Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Advent of Advent

The Rev. Judith Robbins advises us to prepare for the Advent season by getting over ourselves. [Runtime is about 20 minutes.]

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Sheepscott Community Church November 30, 2008
Isaiah 64: 1-9
Mark 13: 24-37

Prepare the Way for The Way

On almost all first Sundays of Advent in the past, I have alluded to a descent into the earth through the Aelwie Cave in the Burren in County Clare, Ireland, where I was visiting the birthplace of some of my ancestors in 1994. In that cave, I with others was led by a tour guide down and along a jerry-rigged bridge-walkway, past the hibernation spot of a prehistoric bear, past stalactites and stalagmites continuing to drip and build as they have for uncounted centuries, past an abyss-like cavern under the bridge that was disconcerting as the walkway swayed beneath us. When we had reached the endmost part of the cave’s excavation, the guide warned us that she was about to shut off the lights––single bulbs that were strung along the excavation route––and we would be plunged into absolute darkness. And that’s what she did, and we were.

Absolute darkness is that level of darkness when there is no light at all, no relief for the human eye. Nothing. Just blackness. The guide noted that human beings can only bear absolute darkness for about 30 seconds, when they become increasingly uneasy and agitated. And that’s just what happened. There was rustling and unsettled movement on the rickety bridge until the guide turned on the lights again, and everyone turned as a body and noticeably hurried unspeaking back up the walkway toward the brighter light from the gift shop far above.

So, I have made that allusion in the past on this first Sunday of Advent, but I didn’t really have to go back that far this year. On Tuesday night, the night of the Great Wind and Rain, we at our house in Whitefield were plunged into Absolute Darkness, something I hadn’t seen since the Aelwie Cave. Light was only a lit candle away, but I held off for a bit to relish the darkness––soft and black and complete.

When I did scratch that match in the darkness, the parallel to Christmas was unmistakable. There, The Christ, coming into that unrelieved dark like a match lit in a dungeon. But I’m getting way ahead of myself. We are gathered and perched at the beginning of the walkway bridge across the abyss of Advent. For four weeks we will journey together toward Christmas, hoping that we will be ready to welcome once again the Christ child into our midst.

At his baptism last Sunday, William Skiff gave us a blessed foretaste of God’s readiness to be with us, as God was so obviously with him. We cannot reclaim our childlike innocence and be like William again, but we can bring ourselves before God as we are, repenting of our sins and asking for cleansing, for purification, a new beginning three weeks hence when the Christ child comes again. This is possible, to be desired and expected, and what makes the whole enterprise of Christmas worth marking from year to year. It is a reminder that we can be new, renewed.

Falling as it does at the time of the winter solstice, when the earth again tilts on its axis toward the sun, the astronomical world mirrors the world of faith, as we respond like our primitive ancestors who celebrated the return of the sun. The sun equaled life. The Son equals life.

To prepare for another new beginning, we have to take care of old business first, and I’d like to talk about that. Old business with its weight of guilt or anger or lassitude or preoccupation, whatever the source––an unsettled argument; a self-righteous indignation that knows better than God about the matters of this world; the agony of distraction by a family concern that paralyzes one for action––needs to be tended to. The first reading from the prophet Isaiah characterizes our human state when we feel paralyzed by our lives and our attitudes and our sins in those lives. “All of us have become like one who is unclean,” the prophet writes, “and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind, our sins sweep us away.”

But then comes the plea, “ are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, O Lord, do not remember our sins forever. O, look upon us, we pray, for we are your people.” As I have noted time and again, we are the creatures. God is the Creator. When we truly internalize that fact, we get perspective on our importance and lack of importance and become empowered in a backhanded kind of way, as in the relief that comes with knowing the truth of our condition. If we’re diagnosed with something perfectly dreadful, as dreadful as that diagnosis is, it is better than not knowing.

So, with the prophet we diagnose ourselves as the sinners we are and make our plea to the Creator, and that is fitting. This is not simply a literary or theological exercise, but a real examination and admission of who we are and who we are not. Having established that creature/sinner identity in our own prayer before God, we can then accept, receive what we believe is God’s forgiveness and go forward to act, not so much on our own behalf, except as that personal behalf intersects with others’ behalves. We become actors in our lives.

And this is true across the spectrum of our lives, although it looks different depending on where we find ourselves. The youngest among us, like William and his siblings, and Brie, and Michael, are in the care of their parents at the first beginning. The older kids, Alex, Ethan. Jamie, Derek, Willie and Louisa are discerning their lives’ paths now, and learning that they are not alone. Their families have been their safe nest, and now they know it is nearing time to fly. The nest is still there; the love is still there. When they look over their shoulder they can see it and count on it. In fact that is what will give them the impetus and momentum to keep moving forward.

In that moving forwardness, at some point, if they haven’t already, they will discover the quiet presence of what could be called in this context the Nest That Goes With Us, the place within ourselves, themselves where they can retreat, remembering home but also coming to know their own selves as spiritual resource. God, the very large bird that seems absent from the nest much of the time but whose feathers they occasionally find when they go within, has them under its wing and is watching over. A quiet confidence can steal in that will steel them for the road and work ahead. So, their journey is at a second level of the beginning.

For those in the middle years of working and raising a family, it’s harder to find that time to go within for confession, restoration and renewal. But there is irony here, that the more we tell ourselves we don’t have time for that kind of prayer, that kind of stepping aside, the more the soul parches and then can only think about water. Instead of dropping the bucket down into the well, the tendency is to bemoan the thirst, which keeps the person from going about the daily round with energy and a peaceful spirit. Five minutes: I’ve said this before. Five minutes will sustain. Come before God through scripture, in private prayer in your own words, in thought, in just sitting consciously, however you do it, and ask to be shown what you need to look at in your life in order to be living your life as fully and in as good a way as you can in your circumstances, in order to be getting ready for Christmas. How are you going to know there’s a love letter in the mailbox if you don’t go to the mailbox to check?

So, in preparation for Christmas, my encouragement for those who are in the middle years of working outside the home and inside the home, not to mention some of you who are additionally in school, I strongly encourage a habit of prayer––again, start with five minutes––for your own sake, not just for God’s sake. That five minutes comes with a guarantee of deepened inner peace, a sense of focus and renewed energy to do what the work of your lifeis at this time, which tends to feel overwhelming much of the time.

And for those who see themselves as beyond beginning again and only in a holding pattern for death, but who are in reasonably good health and are relatively ambulatory, let me share the following.

Last Sunday I was at the Lincoln Home for a service I do in a rotation with other ministers in the area. Usually there are anywhere from 3-6 people who turn out for the service, a simple affair in the sitting room. I shared with them the scene and story of William’s baptism last Sunday, and they enjoyed it even secondhand. Belle, one of the women, asked what the parents called William. She was pleased that it was William and not Bill––no offense to Bill’s in the congregation today––but Belle wondered if the name William wouldn’t be corrupted to Bill when he went to school. I suggested the Skiffs might hold the line on William, and she was satisfied.

One way I encouraged those gathered to think about the baptism was to see it as a new beginning. Although they, as with many of us, had already been baptized many years before, there is occasion and possibility for a kind a re-baptism when we consider our sins and repent of them. That’s what John the Baptist was doing day after day at the Jordan River when Jesus turned up among those coming for baptism. He was calling those who could hear him to repent, for the ax was already laid against the root of the tree and they would be cut down unless they bore good fruit. Pretty heavy. While Jesus had no need of repentance, he was setting an example for those who would follow him––us––to repent of our sin and be baptized. This is a particular work of the Advent season.

But let me return to the story of the people from the Lincoln Home. Belle, the woman concerned about William’s retention of his given name, is in her mid-90’s. She made what sounded like a very sad assessment of her days, just getting through them, waiting to die. I believe there is more for Belle and for the others, one of whom is 99, and the others in the upper 80’s. I told them a rather apocalyptic story that was sadly true but worth reflecting on at this other end of the spectrum. An 82-year-old woman in Augusta died of smoke inhalation in a fire the week before last. The firefighters couldn’t reach her because there was 3 to 4 feet of stuff against the outer walls and against the outside door on the inside, so they couldn’t push through in time. Flammable materials too close to the hot plate had caused the fire.

This morning I offer this sad cautionary tale of the woman in Augusta, whose death could be directly attributed to her inaccessibility because of stuff in the way. One message is to get rid of the clutter, both inside and outside. We can think of the outside work as getting our focus off our possessions and protection of them, involvement with them, at whatever stage in life we find ourselves. Another of the women at the Lincoln Home said she had begun to divest, giving away her engagement ring and other jewelry to her daughters. The disposition of furniture was a literally bigger problem, but she was about the business of getting rid of what I’m calling the “outside stuff” and its control of us and our thoughts.

The inside clutter is often the stuff I started with in this message: guilt, anger, lassitude or preoccupation, just a few of the things that keep us from being available to the God who would help us find our way in life, through life––at whatever point we find ourselves. When we have finished the cleanup, when we know we have done what we can to make ready for Christmas, we will be in the season with peace and can expect joy in the morning, the makarios kind of joy I think we all experienced last Sunday at William’s baptism.

In this context I encourage you to remember what it was like to fall in love for the first time. The world was different, full of possibility and good, because we were different, full of possibility and goodness enabled by the great gift of love in our lives.That ‘s how it feels when we truly repent and know ourselves forgiven by the greatest of lovers.
In these four weeks of Advent, it is the time for getting ready to know the joy, to clear the decks, to put out the stuff for the trash man to pick up. This is stuff you don’t want to recycle. You just want the trash man to take it away and deal with it.

But conscientiously you might ask, Don’t we have an obligation to deal with our own stuff and not expect God to take care of it? That’s true as far as it goes, but what would you do with the inner trash besides put it out of the house away from yourself? If it’s out there, I can almost guarantee that you’re going to start thinking about it again, and then go and open the door and start sifting through the stuff wondering if you should hang on to this bit of righteous anger, this guilt––after all, if you knew what I did, and so forth. Let it go, give it to God, don’t hang on to it. This is the season. Give yourself that gift.
As we heard in the gospel of Mark this morning, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.” It is an exercise in pride to think we can take care of everything by ourselves. The sooner we get over ourselves––not to discount legitimate responsibility; I think you understand what I’m talking about––the sooner we get over ourselves and let God do what God does best, the better off we’ll be. It’s infinitely simple calculus: Advent season: Repent. Prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. We can begin again. Amen.

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