waiting for Jesus – an Advent-season-prayer-a-day, Day 2, Monday, December 4, 2017

Note: Advent, from the Latin, adventus, “coming”, is the Christian season of preparation for Jesus’ birth, the heart of the Christmas celebration, and, according to scripture and the Christian creeds, his second appearance on some future, unknown day and also according to scripture and Christian tradition, his daily coming through the Holy Spirit. Hence, the theme of waiting for Jesus is Advent’s clarion call.

O Lord Jesus, I wait this day for the wonder of Your Word. By Your Spirit, teach me anew the meaning of “striv(ing) first for the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to (me) as well”(1) that I may…no, will love more Your gifts and lust less after the world’s treasures. By Your Spirit, teach me anew the meaning of “unless (I) change and become like (a child), (I) will never enter the kingdom of heaven”(2) that I, with more the untarnished joyous expectation of youth and less the cautious, world-weary cynicism of age, may…no, will run to You with the open arms of a vulnerable mind and heart, soul and spirit. Amen.

 

Footnotes:
(1) Matthew 6.33
(2) Matthew 18.3

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keep awake!

a sermon, based on Isaiah 64.1-9 and Mark 13.24-37, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 1st Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2017

Advent, from the Latin, adventus, “coming” – the Christian season of preparation for the Christmas celebration of the birth of Jesus. Take note how Advent begins, how Advent calls us to prepare. Not with the cheery optimism of our annual preparations for our yuletide celebrations, but rather with Isaiah.

Isaiah (1896-1902), James TissotThe prophet, on behalf of a long-suffering people, cries out to God for divine intervention (“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”) and confesses to God the people’s sins (“our iniquities, like the wind, take us away!”) and confronts God for being the cause of the people’s sin and suffering (“You were angry and we sinned; because you hid your face, we transgressed!”).

Isaiah, as a herald of Advent, speaks for us; we who live in this long-suffering world of manifold misfortunes of both natural and human origin.

Isaiah, as a herald of Advent, also speaks to us, clamoring to catch our attention, rudely interrupting our holiday planning to remind us that whatever the causes of the world’s tribulations, this world remains in need of redemption.

Would that we could turn to Jesus for a hopeful word. But no. Answering his disciples’ question about the end of time, Jesus foretells the destruction of the Temple and their coming persecution.(1)

Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple, Alexandre Bida, 1874

Then he says, “In those days, after that suffering.” One might expect things would get better, but no again! Jesus prophesies the destruction of the cosmos: “The sun will darken, the moon will not give its light, stars will fall from heaven, the powers of which will be shaken.”

apocalypse

Yet there is good news: “The Son of Man (will come)…with great power and glory.” Jesus, having come once in his birth, according to centuries of Christian theology and tradition, will come again to set things right, to inaugurate God’s kingdom in its fullness when, in the words of Dame Julian of Norwich, “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”(2)

But there’s a catch. No one knows when he’s coming. Not the religious enthusiasts who disengage from the world to watch and wait. Not the numerologists who make periodic predictions of the day, time, and place of his arrival. Not Jesus himself, though he promised, “Truly, I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” Today, as truly I tell you that many a generation has come and gone and nothing of this prophetic word has been fulfilled.

Perhaps those who first heard it were suffering the sort of persecution of which Jesus speaks. For them this was a word of comfort, advising them to “keep awake”, to wait with hope that divine help, swift and sure, was on the way. However, for us, centuries later and fairly comfortable with life as we live it, thus, not longing to see the upheaval of the cosmos, “keep awake” must mean something else.

“Keep awake” is our Advent call of how to prepare for Christmas and every day after…

“Keep awake” is a cry that we renew our care about our work as Christians and the church in our generation, which has not yet passed away…

“Keep awake” is a command that we, the comforting hands of divine help, swift and sure, in this world, revive our concern for our sisters and brothers who dwell in great, grave want and need, who suffer at the hands of all the wicked -isms that we cannot or will not resolve, do something tantamount to tearing open the heavens, something akin, to paraphrase today’s Collect, “to casting away the works of darkness”(3) that those who live in life’s shadows might see light.

On this First Sunday of Advent, this first day of a new Christian Year, it is a good thing to be reminded that Christianity is no avocation, no hobby, calling for our free, spare time and efforts, but rather – as the first Christians were called “followers of the Way”(4) – a full-time vocation, a daily manner of being in the world, of being ourselves. Therefore, “keep awake” is Jesus’ call, cry, command to every one of us every day to do something to brighten the light of love, to fan the flame of justice in this world.

 

Illustrations:
Isaiah (1896-1902), James Tissot (1836-1902)
Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple, Alexandre Bida, 1874

Footnotes:
(1) See Mark 13.3-23
(2) From Revelations of Divine Love: Number 13 (1413), Dame Julian of Norwich (1342-1416)
(3) Full text of Collect for the First Sunday of Advent: Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
(4) Acts 9.2, 11.26

waiting for Jesus – an Advent-season-prayer-a-day, Day 1, the First Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2017

Note: Advent, from the Latin, adventus, “coming”, is the Christian season of preparation for Jesus’ birth, the heart of the Christmas celebration, and, according to scripture and the Christian creeds, his second appearance on some future, unknown day and also according to scripture and Christian tradition, his daily coming through the Holy Spirit. Hence, the theme of waiting for Jesus is Advent’s clarion call.

O Lord Jesus, how much of my time, day by day, moment by moment, do I spend waiting? In line. At the traffic light. By the phone. For word from my doctor following an exam or test. For others. For the moment of an anticipated event to begin. For the moment of a dreaded event to end. Yes, a lot. Yet how much, O Lord Jesus, day by day, moment by moment do I anticipate Your coming into this world, into my life, into this world through my living? A lot less. O Lord Jesus, hearken unto this my prayer: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for You.”(1) Amen.

 

Footnote:

(1) Psalm 42.1

about Eve

The serpent was craftier than any other wild animal the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman answered, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die’.” The serpent said, “You will not die, for God knows when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw the tree was good for food, and it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.(1)

The Fall and Expulsion from the Garden (1508-1512), Michelangelo (1475-1564)

And ever since, Eve, the first woman, thus, the metaphorical mother of humankind, has borne the mark of guilt for committing the first sin, a veritable trifecta of lost wagers – falling prey to temptation, disobeying God, and seducing her husband, Adam, into sharing her betrayal.

More than 2000 years ago, Yeshua ben Eleazar ben Sira wrote: From a woman sin had its beginning and because of her we all die.(2) At the close of the first century, the Apostle Paul added his disapprobation: I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.(3)

These views, o’er centuries, when, indeed, as illumined and magnified as truth in the teaching and preaching of the church, have been used, rather misused to substantiate the idea of the inferiority of Eve to Adam and, by extension, women to men.(4) This unjustly and wrongly perceived inherent inferiority, I believe, has contributed to the individual and societal assessment and treatment of women as powerless subordinates to men.

As I read the Genesis account of the first sin and the fall from grace, I interpret it as a mythological – that is, not a false, but rather an ahistorical (it didn’t happen!) – story that expresses a number of truths about life in this world, among them:
• That we humans, women and men, are equally endowed with a knowledge of right and wrong.(5)
• That we, women and men, are called in the chance and circumstance of life to choose between the two (alway being mindful that life is laden with ambiguity).
• That when we, women and men, choose rightly, wisely, there are blessings and consequences for choosing wrongly.
• That we, women and men, in choosing wrongly, are equally subject to the temptation of disavowing our responsibility and casting blame on someone or something else.(6)

Thus, it seems to me that it is not Eve’s image that needs rehabilitation, but rather the restoration of humankind’s…mankind’s view of women as equal. For so it was in the Garden of Eden.

 

Illustration: The Fall and Expulsion from the Garden (1508-1512), Michelangelo (1475-1564), Sistine Chapel, Rome. Note: In The Fall (the left side of the panel), Michelangelo depicts the serpent (following medieval custom, portrayed as a woman; thus, amplifying the woman-as-temptress theme) handing a piece of the fruit from the tree to Eve, and, notwithstanding the Apostle Paul’s declaration that “Adam was not deceived” (1 Timothy 2.14), Adam, not waiting for Eve to offer the fruit to him, reaches for his own!

Footnotes:

(1) Genesis 3.1-6
(2) Ecclesiasticus (or The Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Eleazar, Son of Sirach or Sirach, for short) 25.24
(3) 1 Timothy 2.12-14
(4) In this regard, sometimes I think that traditional church teaching about Mary as perpetually virginally pure and wholly virtuous in her obedience to the will of God that she become Theotokos, God-bearer, is intended not only to make a statement about who Jesus is as God’s Son, but also to redeem the image of Eve.
(5) By whatever sources and means, e.g., civil code, natural law, religious ethical instruction.
(6) The Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” (Genesis 3.9-13, emphases mine).

Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

On the passage of death

Daily, I read the obituary page of my local newspaper, memorializing those, most of whom I do not know, who have died. I proffer as much care and attention as, perhaps more than I render to the A section, op/ed, business, local news, and sports pages. For I, believing in the sacred, shared kinship of humankind – or, à la John Donne, “No man is an Island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind”[1] – reflect on the text associated with each name and photograph; the words constituting a brief biography of familial roots and relationships, associations and achievements; these summations of multiple journeys in and through this world shaping the larger story of the life of a community.

Daily, nearly every announcement, after listing the resident’s South Carolina town or city, her/his name, age, address, and date of death, contains the following wording, representative of a decidedly Christian religious ethos: “passed peacefully into eternity” or “went home to be with the Lord” or “gained her/his wings”.

cross

There was a time, now long past, when I, at best, that is, charitably, eschewed (and, honesty compels the confession, at worst, that is, disparaged) such language; considering it sentimentalizing metaphor of the stark fact of death. When rising to the heights (or rather falling into the depths) of my theological elitism (truly, alway a pseudo-sophistication, for I ne’er possess the last or first and surely not the only word on anything!), I opined: “Passed? Passed where?” orHome? Home is hereorWings? Angels, if there are angels, have wings.”

Daily, as I continue my inexorable journey toward the threshold of my death, I have come to appreciate these phrases. I read and interpret them as expressions of hope. The hope of those who live that their loved ones abide forever in the nearest presence of God. The hope that the Apostle Paul’s words are true:

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died…Therefore encourage one another with these words.[2]

and

So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable…It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body…For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory!”[3]

Yes, I have come to appreciate, indeed, favor “passed peacefully into eternity”, “went home to be with the Lord”, and “gained wings”, for these phrases capture my hope, too. My hope, again, à la Donne, that: All mankind is of one Author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one Chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language.[4]

 

 

Footnotes:

[1] From Meditations XVII, John Donne (1572-1631), English poet, lawyer, and Church of England cleric

[2] 1 Thessalonians 4.13-14, 18

[3]  1 Corinthians 15.42, 44, 53-54

[4] From Meditations XVII. The full text of this passage: All mankind is of one Author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one Chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every Chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation; and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that Library where every book shall lie open to one another.

I’m sorry…

No one arrives at any place or state of being of good or ill without the help or hurt of countless – some sometimes known, perhaps most oft unseen – hearts and hands. This is one of the functional lenses and operational axioms through which I view and interpret life in this world, particularly human behaviors or misbehaviors.

In my own experience, I was raised in a household of loving parents who, I believe, given their – in my mother’s case, strict and in my father’s, unsettled – upbringings, in their zeal that I be formed and shaped to be an ethically responsible person tended to be incessant in their criticism and intermittent in affirmation and acceptance; all with a decidedly Christian moral overlay. Though they did not succeed in bridling what they duly observed was my rambunctious spirit, perhaps in a manner they did not intend, they nurtured my skepticism, verily, my uncertainty about the intentions of others, especially those nearest and dearest. Hence, I travelled the course of adolescence and arrived at adulthood with a long practiced and perfected guardedness. Though I was often outwardly gregarious, I maintained a private inner world of reserve; one of the less than commendable manifestations of which was (not an inability, but rather) a lethargy about admitting fault. To acknowledge wrongdoing was to expose myself to more censure; the daily dosages I received in my household being more than enough.

I share this, yes, to confess that it took a long time before I developed the ability and willingness to employ frequently those two sacred words essential to all human relating: I’m sorry. (Pontheolla has been and continues to be my finest, fairest teacher. O’er the course of more than 30 years, she, with muscular, matchless patience, has taught me the mutual benefit of saying, “I’m sorry,” and then, in response to her probing, searing question, “For what?”, to dig deeper, exposing more of myself, indeed, my self to profess with naked honesty my wrong; which is to say, more than my acknowledgement that she was hurt by whatever I did or said or didn’t do or say.)

This comes to my mind and heart as I reflect on the latest episode of President Donald Trump’s seeming inability and demonstrable unwillingness to say, “I’m sorry.” His words of condolence proved less than consoling for Mrs. Myeshia Johnson on the occasion of the death of her husband, Sergeant La David Johnson. Notwithstanding the public and unpleasant contretemps between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Johnson and her supporters, it seems to me that Mr. Trump, recognizing that his intention did not satisfy Mrs. Johnson’s expectation (as always is the risk in every human interaction), would be fairly and faithfully served to say, “I’m sorry.” That he has not (cannot?), I, reviewing my own history, sympathetically am led to wonder. Where and how in his nurturance was he hurt making the art of apology beyond his capacity and desire?

renewal (or what I, as a Christian, have learned by honoring my religious Jewish roots)

Yesterday, at sundown, the sounding of the shofar signaled Rosh Hashanah, literally head of the year; to be followed, at sunset on Friday, September 29, by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The central themes of these annual High Holy Days of Judaism are repentance for the sins, personal and communal, of the past year and reconciliation with God, others, and one’s self.

As a Christian, I long have acknowledged my eternal debt to Judaism from whence cometh Jesus of Nazareth.[1] And, o’er the years, reflecting on the High Holy Days, I have become profoundly aware, perhaps even more than through the Christian penitential season of Lent, of my constant need for spiritual and ethical renewal so to love God, others, and myself more faithfully, freely, fully. Moreover, I have come to understand that renewal is elemental to all relationships and chiefly expressed in mutual responsibility, literally the response-ability to act benevolently one with another.

This came to mind during my morning’s Bible study. I’ve been rereading the Book of Exodus; today, one of many encounters between God and Moses.[2]

Moses at Mount Sinai (1655), Jacques de Létin (1597-1661)

For forty days and nights, Moses was on Mount Sinai listening to God and receiving the Commandments. The people, growing anxious in the absence of Moses, appealed to Aaron, Moses’ brother and spokesperson, to make a visible symbol of the divine presence to comfort them. A golden calf was fashioned.

The Adoration of the Golden Calf (1633-1634), Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)

How easily, I believe, humans become confused, attaching their affections to a symbol and not the reality to which it points. And God, in anger, disowned the people, referring to them in speaking to Moses as “your people”, and deciding to destroy them.

In this harrowing moment, the response-ability of God and Moses was mightily manifest. God, the Almighty Judge, didn’t act against the people without first telling Moses. Moses didn’t leave the mountain at God’s command, but remained as an attorney for the defense; yet neither explaining nor excusing the people’s actions, but rather reminding God of who God is: “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel…”

Moses reminded God that God, beginning with Abraham, made a people and when that people fell captive in Egypt, God sent Moses to save them and, in saving them, proving that God makes and keeps promises to God’s people. God, being reminded, recanted, revising the divine plan of action.

God and Moses, in their faithful exercise of mutual responsibility, were renewed; each and both. God in remembrance of the divine identity as Liberator and Moses in his re-awareness of his vocation as God’s instrument of liberation.

Taking this personally, I am led to see afresh how I, as human, oft, when anxious and confused, take my thoughts and feelings, my desires and needs and, making them supreme, fashion them into my gods. Not if, but whenever this happens I cannot fail to note how unbenevolent I become toward others, verily, toward my truest self, and, thus, need renewal – always and in all ways.

 

Illustrations:

Moses at Mount Sinai (1655), Jacques de Létin (1597-1661)

The Adoration of the Golden Calf (1633-1634), Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)

Footnotes:

[1] Without Judaism, there is no Christianity. For this reason, I believe that for a Christian to be anti-Semitic is a malevolent expression of self-hatred.

[2] Exodus 32.7-14 (my emphases): The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely. They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them. They have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.