Sermon for Advent 1, Sunday, November 27 2016, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Is 2:1-5; Ps 122; Rom 13:11-14; Mt 24:36-44
We enter Advent on a dark note. As the nights grow longer and the city grows colder, we begin the season with a litany of penitence. We enter Advent with a gospel reading which compares the coming of the kingdom for which we pray to a cataclysm, a flood, an abduction, a disappearance, a midnight robbery. This passage, which we read today, comes at the end of a long series of prophecies of distress and disaster, and immediately before a string of unusually troubling parables about readiness and sudden catastrophe, which lead us into Matthew’s story, not of the birth of Jesus, but of his crucifixion.
We sing the lovely and terrible Advent Prose, which is perhaps almost too precise this year, as we have watched in these last weeks the fundamental racism of our society only too clearly revealed, as the water protectors at Standing Rock are attacked with rubber bullets, tear gas and concussion grenades, as all we wait in anxiety for what comes next, here and around the world. Our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. Zion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation; our holy and our beautiful house, this poor world.
I think that I would not, left to my own devices, have chosen these for you; I think I would have chosen something more reassuring. I know that most of you here know the world’s pain already, all too well. But perhaps there is comfort of a sort in simply acknowledging this as a community, knowing that we confront these things together, that our scriptures are honest with us, that Jesus offers us no easy platitudes. Knowing that God holds, God comprehends, all the confusion and the fear. Jesus offers these uncomfortable metaphors of the kingdom partly because he knows that there are bad times coming fast, that he will soon die outside the walls of Jerusalem, that the early church, even in the light of the resurrection, will face struggle and loss and martyrdom. But the kingdom rises out of this.
And the kingdom rises out of our time as well. Moments of crisis, moments of decision, flash across our lives like lightning, sometimes as public as a flood, sometimes as hidden as a break-in at night, and in our responses, in our choices, we can allow the kingdom in, even if only in tiny ways.
You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and my servants whom I have chosen. So we must be awake.We teach ourselves the disciplines of attention and detail, of noticing, of thoughtful understanding—this is, in part, the work of prayer, as it refines us. We must see our times and know them, understand the world and ourselves as clearly as we can, so that we can recognize those moments when our witness is demanded.
And what that witness is, Paul’s letter today states as clearly and simply as it can be put. It is love. It is always love. It is to love our neighbour as ourselves. If we can begin to do that, accurately, truthfully, in the small place where we are, that is the most important and subversive thing that ever be done, the greatest rebuke to power, the best reclaiming of our shared home from desolation.
“Who is my neighbour?” a man asks Jesus elsewhere, and the answer, of course, is everyone. Everyone. There is no place that God’s love will not go, and we must follow that love. Sometimes it is a love which calls us to challenge and confrontation, which must stand up against greed and economic idolatry, against racism and colonialism, which must turn over the tables of the moneychangers. Sometimes it is the love which strives to build the new world in the wreckage of the old, planting gardens and making music and learning to work and live as community. Sometimes it is simple immediate care, feeding, healing, listening, providing warmth and safety. Sometimes, even, it is that simplest and most difficult task of loving those who are closest to us, for daily natural human love can be a place of learning, a place where we know and are known and begin to understand what that means, and a source of strength for the ongoing struggle.
Everyone is my neighbour—the bully and the banker, the missing and murdered Indigenous women, the indifferent ones, the thoughtless and the hurtful and the wretched, the anonymous people I walk past in the street. Somehow or other, and whether or not we like them, we must keep learning to love them all.
I will not bother to caution you against debauchery and licentiousness, by the way. Although the desire for distraction and escape in all its various forms, the search for something to obscure the pain of the world, can be a real temptation and can do great damage, I think it is not the besetting sin of this congregation. But I will warn you—because I must always warn myself—against despair. The work is hard, and tiring, and often seems fruitless. Some days, it is easy to see the flood coming, it is easy to see the wreckage of our house; it is harder to see how there can be any hope in this.
But love is never trivial, and never wasted. Where love has been, even in the smallest and most confused and human way, the kingdom has broken in, a little bit, for a moment; daylight has shimmered on the horizon, there has been a promise. So stay awake, stay alert, for the light is coming. So love, where you are, as you can, because it always matters, even while the waters are rising.
This metaphor of the flood—it can be a problematic one, because if we read it too literally, it suggests that the choices are to be part of a special, saved elite, or to go down in the water and drown. But Jesus himself went down into the water, in his baptism and in his death, went down with all the lost and the condemned, and did not drown but rose. Perhaps we, though we cannot follow him precisely, are called, not to escape in an ark of special safety while others sink, but to be in the midst of the floods of our own times, and to hold onto small islands of humanity where our neighbours can take shelter, hold onto them for the day when the water rolls back.
Hold on, until these small islands can become a part of the mountain of the Lord which Isaiah imagines, that place where there will be no more harm, no more war, no more need for weapons. A place of learning and growing, where all people will be, finally, at home. When the sky will pour down, not the destroying waters of flood, but the living water of justice, the living water which is God’s love, made incarnate for us in Jesus, meeting us in every moment, in every neighbour, in all the desolations we endure, and all the mornings which are given to us.