I find myself grasping for words to respond after another act of violence strikes, and this time so close to us, while we try to distance ourselves to keep the horror away. I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know how to make it all better. I struggle with the rage that rises in me every time one human being inflicts violence on another human being. I don’t want to live in fear. And yet, I am afraid. I find myself looking at people differently when I walk into a public space. I open up the news browser and I tense, not knowing what will be there. I feel fear. I do not want to. But I do.
Today is the Second Sunday in Advent. Advent is a term we use in the Christian tradition for the weeks leading up to Christmas, a time of preparation for the birth of Christ, of the coming of Light into the world. Advent is a time of waiting and anticipating, Advent is a time of preparation, of clearing out a space for God’s love and light to enter the world and enter our lives.
When we think about “preparing for Christmas,” I know what often comes first to mind are the lists of gifts to purchase and events to go to, cards to write and parties to plan. And certainly this is all part of this season and can bring joy to us and the people around us. Yet while we’re doing that, let us consider some deeper layers of preparation that we’re being invited to. Preparing for more Light shining into our lives and the world, clearing out and opening up spaces for love. Preparing the way for the Lord.
In our gospel reading today, we hear from John, the baptizer, this prophet who went ahead of Jesus, ahead of the Light coming into the world, and called people to repentance.
Now I need to give a quick explanation of this word “repentance” because it’s one of those religious words we can—understandably—be allergic to, picturing fisted preachers slamming the Bible down on the pulpit demanding our repentance—or else. Or we might think of sandwich board signs on the street corners, with people calling for us to repent because the end is near. No, my friends, this is not the repentance we talk about here or what we find in this gospel message. The word “repentance” in the gospel is the word “metanoia”—to change our minds, to turn, to be transformed.
The preparation is one of intention and purpose, noticing where crooked ways in us need to be made straight, where mountains and hills need to be leveled, where rough places can be gently smoothed.
The repentance, the preparation we are called to is maybe quite simple really, yet revolutionary. We’re called to open up to the way of Love, to the way of Light in the world. Dear ones, how we need this. This promise of Love, of Emmanuel, God with us.
Not the God somewhere far away who makes bad things happen or snaps his fingers and fixes things. Not the God who loves one group of people or religious path and smites another. No, the promise we long for and claim today is that promise of Emmanuel, God with us. The God of complete and expansive love, a love for all that She has created. The God of our Muslim brothers and sisters, the God of those who are living in poverty, the God who weeps over every act of violence and harm we inflict on each other in the human family, and the God who slipped into human skin and in the body of Jesus showed us by his actions what God looks like as he reached out across barriers and touched and interacted and healed those that others shunned, as he fed people and questioned the crushing power of those in authority, and exuded love for the least of these.
God’s coming into the world did not eliminate or annihilate all the pain and suffering in the world, but it gives us the possibility to be transformed by it, to be part of the force for healing, and to no longer be defined by it.
Marin Tirabassi, in writing a poem titled “O antiphon for our fears”, gives us these words:
O Emmanuel, hailed by clueless Gabriel, who thinks we can shake off being afraid, Come to us in our fear. We fear the past and the future. We fear those who are unlike us in any way, and we fear family members who should not hurt us but do. We fear chemo and COPD, and any kind of mental illness diagnosis. We fear heroin. We fear small spaces and high ones, food and poverty and bullies, dirt and death, dangerous work places, joblessness, retirement and being asked to play. We fear forgetting people, being forgotten, not being able to retrieve a name. We fear labor and delivery and the impossible responsibility of being a parent. We fear naming autism, claiming a gender identity, or a recovery or a religious faith, not to speak of falling in love, being late, or enjoying solitude. We fear for our children, and for our parents.
We fear terrorism, injustice, war, and global warming, guns in the hands of those who are unstable, and guns in the hands of police, and we correctly fear angels who invite us to choose to make a difference. Come to us in all our fears, Emmanuel, so they do not define us. Amen
Come to us in all our fears, Emmanuel. Not because God magically eliminates our fears, but because we must not be defined by them.
When we become defined by our fears, we perpetuate them. We begin to act from them. We shut down and we clamp down and we want to close off to the world.
Close our borders, close our eyes, close our hearts, close our minds. I find this is what fear calls out in me. To shut down. And shut all people out. And the world out.
Thomas Aquinas once said: “fear is such a powerful emotion for humans that when we allow it to take us over, it drives compassion right out of our hearts.”
And this, dear ones, in unacceptable. It is unacceptable to let fear drive compassion right out of our hearts. I believe that our well being and the well being of the world rests in this hard truth. We may be afraid, but we cannot let ourselves be defined by it.
It’s not about not having fear. It’s about admitting that we have fear, and then choosing to stand in truth and in love. The way of Emmanuel, the God with us, was not to avoid the dark and difficult places of our world, it was not to stay far away up in a heaven far away, Emmanuel come to earth born as a vulnerable baby, in the middle of a world that was struggling with forces and powers of oppression and terror.
Emmanuel come to earth in this state of utter and complete vulnerability, and calls us not to ignore our fears, but to name them and see God coming to us in them, so they don’t define us.
Because this Jesus, this Christ that we are anticipating, that we are preparing for, this is the Light that is always pressing and urging to come into the world. This is the love that takes our fearful and hardened hearts and cracks them open to engage in the world.
And so as we prepare for the way of the Lord, as we align ourselves to welcome the Light and the Love, to receive and to share the Light and the Love, we notice and we name our fears. We notice those parts of our path where we need God’s help to make crooked places straight. We look at the world around us and breathe and take in the depths of the valleys that need to be filled with healing and change, and the egos and agendas standing on mountaintops that need to be brought low. As we prepare for the way of the Lord, we ask for holy sandpaper to make those rough places in us smooth, to work over the places in us that get prickly and push away that which is vulnerable, to break off those hooks that snag us in a way of thinking and feeling that is not aligned with love.
Sermon for Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church San Francisco, California December 29, 2013 Text: John 1:1-18
Last weekend my siblings and I flew and drove in from all over the country, to gather on Guemes Island in Washington State, at our childhood home. We gathered to surround our mother as she said goodbye to her home of 30+ years, the home which my parents built, the gardens she’s worked, the field that housed various cows, pigs, and even a few goats over the years, the property where all seven of us, her children, were raised.
“Momentous,” is the word a friend used to expressed this move. Momentous to be saying goodbye to the place and space that has held so much for my mother for so long and has been what she has known as stable, something to count on, the place to come home to for over 30 years.
I, on the other hand, have lived in six different states and 13 homes since I left this childhood homestead and my statistics are more in line with the transient population we find here in the Bay Area. Many of us in this room can identify with the pause and faraway look when someone asks us, “Where’s home?” and we try to decide which way to answer that question today. “Home” being a concept that can be a little shaky.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And God came and dwelt among us… God came and made a home among us. What is this Word that makes itself at home? The Word, the Logos, is a Greek term that is a struggle to even begin to capture in the English language. It can refer to any part of communication, or the total act of communication…the speaking, the proclaiming, or the connecting conversation between. We can read this as wisdom showing up to communicate and be present with us, God’s self-revelation to humanity.
The Logos was God and God came and made His home among us. Or a translation that has caught my imagination, God came and pitched Her tent with us, beside us, among us. In this poetic telling of the gospel story that starts off the Book of John, God established a residence that moves, that is transient, that accompanies, that’s every changing. Invoking the way of God with the ancient mothers and fathers, who wandered in the wilderness, following signs and pillars of cloud and fire, setting up the Tabernacle wherever they made camp. God Incarnate followed in this ancient tradition and came and pitched a tent among us, born through a woman who was far from home, away from all she knew as stable and known. And this God, is audaciously indiscriminant about who She pitches her tent beside, who She loves, reminding us in the very location of Christ’s birth, in a shed, behind the inn, with the animals, visited by shepherds.
As the season of advent is still lingering in the smell of Christmas trees, and the twinkling lights, the audacious message of incarnation is fresh in our minds. God showing up on earth in fleshy, ordinary, extraordinary form, as a baby. An infant. God didn’t show up fully-grown, clothed in armor, or sleek and strong with black-belt karate moves. God came to this earth and slipped into the skin of baby Jesus. And this incarnate God did not come and built a palace, or a mansion, not even a humble cabin to spend all his days. Just as Incarnate God does not come to establish surety in a religious club, or create exclusive spaces where certain people can access Divinity. God came in the intimacy of a breath between a mother and infant, in the vulnerable nature of flesh and straw, in the immediate presence of Emmanuel, God with us.
Because that’s the thing about Incarnate Divinity: It’s not just in one sacred place, and it doesn’t just show up at Christmas as we call out, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Incarnate Divinity is in the flesh and bones of the world. Dwelling with us. Accompanying us. Moving with us. Incarnate Divinity in the Bread and Wine, in the compassionate acts in unexpected places, in the intimate safety between two who know each other’s hearts, in the ache of loss when we remember those we love and miss. Incarnate Divinity, is what accompanies us through each movement of our days and lives, it is this Audacious Love, the Word made flesh, the Wisdom-in-person. The Gospel of John takes the Christmas story right down to its essence. God. Light. Love. Coming and being with us, among us, in the flesh and breath of the human story.
And this God who incarnated love through flesh of a baby boy two thousand years ago, is the God who pitches Her tent with us. Who walks through each day with us. The God who moves homes with us and promises that there is a world beyond the life we’ve come to know.
On Sunday afternoon we packed a few cars worth of boxes and headed over to the bright little apartment that my Mom will be moving into in a few weeks. We oohed and ahhed at the nice big windows, the cozy kitchen, and the wooded view out the back window. As we unloaded boxes we gave our suggestions as Mom mentally rearranged the furniture that was yet to be moved in.
And as we pictured how it could be, she began to relax and feel the possibilities that this could be home and that her children could gather here, and be family. That life and traditions, love and connection can carry on beyond space and time and be present in this new place.
She got teary as she said, “So you all will come here and visit and we can continue our family traditions here?” We all assured her yes and then one of my sisters in an inspired moment, recognized that the layout of the little apartment mimicked the circular track of our childhood home where we had spent hours running around with various games. She took off with a grin and quickly a stream of grown adults were running in a big circle, squealing and laughing like the toddlers and six and eight and ten year olds we used to be.
After the crowd had piled down the stairs, my mother grabbed my hand and asked, “Will you pray?” We prayed and blessed that home as a place where family gathers, where love and connection is felt, where traditions are enacted and new memories made. We named God’s presence, incarnate in that home as we stood at the top of the stairs. I felt the brush of the Spirit. I could almost hear the click of bamboo tent polls being assembled and feel the brush of a silk tarp on my cheek. God moving in. Dwelling with us. Setting up Her tent.
Anticipate: to realize beforehand; foretaste or foresee: to anticipate pleasure. Anticipate: to expect; look forward to; be sure of; to anticipate a favorable decision
The advent season is one of anticipation. Of waiting… Of preparation… Of looking forward to the special Christmas day… When the concepts of anticipation and Christmas come together, I picture the look on a child’s face when December 1st rolls around. Waiting for Christmas becomes a month-long celebration. Some wake up each morning, ready to open the next door of the advent calendar. People scurry around making gifts and tucking them at the back of the closet or in that hidden spot in the crawl space, waiting for their Christmas morning unveiling. As children, the month of December can seem like an eternity, 24 whole doors on the advent calendar to open before one can wake up to the delight of Christmas morning.
Parents in the month of December are called to work with their children on discipline. “Nope, you can’t open doors for December 17th and 22nd today—today is December 3rd.” “You can shake and poke the presents from Grandma under the tree, but don’t think about peeling the tape back on the corner of the box”. There’s something charged and magical in the waiting along with the frustration and restraint.
What of our discipline in advent? What do we anticipate as we approach the celebration of Christ’s birth, Divinity Incarnate on earth? I’ll admit that I’m not so far from the ways of childhood, when it comes to Christmas. I get excited when the lights start going up on the trees and I’ve been madly knitting gifts for weeks now. I anticipate Christmas concerts and meals with friends and family and await the gentle glow of candlelight traditions.
Anticipate: to realize beforehand; foretaste or foresee: to anticipate pleasure. Anticipate: to expect; look forward to; be sure of; to anticipate a favorable decision
There is something in the waiting that feels sacred to me. There’s a care in the preparations that speaks to the precious nature of the holiday we’re approaching. I am seeing God in this tension, in the waiting, the anticipation. Maybe anticipation is God’s gift to us, the foretaste of God’s goodness, the spark of light in a darkened world. We anticipate, prepare, and stay in the tension because we look forward to a dream being realized; we feel God’s vision of the future we are working towards.
When we live in the anticipation as a Divine gift, we can find the sacred, the joy of knowing that something beautiful is coming, the energy and excitement to persevere, the trust and patience to wait. We anticipate the end of a season. We anticipate a shift in our attitudes. We anticipate a change in a relationship, a new home, conquering an inner battle, mastering a skill, or the passing of time.
We can live into the anticipation as a gift, or we can see it as a burden. We can wake up each day and curse the fact that it is not yet Christmas morning, be bitter and twisted about the greener grass across the way and threaten to rip open all the gifts under the tree. We can live our lives in a way that would cause us to walk into a darkened room, throw on every bank of lights, and flood the room with a harsh fluorescent glare to see what’s there—RIGHT NOW.
Or… The people who walked in darkness, saw a great light. Those who dwelt in the shadow of death, upon them a light has shone. The light is out there—flickering in the darkness. The Christ light shines, beckoning us to draw near, to follow, to anticipate. In this advent season, we are reminded to walk in spiritual disciplines, to breathe in the tension between what we look towards and what is. To engage in the sacred dance of anticipation. To be present in each moment, each breath. To look for the Christ light shining in our midst.