December 2, 2018

First Sunday of Advent

Music: Choir Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning arr. Andre Thomas
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning
The time is drawing nigh.

Children, don’t get weary
Children, don’t get weary
Children, don’t get weary
‘til your work is done.

Christian, journey soon be over
Christian, journey soon be over
Christian, journey soon be over
The time is drawing nigh

Love is the path of my Prophet.
I was born through love,
Love is my mother.
–Suleyman Chelebi circa 1400

Thomas Merton
Hope seeks not only God in Godself,
not only the means to reach God,
but it seeks, finally and beyond all else,
God’s glory revealed in ourselves.
This will be the final manifestation of God’s infinite mercy,
and this is what we pray for when we say,
“Thy Kingdom come.”

Voiceprints Ed Beutner
Try this year at Christmastime
To hear the truly unobtrusive voice
of once the Infant
grown to find himself
a man of few &
often softly spoken words,
words durable as distant thunder
broken over distant hills:

Imagine a world
where modesty’s no joke
but instead the start
of each day’s odyssey.

Imagine getting found
routinely at the mercy of
your most deserving enemy
and none the worse for it.

Imagine peace
at the tip of every sword
you draw for any cause
for here on in.

Imagine counting
as your vast inheritance
the only world you’d never think
or manage to imagine.

Now at last imagine
that before you blink
that world
is THIS.

For Longing John O’Donohue
Blessed be the longing that brought you here
and quickens your soul with wonder.

May you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
that disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.

May you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease
to discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.

May the forms of your belonging – in love, creativity, and friendship –
be equal to the grandeur and the call of your soul.

May the one you long for long for you.
May your dreams gradually reveal the destination of your desire.
May a secret providence guide your thought and nurture your feeling.
May your mind inhabit your life with the sureness
with which your body inhabits the world.

May your heart never be haunted by ghost-structures of old damage.
May you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.
May you know the urgency with which God longs for you.

Qur’an 2:214
Or did you suppose that you would enter the Garden without there having come to you the like of that which came to those who passed away before you? Misfortune and hardship befell them, and they were so shaken that the messenger and those who believed with him said, “When will God’s help come?” Yea, surely God’s help is near.

Jeremiah 33:14-16
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’

Luke 21:25-36
And there will be omens in the sun and moon and stars, and on the earth nations will be anguished in their confusion at the roar of the surging sea. People will faint from terror at the prospect of what is coming over the civilized world, for the heavenly forces will be shaken. And then they will see the Human One coming in a cloud with great power and splendor. Now when these things begin to happen, stand tall and hold your heads high, because your deliverance is just around the corner!

Then he told them a parable: “Observe the fig tree, or any tree, for that matter. Once it puts out foliage, you can see for yourselves that summer is near. So when you see these things happening, you should realize that the empire of God is near. Let me tell you, this generation certainly won’t pass away before it all happens. The earth will pass away and so will the sky, but my words will never pass away!

It would be appropriate for me to wish you a Happy New Year today. We normally save that greeting for January first when the Gregorian calendar tells us that the new year has arrived. A month from now we will have changed our calendar from 2018 to 2019. We call it CE or the Common Era. It used to be called AD or Anno Domini, the Year of Our Lord, marked by the advent, the coming into the world of Jesus Christ.

Since this calendar has become dominant in the world and not only Christians use the calendar, in the past few decades, the more supposedly culturally sensitive designation, common era (CE) has replaced anno domini (AD).  This designation reflects the dominance, for the time being, of the secular west. There are other calendars, of course, the Jewish calendar, the Islamic calendar, and the Chinese calendar, for example, each with its new year.

Calendars tell us how to mark time and how to integrate events, structure our lives and tell our narratives. Sometimes events are so huge that power structures change so dramatically that new calendars are created. A thousand years from now, our descendants may mark the days and the seasons with a different calendar from the one we have now, depending upon who will have shaped the narrative or created the history.

We may have our own personal calendars. Traumatic events shape our understanding of time.

My wife and I mark our memory of time in terms of the death of our son. The time before his death from the time after is a qualitatively different time for us. We remember the before time differently in light of this loss.  The thought process regarding memory of earlier events with our family goes like this: “That was before Zach died. We were different then. We have been changed.”

Collectively, Americans think differently about political events before September 11th2001 from after September 11th, 2001.  The assassination of President Kennedy, and World War 2 had similar effects on those who lived both before and after those traumatic events. When the trauma is large enough, new narratives and calendars are eventually created to reflect this new “before and after” quality of remembrance.

The Earth orbits the sun. The time it takes for one spin is the same for everyone. How we mark this earthly voyage, the units we use to measure this time, and the meaning we put on certain groups of units of time shape how we live.

I am becoming more conscious of the importance of calendars in part because of my inter-faith work with Muslims. The Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar but it is more than just that. The events of their history and the remembrance of those events shape their lives, their values, and their identity.

So I was thinking about the secular American calendar.  What marks our days?  Black Friday begins the season of shopping. Then there is the Super Bowl.  The beginning of summer vacation and then the beginning of school. Then the new television programs and more shopping. Sprinkled throughout are various patriotic holidays.

I have been thinking that our secular calendar manages our lives around shopping, sports, entertainment, and war. Calendars are dominated by the interests of the powers.

So, a question might come up for people of conscience. Do we allow our days to be marked by the interests of the powers or do we make conscious choices around how we mark time? How do you mark your days and seasons?

What traditions have you adopted and adapted for you and your family?  It is important, I think, to be conscious about that, otherwise we will be placed on the assembly line of shopping, sports, entertainment, and war.

There is a calendar for Christians that can provide some alternatives to shaping our days. It is the old liturgical calendar that moves through Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost and culminates on Christ the King which was last Sunday.

I was musing that it might be interesting for us to create calendars of conscience. What days would you celebrate and how would you celebrate them? I am not presuming to start something new. We all have our personal calendars of important days and seasons, but what if we shared them?

What days and seasons would we want to acknowledge and incorporate into our lives? Some days would be big and elaborate with meals and others might be recalled with an act of meditation, fasting or prayer.

Days on my calendar of conscience that I already celebrate and wish to add include Martin Luther King’s birthday, the birthday of Malcom X, Earth Day, Charles Darwin’s birthday, the anniversary of the martyrdom of Thomas Merton, the birthday of Sojourner Truth, the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein.

Those days I put on my calendar in addition to Christian celebrations regarding the life and martyrdom and resurrection of Jesus and other important interfaith figures such as Buddha, Krishna, Mohammad and so forth.

I was thinking that it might be a good Advent project for me to make a calendar between today and next Christ the King Sunday.  It would be my own personal calendar of conscience. Perhaps you would like to do it, too. Trying to be a person of conscience is not easy. That is why we celebrate the days of those who have lived by their conscience.

The rest of us are not at the level of those who have given their lives to what is good and true. But all of us can emulate their sacrifices a little bit and at the very least recall them with a moment of respect.  In so doing, by the grace of God, our own personal characters may be sharpened and strengthened.

Today is the First Sunday of Advent, the Sunday that marks the beginning of the Christian new year. Happy New Year.

What is this season of Advent?

It is a season that provides music for the dance between the already and the not yet. We await the arrival of Jesus on two levels.  The first level is the already. Jesus, the Divine messenger, the Light of the World, has already come to break the curse, to bring light to the nations, to bring justice and peace to the oppressed, to break every yoke and make all women and men free.

This has already happened. The battle has been won. We acknowledge its happening by celebrating his birth.  Now objections are raised. The dance partner of Already who is called Not Yet says, “Wait. Look around at the suffering and despair and the problems and the crises and…”

And Already stops Not Yet in mid-sentence. “I know,” she says. “Dance with me first. Don’t talk. Just move with me.”

And as they move across the dance floor with the music of Advent providing their rhythm, Already whispers in Not Yet’s ear about the miracles she has witnessed and the hearts that have been changed and the laughter she hears and the beauty she sees. She shows him the courageous and generous acts of people throughout history. She reminds him of sunsets and sunrises, of the elaborate display of creation, of lives well-lived and promises kept.

Already and Not Yet move as one and Not Yet absorbs this truth and breathes more calmly. Their hearts beat as if they share the same body. Finally, when Already senses that Not Yet has heard her truth, she says, “Tell me what you see.”

Not Yet speaks about the pain of loss and injustice, the extinction of species, the suffering of children from war and greed, the lies of the powerful, and the silencing of those who speak for the truth. Not Yet has the kingdom arrived fully. Their dance continues. Their eyes both filled with tears. It is not an argument. It is a dance of holy truth and sacred power.

The Truth of Already and the Truth of Not Yet need each other. Neither dismisses the other as naïve on one hand or depressing on the other. Because their hearts beat together, what each sees is deepened and strengthened and drives their collective creative force to dance courageously to the music of Advent.

The music of Advent invites us to dance. This dance awakens us. It makes us alert and moves us toward prayer. The music invites to name and give thanks to our experience of what has already happened, that the birth of Jesus symbolizes. The Advent music moves our steps so that we don’t stall from discouragement but move and dream of what is yet to be.

The texts for this First Sunday of Advent from the three Abrahamic faiths each speak about the Not Yet, the promise of what is to come and the challenges we must accept as we participate in this dance.

The Qur’an reading reminds us that we cannot expect it to be easier than what our ancestors experienced, but even they in their hardship held on to hope, as must we.

The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures promises the realm of justice and to be alert for that righteous branch that points to Jesus and all the prophets.

The Gospel reading invites us to be awake and ready for signs of possibility, reminding us that it is always darkest before dawn, but that dawn is real.

Already. The kingdom of God has already come. It is within us and among us.

Not Yet. The kingdom of God has not yet come. We participate in its unfolding.

Already. Not yet.

Both are true. That is the Advent music.

Will you dance?