Between noon and three

…spare us in the youngest day when all are shaken awake, facts are facts, (and I shall know exactly what happened today between noon and three); that we too may come to the picnic with nothing to hide, join the dance as it moves in perichoresis, turns about the abiding tree. — W.H. Auden, "Compline"

Tag: Advent

Rejecting Spiritual Technology

This sermon was preached on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2017, at St. Michael & St. George. This was a rare year when December 24 fell on a Sunday, and we were faced with the challenge of keeping two very different occasions on the same day. Writing this sermon I was very conscious of composing an “Advent” sermon, and not Christmas, though the temptation to blend the two was great – especially with the Gospel of the Annunciation. The opening is something of a gimmick — do a google search for “news December 17-24, 2017” to see the whole range of issues and events I could have been referencing!

Collect: We beseech thee, Almighty God, to purify our consciences by thy daily visitation, that when thy Son Jesus Christ cometh he may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Hosly Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

It was only a week or so ago, but already there’s been a massive response across the country and even around the world. The magnitude of this new spin on the old themes took nearly everyone by surprise; we’re still processing exactly what happened, and what it will mean, though already we know that life won’t be quite the same after this. Meanwhile no one except insiders know where we’re going next, and they’re certainly not telling. There are a lot of rumors of course, and a lot of theories, but really we’ll just have to buckle down to wait and see.

I’m talking of course about “The Last Jedi,” the newest installment in the Star Wars franchise. One of the things I appreciate most about this newest film was articulated by a friend of mine: “At least as far as the Jedi part is concerned, there’s a lot less emphasis on the technology, on the chemistry of how it works than we saw in the earlier films, and a lot more emphasis on the intangibles of imagination, and perspective, and relationships.” The result is a much more three-dimensional world that cannot be nailed down or exhausted as easily as in the past.

That got me thinking: Star Wars and the Christian Religion are not exactly comparable categories. But something analogous has been happening in our churches and in our culture for generations now. Somehow we have reduced the Christian religion to mere “spiritual technology.” Do X and you’ll be fine; swallow this or that far-fetched explanation and your life will improve. Come to church and you’ll go to heaven. Pray this prayer, vote this way, buy these books, or listen to that music, and somehow, magically, you’ll grow in faith and discover the meaning of life.

I can see why that’s tempting: human beings are solution-oriented after all. We have a problem and we want it fixed. We have a goal and we want to reach it. We have a project and we want to complete it. It’s completely natural for us to regard religion in the same way. So we accumulate bits of spiritual technology: phrases, theories, habits, products, to help us get what we want. It’s completely natural.

But just like previous iterations of Star Wars, the end result is a watered-down imagination, and an anemic sense of our relationship to the whole, let alone to God.

Why do I bring all this up this morning, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, right on the brink of Christmas Eve and the great feast of the Nativity? Because this is a time of year when the Church talks a lot about promises, about expectations, about the fulfillment of long-standing hopes for light and peace and goodness, in a world which we are constantly reminded is a dark and despairing place.

Of course it’s important for us to say all these things, to revisit the old prophecies, retell the old stories, and remember the promises. But how do we keep from letting all these things become for us just more bits of outdated spiritual technology that fail to get us what we want? How do we open ourselves to the larger mysteries, to the multi-dimensional world of faith and religion beyond transaction and exchange?

First of all, by remembering that Christianity is not actually about your spiritual life, or mine. It is about God. It’s worth remembering, from time to time, the immortal line from Evelyn Underhill: “God is the interesting thing about religion.” The Christian religion is not about you. It is about God, about the world God has made, and the incarnation of Jesus Christ which makes creation holy and renders it all a thank-offering to God the Father. If you and I are involved at all, it’s to participate in God’s larger project of forgiveness, healing, and renewal; it’s to get some sustaining glimpse of that eternal love “that moves the sun and the other stars,” until we are made fit to participate more fully, to enter into that divine life forever. It is emphatically not about me getting what I want.

Which finally brings us to the doorstep of that house in Nazareth where in today’s Gospel Mary sits at prayer, and where she is surprised by a visit from the Archangel Gabriel. If you and I are going to find Christmas to be Good News again for us, we have to follow Mary’s pattern and pray. That doesn’t mean filling our heads with lots of positive thoughts. That doesn’t mean compiling a catalogue of all our good wishes for various needs or people. It means we just have to stop. Stop all the noise. Put down all the technology, spiritual or otherwise, and listen. Listen to the clock ticking, listen to your heart beating, listen to your own breathing, whatever it takes, just listen.

Listen, and watch: watch for how quickly your mind goes to the cares which press on it, watch for how quickly the worries and the fears and the inadequacies and all the rest come rushing in. What is your conscience afraid of? What weakness or sickness or vulnerability in yourself presses particularly painfully? What hopes do you cherish, what grudges do you nourish, where do your affections lie, whose regard are you desperate to win? In the silence all these doors and passageways and countless more will open to you; you will begin to be aware of the dizzying moral and spiritual complexities of everyday life, and of the vast scope of your own involvement in the world.

Mary sits at prayer in her home in Nazareth, her spirit listening and watching in the silence at the heart of it all. And this is when the Archangel appears, this is the moment when Gabriel declares her “Full of grace.” This is the moment, right when she is most in touch with her own needs and vulnerabilities, that God appears and salvation enters the world.

It might sound counterintuitive, but so much the better. The more you and I are in touch with all those cares and anxieties which constantly threaten to swamp us, the better prepared we are to meet God. The more we admit of our weakness and vulnerability, the easier we will be able to receive the Christ Child. The more truthful we can be about our own doubts and fears and despair, the clearer we will be able to see the dawn of new life when it comes over the horizon tomorrow.

No, Christianity is not about your spiritual life. It is not about spiritual technology at all, not about doing the right thing, or saying things that sound holy or religious or whatever. It’s not about fulfilling expectations, or even about generosity. It is about God; about being quiet enough to listen, truthful enough to admit my own weakness, and sensitive enough to see God working even in ways that don’t make sense and in places we’d rather not notice. Christmas is Good News for us precisely because it enters the world at its quietest, most vulnerable point; because it enters us at our weakest, most fearful moments, when we are most conscious of our failures and our impotence. In this way God grants dignity and grace to the very lowest of the low, and makes his Divine Majesty resident in the humblest of places.

This Advent 4, as we race onward towards Christmas Eve, let us resolve afresh to reject the enticements of spiritual technology, put away the drive to get what I want out of God, and listen: listen and watch, in our hearts and our world, for the humiliation which silence reveals. And let us catch a glimpse of the worlds on worlds of new life and new love which God is calling forth from the empty, barren, and broken places of the earth.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.

Advent IV

The following sermon was preached on December 20, 2015, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, at the Church of St. Michael & St. George. Lessons & Carols for Christmas took place that evening in addition to the regular 5:30 Eucharist, and the Church began preparing for Christmas.

Collect: We beseech thee, Almighty God, to purify our consciences by thy daily visitation, that when thy Son our Lord cometh he may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Micah 5:2-5a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-55

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Over then last few weeks, we’ve been talking a lot about preparation: preparation for Christmas.  Last week John the Baptist preached the good news of repentance to prepare for Jesus coming.  The week before, the prophets united in their witness to history itself preparing the way for Jesus.  And the first week of Advent, meditating on the Four Last Things, our own mortality, we prepared the way for considering just what kind of life the baby in the manger comes to gives us.

This week, we have a very different kind of preparation going on in our Gospel text.  Mary, pregnant with Jesus, goes to spend some time with her Aunt, who is pregnant with John the Baptist.  Together, the two of them will spend time preparing to give birth, no easy task for either of them: Elizabeth by reason of her advanced age, and Mary by reason of her youth.  It will be a challenging time for them both.  And yet from the first moment that they greet one another, their interaction is marked not by fear or uncertainty, but by overriding joy.  Listen to Elizabeth: “When Elizabeth heard the greeting, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.”  She blesses Mary, and Mary replies by blessing God, in one of the most famous, well-loved songs of all the Scriptures: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my Spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.”  Pregnancy for Mary and Elizabeth will be a long road, full of its own unique challenges.  And yet their preparation is marked by unbridled, unalloyed joy.

What about you and me?  If we’re frank with ourselves, we’ll have to admit that sometimes our own preparations for Christmas are distinctly lacking in joy.  Why is this?  I don’t think it’s anything we need to feel guilty about, only to name and consider.  If we’re like Elizabeth, perhaps it’s because, with time’s relentless advance, it’s hard to get excited about something we’ve done or been around so frequently in the past.  Repetition can certainly lead to dryness, and the long drawing down of years can remind us of all we’ve lost: people no longer in our lives, plans foiled, hopes withered.  And not just age either, but our own personal disappointments and failures can reveal themselves in particularly stark relief at this time of year, while the sting of our own besetting sins can bite especially sharply.  All of these can stifle Christmas’ freshness, all of these can put joy far from our minds.  Add them to a noisy, frenetic holiday culture, and it’s easy to see why Elizabeth’s and Mary’s joy might seem to come just a little bit out of left field at this time of year.

Even so, Joy is absolutely the essential fourth component  of our Advent preparation.  Consider: the Four Last Things, mortality, death, and the end: merely step one in a process that leads to eternal joy.  This is a world that is passing away.  It cannot last.  While we mourn the deaths of family and friends, while we mourn our own declining skill and ability, we know that our God is eternal, he lives forever, and that his whole purpose is to join all creation to himself in unending life: as the psalmist puts it, “the singers and the dancers shall say, ‘All my fresh springs are in you.’”  Even so in God shall our own lives spring up forever in the glory of his heavenly city.  Joy is the purpose and end of our contemplating the Four Last Things.

Likewise as we consider the messages of the prophets, preparing the way for the Messiah: without exception they lived in trying times.  They proclaimed their messages in various and differing ways, but one of their common treads was that the current state of affairs was not as God intended it, and that He would correct it in a way no one anticipated.  No one anticipated the Exodus from Egypt, and yet God led his people across the Red Sea and into the Promised Land.  No one anticipated a king like David, who would unite the tribes and lead Israel into a Golden Age of peace and prosperity.  No one anticipated the exile into Babylon and the destruction of the temple as the way God would show he was serious about righteousness.  And yet in every case, the prophets had been there saying this would take place.  In every case, God used those moments to draw nearer to his people than he had ever been before, to increase their joy and show them a better way to love him.

Even so in our own day.  It’s easy to look around and wonder how we’ve gotten into this scenario, it’s easy to despair of the future.  And yet time and time again, the prophets show us that just when things look bleakest, there God is doing a new thing, drawing us closer to himself, granting us deeper joy, showing us a better way to love him.  Isaiah writes, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.”  Even so for us today.  Though we dwell in a land of deep darkness and every lamp go out, the promise remains true, and joy is its seal.

Likewise a third time, with the sermons of John the Baptist still ringing in our ears from last week.  “Repent, prepare the way of the Lord.”  Our sin keeps us from approaching Christmas as we ought, our failings keep us from properly being able to greet the child in the manger.  Yet joy is the purpose of repentance too: the better we know our sin, the more freely we can ask forgiveness, the more ably we can live a virtuous life.  And yet the purpose of it all is not mere fidelity to the law; the purpose is to enter without reservation into joy.  The purpose of repentance is to hear our Lord saying when we come to die, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master.”

Today Mary and Elizabeth show us that, more than anything else, our Advent preparation is about joy.  Joy in the eternal life of God, which Christ shares with his Father from before the foundation of the world, and into which he is preparing to admit us too.  Joy in the loving purposes of God throughout all the changes and chances of life, designed to bring us closer to him by every means necessary.  Joy in the fruit of repentance, which draws us away from our sin and into the divine fellowship for which we were created.  Far from impeding our joy, the circumstances of our lives work together with one voice to direct our way to rejoice in the coming of Christ.  Far from cutting across the grain, joy in the Christ child draws us beyond the mire of our individual pains and failings, towards the fulfillment of God’s purposes for our selves and the world.

Today Mary and Elizabeth greet each other with joy.  They bless each other and they bless God for the wondrous miracles which they carry in their wombs.  This Fourth Sunday of Advent, as Christmas approaches, let us be joyful too.  Whether it be easy or difficult, let us rejoice in the freshness of the life to which God calls us.  Let us rejoice in the beauty of his loving purposes.  Let us rejoice in the surety of his forgiveness.  So the Child in the manger will come to each of us and find in our joy a mansion prepared for himself.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.