Thursday, December 10, 2015

In Our End Is Our Beginning: An Advent Reflection

I was asked to make a presentation today to the "New Calls" Group in the Diocese of Massachusetts - the Episcopal congregations east of the diocese where I serve as Canon to the Ordinary. I agreed to talk about the canticles that are appointed during this lectionary cycle as part of our Advent worship. The "audience" are all Episcopal clergy who have been serving their congregations less than two years. 

These reflections are ridiculously long for a blog post! But I've been in the pews every Sunday of this Advent season and therefore quiet on this blog, without any sermons at all to post. Preaching is how I think theologically - and without being in the pulpit, this "lecture" represents the way that I have been able to reflect upon some of the things that have been happening in our world as this year comes to a close - as we get ready once more to celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation. 

What does it mean to say that God is with us in this particular time and place, not just "once upon a time?" 

While the work with the clergy in the Diocese of Massachusetts focused on the last two canticles and a conversation among us all - the notes below is where we began in our time together, words I hope were helpful to them as they continue to lead their congregations through this holy season. By posting these notes here, perhaps they will be of some help to others as well.  (Rich) 

Let us pray with the words that Jesus has given to us:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever, and ever. Amen. 
These words kind of roll off of our tongues, don’t they? We pray them at every Eucharist, and most of us pray them at least once a day if we use some version of the Daily Office to guide our prayer lives. These words unite us as followers of Jesus, as members of the Body of Christ.

I love it when little children blurt out certain phrases louder than others in corporate worship. And I stand in awe when called on to offer prayers for someone who is struggling to take their last breath in this world, but still mouthing these words as family and priest gather around their bedside. They hold tremendous power.

This is no “innocent” prayer to reinforce Christendom; it’s a radical, bold Jewish prayer that means to change the world. So if it’s true, lex orandi, lex credendi – then what do these words teach us to believe?

When Phil asked me to do this we agreed upon a topic and it was not an afternoon spent on the Lord’s Prayer. We’ll get to the canticles of Advent – but I have chosen to begin here today as a way into this topic: at the core of Jesus’ teaching ministry is this notion of the Kingdom of God, or since kings mostly belong to another time and place, the Reign of God.  The BASILEA of God as it is rendered in the documents we call the New Testament.

Thy basilea come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

These radical words are affirmed by the seer on Patmos who (like Jesus) did not imagine a few, proud, “real” Christians being beamed up to heaven to leave all the sinners behind at the end of human history, but rather imagined that the work begun by a first-century Galilean rabbi in Palestine would one day reach fruition: God’s reign, God’s will, being done on earth as in heaven.

We are a long way from that, to be sure. But this is our hope and this is the promise given not just to the Church but to the world – a promise the Church is meant to bear witness to in the meantime. Jesus spent much of his time teaching his disciples how to develop eyes to see signs of that basilea’s presence.  A lot of them are small, so you have to learn how to look: mustard seeds and buried treasure and a foreigner helping out a local mugging victim and a lost son finding his way home to a celebration of veal piccata for everyone. You know the stories – parables meant to prod us toward eyes that see and ears that hear the ways that this basilea of God is already present, at least proleptically.

If you are going to teach your congregations one theological vocabulary word in Advent, proleptically is as good a word as any: a proleptic eschatology is one that sees signs of the reign of God here and now, in our midst, and trusts that those "mustard seeds" are glimpses of what will one day come to full fruition.

Pay attention to the fig tree, Jesus says.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

Or as an even earlier poet put it centuries before John of Patmos:  

He shall judge between the nations,
    and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war any more.

Again, I want you all to know I read the newspapers and I see all the stuff on Facebook – I know about Paris and San Bernardino and the demagogues running for President of this great nation and the racial divide in Ferguson and Baltimore and Chicago and pretty much everywhere. We are a long way from God’s Reign, or at least it feels like that. Yet still, we pray day after day: thy kingdom come on earth, as in heaven. And in Advent we perhaps add for good measure, “come quickly Lord Jesus.”

We know how the story ends. We know the final chapter and as in The Narnia Chronicles or Harry Potter, knowing how the story ends is meant to inspire us for the work we are called to do in the meantime. Unfortunately, we’ve mostly ceded eschatological and apocalyptic talk to the fundamentalists. It’s long past time that we rescue the Bible from that narrow understanding. Too often as we have come into the time of transition from Last Pentecost / the Reign of Christ to that First Sunday of Advent, we’ve punted.

Thankfully, however, this is beginning to change. Our times demand this because no trytophanic stupor can numb us from the fact that there are signs of endings all around us. The Rt. Rev Marianne Budde, Bishop of Washington preached a sermon on the First Sunday of Advent entitled Advent: Our Hope Lies Where it Always Has. Her primary text came from the day’s gospel, from the twenty-first chapter of Luke:

“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."  

In the opening words of Bishop Budde’s sermon she asked the congregation, “In these fraught times, where do you look for strength and hope?” And then this: our calling as followers of Jesus is to keep standing when the dominos around us begin to fall.   

What is our shared calling? To keep standing when the dominos around us begin to fall. To blow the trumpet in Zion, to keep awake, to await the bridegroom, to not lose heart. We are called to not let fear undo or paralyze us, but to “fear not” – which I know is way easier said than done. As preachers I think we are called to hold up these proleptic signs of God’s Reign: not because we are in denial or because we are cockeyed optimists but because we are in the business of cultivating hope, and hope inspires action.  

We know how the story ends: with every valley lifted up and every mountain made low and the crooked places straight. Swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, no matter how hard the NRA resists that vision. We know how the story ends: with justice rolling down like a mighty stream, even if we can only see it proleptically from where we stand right now. We know how the story ends: with people from every tribe and language and people and nation singing around the Lamb who is at the center. We know and we believe and we proclaim it in the words of our liturgy and in the words of the Creed and in the words of the prayer that Jesus himself gave us and therefore we know that our work is to keep standing when the dominoes around us begin to fall.

But it’s very hard work, isn’t it? And so we keep praying: thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Come quickly Lord Jesus.

Before we turn our attention to the Advent canticles (which I promise we will) I  want to consider a lament song written by a more contemporary theologian, Bob Dylan, which goes like this:

Shadows are falling and I been here all day
It's too hot to sleep and time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I've still got the scars that the sun didn't let me heal
There's not even room enough to be anywhere
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there
Well my sense of humanity is going down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing, there's been some kind of pain
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writin' what was in her mind
I just don't see why I should even care
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there
Well I been to London and I been to gay Paree
I followed the river and I got to the sea
I've been down to the bottom of a whirlpool of lies
I ain't lookin' for nothin' in anyone's eyes
Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there…

As much as I am a fan of Dylan, and as much as I love that song (and as much as I have showed you much kindness in not singing it to you!) and as much as I think this poem speaks to people who feel the world is coming unglued, I want to propose to you all in the Diocese of (EASTERN) Massachusetts today that what we need to proclaim to the people God has called us to serve is an alternative vision of hope that goes something like this: it’s not light yet, but it’s getting there. This is the good news we’ve been entrusted to proclaim not only to our congregations, but to the world.

"Worship is a way of seeing the world in the light of God." Abraham Joshua Heschel once said. Amen. It’s not light yet, but it’s getting there. We can say this as a people who have walked in darkness, as a people who have seen a great light.

Advent is not little Lent. The primary Biblical metaphor for Lent is about that forty-year journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. And so Elijah and Jesus and we go into the wilderness to make our forty-day pilgrimage. But Advent draws primarily on another time and place from the OT canon: it’s about exile. It’s about grief and loss: loss of the temple, loss of innocence, loss of trust, loss of hope. It’s about hanging up harps and weeping, for how could we sing the Lord’s song in a strange and foreign land? It’s about dried up bones! And yet it is also about learning after many lamentations, to in fact learn some new songs!

Imagine that! Now that’s a real Christmas miracle!  Songs like:
  • Comfort, oh comfort my people, saith your God and
  • O come O come Emmanuel, to ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the son of God appear and
  • It’s not light yet, but it’s getting there.

LITERALLY, by the way - it really is getting lighter, or it almost is. Last year was a cold dark brutal winter and I pray that in the midst of climate change and all the challenges of our world that God hears my personal selfish prayer for the city I live in: Lord, let Worcester lose its claim to fame as the snowiest city in the United States this year!  Give that one back to Buffalo! Amen.

But whatever this winter brings (and you all know the worst is yet to come in terms of snow) here’s the thing: in just eleven days we’ll come to the shortest day of the year. And from December 22 forward, we’ll begin to add minutes to each day. Spring will come again and then we’ll spring our clocks ahead which will help out even a little more. Long summer days on the Cape will come. It’s not light yet, but it’s getting there.

And so we move toward that light and like the people in Susan Cooper’s poem about the shortest day we light those flickering candles on our wreaths, praying for our dearly loved friends, and for peace. As we light those candles we do so with a sure and certain (and perhaps even defiant) hope: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. With Rabbi Heschel, we, too, trust that prayer is a way of seeing the world in the light of God. It’s not light yet, but it’s getting there.'

There is a line from T. S. Eliot – from The Four Quartets – that says, “in my end is my beginning.” In OUR end is OUR beginning. And this is good news for our congregations and for the world. We know how the story ends. It is the mystery of faith we proclaim when we break the bread and share the cup week after week: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. We may believe it completely on some days and we may doubt it on others. But it is the faith of the Church that the story ends with the kingdom on earth as in heaven and with the tears of everyone from Sandy Hook to San Bernardino wiped away.

As you know, this weekend is the third anniversary of that terrible tragedy at Sandy Hook. But how do we even mark that day in our congregations when there have been so many dead since then? Can we even remember back that far? It feels like the dominoes are falling and we stand in our pulpits like fools for Christ. But what we preach also happens to be true: fear not! Fear not that it’s dark, fear not when the dominoes fall: stand tall and light a candle because in our end is our beginning.

Signs of endings all around us, darkness, death and winter days
Shroud our lives in fear and sadness, numbing mouths that long to praise.
Come O Christ, and dwell among us, hear our cries and come to free.
Give us hope and faith and gladness, show us what there yet can be.

And then this haunting, daring question:

Can it be that from our endings, new beginnings you create?

Yes. Yes. Yes. This is why even at the grave we make our song, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! Because with sure and certain hope in the resurrection we dare to say not only with our lips but our lives, we believe; help our unbelief. Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. 

If we define our work by taking the long view and by seeing the finish line – the telos- then each working day is framed in that way and by God’s grace we get glimpses of the kind of wisdom that Wendell Berry speaks of in The Mad Farmer Liberation Front: 
Ask the questions that have no answers.Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
So it is not that there is nothing to do but wait passively for Jesus to return. It is that in taking the long view and trusting the end to God, we get some clarity about the work that God has called us to do right now, which is to seek out those proleptic signs of the Reign of God and tend to those. Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with us...
So, Phil – what did we agree that I would talk about today? Oh yes, canticles! We learn how to do exegesis because these songs have an original Biblical context – and we learn how to do hermeneutics because these songs have a socio-political context in the United States in December 2015. But we sing these songs within a liturgical context as well, in this season of hope and expectation. How does our new PB put it? We are meant to awaken to the dream of God, from the nightmare that this world too often is for too many.

This summer, on the fiftieth anniversary of the martyrdom of Jonathan Daniels, I traveled with some others from my diocese on a pilgrimage led by Episcopal Divinity School, which as you know was Jonathan’s seminary at the time he took a leave of absence to go join the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama. I came back from that pilgrimage with a t-shirt that quotes Jonathan from his writings: “We are indelibly, unspeakably, ONE.”

This is what the martyrs bear witness to against all the evidence. I came back from my pilgrimage in some ways more discouraged than encouraged – because fifty years later how far have we come, really, in terms of race relations? It’s harder than ever to be a person of color in your American skin. Forty-one shots, sixteen shots—too many shots in a world that does not yet seem to believe that black lives really matter. 

And yet – Jonathan Daniels knew how it ends and I think we are called to trust the same. We are indelibly, unspeakably ONE.  Not the same (as another poet has put it) but ONE nevertheless.

And I looked and I saw those ransomed for God from every tribe and language and people and nation and they had become a kingdom of priests serving our God.  And they kept on singing with full voice: blessing and honor and glory and praise...

In the meantime we get weary and so do the folks among whom we serve: weary and angry and frustrated and discouraged. We feel weak, and perhaps sometimes (or even often) on the brink of despair. What does it look like to stand strong in such times as these, knowing we have a calling that puts us at odds with a dominant culture focused on violence? But it makes all the difference in the world if we can remember how the story ends: love wins. Swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and we will study war no more. So what one visible step can your congregation, your diocese, our beloved Episcopal Church take this Advent toward that telos? And how can we partner with our friends who are part of this holy, catholic and apostolic faith so that together we might do infinitely more than we can presently ask or even imagine?

Do you remember that great rendition of “Silent Night” that Simon and Garfunkle did, juxtaposed with the 7 o’clock news which was the real news from August 3, 1966? As they sing those words about how all is calm and all is bright we hear the news of the battles on Capitol Hill over Civil Rights legislation and hearings for the Committee on un-American activities, of the death of Lenny Bruce to a drug overdose, of a bunch of nurses strangled and stabbed in their Chicago apartment, of former vice-president Richard Nixon saying that people who did not support increasing the war effort in Vietnam were not real Americans, of Martin Luther King Jr. saying he would not cancel a Black Lives Matter march because of pressure from white folks. Same news that could be ripped from the day’s headlines and truth be told it probably goes back way more than fifty years ago. When exactly were the “good old days?”

And yet, all the time Simon and Garfunkle keep on singing about that holy infant, mother and child…silent night, holy night. I think the canticles function like this too. And I think it's also what we preachers are striving for on Christmas Eve as well: we can dim the lights and try to shut the world out for an hour or so and sing Silent Night and it can be so beautiful. But in the background, racing in our own heads (as well as those of our parishioners) are all those reasons we so desperately long to welcome this Prince of Peace into our lives, into the little town of Bethlehem, into our world because we yearn for peace on earth and we hunger for justice. All is not yet calm and all is not yet bright. It’s not light yet. But it’s getting there.

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man. 

Alright, then: let’s do some work on some canticles! Last Sunday as people gathered across this Commonwealth to pray not only in our Episcopal congregations but in all the ones that use the Revised Common lectionary they met this old man who has in his old age has become a new daddy. He’s a strange dude with an even stranger son. (Elizabeth seems nice though.) I want us to hear it again while it’s still ringing in our ears – perhaps some of you even preached on it – and try to hear it within this context on this day and perhaps some of what I’ve said helps us to hear it in fresh ways in this place.  

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; *
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior, *
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old,
that he would save us from our enemies, *
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers *
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, *
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear, *
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

When we know how the story ends, we can be people who dare to sing this kind of song, people who seek out those places where the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it, people who walk in the way of peace in the midst of a warring world.

Zechariah didn’t sing those words (or we seminary-trained folks might say that Luke didn’t put these words on the lips of Zechariah) because all was well in the world in the midst of a declining Roman empire. Zechariah (or at least Luke) had this sense that his son was called to prepare the way for something new. Would that every child had a parent to sing this song to them, to remind us all that there is a highway in the desert that isn’t finished yet and like the Baptizer we too must go out into those wilderness places to become part of a highway crew.

But I also find it interesting that Zechariah didn’t just dream this song up from scratch. He was part of a tradition and shaped by that tradition as a priest. John the Baptist (wild rebel of a PK that he turned out to be) was still the old man’s son – and Elizabeth’s too. To be a voice in the wilderness he had to first encounter the prophets in the songs and stories of his parents, before he could make it is own and add in the fine delicacies of locusts and wild honey.

Alan Jones, retired dean from Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, likes to say that we preachers are a word about the Word before we open our mouths. I think groups like this (and colleagues in ministry beyond our new calls) help us to remember that the work of preaching is less about exegeting a text or crafting a hermeneutically sound sermon as it is to work on the preacher. We are called to preach the gospel at all times – sometimes even with words. And the words are always hollow if they aren’t working on us first.

So I invite you in this place and in the time we will share in small groups now to let go of the need to impress each other, and to ask a simple question of these songs we’ll explore together in the time we have remaining: where is there good news here for you, not yet as preacher but first as a beloved child of God? How does this text help you become a more faithful follower of Jesus? What hooks you toward that end? How does this text help you to develop a more inquiring and discerning heart among the people with whom you serve the living God?

Maybe this has never happened to you but it occasionally happened to me when I served as a rector, especially when I was leading a Bible study. Parishioners thought I was the expert. They thought I had learned in seminary the answers in the back of the book. Sometimes they might try to play stump the rector but more often they were sincerely looking for those answers themselves and they thought I must have gotten them in seminary. Trying to explain to them that texts are polyvalent, that they generate multiple interpretations because there are no innocent readers of texts – often this response would be met with some bemusement. But I really do believe that and I suspect most of you do too and one of the great gifts of colleagues if we dare embrace it and be vulnerable with one another is that we don’t need to be the experts here.

I was listening to a piece on NPR a week or so ago –a report from their social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam posted on December 2. It was about how being labeled an expert can make you close-minded. It’s a fascinating study I commend to you but for this work we are doing today it suggests that the more we think we know the less we can learn. The premise (with some evidence to back it up) is that when people start to believe they are experts on something they stop listening. I think this has some application to us as preachers. We went to seminary, we have studied eschatology and apocalyptic literature at the feet of other experts, we can use words like proleptically without even blushing. We know mostly what is wrong with Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth or the Left Behind series even if we aren’t sure how to offer our people a viable alternative reading of these texts.

But the danger for us in Advent and throughout the year is that we can become immune to the “inquiring and discerning hearts” we asked God to give us in Holy Baptism and throughout the journey. So I invite you to let go of any lingering need to be experts today as we explore just two canticles together in the time remaining: to come at them with fresh eyes and ears, to be surprised by them, and to be drawn in by them.

My hope is that we might come to them with curiosity – not as experts but as explorers.

The First Song of Isaiah    Ecce Deus                             
Isaiah 12:2-6
Surely, it is God who saves me; *
I will trust in him and not be afraid.
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, *
and he will be my Savior.
Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing *
from the springs of salvation.
And on that day you shall say, *
Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his Name;
Make his deeds known among the peoples; *
see that they remember that his Name is exalted.
Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things, *
and this is known in all the world.
Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, *
for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.

The Song of Mary Magnificat
Luke 1:46-55

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
    for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
    the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
    in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
    he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
    and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
    and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
    for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
    to Abraham and his children for ever.