Sermon: Advent I 2012, St. Paul’s, K Street, Washington, DC
Thank you for the honor of being with you today on this day of beginning— this day when we begin the season of Advent and thus a new liturgical year and also the day when the Rev. Kyle Oliver celebrates his first Mass. It is rare for a bishop to get to be a part of such an occasion, after an ordination we bishops are usually on to the next thing, and I would like to thank Fr. Sloane for his kind invitation to be with you today. Your rector and I were in the same colleague group for seminary supervisors at Virginia Seminary and I have always been grateful for his friendship. I understand that he will be retiring in January after your patronal feast. Please know that I will hold you all in my prayers as you walk the journey of saying goodbye and looking to the future. I also want you to know how thankful I am for the help you have given in forming seminarians from the Diocese of Milwaukee, not only Fr. Oliver, but also the Rev. Seth Dietrich, now rector of one of the largest churches in my diocese. He asked me to give you all his best wishes and regards. Thank you so much for your role in raising up faithful priests for the service of Christ and his Church.
One of the realities of my life is that I am on a lot of mailing lists. Because I lived in a swing state this past election as I suspect did some of you, I received throughout the months of October and early November daily mailings from presidential candidates and political action committees. these were of course preferable to the incessant robocalls, still I am certain that entire forests are breathing easier now that the election is over. Since I am a member of the clergy I am on another series of mailing lists. This means I received regular mailings from vestment manufacturers, purveyors of Sunday School curricula, tour companies inviting me to lead pilgrimages, and advertisements for religious magazines and sermon writing guides. As a bishop I also receive numerous parish and seminary newsletters, as well as a number of diocesan publications and theological journals.
It is not uncommon to read in the latter this time of year meditations on the season of Advent that proclaim Advent as the authors favorite season of the Church year. I must confess that I have written such meditations myself. Year after year I am struck by this. What is it that makes this season so? Why does the season of Advent speak to us so deeply? Why do it themes resonate within us.
I recall writing as a young priest that I suspected the answer to this question was that advent rings true to our experience of the Christian life. Advent mirrors our experience of the life of faith and invites us to live into the tension between the already and not yet of the Christian journey— Salvation is present and yet in the future, the kingdom of God is in our midst but we wait for its consummation. This reality coupled with this sense of urgency speaks deeply to our hearts and minds.
That urgency is reflected in our collect for today, this much, if not most loved collect of our Anglican tradition.
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light now in the time of the this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility that when he shall come in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead we may rise to the life immortal.
In the midst of that marvelous imagery of light and darkness, majesty and judgment the word that leapt at me this year is the simple word now: Now.
What I have come to believe is that this urgency, this now is not only true for us, it is true to the very nature of God the know in Jesus, the God who was and is and is to come.
As I prepared for this sermon among the things I read was an Advent Meditation by my friend and teacher, DOM Benedict Reid, first Abbott of St. Gregory’s Abbey of Three Rivers, Michigan. In the midst of his meditation I read this simple yet powerful reminder, “God lives in a timeless now.” God lives in a timeless now. The call for us in all of our Christian life but most especially in this Advent season is to meet God in the now. If we are to live in God we must live in God’s now.
As I think about it that is the call of Jesus throughout the Gospels, the call to the now. That is the point of Jesus’ word to his disciples recorded by the evangelists Matthew and Luke to consider the ravens that God feeds or the lilies of the field which God clothes. It is the call of the parable of the rich fool who built large barns and stored up large amounts only to learn that that very night his life was required of him.
And yet to live out that call is easier said than done. Scripture records numerous stories about those who look back. Lot’s wife who looked back at the smoldering Sodom and Gomorrah and was turned to a pillar of salt. The people of Israel who after being led through the waters of the Red Sea and being fed with bread from heaven complained that they did not have meat, melon, leeks or garlic like they had in Egypt. For this and the rest of their murmuring God required them to wander in the wilderness for forty years. Our Lord Jesus himself tells us that no one who puts their hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.
We know that nostalgia and longing for the good old days is a common occurrence. Gathering with old friends most always includes a discussion of the good old days. I am always struck that styles repeat themselves in 20 and 40 year cycles as witnessed by the popularity of the program Madmen and the return of some of the colors for clothing from the 1980’s. Our past is what has shaped our identity, who we are but it does not shape our destiny and whose we are.
To be on the watch for this is particularly important for us who hold dear the faith once delivered to the saints. Many of the people of Jesus’s day could not see that He was God’s Messiah, the Christ because their images of the Messiah were so tied to a certain image of kingship in the past that they were unable to see how Jesus embodied all that had been foretold.
We do well to remember the distinction between tradition and traditionalism. I am certain that many of you have heard this adage, Tradition is the living faith of the dead, and traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. I would add that Tradition is the timeless faith of the communion of saints living and dead as in the Eucharist we are made one with our Lord and all the members of his body. In the Mass, past, present and future become one Now.
The call to live and be in God’s now is also a call to reject prognostication and anxious anticipation. In this past year we have seen another round of predictions of the end of the world ranging from the current buzz about the Mayan Calendar which ends on December 21, 2012, which some have posted on Facebook as the reason they are not shopping this season and the New York Times has reported that this is caused such a stir in parts of the Russia that the government called upon bishops to speak out against the notion, to the group that earlier this spring like many Christian sects before them declared the precise date of the second coming.
But an over focus on the future is not just the purview of the religious. Investors wonder what the next big thing will be, websites invite us to watch trends, and we are all told to plan for our future. This problem is exacerbated by the media streaming machines at our fingertips equipped with bells and whistles to let us know a new message has arrived and someone has just posted what they had for breakfast or tweeted out another random thought. We all know those who are too concerned about the future to live in the present, those who are always on to the next thing. For some it is so easy to be consumed with these things as well that wondering what will happen next fills our minds and renders us virtually immobile.
Allow me to give you an example from my own life. I am a recovering worry wart. How do you know if you are one? Have you every worried when you’re not worried? Cause that’s when you know something is really going to happen. Join the club. What I have come to see in my own life is that worry is simply another way not to surrender control of my life to God. If I can’t control anything else at least I can worry. Yet what is Jesus’ word to us? Jesus tells us do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. (Mt. 6:34)
Here again the words of Jesus from our Gospel lesson: “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.
How shall we do this? We begin by getting dressed. The call to live in God’s now begins with repentance and casting off everything that hinders us “the works of darkness and putting on the armor of light, God’s grace of clothing our shameful nakedness in the waters of baptism, and giving us the gift of his indwelling spirit Christ living in us. It is this vesting that the Anglican Divine George Herbert refers to in his poem, Aaron, a poem especially appropriate for this occasion the convergence of I Advent and a first Mass.
HOLINESS on the head,
Light and perfection on the breast,
Harmonious bells below raising the dead
To lead them unto life and rest.
Thus are true Aarons drest.*
Profaneness in my head,
Defects and darkness in my breast,
A noise of passions ringing me for dead
Unto a place where is no rest :
Poor priest ! thus am I drest.
Only another head
I have another heart and breast,
Another music, making live, not dead,
Without whom I could have no rest :
In Him I am well drest.
Christ is my only head,
My alone only heart and breast,
My only music, striking me e’en dead ;
That to the old man I may rest,
And be in Him new drest.
So holy in my Head,
Perfect and light in my dear Breast,
My doctrine tuned by Christ (who is not dead,
But lives in me while I do rest),
Come, people ; Aaron’s drest.
For the Christian to live in God’s now is to put on Christ as Paul writes in the letter to the Romans that inspired today’s collect. It is to know in the words of the Apostle that I no longer live but Christ now lives in me. “Christ is my only head, My alone only heart and breast, My only music, striking me e’en dead ; That to the old man I may rest, And be in Him new drest.”
Because Christ is God’s, Christ is God incarnate, God present, God immanent. And God lives in a timeless now.
May God accomplish that in us through the grace of his Son and the power of his indwelling Spirit: Amen