5 December, 2021 – Second Sunday in Advent
The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
“We mostly spend [our] lives conjugating three verbs,” said Evelyn Underhill, one of the 20th centuries greatest spiritual writers.
Those three verbs: To want. To have. To do. “Craving, clutching, and fussing, on the material, political, social, emotional, intellectual—even on the religious—plane, we are kept in perpetual unrest,” she says by our obsession with these three verbs. And we forget that none of them have, “any ultimate significance, except so far as they are transcended by and included in, the fundamental verb, to Be.”
“Being,” she says, “not wanting, having, and doing, is the essence of a spiritual life.”
Being is the heart of Advent: accepting rather than wanting; releasing rather than having; attending rather than doing…
But wanting, having, doing, craving, clutching, fussing is what we mostly spend our days doing. “[We] are helpless,” says Underhill, “distracted and rebellious, unable to interpret that which is happening, and full of apprehension about that which is to come, largely,” she argues, “because [we] have lost [our] sure hold on the eternal.” [Evelyn Underhill, The Spiritual Life, p.20-21]
Underhill wrote this in Advent of 1936, but 85 years later, it still feels like she wrote it yesterday. We feel as though we have been cut adrift…left to fend for ourselves…We are not alone. Scripture is full of stories of people who become distracted and rebellious; who are unable to interpret what is happening right in front of them…who are afraid of what is to come…who become unmoored from, and forget their connection to the eternal.
This is what the prophets are always reminding us of…you’ve gone adrift…wandered far in a land that is waste…”repent and return,” Repent…turn around…and come back…they say…over and over…from Isaiah, to Malachi, to John the baptizer…to Jesus himself, “The time is fulfilled, and the reign of God is here, repent and believe in the good news,” (Mark 1: 15). God has not gone missing…God is here…with us… But it’s hard to recognize that with all of the noise around us, and when we’re so busy craving and clutching and fussing.
The good news (I guess), is that becoming unmoored and going adrift happens to everyone…even John’s own father, Zechariah, whose song we heard as the beautiful choral response this morning, and who is a priest no less (!), even he gets caught up in wanting, having, and doing…and needs to be taught (again) how to be.
Do you remember the story? He and his wife Elizabeth are unable to have children. They are both “getting on in years.” But they are both, says Luke, “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments,” (Luke 1:6)…these are not the people you would expect to lose their connection to the eternal…and yet…when the angel shows up and tells Zechariah that Elizabeth will conceive and that she will have a son…his name will be John…and he will be “filled with the Holy Spirit…” this blameless old man looses his connection to the divine and starts to grasp and fuss, “How will I know that this is so?” This doesn’t seem right…I need some proof…I want—I crave—some certainty…I need to know. And in that moment, the angel knows that he has lost his connection to the divine…and so the angel prescribes a period of silence…a time of waiting…a time of attending…of unknowing…The angle removes Zechariah ability to speak for months—9 months. Not until the day of John’s circumcision is Zechariah able to speak again and the first words he lets forth is this glorious song of praise…”Blessed be the God of Israel, who has come to the people and set them free.” Zechariah has repented…he has returned…he has re-membered his unbreakable connection to the divine and sings out praises.
God never leaves us…but we can become distracted and forget about God…and there is always a way back.
Poet Mark Nepo wrote:
[to respect copyright, the text of the poem is not printed here, you can read the poem Accepting This at Mark Nepo’s site.]
Zechariah, after his time of silence, awakens in the stream…remembers that connection to the eternal…and rediscovers that everything that we could ever need or want is right here…in flawed abundance…and therefore we are free… “Free to worship God without fear,” Free to go before God and prepare the way…free to let God’s light shine through us…to the places and people who need it most.
In the coming days, when you catch yourself clutching, craving, fussing…when you feel the pull to want, to have, to do. Stop. Take a breath. Count to 10. Step outside…Feel your feet on the ground, or the sun on your face, or listen to the rustle of the leaves in the trees…Or just step outside yourself for a minute. Remember that you are not your thoughts…and whatever it is that has you fussed…remember, that it’s not all up to you. And then if you can, relax and release.
Just for a moment…just breathe and be… attend to what is actually happening right around you in the moment…and remember in that moment…that connection—that unbreakable, immutable connection—that you have…that we all have…to the eternal…to the divine…to God…Emmanuel…the promised one…the who was and is and is to come. The one whose name is the verb to be…”I AM.” Feel your connection to that Being…and then sing your song of praise.