St. Paul’s – Proper 26 – 10/30/22
But about that day and hour no one knows, Jesus says.
I hear those words and can’t help but remember days and hours about which I did not and could not know:
- The day and hour I became a dad for the first time and the second time;
- The day and hour one of my best High Schoolfriends called and told me he had cancer;
- The day and hour I saw Susan for the first time;
- The day and hour I knelt before Bishop Montgomery and was ordained a priest;
- The day and hour our younger son told us he was gay;
- The day and hour my grandfather who basically raised me, died.
- The day and hour you all called me to be your priest;
- The day and hour Susan said to me, Our life together is so amazing and it keeps getting better. Thank you.
- The day and hour I felt lost and confused in a life in which I had everything I wanted.
The day and hour about which we do not know comes to us in a thousand different ways. It comes to us as an unexpected gift, an unwanted loss, an unimagined future, a dream come true. Regardless, we had no way of knowing when, how, or if it would come. And we had no way of knowing what it would bring. Despite our best efforts to plan and prepare for the future, we live in the midst of uncertainty and unknowing. There are days and hours that take us completely by surprise, in good ways and in not so good ways.
I’ve told you some of mine. Tell me some of yours. Tell me about the day and hour about which you did not and could not know. What was the day and hour that took you by surprise and caught you off guard? What happened on that day and in that hour that you never expected, wanted, or could have imagined?
The day and hour of uncertainty and not knowing are what Advent is about. Advent isn’t just a season in the church year. It describes our life. The seasons of the Church year are a lens through which we see and reflect on our lives. Advent, whether in the Church or in life, always begins with the day and hour about which we do not know. Nobody knows when, where, or how that day and hour will come. It is unforeseeable and unpredictable. It comes, Jesus says, like a thief in the night or a sweeping away flood.
Every year the gospel for the First Sunday in Advent sounds ominous and threatening. We call texts like today’s apocalyptic and we tend to hear them as end of the world texts. That’s often how it feels when life is uncertain, the future is unpredictable, and we are powerless to control what comes next. It can feel like the world is ending.
But in today’s gospel Jesus never says that the world is ending. Jesus is not predicting the end of the world. He’s talking about how to live in the face of impermanence and changes that are neither predictable nor controllable.
Today’s gospel begins with the day and hour about which we do not know and ends with the unexpected hour. And everything in between is about not knowing.
Jesus speaks about not knowing five times. We do not know the day, the part of the night, or the hour in which it – whatever it is – will happen. What we do know is that it – whatever it is – happens in the ordinariness of life: eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, working in the fields and grinding meal.
And that makes me wonder if we’ve misunderstood what apocalypse is really about. What if apocalypse is not about some unknown day in the future but about today, and every day? Maybe every day is an apocalypse. Maybe we are always living in apocalyptic times.
Look at the world today. Read the news. If there is a theme it is uncertainty, a feeling of chaos and powerlessness. So what if apocalypse is not about the grand finale, the end of the world, but about living in the midst of uncertainty and unknowing, living with the unpredictability of the future, living in the midst of chaos? Apocalyptic days and hours are difficult ones. Life feels chaotic and out of control. We often don’t know what to say and sometimes we don’t know what to pray. Questions abound and answers are few and far between. Explanations neither satisfy nor make sense. That day and hour is not so much about what is happening in our head but what is happening in our heart, that deep place where the mystery of God and our own life meet. The question then is not about the end of the world, but about how we live with uncertainty, not knowing, and powerlessness. What does faithfulness look like in those times? How do we live in the midst of impermanence? Where is our center on that day and hour?
The challenge of Advent is to cultivate what the poet John Keats called negative capability. Negative capability is the ability to sustain uncertainty, to live with not knowing, to stand in the mystery, to keep the questions and possibilities open, to embrace ambiguity, to not be too quick to resolve or shut down doubt – and to do all this without running away and trying to escape, without grasping for facts and reason, without blaming others and justifying ourselves.
I think that’s what Jesus is getting at when he says we are to keep awake and to be ready. Keep awake and be ready for what? I wish I could tell you but I can’t. I don’t know. It’s the day and hour about which no one knows. The most I can tell you is to keep awake and be ready for whatever comes to you, and what does not come to you. It is the unfolding of your life. That does not diminish life. It intensifies life. It heightens its value. It deepens its meaning. It opens us to the possibility of the impossible, to life and more life. Everything matters. And we don’t want to miss a moment.
American novelist Flannery O’Connor once wrote, To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind, you draw large and startling figures. That’s precisely what Jesus does in his prophetic wake-up call. He shouts, he draws startling figures, and he uses every rhetorical device at his disposal to snap his listeners to attention. Be on guard, he warns his disciples. Be alert. Stand up and raise your heads. Look.
These aren’t the soothing, saccharine invitations we like to accept as we shop for gifts, decorate Christmas trees, and sing carols. But as Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge reminds us, Advent begins in the dark. It is not a season for the faint of heart.
Once again, today, we begin our dangerous journey to Bethlehem.
Dangerous – for we are asked to leave all those comfortable shadows of life and welcome with open arms the Light that comes to us.
Dangerous – because we will be challenged to quit indulging in those life-long habits of quarreling, jealousy, putting down those around us, so we can live in such a way that others will have no doubt about the love, the respect, the gratitude we have for them.
Dangerous – as we are asked (no, begged!) by God to take all those weapons of mass destruction (our sharp tongues, our turned backs, our angry looks) and turn them into whispers of grace, of welcoming hugs, of smiles that light up all creation.
Besides this, we are asked, we are called to let go of all our map-quest and GPS gizmos, and find alternative paths to Bethlehem. We know how to get to our familiar places of shopping with our eyes closed. Now, we are asked to go down those unfamiliar streets, to risk getting lost (and not worry about it) as we look for the coming One. We bump our ways over the potholes of popularity, but God wants us to turn down the side alleys of faithful discipleship, looking for those who are sitting on the curb, their pockets full of poverty and their hearts emptied of hope, so we will stop and open our hearts and give them a ride to the kingdom.
That prophet of Advent, Isaiah, tells us that in this season of commercials, sales, and consumer debt, God longs to teach us different ways, to instruct us with a Word that can transform our very lives, to show us the paths of wisdom (and courage) which will lead us straight to Bethlehem.
For some, it will mean walking a path called patience, when we are so much more comfortable giving into the fatigue and stress which allows us to be extra crabby.
Others are asked to walk down that path called faith, as neighbors and friends gently laugh at us for believing that old, old story and for daring to let it guide our lives.
Still others will find ourselves walking the cracked sidewalks which lead to the corner of Hunger and Hopelessness, where we might be able to change the street names to Grace and Joy.
Once again, we begin our dangerous journey to
Bethlehem. Are you ready?
o come, o come
by Thom Shuman
as we spiral into the season of stress
with all the demands from
our schools, our families,
our communities, (and yes,
how do we slow down
to walk in your light
and sit with the lonely
in the shadows;
to hold the hands of our spouse
and to fill the emptiness
of the homeless;
to sing carols with our children
and whisper hope
to the lost?
in the waterfall of lights,
through the tangle of tinsel,
out of the cacophony of commercials,
help us to see you
making snow angels with the kids;
to watch you handing out dinner invitations
to the lonely, the outcast,
the neighbor with AIDs;
to hear your carol of peace
to a world
which encourages us
to arm ourselves with fear.
with the life that is to be
as you become life
once and all