Posted by: dacalu | 4 December 2017

Death, Resurrection, and Return

Today, I had the pleasure of worshiping with the people of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Seattle. We celebrated the beginning of Advent – the season in the Christian calendar where we prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas.  Here is the sermon I shared.

Prayer for the First Sunday in Advent

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings

Isaiah 64:1-9 (“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down”)

Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 (“show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved“)

1 Corinthians 1:3-9 (“He will also strengthen you to the end“)

Mark 13:24-37 (NRSV)

Jesus said, “In those days, after that suffering, ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.’

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“But 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. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Sermon

Near the end of the Eucharistic prayer, we include a “memorial acclamation,”
	that ties together our understanding of Jesus Christ,
	past, present, and future.
I’m betting you know the version from Prayer A:
“Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”
The whole congregation says it together in Prayers A, B, and C.
Today, we’re using Prayer II, so I say,
	“Now gathered at your table, O God of all creation, 
and remembering Christ, crucified and risen, 
who was and is and is to come, 
we offer to you our gifts of bread and wine,
	and ourselves, a living sacrifice.” (EOW)
It appears in every Episcopal Eucharist,
	and in most versions of Catholic and Orthodox Prayers as well.

The memorial acclamation reminds us of the constant tension we live in as Christians.
	We say that Christ died for us in the past:
		In the Reformation language of Rite I, we say:
		“All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, 
for that thou, of thy tender mercy, 
didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross 
for our redemption; 
who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, 
a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, 
for the sins of the whole world; 
and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, 
a perpetual memory of that his precious death and sacrifice, 
until his coming again.” (BCP’79 p.334)
		Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli,
			leaders in the Protestant Reformation,
			all emphasized that our salvation has already been accomplished
				by God’s action.
	We say that Christ is risen in the present.
		He is seated at the right hand of the Father,
			speaks to us still through the Holy Spirit and Scripture,
			and intercedes for us eternally. (See Romans 8 and Hebrews 4-5.)
		This is why we can pray to Jesus now, in the moment.
		This is why we can speak of him as friend and king,
			and not just as an example or aspiration.
		Jesus is not dead, but alive…now.
		And so, we have hope that we, too,
			may live beyond the normal span of 80 years.

We say that Christ will come again in the future.
		“We believe that he will come again
			in glory to judge the living and the dead
			and his kingdom will have no end” (Nicene Creed)
		Though Christ has died, and though he is risen,
			the world does not seem to be saved.
			We do not feel saved
				from the chances and changes of life.
			We see the innocent suffer and the wicked triumph.
		Seymour Siegel, a Conservative Jewish Rabbi, put it this way.
	“The central problem of Christianity is:
if the Messiah has come, why is the world so evil? 
	For Judaism, the problem is: 
if the world is so evil, why does the Messiah not come?”
		We look for something better.
		“We look for the resurrection of the dead,
			and the life of the world to come.” (Nicene Creed)
		“The creation waits with eager longing 
for the revealing of the children of God.” (Romans 8:19)
		We want justice – though we fear judgment.
		We want consummation – though we fear completion.
		We want truth – though we fear revelation
			(not only the personal hand of God upon us,
			but also the great revealing of the end times).
		The words “apocalypse” and “revelation” both come from
			roots that mean a veil has been lifted and the true world seen.

And so, we live in this strange space of “already and not yet.”
The Kingdom of heaven is somehow 
already established, coming into being, and over the horizon.
That’s what’s at stake in today’s gospel.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: 
as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, 
you know that summer is near. 
So also, when you see these things taking place, 
you know that he is near, at the very gates. 
Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away 
until all these things have taken place. 
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

We have been promised that the Kingdom is so close that we can touch it.

Does it feel close to you?
I hope so.
Some days it feels close to me,
	as close as my own heart and breath and life.
Some days it feels impossibly far away.
Jesus says that “this generation will not pass away,”
	and many of his followers, Paul likely among them,
	really believed that the end would come within 80 years.
It did not.
That was a challenge for them, as it is a challenge for us.
“If the Messiah has come, why is the world so evil? 
If the world is so evil, why does the Messiah not come?”
I have tended to answer this question with ideas of eternity.
	It appeals to my Buddhist edges,
		or, if you prefer, my Cappadocian edges,
		for the foremost theologians of early Orthodox Christianity,
			Basil, Gregory, Macrina, and Gregory
		take same approach.
	God saves us outside of time,
		and we, in time, cannot grasp the fullness of God’s action,
		so, we place it in the past or in the future,
		but we must always reach for it in the present.
I still believe that, but today, I’d like to add a little texture.
I’d like to say why, for me, the memorial acclamation is so important.
Jesus reaches out to us through the past, through the present, AND through the future.
Jesus comforts us in what has been done,
	comes to us where we are,
	and calls us into something greater than ourselves.

The collect for the day asks for grace,
	“now
in the time of this mortal life 
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility.”
For me, that means the particular grace
	of God in his human particularity
	reaching out to me in my particularity.
Mortal to mortal, flesh to flesh, humanity to humanity.
It does not deny something more.
	Christ has more.
	I aspire to more.
	And yet, here I am in my fleshy, mortal, humanity gazing into eternity,
		gazing into the face of Jesus,
		God incarnate.
Jesus gives us hope that eternity and salvation
	can be seen through visible, tangible, fleshy windows.
The now that surrounds us is not the only now.


So, let me ask you this.
Where are you looking for God to arrive?
	To what do you turn for hope, fulfillment, grace, and peace?
	Where do you look when you hope to be surprised,
		by a world more wonderful than you imagined,
		by power you didn’t know you had,
		by love deeper than you thought possible?
	Do you look to the past, the present, or the future?
	Do you look inside yourself?
		Inside other people?
		In nature?
	Do you look to wealth and power?
	Do you look to institutions, the church or the state?
	Do you look to community?

I can tell you where I look.
I look to faces.
	I look to the Face of God as Father, gazing at the Son.
		“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 17:5)
	I look to the Face of God as Son, gazing at his friends.
		“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” (John 14:27)
	I look to the Holy Spirit gazing through our faces at the Lord.
		“the Spirit helps us in our weakness; 
for we do not know how to pray as we ought, 
but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 
And God, who searches the heart, 
knows what is the mind of the Spirit, 
because the Spirit intercedes for the saints 
according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:26-27)

I look in God’s face, reflected in nature.
	Just as the light of the sun bounces off objects 
and brings their forms to my eyes,
	so, the light of Christ bounces off spirits,
		the souls of humans,
		the livingness of every living breathing thing,
		and the hard surfaces of the rocks and minerals,
		and brings love to my heart.

I am a scientist because I think that science reveals the truth of the physical world,
	and I love the world as God’s creation.
I do not understand it fully.
I know in part because others have discovered the truth 
and shared it with me.
I know in part because I see with my own eyes.
I know in part because I am willing to let go of all my knowing
	and see again for the first time,
	every time.
	(Or at least some of the time. I’m still working on it.)
I am looking for the coming kingdom,
	as it was, as it is, as it will be.

Nor is my faith different.
It is rooted in the past,
	in what Christ as done for me,
	in what the church has found and what the church has looked for.
It grows in the present, 
in daily interactions with God
	through prayer, and community, and curiosity,
	which are, after all, shades of the same thing,
	the looking face to face
	and trying to see beyond my own expectations.
It reaches for the future,
	in my hope for redemption, salvation, resurrection, life, and grace.
	“Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility”
		and so, I believe, must we visit Christ,
		not resting on the past or present,
		but depending on that future time,
			that relationship that was, and is, and is coming to be.
	“For now we see in a mirror, dimly,
but then we will see face to face. 
Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, 
even as I have been fully known.” (I Corinthians 13:12)

I feel like a broken record,
	citing the same passages of scripture over and over again,
	but I keep finding the same message,
	“do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)
“Let anyone with ears to hear, listen.” (Mark 4:9)
“Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; 
knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Luke 11:9)
	“Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; 
if you hear my voice and open the door, 
I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” (Revelation 3:20)
It’s not about humility before neighbor or church or doctrine.
It is humility before reality
	and the possibility of God breaking in
	everywhere.
It is about springtime,
	and the flowering of the fig tree.
The leaves do not suddenly spring from branches that remain unchanged.
The whole tree is transformed,
	the invisible metabolism changes the whole visible tree,
	so that water and chemicals flow,
	materials move from roots and trunk into the leaves,
	and reveal within the buds,
		the mysterious invisible process of winter and previous years,
		and the wonderful fruit which is not yet come.
I delight, living in the in-between.
There is so much past and future to celebrate.
There is so much now to revel in,
	if only our eyes, and hearts, and minds remain open.
Though Winter is upon us,
	Spring will come,
	and, eventually, Summer.
Though we feel barren,
	though God be invisible,
	though hope is hard to find,
God comes.
“Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”


I do not know where it is that you look,
	or even where you should look.
I know God gave each of us eyes,
So, I suspect we were meant to keep watch in different directions.
I can only say this: Keep awake!

This is the promise of Advent,
and the burden of Christianity:
to be always looking,
in every face, 
in every blade of grass,
in every event—past, present, and future—
for the coming of Jesus Christ in glory.


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Responses

  1. […] This week, I was with the wonderful people of St. Stephen’s, Laurelhurst, celebrating the third Sunday in Advent. Here is the sermon I shared. (The sermon I mention from two weeks ago is here.) […]


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