Sunday, December 3, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC December 3, 2017, the first Sunday of Advent.


Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-37


Today we begin a new Christian year. Just as there is a unique Chinese calendar and Jewish calendar (and many others across cultures), the Christian community has its own cycle of seasons to give shape and meaning to time and to delineate days of special celebration and remembrance. Advent is the first season—the entry point—of the Christian year and is a time of preparation for the great feast of the Incarnation, what we commonly call Christmas. Advent includes simple practices—like the lighting of candles and the use of sacred symbols like evergreens, circular wreaths, stars, and the like—to stir our senses and awaken us to beauty and to an awareness of God. At Foundry this year, our music-inspired annual theme provides an opportunity to learn what will be, for many, a new word and concept.  An “anacrusis” consists of the note or notes that are the “lead-in” or “pick-up” notes for a melody.  I’ll use a familiar song to illustrate (appropriate for an anticipated birth).  [sing “Happy Birthday” but start with “birthday to you…”] The “happy” at the beginning of the song is the anacrusis. Just as an anacrusis is the beginning, the entry point into a song, Advent is the entry point into the Christian year.  


One of the particular practices of this season, is the intentional marking of time. Advent is a time of waiting and watching, of opening our eyes and hearts through spiritual practices. With all the hustle and bustle of the season, pausing for even a few moments to light a candle and say a prayer can be profound. This year, Foundry is providing a resource for each week during Advent, a prayer card drawing from the week’s scriptures. The prayer cards are an invitation to practice breath prayer. This simple prayer practice can be done anywhere. Use it as a mantra, as a brief prayer in the morning, evening or throughout the day. Use it as Spirit leads. I hope the prayer card will itself be an “anacrusis”—an entry point into moments of mindfulness with God.  The cards will be available as you exit worship today…


Explain breath prayer and practice it for a few seconds…




What is the world coming to?  Well, I’m afraid it’s coming to a place where empire is strong as ever.  I know there’s a new Star Wars movie coming out next week, and even though there are plenty of narrative resonances between that saga and the world we inhabit, that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is empire as reflected in our ancient texts and experienced right up to our own day.  I’m talking about empire that consists of consolidation of power by a small, wealthy ruling class, the abuse of people and the planet for economic gain, the shameless rationalizations of these practices by religious leaders who are in bed with those pulling the strings, and the public promotion of the voices of those religious leaders to provide legitimation for injustice.


Last year at this time, we grappled with our prophetic call, a call to challenge empire, to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.  The words of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann challenged us to understand that living under the conditions of empire threatens a slide into a “numbed consciousness of denial.”[i]  The imperial reality distracts, rationalizes, and drugs the populace so that people fall asleep, so that the awareness of human pain and struggle won’t get in the way of business as usual and a healthy bottom line for those in the top 1%.  Bread and circuses, smoke and mirrors, flash and spin… Empire employs these and many other tactics to tempt us to turn toward ourselves, to be protective of our own comfort, fearful for our own safety, so distracted by all the chaos and shiny objects swirling around us that we lose sight of what matters most of all—so distracted that we lose sight of one another; so distracted that we lose sight of God.


What is this world coming to? I see this world cozying up to empire… And, oh, how easy it is to grow numb… How easy to look upon the state of the world with either heartbroken despair or with hatred and blame.  Because it sure seems like the world is coming to a whole lot of more of the same evil, injustice, and oppression that the prophets have been railing against since the earliest recorded prophets back in the 8th century BCE. When will it be different?


I just celebrated a birthday—not quite hitting the 5-0 mark, but within close range.  And I find myself thinking a lot about the passage of time.  As I’ve meditated upon the state of the world and of the church, I’ve also thought about folks who’ve been alive a lot longer than me and those whose experiences have been so different from my own due to race, gender, identity, orientation, opportunity, and more—and I wonder what they’ve seen, I wonder what you’re thinking, how you’re feeling now.  As we observed World AIDS day I’ve thought about those of you who lived through the terrifying, devastating initial outbreak back in the 1980s, who lost countless friends and loved ones and those who are living with HIV today.  As I realized it was 62 years ago this past Friday that Rosa Parks stood up for justice and her own dignity by sitting down in a bus, I thought about those of you who’ve been in the struggle for racial equity and justice your whole lives because of the color of your skin and of those who have long labored to be allies in that struggle.  When I feel weary or am tempted to despair, when I become mindful of my own failures, foibles, selfishness, and complicity, it’s helpful to think of you who’ve been at this thing called life and faith for so long, who’ve labored to know God and to know yourselves, who’ve been through so much, and—nevertheless—keep showing up, keep acting up, keep standing up for love and mercy, in faith, hope, and love.


In my musings upon time, I’ve also pondered how it will feel to preach on the traditional Advent scriptures twenty years from now.  Today, we’ve heard what’s called the “little apocalypse” of Mark. Those who first heard these words had done their best to resist empire. They had organized and rebelled against the Roman occupying force. And it had ended in disaster and devastation. Their hopes were dashed and the sacred center of their lives—the Jewish Temple—had been destroyed.  It is this context that gave rise to the words we hear today.


Apocalyptic is a genre of sacred writing whose function is to respond to moments of crisis with revelation of things to come. Folks tend to think of apocalypse as the end of the world.  That is kind of true, but only if “the end of the world” is understood as the band R.E.M. sang about it—the end of the world as we know it.  As Dr. Karoline Lewis writes, “When apocalyptic shows up in biblical writings, you know time has changed, time is changing, and it’s time to pay attention—not to prepare for the end of time, as this genre is so frequently misunderstood, but to expect the revelation of God in our time. And not just God’s arrival, but God’s ongoing presence and God’s certain reign that transforms our time. God’s control of time. God’s directing of time toward all that is good and perfect and true.”[ii]


Apocalyptic speaks of the revelation of God’s presence, the revelation of God’s activity, the anticipation of God’s in-breaking, of God’s drawing near. These writings are usually cryptic and dramatic, poetic and often scary.  But they are meant to evoke awe and to wake people up to anticipate God’s arrival.  Apocalyptic doesn’t ultimately signal what the world’s coming to, but what’s coming to the world—who’s coming to the world.[iii]


Apocalyptic writing calls us to expect God to show up and do something good. But, as so many of you have said to me, some days it’s difficult to see or to expect anything good, perfect, or true to appear. That difficulty may be the result of mental or physical illness or struggle against addiction or being worn out and overwhelmed or being in a relationship that feels on the verge of implosion or of the general state of the world and the oppressive tyranny of empire.  In my darkest moments, I worry and wonder: in twenty or forty years, when I stand to preach these texts yet again, will time have been transformed at all?  If not, will I have the faith I see in so many of you?—a strong, stubborn, commitment to compassion and to hope even when things seem hopeless… I worry and wonder: Will the world have come to anything resembling the Kin-dom or will empire continue its mind- and heart-numbing churn, its boot still ground into the necks of the vulnerable as it has for century upon century upon century?  How long, O Lord? When will the times be different than they are today? 


“About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” (Mk 13:32-33)


That’s just aggravating. But even though we may want something else, we are given something. We are given clear instruction: in a time of crisis and turmoil and all the chaos of empire, stay awake and look for God to show up. And, when I let go of my weariness and worry, I remember—and perhaps you will too—moments that prove that when God shows up, things do change—time shifts from measured minutes and seconds into timeless moments and never-forgotten memories. When God draws near, we find our voice or the strength to keep going, we discover we’re not alone, that even with all our imperfections and fears we possess gifts to share, we see here and there the ways that our choices have made a positive difference.  When God intervenes, love happens, ways get made when there really is no way, death is no longer the end, and despair is overcome with hope.  Our hope is possible because even when it seems the world is coming to no good, God comes to the world.  Every time.


[i] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Second Edition, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, p. 81

[ii] Karoline Lewis, “Advent Time,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5007

[iii] Jim Harnish, “What’s Coming?” https://jimharnish.org/2017/11/30/whats-coming/