November 6, 2011 The Thirty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Disciplines of Readiness
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Some years ago I preached a sermon during Advent for a Presbyterian church in Virginia founded in 1746. The sermon focused on the Advent of Jesus Christ which was the subject of the text for the day – not the first coming of the Baby which everyone was eager to celebrate – but the future coming of the child who grew to be a man who challenged the rulers of this world, was crucified and is now raised as ruler of creation. It is this crucified, raised, exalted One whose Advent we wait in anticipation of the fulfillment of all God’s promises. All in all, nothing unusual for the season, I thought.
When the service was over, a woman, whose Virginia roots stretched all the way back the founding of that congregation, said, “In all the years that I have been here, I’ve never heard a sermon on the second coming.” (I couldn’t tell if this was a good thing or a bad thing. But I suspected it was not good.) I replied, “Well, I’m sorry this has come to you as a shock this morning. But it’s better that it comes now rather than later, don’t you think?”
Once that had settled in, we had a lively conversation about what all this might mean for the living of our days now in anticipation of a future yet to be disclosed. As best I could tell she never worried about it again; if she did she didn’t mention it. She died a few years ago.
On many subjects in the bible, I am content to follow the advice of Iris Dement, the folk singer from Arkansas, who sings with deep twang, “I just let the mystery be.” There are some things that are not easily comprehended, nor should they be reduced to a portion that fits comfortably into my life and managed to my own liking. The Advent of God is one of them.
The fact that I can’t fully comprehend something this large –the coming of God – does not mean I must dismiss it, as if the capacity of my comprehension were the final measure of what is true or not. Accepting a mystery of faith as being true and worthy of consideration is, in part, acknowledging that neither you nor I are the arbiters of truth.
God is and God has spoken definitively in Jesus, who came among us filled with grace and truth, whose coming we await with wonder. With Iris Dement, and the church down through the ages, I am willing to sit with this mystery, with open mind and open heart, filled with vibrant hope.
Honestly, I don’t need to figure it all out. Seriously.
In the 25th chapter of Matthew, Jesus tells two parables about the second coming, and a third with a vision of the coming of the Son of Man when the sheep are separated from the goats. Each is startling; each carries warnings about the impending day of God’s judgment; each is difficult.
The question before us today is similar to the question before the Christian community that originally heard this parable, with its striking images of bridesmaids and a bridegroom whose delay revealed the true character of everyone. How shall we who are the disciples of Christ live now, wide-awake, yearning for what is yet to come?
As odd as it is to our ears, Matthew refuses to drop the tension of the already but not yet time. Instead this parable urges those who belong to Christ to be alert and prepared, always out the look out for God’s presence. Unprepared, absent-minded we miss everything including the often-elusive presence of the Holy One. This is a parable of mindfulness and waiting.
Waiting is a discipline of readiness about which our culture has nothing to teach us. Everything is immediate and fast. A culture that encourages instant self-gratification is one that has lost the capacity to wait. We are experiencing the economic consequences of that incapacity – you might call it, the final judgment.
Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Someone once said, “it doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Nor does it take a preacher to say we are in serious time in this country and throughout the world. The economic turmoil has unleashed a whole set of problems expressed equally by the occupiers and the tea partiers. A great day of free-floating anger and fear has created a toxic mix. The cost of leadership appears to be too high a price for many of our elected officials. At the very moment when we must come together, the country is once more enmeshed in a familiar political soap opera. All the while, the faces of the fallen continue to haunt us, wounded warriors too slowly come home, and poverty rises.
This is the meantime in which we are called to live mindfully.
In this meantime, the work of the whole Church is to walk in the way of Jesus, proclaiming the gospel of God’s gracious love to all people without regard to economic status, sexual orientation, power or privilege, caring for creation and standing by the poor; being a voice for the voiceless, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless and visiting those in prisons with gospel hope. This remains our calling, regardless of the day or time and will continue until the end, about which we know neither the day or the hour.
We do this before the great cloud of witnesses in the communion of saints. This is what it means to practice mindfulness. It is to this ministry that we consecrate our lives and our financial pledges this morning.
Finally, be alert. Keeps your lamps lit and your wicks trimmed; after all we have work to do; our Lord is coming. Amen.