This week, I had the pleasure of worshiping with the people of St. Stephen’s, Seattle. Here is my sermon.
Collect for the third Sunday in Advent
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.
Isaiah 35:1-10 (“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened”)
James 5:7-10 (“The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth”)
Matthew 11:2-11 (John the Baptist asks Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”)
For what do we wait? It’s all fine and good to speak of the end times, of peace and justice for all, but how does that relate to today? What are we to do while we wait? And what are we to do when the time comes? Critics of Christianity have been quick to point out how vague scriptures can be when it comes to prophesy and yet strangely – perhaps arbitrarily specific – when it comes to morals. And this is not entirely unfair, for we are told both that the end is near “the kingdom of Heaven has come near” (Mk 1:15) “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” (Mt 24:34) and that we must wait “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord” (Ja 5:7) Indeed, many Christians have asked, why the Lord waits so long to return. I cannot give you the answer. All of us must bring our heart and mind to God. But I can give you one key to these passages from my own experience. We hear again and again the story of the farmer. My favorite version comes from Mark’s gospel (4:26-29): Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’ I don’t know about you, but this never sounded immediate to me. I think of gardening as a hobby. I am separated from the earth, and from the growing of plants by industry and markets and travel. This is not so for the farmer. He sows and waters so that he may eat. He is dependent on the mystery of seed that is buried and rises. He waits for the wheat, so that he may eat, so that his family may live. It is not a mystery in the sense of an academic puzzle, or a religious ritual, or a curiosity. It is something profoundly important, necessary for daily life, that occurs hidden from our eyes, guided by rules we do not fully comprehend. Do not misunderstand me; I would never invoke mystery to stop someone from asking questions. We fight to understand, as we fight to live. Meanwhile, we recognize our profound dependence on plants and animals that grow in wondrous and awe-filled ways that continue to surprise us. Every gardener knows this. Every parent knows this. As much as we seek, there is always more to learn about life and growth. It requires patience, and yet, it also requires tending. We must plant and water and weed and prune. The Kingdom of Heaven is no less mysterious, and no less important in the life of the world and in our daily lives. It is no less a matter of life and death than childbirth – another common image in the Bible. In Romans (8:22), Paul says: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” So the mysterious now and not yet is not an uncertainty. Though we do not know how things will turn out, we do know something is growing within us. So with the farmer we wait for the food we need, and with the mother, we wait for the child to come, knowing that we cannot know how long we will wait, or exactly what the outcome will be. And we are actively waiting, doing all we can to encourage new life. Those are the rules we follow, and that is the hope we bear. So, yes, we have been told to plant the seeds of love and truth, to spread word of Jesus Christ and the coming kingdom, to do justice and mercy, to foster forgiveness and community and faith. We do these things not because they bear fruit immediately. They seldom do. We do them because they will hide in the ground, growing in people’s hearts, as the new kingdom comes to fruition. Though we rarely harvest the seeds we ourselves have planted, we find the fruits of the Holy Spirit everywhere we go. We live on love and truth, justice and mercy, on the strength, forgiveness and faith of others. Those gifts came from seeds planted long ago, by other farmers. And, though they grew in the dark, their product was sure – the light and the life of the world. Never forget that justice and mercy are daily bread to the people of the world. Never forget that love and truth are needed for the world to grow. You have a part in that harvest. You have a part in planting the seeds, in tending and watering and weeding. And, when the time comes, you must reach out and grasp the truth, offered from the lips of friends – and enemies. We all live by eating that wheat, that bread. The mystery of this table is many things, but we must not pretend it is secret or obscure or convoluted. It is Christ’s body made flesh. It is the seed that was buried and rose from the earth to feed the world. It is life and death and community and faith, present in a the most common aspect of our lives – eating. Every time you talk to another human, you plant seeds of one kind or another. Every action affects the harvest – though often we do not know how. Have patience and pay attention. I promise you that the seed planted in Jesus Christ is bearing fruit. Christian morals are not arbitrary – though many Christians have tried to make them so. Nor should we pretend we fully understand them – life and growth are tricky. Still, the general rules are simple. Listen for and talk to God. All things come from God, who cares for all. Rest from your labors once a week. Really. I know our society frowns on it. Forget work and entertainment and simply reflect on the life of the world what is growing inside you and inside those you love. Forgive and pray for everyone, including your enemies. Only God knows what grows inside of them. Honor the parents and peacemakers, community builders and teachers, those who have their eyes on hope. And remember that you do not live for yourself alone, but for the light of the world, growing inside you. Mary, the God Bearer, the mother of Jesus, has a prominent place in the Christian tradition, because she models this for us. She models patience and peace, listening and caring. Nor was she a passive bystander. I admit, I have not always appreciated the work of Mary. I tried too hard. I tried to make the story more complicated than it is. She went through labor, she bore Christ within her body, never understanding the how or why of her condition, never comprehending the full importance of her labor for the world. She raised Jesus and taught him, and surrendered him to the world. What is the Kingdom of Heaven? It is a place where we all may be our fullest selves – alone and together. It is a time when God remedies injustice immediately – and love alone moves us. It is a condition of blessedness and community, when the labor is over, and we meet the children of our hearts, the fruits of the Spirit of Christ, that have been growing all this time. All will be fed. And all will be satisfied. And all will behold the face of God. In the meantime, we wait with patience. Not the patience of the bored, but the patience of the hungry farmer, the curious gardener, and the expectant mother. We attend to the mysteries of faith, the planted wheat and the harvest. We look for the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22) Whenever we find these gifts, we give thanks, enjoy, and re-plant the seeds that make them grow. Whenever we find them growing within us, we give thanks and nurture the life that is to come. It is a wondrous and awe-filled life we remember at Christmas. This world is coming to an end, as a new world comes to light. There will be grief and sorrow, but all these pains are only the first signs of something greater than we can ask or imagine,