Blogger Megan Griffith shares what it is like when she listens to the world.[i] She says, “Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone at a concert, sporting event, or on a noisy train/subway? It’s difficult to hear the other person, right? [My life] is like all your conversations take place in some kind of stadium or subway station, even if you’re actually sitting in a quiet classroom or even your own living room.” All the time, in any circumstance, Megan hears the sounds all around her, but she can’t distinguish where they come from or the meaning attached to each one. Sound is a constant bombardment and sifting through the barrage is virtually impossible. Megan suffers from Auditory Processing Disorder, a condition that includes the failure of “auditory figure-ground discrimination,” or, “being able to focus on the most important sounds in a noisy environment.”
In 1 Samuel today, the little boy Samuel is asleep in the temple at Shiloh, but he sleeps fitfully. Three times he is awakened by a voice calling out to him. Samuel can’t distinguish from whom or where the voice is coming. He thinks it must be Eli the priest, and he gets up each time and tries to follow the sound. Finally, the bible tells us, “Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy,” and he counsels Samuel that, if Samuel hears the voice again, he should listen with care.
I’ve always loved this story, and it does, indeed, turn out that the voice calling out to Samuel is the voice of God. That’s why it is included in Holy Scripture, after all. But I’ve always wondered, what if it hadn’t been God? Because often, of course, it isn’t. Often, when we hear a siren song and call it God, the voice is something different altogether. Albert Schweitzer famously said that sometimes seeking to hear God is like calling out down a deep well and mistaking our own echo for God’s voice.
But even that is just one voice among innumerable others. In full, it is as if we suffer from a cultural Auditory Processing Disorder. We are all so bombarded with noise—and I mean this both literally and figuratively—that we cannot process it accurately. We suffer from a collective failure of auditory figure-ground discrimination. We too often fail to recognize the trustworthy and reliable voices in a noisy environment.
As a result, often the sound that lands is the loudest, most incessant, and most outrageous. Why is that so? Because we cannot abide ambiguity or confusion. We are hard-wired to seek simplicity and clarity just as when the earth beneath us feels like quicksand we will seek solid ground no matter what, even if that ground is volcanic. We desire these things so much that we are sometimes willing to accept whatever pierces through the noise and grants us something distinguishable, whether or not that voice is trustworthy. Or, to hearken back to the story of Samuel, whether or not that voice is of God.
That can happen regardless of one’s politics or ideology, but it certainly happened in the weeks, months, and, indeed, years leading up to January 6. The assault on the U.S. Capitol Building was the inevitable result. The rhetoric, postings, and emblems of those who violated the Capitol Building express fidelity to, and certainty in, loud and incessant voices that are most decidedly not of God. There were overt expressions of white supremacy; idolatrous signs emblazoned with the message “Jesus Christ is my Savior; Donald Trump is my President;” and, cryptic to those on the outside but most telling of all, ubiquitous symbols of QAnon, the Byzantine, internet-driven conspiracy theory with thousands of devotees that claims to be combatting, as reported by the BBC, “a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media.”[ii]
The scale of the violence involved in the assault on the Capitol is still becoming clear. In addition to the Capitol Police officer killed, Acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin reports as “mind-blowing” the extent and severity of the acts of violence at the Capital Building. Sherwin said in his press conference, “People are going to be shocked with some of the egregious contact that happened within the Capitol.” Sherwin also revealed that live pipe bombs were planted at both Democratic and Republican party headquarters. Blessedly, they did not detonate.[iii]
In the wake of January 6, we must ask anew, “Through the world’s noise and our own distress, how do we know which voices are God’s and of God, when so many competing ones claim to be?” For that, we turn, as we should always turn, to the Gospel. Today, the voice of Jesus calls out amidst the world’s noise, and Nathanael hears him. Without pause or hesitation, Nathanael proclaims of Jesus in awe and wonder, “You are the Son of God!” In that moment, Nathanael’s entire life changes. And by that, I don’t mean he starts going to church twice a month or rests easy in the assurance that he gets to go to heaven when he dies. Rather, his life becomes, in its entirety, a life of discipleship to Jesus. Every commitment, every decision, every priority, every passion becomes the shared passions of Jesus.
Why is this so? Why is this voice different? Why does it transform Nathanael’s very being in the world? A few verses prior, John’s Gospel has told us, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known.”[iv] That is to say, and admittedly mixing metaphors of sight and sound, “If you want to know what the voice of God sounds like, listen to Jesus.”
This has always been the central Christian truth, the truth of the Incarnation: If we want to know what God looks like, look at Jesus. If we want to know what the voice of God sounds like, listen to Jesus. By extension that means we mustn’t call our own self-affirming echo Jesus’ voice, and we mustn’t choose some ideology—any ideology—and call it the Gospel of Jesus.
Listen to Jesus. Let Jesus’ voice reach us through the noise. Focus on it, and only it. What does that voice say? The voice of Jesus denies the temptation of power in favor of sacrifice.[v] The voice of Jesus defends the vulnerable who are at the mercy of the majority and the mob.[vi] The voice of Jesus brings good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed. [vii] And the voice of Jesus blesses those who do likewise as inheritors of his kingdom.[viii]
This is the voice of Jesus piercing the noise. This is the only entirely true, trustworthy, and reliable voice. Any voice, from anyone, that speaks differently is not God or of God. And following the voice of Jesus in all things is what the life of discipleship looks like. It is all-encompassing.
At the funeral of John McCain on August 31, 2018, McCain’s friend and fellow senator from Arizona Jeff Flake said, “This fever will eventually break. It has to.” That’s an interesting image. Fever spikes, often into delirium, before it breaks. I pray that our national fever broke on January 6. In hopes that it did, then we must ask how we, as Episcopalians and members of Christ Church Cathedral, can contribute to national healing.
Importantly, the first word Jesus speaks in the Gospels is a call to repentance, to acknowledge our contributions to the world’s unholy noise, and to turn anew toward the God of love. Surely and specifically, this means holding accountable all those who participated in and abetted the violent and hateful assault on January 6. Beyond that, in order to experience societal redemption, we must each ask and answer with stark honesty what sins of commission or omission we have contributed to the acrimony in our nation. We must amend our speech where we have added to the noise and speak Gospel words where we have been silent.
Secondly, and of equal importance, a restoration of health also requires that we acknowledge that “getting back to normal” is not good news for everyone. Our experience these past years has revealed that there are those in our society who remain vulnerable and for whom justice and equal opportunity have been ephemeral. There is much work to be done with regard to race and racism, the economic effects of de-industrialization on communities, and more, all of which must be constructively addressed, from our national leaders all the way down to our local community. And about these things the Church must have something to say as well, just as Jesus did.
First of all, we must quiet the noise and listen to the voice of Jesus. In it there is no deceit. It is good, trustworthy, and true. And it calls us, this day and every day, to follow him into the transformed life of discipleship.
[iv] John 1:18
[v] Matthew 4:1-11
[vi] John 8:1-11
[vii] Luke 4:16-20
[viii] Matthew 25:31-46
In college I was a philosophy and religion major. I loved the passion of the religion department, but I equally appreciated the dogged rigor of the philosophers. With set jaws and steely eyes, they probed as deeply as the human mind can probe the fundamental questions of the universe. I especially loved philosophers like Hegel who, while crazy difficult to read, proposed total systems of understanding, leaving nothing out. There is something elegant and satisfying about the “grand theory of everything.” I have always wanted to know the Truth with a capital “T”. I’ve always desired knowledge about the things that hold the world together and give it purpose and meaning.
It wasn’t long into my first philosophy course when I learned that once-upon-a-time physics was simply a branch of philosophy. That realization made perfect sense. The physicists, too, seek to understand the underpinning of things. They, too, ask the deepest questions. In fact, at some point along the way modern philosophers became sidetracked with (in my opinion, at least) silly questions and ceded the essential questions to the physicists. It is the physicists who insistently peel back the layers of the world to discover what lies beneath. And in so doing, they reveal to us dimensions that sometimes seem fantastic and surreal.
For instance, there is, right here and right now—around and within each of us—another world, populated not only by molecules and atoms, but by things that even atoms dwarf. It is a world of quarks and bosons (bo-zens). It is a world governed by the strong force and the weak force.
This is the world explored by physicists at the European Center for Nuclear Research. Theirs is practical in addition to theoretical physics. With their Large Hadron Collider, these men and women actually smash protons together at nearly the speed of light. The collisions occur with such force that the protons splinter into their component parts, allowing physicists to see the very basic building blocks of the cosmos. Because their work is mysterious to folks like you and me, it frightens many people. Indeed, in the weeks before their Large Hadron Collider fired up for the first time in 2008, there was a crescendo of panic that its proton-smashing might create a black hole that would swallow the earth.[i]
Lucky for us, that didn’t happen. But what did happen at the Large Hadron Collider in 2012, and announced with fanfare in newspapers and on cable news channels across the globe, was the discovery of the “God particle.” In laymen’s terms, the God particle is that subatomic bit that draws other particles to it, causing them to cohere and have mass. Without it, there would be nothing tangible in the universe. All would be merely ether. It is, in other words, the basic property of creation, that through which all things are made: you, me, the tree, the rock, the supernova. On this tiniest and simplest thing, all else hinges. You can see how it got its nickname. The God particle’s proper name is the “Higgs Boson,” and scientists had been searching for it for fifty years. Without the Higgs, physics had a big hole in it. Physics’ model of the universe was a hope, but it was not a hope realized. Until the Higgs was found, physics’ house of cards might’ve fallen. And so, the wise men of physics were constantly on the lookout for the Higgs at its rising. They needed it as a lodestar to guide them to the truth.
Today, in anticipation of the Feast of the Epiphany later this week, we read about another guiding star. Magi—wise men, philosophers, we might say the physicists of their day—ardently seek the Truth. They wish to plumb the depths of mystery and understand the essential workings of the world. So they follow the lodestar at its rising, wherever it may lead. On their quest, politics attempts to co-opt them (as politics today often tries to co-opt scientists). King Herod seeks to influence the magi for his own ends, but these are seekers of truth, and honest truth-seekers will not be used and will not be influenced, no matter what pressure is brought to bear upon them.
The magi continue to follow the lodestar, which draws them as a force toward Bethlehem. The star beckons and lures until it stops over the place where lies a child. These wise men from the east are learned. They already have a healthy and potent sense of how the cosmos works. They already hold a fair portion of the truth. But until this encounter, there is a hole in their model of reality. Their house of cards could fall.
Until now, when in this child the wise men discover the heart of the world, when they find the essence, the purpose, the meaning of creation. In this child they see, in the words of St. Paul, “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” As they gaze at Jesus, the magi realize, as Paul also says, “all things have been created in him and through him…and in him all things hold together.”[ii] In this tiny and simple child, all else hinges.
Our Gospel reading shares with us the fact of this discovery. But in the Epiphany season we are about to enter, we also receive the content of the meaning and purpose Jesus embodies at the heart of all things. During Epiphany we often read the Third Song of Isaiah, known in Latin as Surge, illuminare. In it, the Prophet speaks of the way the world will be when it recognizes Jesus Christ as its center. When we awaken to the reality that we are created in and through Christ—when we are drawn to him as our center the way all those subatomic bits are drawn to the God particle—we will take on greater substance and surge with light, which is what the title of that holy song means.
But there is more. Christ gives us substance and light not for our own sake. Too much of Christianity grasps only this half-truth. The Third Song of Isaiah goes on to say that when the Truth is fully revealed, when we kneel before it the way the magi kneel to the Christ-child— when it completes us—we will be changed as essentially as those particles in the Hadron Collier are changed when they slam together at the speed of light. Where our minds once tended to brood and darken, we will instead see the world in light. Where we were closed off, insular, and self-protective, the gates of our hearts will remain ever open. We will, each of us, foreswear violence and live in peace. We will, in all things, seek to further the purpose of Christ Jesus through whom we are made, which is always, always love.
That is the Epiphany. That is the Truth disclosed by God and discovered by the wisest men and women, both in the first century and today. It is practical rather than theoretical spirituality. It bears concretely upon the way we respond all those things that linger from 2020 as we enter into a new year. Once physicists discovered the God particle, they could never turn back. Their world will never again be what it was before that truth was disclosed. Once we have experienced the Epiphany, we can never go back, either. We have seen the Christ at the heart of the world. It has been revealed that we were created for no other reason than to live through him and for him. We now know the Truth. Surge, illuminare. Take on new substance, rise and shine.
[ii] Colossians 1:16-17.
“What will you preach?” That is a question that has been circulated on every Zoom clergy group of which I am a part these past few days. What does one say on Christmas Eve this year? How does one relate the Gospel promise of Christ’s Nativity in a world so uncertain, an environment so fraught, a winter so unrelenting in so many ways?
Even in balmy Houston, we have experienced a metaphoric winter nine months long, in which the coronavirus has put our lives in deep freeze. Indeed, one consultant I read has called this our existential “Ice Age.” As after a blizzard, the world has ground to a halt. Like many of you, in a year’s time I have not seen loved ones beyond those who live in my household. I have not sat face-to-face with most of my friends or colleagues in almost that long. And lest some still think that COVID-19 is only a half-step more severe than the common cold, know that I have conducted Last Rites through a computer screen for someone dying of this insidious virus alone in a hospital room, while his family wept through their phones. It has been winter, indeed.
In an otherwise even-keeled world, the coronavirus would be enough to capsize us. But our world is not otherwise even-keeled. There is an ambient anxiety coursing through this season. It distorts our thinking, making us uneasy, distrustful, prone to respond poorly and inaccurately to events swirling around us like a wintry mix. It is as if we’ve gone through the looking glass, or, perhaps, into the wardrobe.
In such circumstances, how can Christmas come? What does Christmas even mean? And, what word of hope can a preacher offer? No theology will do. It will all seem too esoteric, too academic, too bloodless for the visceral days we presently endure. So instead, let me tell you a story. It’s a story you’ll remember, perhaps almost as familiar to your childhood as the Nativity story itself.
Lucy, and then her siblings Peter, Susan, and Edmund—the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve—find themselves transported from war-ravaged England into the equally-threatened land of Narnia, caught in the wintry grip of the White Witch. In Narnia, everything is frozen. Life is ground to a halt. Mr. Tumnus, a faun, explains to Lucy that this winter is as joyless as it is eternal. “Always winter and never Christmas, think of that!” Mr. Tumnus says to Lucy, scarcely believing it himself.[i] The long winter has affected Mr. Tumnus. He, himself, has gone to work for the White Witch, gradually allowing his thinking to be distorted and his actions to collude with hers.
As the story goes on, Edmund, Son of Adam, also falls prey to winter’s confusion and the White Witch’s spell, but the other three children hunker down and hope for better. And then, one day as the three children (along with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver) hide out in a snowdrift, they hear the jingling bells of a passing sleigh. They are terrified that it is the White Witch, caught up to them at last, and Mr. Beaver sneaks out to take a look. Soon he returns, and dancing outside their warren he says, “Come on! Come and see! This is a nasty knock for the Witch! It looks as if her power is crumbling! Didn’t I tell you that she’d made it always winter and never Christmas? Didn’t I tell you? Well, just come and see!”[ii]
The children climb a snowy hill to find there, atop a massive sleigh led by mammoth reindeer, Father Christmas. He is not Clement Clarke Moore’s jolly elf, but a spirit both joyous and solemn. The reader is told, “He was so big, and so glad, and so real, that they all became quite still.”
When Father Christmas, finally arrived in Narnia, speaks, his words are a miracle, for the children, for C.S. Lewis’ readers in war-torn England, and for us today in the midst of our own travails. Father Christmas says, “I’ve come at last. She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening.”
Father Christmas gets it exactly right. He recognizes that, however desired he is—however needed the Spirit of Christmas that buoys our own spirits—Christmas only comes because Aslan is on the move. And in Lewis’ fantasy world, Aslan is, of course, the Christ, the begotten of God, the Incarnate Lord whose entrance into the world breaks the grip of any winter and thaws any heart.
Before he leaves the children, Father Christmas does what Father Christmas always does: He gives them presents. But he tells them, “These…are tools, not toys. The time to use them is perhaps near at hand. Bear them well.”
The gifts are specific to each child, and they are each items that empower the children to support Aslan, to play their own unique part in thawing winter, to usher hope into the world.
This is our message on this Christmas Eve. Christmas is here, because Aslan is on the move! Christmas is here, because this night the Christ child is born. Try as it might, the winter of the world this long year past begins to break. There are signs of the thaw all around us.
And, beyond the trinkets and baubles we may give and receive this night, we are each given, by God, gifts beyond measure that we must bear in the world to strengthen hope and further grace. Christ is born, and that includes in us, as Christ’s hands and feet and heart that can use our abundant gifts to quell anxiety, abate fear, lift spirits, and share love.
Christmas this year lacks the frivolity of years past. Clement Clarke Moore’s jolly Santa seems out of place and out of touch with our reality. But C.S. Lewis’ Father Christmas does not. Solemn yet joyous, Father Christmas knows the truth. He knows that, though there are chilly days yet to endure, the news arrives each day now that the icy grip of winter is losing its hold. Aslan is on the move! Christ is born! And the way we choose to wield the gifts God gives us has a real impact on what happens next. May we bear those gifts with the forthright courage of children, who always teach us so much at Christmas time. May we care, and love, deny the White Witch wherever she appears, and be agents of the Incarnate God. As Father Christmas rides out of sight, he calls out to the children in words inspiring and true: “Merry Christmas! Long live the true King!”
[i] Lewis, C.S. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, chapter 2.
[ii] Lewis, C.S. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, chapter 10.
Oh, you can feel it, can’t you? It all starts to seem real when we get to the Gospel lesson on the fourth Sunday of Advent. Young Mary is alone in her room. Gabriel shows up and speaks. There is Mary’s moment of perplexity, when she protests her virginity, followed by the angel’s explanation of what will happen. The whole thing leaves us giddy, because we know that the Advent time of waiting is almost over. Christmas is almost here.
For several years when I served St. John’s Church in Roanoke, Virginia, I was one of a few local pastors who appeared in Mill Mountain Theatre’s annual production of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” It was great fun. “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” is the hilarious story of a church pageant invaded by the Herdmans, the wildest, most disruptive kids in town. The best lines in the play are given to Imogene, the eldest sister in the Herdman family.
When Grace, the pageant’s director, reads today’s portion of the nativity story to the cast, Imogene asks, “Why didn’t Mary get to name her own baby? I would have named him ‘Bill.’ What did the angel do, just walk up to Mary and say, ‘Name him Jesus’?”
Grace, who is entirely flustered, responds, “Well, yes!”
And it is a little odd, isn’t it? The angel Gabriel does just walk up to Mary and take over. Gabriel arrives like some sort of fixer and begins dictating how things are going to go:
“And now,” he says to Mary, “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus…The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.”
Why is this so? Why does the Christmas story necessarily begin this way?
The summer after second grade, my family took our first and only summer vacation to the beach. We rented a huge, rambling house on the Florida coast outside of Pensacola. My grandparents went with us. In my memory, this vacation has mythic importance rivaling Scripture’s nativity story. It was wonderful. Among the memories, I recall waking up early every morning to the sound of the surf and wandering down the boardwalk to the beach. I was up early, but not as early as my grandfather, Pop. Pop arose with the sun to take his net and bucket and go crabbing at the edge of the water. I would hit the beach just in time to meet him walking back to the house. He’d smile, and I’d look down at a five gallon bucket full of crabs.
Pop never put a lid on that bucket, and I asked him if the crabs could climb out. “Just watch,” he said.
Anyone who has ever been crabbing knows what I saw. One crab would extend his body up the side of the bucket. A second crab would climb up the first crab’s back and almost make it to the bucket’s lip. But just as he reached forward with his pincer, a third crab would latch onto his legs and pull him down. I was mesmerized. Endlessly, the crabs would make the effort to escape their predicament, and each time any hint of cooperation quickly gave way to a primitive panic, with one crab pulling another down in the attempt to leap frog to freedom.
There may be no better image to describe the human condition. Sometimes, it feels as if we are but crabs in a bucket. We prove incapable again and again of saving ourselves. As individuals, we attempt to reorder our lives so that we are good and pure and fair at least to those we love and cherish, if not to the stranger we meet. We wake up each morning and say with commitment, “Today is going to be different. Today I will offer the kind word and make the right decisions. Today I will…”
And on some days breakfast is barely digested before we feel the worst in us grab hold of an ankle and begin to pull us back down.
Then we turn on the television, read the newspaper, or open the internet and realize that, as disordered as our personal lives are, the society in which we live is far worse. With politics, the economic cycle, foreign relations between our nation and others—take your pick—everything we do seems to cause the crabs to tumble back over one another into the bottom of the bucket. Even our best attempts to make things better create unforeseen consequences, collateral damage that is often worse than the original problem we set out to solve.
And this is not academic. Trust me. Those who lose hold of hope and tumble to the depths are actual, real people. They line up outside the Beacon. They desperately seek help from our At Risk Youth Program. They lie in hospital beds hooked up to innumerable tubes. They sit in these very pews this very day, and join us by the hundreds via livestream, anxious about all the ways in which we seem to flail around and almost smother under the mass of the desperate others around us.
Sooner or later we find ourselves realizing the futility of trying to save the world. With each faithful attempt to make things better, other things get worse. We can’t even reorient our own hearts with any lasting effect. And our striving exhausts us.
Exactly. That’s why Gabriel shows up that day two thousand years ago. That’s why he speaks like a fixer, because we cannot, ultimately, fix ourselves or our world. The time had come for God to take the initiative; the time has come for God to take the initiative. We may be helpless to help ourselves, but, as Gabriel reminds Mary and reminds us, nothing is impossible for God.
As we careen toward the joy of Christmas, we must not forget that. We must not forget the “why” of our joy. It is nothing less than the reality that when we could not move to save ourselves, God moved. When we like a solitary adolescent child—like Mary—stand paralyzed in the world, knowing that everything we touch seems to fall part, God enters and says, “Do not be afraid. I will overshadow you, and my Son will reign forever and ever.”
Our joy is the joy that, in the end, we are not crabs trapped in a bucket. We are the beloved of God. Our world is, in fact, God’s world, and God’s Son comes to redeem it.
There is, of course, a role we must play. It is the same role Mary plays. Though Mary, a virgin, can take no effective initiative in God’s saving action, she must, for it to find purchase, be willing to receive it. Gabriel has announced God’s plan. Mary has listened. And then there is that moment of pause, that moment when, the Irish tell us, the very stars in the heavens held their breath to see what Mary would say. No doubt in the silence even she can feel the tug at her ankle seeking to pull her down. But Mary says, to the stars’ relief, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
All we must do is be receptive. All we must do it loose hold of the one above us and quit trying to save ourselves by pulling another down. Then God will do the saving work. God will act in us and through us and, through invisible yet powerful tendrils of grace, in our world.
“Do not be afraid,” the angel says, “for you have found favor with God.” Get ready! Keep your eyes open! God is coming to save you. Our joy is almost here.
I am the son of an English teacher mother and a father who reads voraciously. As such, our home was always full of books. Perhaps because of that, I was aware of Charles Dickens from a very young age. At Christmas time, we would drive the hour-and-a-half to Memphis to see the annual stage production of A Christmas Carol. I knew the story of Oliver Twist by heart. But the first Dickens story I studied with any intention, probably my sophomore year in high school, was Great Expectations, about the young protagonist Pip and his journey to adulthood. There are several haunting characters in Great Expectations, but none more so than Miss Havisham.
Miss Havisham was defrauded and abandoned by her fiancé on their wedding day. As a result, she arrested her life at exactly the moment of her abandonment: twenty minutes until 9 in the morning. All the clocks in her house are frozen at that mark. Miss Havisham continually wears her tattered wedding dress, and her wedding day breakfast remains on the table, uneaten, years later. Miss Havisham is, herself, the embodiment of her surroundings. In my mind, cobwebs hang from her moldering dress, as she decays along with the house around her.
In the novel, Miss Havisham is waiting. First, for the nightmare of her abandonment to prove to be an illusion. Then, for her revenge on the world to satisfy her grudge. Eventually, the dry and papery cloth of Miss Havisham’s wedding dress catches fire from an errant fireplace ember, and she burns to death.
As a teenager, I found Miss Havisham to be ominous. As a middle-aged adult, I know why. In my life and work, I’ve encountered plenty of Miss Havishams in real life, male and female in equal measure: People who have allowed an event (often beyond their control; remember, Miss Havisham is not at fault for her initial circumstance) to stop the clock in their lives, and slowly devolve them into bitterness that crowds out all else. Ironically, such people are often waiting on a redemption that can never come so long as they lock away their inner lives like Miss Havisham locked in her house, closed off to encounters with grace. That is the character of Miss Havisham’s waiting.
Contrast Miss Havisham to Jesus’ parable of the ten bridesmaids in the 25th chapter of Matthew, which we read each year in Advent. The five wise bridesmaids wait, but not absorbed by what has been, not by pretending that the past is unreal or that pain is illusory (and attempting thereby to keep it at bay), and not by projecting that pain onto the world in bitterness. The five wise bridesmaids wait, expectantly and alert, because they know that God is always at work, doing something new. They know that encounters with grace require vulnerability, that we continue to live open-heartedly. They know that only in such a posture can one recognize the Divine when it brushes past us in the world. And when the Lord arrives, despite whatever may have come before, the wise bridesmaids know joy.
This matters this Advent more than ever. As we continue to endure the long Advent-like waiting season until we have relief from COVID-19, I see people lapse into bitterness, interpreting the natural flaws or mistakes of others as personal affronts, lashing out in frustration and anger rather than extending generosity of spirit.
Our lives were arrested back in March. Nothing since then has been what we’d planned for. But in our waiting, we always have a choice. We can become Miss Havisham, or we can be the expectant bridesmaids. The wonder is that the world is transformed either way by our choice. When we become bitter, so does the world. But when we open our hearts to God, like opening the morning curtains, light and love flow in. When we wait upon grace, grace appears! So let the hands of the clock turn. Be generous with yourself and with one another. Stay alert for occasions of grace. And you will know the love of God that redeems all things.
Today we enter the season of Advent. It is, as churchgoers have heard preached innumerable times, a season for disrupting norms, stepping outside of our typical routine, taking a break from the usual crush of our lives, granting ourselves permission, patiently and without distraction, to prepare ourselves for the return of the Lord.
But seriously, can you imagine a year in which we need Advent less? For eight and a half months life has been one long season of Advent. Our norms have been so disrupted for so long that we have trouble remembering what they were. Many of us may even have settled into such a somnolent, hazy state-of-being over the months that we’ve almost forgotten the world ever was normal. That is, until something like the Thanksgiving holiday jars us into remembering, as we cancel plans to be with family and friends, set fewer places at the table, connect to give thanks over Zoom because it’s better than nothing. Then we awaken from our stupor like Rip Van Winkle, and we are reminded that we are waiting, and waiting, and waiting.
Of course, we are waiting on a vaccine against COVID-19, so that our lives can return to normal. Promising news has been released in the past couple of weeks about four separate vaccines that appear to provide solid protection against COVID. Hopefully, these vaccines will be available by the spring. That said, no one is suggesting that our world is likely to be as carefree as it was before COVID’s emergence. Like medieval societies that learned to live with the plague, we will be negotiating coronavirus from now on.
Often, in this most surreal year, it seems as if we’re waiting on the other shoe to drop. Every time some new horror emerges—remember when “Murder Hornets” appeared in the Pacific Northwest a few months ago?—we catch ourselves saying with a nervous laugh, “Thanks, 2020.” Other events, including racial strife and a presidential election, are too grim even to muster an anxious chuckle.
We want these things, and everything related to 2020, to end. We want something new and hopeful to arrive. We are exhausted by our waiting—we’re at our wits’ end—and so rather than celebrate Advent, we may find ourselves saying, “Enough waiting already!” But what if we’ve misunderstood Advent all along? What if our conventional notion of waiting as the anticipation of a chronological end or beginning is different from what Advent is all about?
Today in Mark’s Gospel we read the last portion of what scholars call Mark’s “Little Apocalypse,” the final verses of a harrowing description of terrible things, both natural and manmade, that will happen in the world. For two thousand years many have contended that this passage refers to the end times, predicted when the events would occur, and attempted rationally to interpret events in their own lifetimes as evidence that the waiting is over and the end has finally arrived.
The problem with such scenarios is that, so far, each one has been wrong. And that’s because the events mentioned in Mark 13, though terrible, are terribly common. In other words, all the things described just before today’s reading—wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, betrayals, and the tearing down of the temples that define our lives—happen all the time. They happened yesterday. They’ll happen today. They will most assuredly happen tomorrow. Yes, they are terrible. And yet, the world keeps spinning.
Then, there is that curious promise by Jesus, that his own “generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” Was Jesus himself wrong? Did he misread God’s plan and intention? I don’t think so. I think Jesus understood entirely, though we do not. See, I don’t believe Jesus is talking about the once-and-for-all chronological end of the world or a future event upon which we must wait for Jesus’ return. That’s not the character of Advent waiting.
I believe Jesus means it when he says that the generation alive when he spoke would encounter both the terrible events he describes and his own return, just as I believe every generation since, including our own, has experienced these things.
In other words, what Jesus reveals today is what some theologians have called “sapiential” or “realized” eschatology. That means that, rather than the return of Jesus occurring at some future moment at the end of time, the return of Jesus happens now, in the midst of the trying and terrible things we encounter each day. If we keep awake, if we have quickened hearts and open eyes, then as our very lives skirt disaster, the Son of Man returns with power and glory, girding us and transforming us in the midst of the events around us.
Let me tell you a story. The summer my son Griffin was five years old, Jill and I spent a hot summer day with him at a beachfront water park. Because we were splashing in the water all day, as still relatively new parents it didn’t occur to us to monitor Griffin’s water intake. Upon leaving the park in the late afternoon, within minutes of strapping Griffin into his booster seat, he became wilted and lethargic. Foolishly, we let him sleep, and it wasn’t until a few hours later when we couldn’t rouse him that we realized something beyond fatigue was terribly wrong. And so, I strapped my limp son back into his booster seat and careened along the twenty miles of highway to the nearest emergency room. The waiting of that drive was an eternity, and for the first few minutes I tried—hyperrational creature that I am—to reason my way to a solution, to power my own way through the waiting to its end and the arrival of something different. I rehearsed the day and the wrong turns we’d made, as if I could undo them. I negotiated with the cosmos how this would never happen again. Very quickly, my thinking exhausted both my body and my hope, but it didn’t remedy the mess I was in or get me to the hospital any faster.
And then, at some point along that dark, frantic, and lonely drive, an old church camp song, Taize-like in its repetition, arose in my consciousness. My mind quit racing and I began singing it over and over:
Father, I adore you, and I lay my life before you. How I love you.
Jesus, I adore you, and I lay my life before you. How I love you.
Spirit, I adore you, and I lay my life before you. How I love you.
In the midst of the song, Christ returned, his presence as real to me as the air I breathed. Like the eye of a hurricane, Christ created a stable and peaceful center in the midst of the storm and met me there. I could not have found that place by myself. The best I could do was keep my eyes open, stay awake to the arrival of Jesus as the doctor and nurse worked faithfully to awaken my son.
The experience wasn’t rational. I didn’t think, “If I love God, everything will work out.” This was something different. Though the harrowing event of Griffin’s heat exhaustion was nowhere near over—and, indeed, there was no way to predict its outcome—in an essential way my waiting ended. Who I was in the midst of the ongoing turmoil was transformed by Christ’s return. The Season of Advent is about waiting upon the return of Jesus, but it need not look to the chronological future. Advent is about the return of Jesus in every generation, including our own. After eight and a half months, you may be exhausted in your body, and you may nearly have exhausted your hope. But it turns out that casting our gaze to 2021 or any future is myopic. Who knows what may or may not happen then? Rather, Advent is about staying awake now, in this and every moment, for the return of the Son of God who comes again and again and again, to end our waiting and transform our hope into the joy of Christ’s own living presence. When that happens, it turns out that the old world does, indeed, end, and the new world begins. And no terror, no turmoil, no illness, no threat can touch that world. Keep awake! Christ returns, perhaps this very day.
|During this Thanksgiving season, I am reminded that growing up in Arkansas, each Thanksgiving Day my rather large family would gather around my grandparents’ dinner table for a feast of turkey, dressing, dirty rice, and more varieties of pie than I could count. Before we could eat we were required to take turns around the table sharing what we were most thankful for. My grandparents, who vividly remembered the Depression, would offer thanks for health and prosperity. My parents would offer thanks for their children. Normally the children would give thanks for our friends or our favorite toys. But one year, when my younger brother was still small enough to be sitting on the phone book, he piped up and said, “I’m thankful that there’s not a gorilla in the carport.”|
We stared at him. My father considered chastising him for making a mockery of such a solemn family tradition. But then we all realized that it was a good thing that there wasn’t a gorilla in the carport. We were all thankful for that. And so, that, too, became part of the tradition. Now each year someone is sure to give thanks — and we’re working on a forty-year record, though our thanks will be expressed over Zoom this year — that there are still no gorillas in any of our collective carports. (You should know that when I moved to Houston I called the Zoo to make sure any and all primates are kept securely under lock-and-key.)
At first glance, it may seem like a silly family tradition. But not so. Its import is that it reminds us each year of family members gone — all of my grandparents are now deceased — and of a formative time in our family’s life, when children were being raised, family security was being established, and love was abundant. It reminds us of where we have been, who we were becoming at that time, and who we still hope to be.
That is, I believe, what all good traditions do. They remind us of where we’ve been, who we are becoming, and who we still hope to be.
I pray that in your family, your walk with God at the Cathedral is a cherished part of your tradition. If not, then I invite you this season to nurture a new tradition: Make the Cathedral a central part of your life. Talk to God, listen for God, and commune with your brothers and sisters in Christ, in all the ways — virtually and in person — the Cathedral provides. Allow Christ Church to be the lens through which you remember where you’ve been in life, honor the disciple you are becoming, and look forward to the Christian you hope to be.
And know that for you, I am thankful.
Everyone is wondering whether this sermon will be about the elephant in the room. So, I might as well name it. We have experienced a hugely stressful election season. The campaign included moments that, just a few short years ago, we’d not be able to concoct or imagine. Finally, a candidate has prevailed, though he isn’t the candidate some would have chosen. He is flawed. His age makes us uncomfortable. He gets on the couch even though he knows he’s not allowed. He chases the cat incessantly. I am, of course, referring to the hard-fought mayoral race in the town of Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, which so mesmerized the nation these past weeks. Rabbit Hash election officials have, as of this morning, called the race, and the new mayor is a six-month old French bulldog named Wilbur. It turns out Rabbit Hash, Kentucky has a habit of electing dogs. Wilbur succeeds Mayor Brynn, a pit bull who served from 2016-2020. Describing Wilbur’s transition plans, campaign manager and dog owner Amy Noland says of the mayor-elect, “He’s done a lot of interviews locally, he’s had a lot of pets, a lot of belly scratches and a lot of ear rubs.”[i]
Humor is a blessed, momentary relief from the crush of emotions that have accompanied, and continue to accompany, not only this election but our national, civic life on the whole. The past five days have simply compressed all of those emotions into a much narrower wavelength, so that people across the political aisle have experienced the oscillation of joy and heartbreak, fear and relief, in such quick succession that we are exhausted. As I stand before you, I myself have gotten precious little restful sleep in the past week.
At a cocktail party just prior to the coronavirus pandemic, I heard someone ask with regard to our national circumstance, “Why can’t we just get along?” The speaker intentionally borrowed his words from Rodney King, and it is a tantalizing hope: Why can’t we, despite our deep differences and the vitriol that infects our shared life, just get along? But the question too often really means something like, “Why can’t the world just stay the way it is: comfortable for me? Why can’t others simply acquiesce to my preferred vision for our country? Then we would all get along.”
We recognize the inadequacy of the request when we take a moment to remember the heartrending circumstances in which Rodney King first uttered those words. They weren’t, for him, superficial. He had been beaten by police officers and in the weeks thereafter, as he was pushed and pulled and manhandled anew in the media, his cry was as the Psalmist’s, “How long, Lord? How long?”[ii]
We can’t just all get along, not in the superficial sense, because there are competing visions for the United States that undergird our disagreements. Those visions are important. When he spoke here a couple of years ago, Episcopalian and author John Meacham said it is as if various people and parties are competing for the soul of America. When the stakes are that high, pretending that they don’t exist or don’t matter is not an option. So, what are we to do?
Our church—the Episcopal Church—actually grants us resources that many other traditions lack. Henry VIII’s desire for an annulment from Catherine of Aragon and the subsequent sequence of events involving both church and state in sixteenth century England led to civic rancor, factions, broken relationships, and many gruesome deaths. Tudor England bears more than a few rough analogies to our own time. In the late 1550s, after the English people had exhausted themselves with mutual recrimination and disdain, the newly-ascended Queen Elizabeth, through force of her healing character, said “Enough!” She established a new norm that provided for a wide latitude of belief and practice, both religious and civic, and declared that, going forward, the English people would, no matter what, stand together as one nation. From then on in English religious and national life, schism—walking away, walking apart—became a greater and graver sin than heresy. In other words, the English people would commit to work together, in shared identity, through any challenge. Their disagreements would be real and hard-fought, but they would not break communion with one another. The English only forgot this once after that, and the English Civil War a century later quickly reminded them of Elizabeth’s wisdom. And this served England exceptionally well in the intervening half-millennia. I dare say, without Elizabeth in 1559, a unified England could not have withstood Hitler in 1940.
In our own context, the motto of the United States is E Pluribus Unum, “From many, we are One.” The motto appears on our currency, our passports, and the official seals of all three branches of our federal government. In the past few weeks, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has honed in on this. Bishop Curry traces the origin of E Pluribus Unum to the great Roman orator and statesman Cicero. In the year 44 B.C., Cicero wrote a letter to his son outlining the obligations of one who loves his country. Cicero said, “Unus fiat ex pluribus,” which translates, “When each person loves the other as much as himself, it makes one out of many.”[iii]
Imagine that. Our national motto isn’t about rugged individualism. It isn’t about wishing everyone else would get on board with my vision for the country. It is ultimately about love. E Pluribus Unum. “When each person loves the other as much as himself, it makes one out of many.”
How do we do that? We don’t give up our convictions, or our unflagging efforts to mold our nation into a “more perfect union.”[iv] But we do remember that we are bound together in love with every one of our fellow Americans. Every one. Even with those with whom we disagree. Even those whose opinions we believe are deeply misguided.
Our culture, including and especially social media, encourages us to react to one another with knee-jerk shibboleths in response to someone else’s opinion: “Socialism!” “Fascism!” “You want to take my healthcare!” “You want to take my guns!” But what humility might each one of us discover if we push back against our visceral reactions and put on lenses that seek to see the other in the most positive light? What avenues for understanding might appear if we resist imputing the worst motives to our neighbors? How might our conversations track differently if we begin by granting that the person with whom we speak hopes for a United States that strives for the well-being of all?
I am not naïve. Not everyone has virtuous motives, not everyone around the water cooler and not everyone in the halls of power. But I believe that most—the overwhelming majority—do, including those whose political opinions baffle and discomfit me. And if they do—if they, like me, want for love of all to render One out of Many—then there is still gracious and ample room to speak together, walk together, and work together toward making the United States a light to other nations.
We will have a new president in January and likely a new chapter of shared government between the parties. This grants us new opportunity, if we will be open to it. Each American, from wherever one stands across the political spectrum, can and should argue vociferously over competing visions, laboring tirelessly for justice and a truer approximation of God’s kingdom on earth. If, in the process, we commit to walking and working together, then the outcome won’t be entirely one vision or the other but something in between. (There used to be a name for that in American politics…) And yet, the fact that we have made the effort committed to one another is itself an in-breaking of God’s kingdom. We must never forget that.
We, here, are Anglicans, and as such our religious life has for five hundred years been bound up with civic life. And so, perhaps we have eyes to see the way in which Cicero’s words precedingly echo Jesus’ own. “When each person loves the other as much as himself, it makes One out of Many.” At the end of the day, then, E Pluribus Unum is its own call to follow in our civic life as in the life of Joshua and the Israelites today, the lure of God’s love instead of any national idol placed before us. Joshua says to the people today, “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve… but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
Beyond any political election, that is the real choice always before us. In our visions for America, but also in the ways we interact one with another and define or seek to understand those with whom we disagree, do we serve the Lord of love? In this household of faith, the answer is clear. And that gives me hope on this day of Resurrection. Amen.
[ii] Psalm 13
[iv] Preamble to the United States Constitution