Sunday, November 27, 2016

Jesus Said There'd Be Days Like These

Sermon preached on the First Sunday of Advent at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY: Matthew 24 & 25

          All of us have experienced, at some time in our life, being in crisis. The death of a loved one, the discovery of serious illness, having the well-being of your family threatened, an act of nature that turns your world upside down, a relationship you thought you could trust in and suddenly that trust is broken, a way in which you thought the world worked that doesn’t work anymore, or, like the man and the woman in our Gospel reading who get left behind, feeling abandoned and alone.

          When we are in such a crisis, it is hard to see out of it. Sometimes we lash out at the nearest person or thing to blame, or we turn the lash on ourselves and sink into feelings of worthlessness and despair, and almost always we look for an easy answer to set the world right again.

          Blessedly, most of the time something happens that causes us to look outside the moment we are in and see the larger picture. Leonard Cohen, who died a couple weeks ago, describes what often needs to happen, in a song he called simply “Anthem,” originally from an album called appropriately for us this morning “The Future,” whose cover features broken shackles.

The birds they sang
At the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be

Yeah the wars they will
Be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold
And bought again
The dove is never free

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

We asked for signs
The signs were sent
The birth betrayed
The marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
Of every government
Signs for all to see

I can’t run no more
With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers aloud
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned
A thundercloud
And they’re going to hear from me

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack, in everything
That’s how the light gets in

You can add up the parts
You won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march
There is no drum
Every heart, every heart to love will come
But like a refugee

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack, in everything

That’s how the light gets in

        Cohen has captured many things in this song, but chief among them is knowing this tendency we have when in crisis to accept only the perfect. That, he says, is the primary thing we must give up. It causes a kind of blindness, this clinging to the perfect, that does not allow us to see the light coming through the imperfection of the moment, the crack, as he says, that lets the light in.

          Our country is in a crisis currently, but it is, as I see it, one of very long duration. It has lasted at least all of my adult life. It seems acute now, revolving around a particular personality, but this personality is the product of years of cultural shift in which some have been demanding an end to their feeling left behind, which is causing a whole other group of people to fear that they are now the left behind ones. For the last fifty years and more a huge cultural shift has taken place, and is still taking place, and some people are terrified by it because the way they understood how the world worked is ending.

          There are many ways in which the election that just occurred was inevitable, especially given the rise of the 24-hour news cycle and the dominance of social media, both of which thrive on a sense of crisis continuing, and where the truth is what we want to believe, not what is. And it does not look as if it will end, as different approaches to issues, and different ways of interpreting what is happening to us, and different experiences of what is happening to us, harden into barriers that may not be crossed because on the other side of the barrier is not a fellow citizen trying to get by and make some sense of things, but an enemy who wants to destroy our way of life.

          We have deepened our crisis into an apocalyptic moment, when the future of our lives, our country, our world, seems to be at stake.

          Jesus told us we would have days like these, and in the midst of the strange writing we call apocalyptic in chapter 24 of Matthew’s Gospel (with similar chapters in Mark and Luke), he is trying not to frighten us, but to give us ways to resist. He says, in particular
  • Don’t follow after someone who says he or she has it all figured out and can fix everything; that is, someone who talks like a messiah. In spiritual terms we would say, practice discernment. In practical terms we might say, do not go down every rabbit hole that is pointed out to you.
  • When everything seems to be coming unglued, do not get caught up in anxiety. Keep Calm and Keep Loving. The temptation will be for your love to grow cold, he says.
  • Third, in the part of chapter 24 we just heard, keep alert and be ready. This is such an important point that to emphasize it he tells two short parables at the end of chapter 24 and a long parable at the beginning of chapter 25 with the same message:  Keep awake, stay alert, always be ready.

But ready for what? What is the antidote for getting stuck in crisis, be it personal or communal?

The second parable in chapter 25 is that of the talents. Be ready to use your gifts for the purposes of God is the message.

And then the climax of these two chapters, the parable of the sheep and the goats with that great admonition, “As you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

The antidote to any crisis is to reach inside for your own well of gifts, which includes strength for doing things you never imagined you could do, and then use that strength to better the life of someone else, because in doing so, Jesus says, you will find me. In Leonard Cohen’s words, find the cracks in your own life and in the lives of those around you, forget about perfection, and let the light shine through.

          It’s Advent and we talk of learning to wait for and watch for Jesus to come again. My image of Jesus coming again is that one of these days enough of us will be serving enough others of us, assuring one another’s justice, that somebody will suddenly notice that the Lord of the universe is working right alongside of us.

          Times of crisis come to each one of us, and they come to us as a people, and sometimes they seem never-ending.  It is tempting to insist that Jesus come back and get us out of this mess we have created for ourselves.  But I suspect Jesus has been there all along, in the midst of us, as we have been working to bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, or weeping because we refuse to see the cracks in everything that let his light, and ours, and those we might even describe as enemies, shine through.

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