Saturday, December 20, 2008

An Unlikely Meeting, and You Are In It

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 21, 2008

Christianity involves a meeting of time and eternity. That is the hook on which hangs just about everything we do. It is the key to understanding our sacraments, in which visible pieces of matter—bread, wine, water, oil—become not just the symbols but the conveyors of Spirit. It is true, too, of our worship. What you are experiencing right now is more than a meeting in time. It is deliberately and carefully designed to be a window through which we look at the divine and the divine beholds us. It is in fact what we say about ourselves, which might stretch believability beyond all reason: we say that we are “the Body of Christ,” and we mean that the Christian community is more than the sum total of the individuals who are members of it. We say that the eternal Christ dwells in us and we in him.

We Christians continue to tell the story (and in some cases believe it) that when the Eternal God breaks into time and we earth creatures open ourselves freely to encounter God, suddenly not only time is transcended but so are we. Certainly not in all the world, but in a good chunk of it that includes the society in which we live, people find that a daunting stretch to believe. True, we can suspend our rationalism long enough to read and enjoy the Hogwarts magic of Harry Potter. We can even make room in our world to dazzle little children with stories about tooth fairies. We go so far as to invest a considerable slice of the GNP in “the magic of Christmas” which is Santa Claus. But on the whole, many of us live in a world that carries with it a great sense of despair. We are easily disillusioned and quickly distrustful of anything that sounds too airy-fairy.

Luke’s telling of the Annunciation reminds us that at the very heart of our formative story sits Mystery. For him, it is a story which is a part of a larger narrative about the unqualified uniqueness of Jesus, special from his conception on. Luke’s Jesus flips the whole course of human history. As Mary’s song puts it, God has “scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” That is the theme, Luke proclaims, of the entire life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. None of this is put to a vote, let alone decided on the basis of whether people find it credible or not. Luke presents it as truth, and challenges us to sign on to the movement which still, in his day, was turning the world upside down. If we were to raise the objection, “Wait, Luke, please; we don’t get it; why this story about an annunciation, replete with angel and virgin?” Luke would likely respond, “I’m simply telling you the truth. What is important is not what you make of the angel, or the virgin, but what you make of Jesus.”

So here we have a story, like so many others in the Bible, that stretches post-modern people’s imaginations. We can accept, or dismiss, it as either helpful or unhelpful evidence that Jesus is uniquely important. Or we can step into the story and begin to ride its ripples out to the edges of our consciousness and beyond. What might happen if we chose that second alternative? Might we begin to see that the Mystery is something far past believing, but ultimately life-changing?

The English poet of the last century, Edwin Muir, came across something one day that might give us a clue of what this transcendent thing is about. Muir tells that while he was in Rome as Director of the British Council’s office, he stopped one day to observe a plaque on a house in the Via degli Artisti. He looked for a long time at the image representing the annunciation. An angel and a young girl, their bodies inclined towards each other, their knees bent as if they were overcome by love, ‘tutto tremante,’ gazed upon each other;…and that representation of a human love so intense that it could not reach further, seemed the perfect earthly symbol of the love that passes understanding.” Muir wrote a poem, “The Annunciation,” that grew out of the image he describes. It is about the coming together of time and eternity, the heavenly and the earthly, in a moment that sums up the whole of existence, while just yards away the world keeps going on, oblivious to the sublime encounter of God and humanity. Listen to lines from the poem:

The angel and the girl are met….
See, they have come together, see,
While the destroying minutes flow,
Each reflects the others’ face
Till heaven in hers and earth in his
Shine steady there.…
Of strangest strangeness is the bliss
That from their limbs all movement takes.
Yet the increasing rapture brings
So great a wonder that it makes
Each feather tremble on his wings.

Outside the window footsteps fall
Into the ordinary day
And with the sun along the wall
Pursue their unreturning way…

But through the endless afternoon
These neither speak nor movement make,
But stare into their deepening trance
As if their gaze would never break.

This is not quite the biblical story, is it? And yet, it really is the biblical story, poured into a slightly modified image. It is the image of the human being sought out by a love powerful and strong that simply will not let go, a love that is wildly ravishing in its insistence, the love of a God who is totally fascinated with that God’s own creation. It is not incidental that Muir found his own life experience a witness to that love, his own marriage an example of it. “My soul magnifies the Lord.” It is not so far from the trembling that flesh feels for flesh in the deepening rapture in which two human beings stand unmasked to each other.

Yes. Mystery is taking us in two directions at once. It grounds us in our own human experience, in places like kitchens and bedrooms and cemeteries and hospitals, and in moments like forgiveness and love-making and burying the dead and nursing children and feeding the hungry. Simultaneously it transports us to realms that we have no words for and no pictures of, spaces we can only talk in the language of song or poetry, in phrases like “the bright immensities” and “the dayspring from on high.” Time and eternity meet like angel and girl on earth, “the only meeting place,” says Muir. And when they meet, suddenly everything is changed, as if a black-and-white world sprang at once into vibrant color.

What is the meaning of all this? It is tempting to say that we are charged, or at least invited, to be on the lookout for the divine messenger, coming in ordinary moments like birth or death or pain or happiness. And no doubt that is a good idea. We can take our cues from Mary, who through her simple acquiescence to the Spirit of God, becomes the vessel through which the whole cosmos is renewed—an image beautifully written on the icon which has been leading our Advent processions. But the message might be as well that no amount of preparation or openness either bids or forbids the holy approach of the angel to the girl, the coming of eternity into time. We cannot buy it nor rush it nor plan for it nor avoid it. It just is. It happens when it will, sometimes to the most unlikely of people at the most inconvenient of moments.

But in a larger sense there is a response we can make to the Mystery, an action we can take, even a practice in which we can engage. And that is, as one of our best loved hymns puts it, we can “bow in humble adoration,” acknowledging that the Lord of Love liberates us from being trapped in our own limited time, with its familiar but ultimately inadequate categories where everything gets neatly pigeon-holed. The God that moves towards Mary with a message of gloriously impossible news is the God that is loose in your life this very minute, with the startling idea that you are an instrument of shockingly good things.

Stranger things have happened.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2008

permission not granted to print "The Annunciation" by Edwin Muir. See D. M. Allchin, The Joy of All Creation (Cowley, 1984), p. 130. Also P. H. Butter, ed. Selected Letters of Edwin Muir (London: Hogarth, 1974), p. 154.

Rescuing Advent, Somewhat Differently This Time

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, The Second Sunday of Advent, December 7, 2008

“But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day…. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief…” 2 Peter 3:8-15a

Maybe the reason that cultural Christmas has elbowed Advent right out to the sidelines of Christian consciousness is that Advent, after all is said and done, is just too hard to deal with. If you really hear the message, such as that in the Second Epistle of Peter today, Advent just seems so, so, well, inconvenient.

Advent is mostly about the end time. That made a good deal of sense to folks in the 6th century who thought there ought to be a season to ponder the coming again of Christ in power and great glory. They had a working notion of judgment, and believed that it might behoove them to get ready for the Day by that name. We, on the other hand, don’t much care for the topic of judgment. Even though we hear sermons on how judgment is a good idea once or twice a year, we are largely unmoved, preferring instead to dwell on kindlier matters, such as forgiveness, love, and peace.

I used to jump up and down about Advent, it being pretty close to my favorite of all seasons. I wanted to protect it from the encroachments of Christmas carols and Santas and reindeer and prematurely born Baby Jesuses. I insisted that our family follow the custom of putting up the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, and not a bit sooner. Many years I even waited to do my shopping until Christmas Eve, just hours before the 4:00 pageant, which, of course, occurred on Christmas Eve where it belonged, rather than to one of the Advent Sundays in earlier December. But I have begun to rethink Advent. Maybe it is just battle fatigue, but I find it of dubious worth to continue to preach something that folks have a hard time even remembering by the time they get to coffee hour, so strange it is to their ears and lives.

Now, by no means do I intend to suggest that Advent has no message at all worth hearing or believing. I simply have a quandary on my hands, not in knowing what Advent is about, but in finding out how it connects with the lives we are living in the 21st century. So, as the queen said to Alice in Wonderland, I will begin at the beginning, there being no better place to start. And the beginning is in the Early Church, long before there was anything like a season of Advent or even a celebration of Christmas, for that matter. You can get a glimpse of what was on the minds of Christians towards the end of the first century by reading the Second Letter of Peter again, for example. “Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” Well said. But fudging the issue just a little. Truth to tell, Christians were perplexed, upset even, that the long awaited return of Jesus Christ had not happened. The first generation was dying out, and perhaps by the time of Second Peter, the second or third were following them. Somehow it had not happened as they had planned. If Jesus, as the gospels sometimes suggest, had predicted his coming again, then he was clearly wrong, or had a weird sense of timing. If, on the other hand, the church had invented the notion, then clearly the Church was wide of the mark. So the author of Second Peter seems to be saying that the idea is right but that the Church’s perception of God’s time is all messed up. You can’t, he says, be going around thinking of the eternal in finite, human terms. Good point. But still he argues that the great and awesome Day of the Lord will indeed come—like a thief in the night, when you wish you had left the lights on and stayed awake for your own safety’s sake.

Give him credit. This author is not inventing this stuff. The notion of the great and terrible Day of the Lord had been around for centuries. It was Israel’s idea that there would be a day when God would intervene in history, both to redeem and to judge, to liberate and to condemn. The prophets had issued stern warnings, as our collect today reminds us, for the people to forsake their sins, because, all things considered, the Day of the Lord was not in fact a day to picnic, but a Day of “clouds and thick darkness,” according to Joel, and, according to Amos, “a day of gloom with no light in it.” Christians—who of course were themselves Jewish in the beginning—had taken the old Day of the Lord idea and transferred it to the Day of Christ, associating it with the final showdown between the living, resurrected Jesus and the forces of evil. If, of course, you are opposed to evil and consider yourself something of a victim of it, you just can’t wait for the Day of the Lord. If, on the other hand, you suspect that you won’t come off all that well in the last battle, you probably begin nixing the idea as preposterous to begin with, saying, as some of Second Peter’s crowd asked, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Our ancestors died, and life goes on the way it always has since the beginning of creation.’” In other words, let’s get serious: there is no such thing.

The author of Second Peter follows the prophetic pattern in telling his hearers to shape up, to lead lives of holiness and godliness, so as to be found at peace when the Day of the Lord dawns and Christ comes again. And that is largely what the function of the Judgment Day idea has been: whip up people’s imaginations (Second Peter does it with images of the earth burning up and the heavens going out with a bang) and put the fear of God in them so that they will behave. If you think this idea is completely out-of-service these days, I suggest you look at the way that Santa Claus is frequently the bearer of the imagery of the mysterious one who comes like a thief in the night (right down your chimney, even if you don’t have one) and for that coming you’d better watch out, you’d better not pout, better not cry, I’m telling you why… Same thing. It actually used to work for neurotically good little children like me. I wanted to be on the side of the nice rather than the naughty.

Is this an adequate basis for good behavior, this notion that Jesus will come again and judge the living and the dead? Some would say yes, and I suppose if it works, then leave it alone. But am I willing to be good only because I think it will get me a pass on Judgment Day? Hardly. And I doubt that you are. Maybe there is an alternative. Maybe the real motivation for being holy, for being Christ-like, is that it actually is liberating, fulfilling, even rewarding to do so. Looking for a moment at the whole matter from an evolutionary perspective, we can see that human beings are perfectly capable of acting like reptiles on some occasions, like furry mammals on others, and like our primate cousins quite frequently. But we are also capable of responding to a higher sense of purpose. We are able to make conscious sacrifices for the common good. We can choose to give without expecting anything in return. We can spend our energies actually doing things that don’t serve only our own interests but rather the interests of others. We can even, unlike most species, take a longer view of things and wind up exercising love and compassion for our enemies, which is totally counter-intuitive. The jury is out on the question of whether we are evolving in the direction of sharing rather than hoarding, of cooperating rather than competing. But it is fairly clear that these are the abilities that will enable us to survive rather than perish on this planet. And, when we behave in these ways, loving our neighbors as ourselves, we are in fact living out our baptismal vocation to let the Christ light shine through us. “As many as are baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Alleluia.” And if you don’t think that we can garner much encouragement from the evolutionary process, then perhaps the prophecy of Isaiah suggests that something more drastic can happen: every valley will be exalted and every mountain and hill be made low in a great and radical shift from oppressive behavior to liberating action.

Is there any use, then, in retaining an idea of the Day of the Lord, if its usefulness is not primarily to make us behave? What might happen, for example, if we were to take the Day of the Lord to mean not a showdown but a thorough healing of the world’s pain and sickness? What if we were to see that our efforts to promote peace were altogether about a refashioning of the way people relate to each other? What if we went to work during these next four years trying to make health care a reality for everyone because we were motivated by the vision of a future that Christ the Healer was opening up, a future more nearly free of disease and fear? What if our motivation for stamping out poverty and hunger through meeting the Millennium Development Goals was the picture of what life on earth could be were we to live as children of one family? You can call it by lots of names. But if you happen to be in the biblical tradition, the name you could call that future is “The Day of the Lord.” It has to do with justice and truth, and as today’s psalm imagines it, with righteousness and peace kissing each other.

I think we’re on our way. I read it between the headlines of doom and underneath the dismal reports of the stock market. I see it in the distance, coming as surely as the winter snows and as clearly as the return of the light of spring. Sometimes our poets and songwriters grab it out of the air, or our children express it in their art, as in the quilt that hangs in our chapel. Nowhere is it more eloquently expressed than in the finale to Les Miserables:

Do you hear the people sing,
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light.
For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies,
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.

They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord,
They will walk behind the plough-share,
They will put away the sword,
The chain will be broken
And all men shall have their reward!

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes!

Tomorrow, or the Day of the Lord, may not come like a thief in the night; but neither will it come on January 20 when Barack Obama is President of the United States. Because the Day of the Lord is not about Barack Obama, and he knows it. It is about how we roll up our sleeves (Obama is calling us to that!) and dig in to make this a more just society, indeed a more holy society taking on the character of the Just and Holy One. It is about making change more than a slogan and a leader more than a fixer. Getting that right and doing that truth will make Advent the reality we’ve all been waiting for.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2008