’ve all been there. And often unfortunately, that’s where so much of our ministry takes place. At places that make us sorry.
So say “I’m sorry” sometimes. Not just for breaches in etiquette or falling short on your own personal potential or agenda, but for the fact that life is tough for everybody, it took Jesus to the cross, has been painful for saints and strangers in biblical times and every day since. So accept sorrow, penitence and empathy, then move through to forgiveness and the mercy that is found there, and go back through grace to giving thanks again. That is the texture of our life and the shape of our ministry as the people of God.
Every ministry is sacramental, and there are two things that are important about sacraments, first, that “they are an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” and second, they are “patterns of countless ways by which God uses material things to reach out to creation”. That is true of what happens in the most holy sacrament of the altar, which we gather together to celebrate today, and it is also true in the whole sacramental world where our lives and ministries are changed and broken and cast out in service and self-giving, and renewed and resurrected in the light of the God who says “I am with you, in all beginnings, even until the end of time, even right now”.
So today we continue a tradition of honouring and blessing the ministries that find a home at St. Peter’s: both those that take place in the church, in the parish, and those which extends far beyond it.
Today, in this beginning of the season of Advent, we commission the vestry and officers for the coming year and honor the people who do much of their ministry in this parish church: the people who serve and read at early mass and Morning Prayer, who spend ministry and time giving food, clothing, blankets, looking into the face of God in the breakfast program as well as the Icon School and the Institute for Spiritual Studies; people who work and volunteer in the parish office and the book room, deal with money and meals and meetings, teach adults or children, water and work in the garden. As well as all who serve when we come together for worship here: by putting books out, lighting candles, reading the lessons, singing the music, preparing the altar, cleaning up after all, making a place to welcome and comfort the visitor and stranger and friend, all part of living out, singing out, this liturgy of love.
And more too. For each one of us, as members of Christ’s body, proceeds into the world God loves, day after day, year after year, time after time, to take on the tasks of stewardship in this wonderful world: to be present to family, friends and strangers, in tasks, hobbies, jobs and joys, in the times of frustrations and puzzlements, in agreements that must be honored, in situations and sorrows that must be met. All of the places where we act out, serve out, flesh out, live out the reconciling life of Jesus - meeting times of thanksgiving and tears, in serving love of every kind - in the ministry of acceptance, love, tears and forgiveness. For those are the places where we shall find the God who comes to meet us this Advent, in living out our baptismal vows from the midst of this covenant community.
So, please, today, come forward and give thanks for these many ministries of daily life and work, and let them be blessed in this place as we make Eucharist together.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.