13 November, 2022 – Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
Second Sunday Before Advent
by 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 Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Have you watched a movie or a TV show recently that was filmed in the 80s or 90s? I don’t mean one filmed recently and set back then, I mean a movie or TV show that was actually filmed in the 80s or 90s. Especially if it was set in New York City.
And if you have, have you seen an establishing shot that includes the Manhattan skyline…with the twin towers? Do you remember how you felt when you saw it? I’ve been occasionally streaming and comfort watching News Radio. And the opening title sequence has a shot of the the World Trade Center, and it startles me every time I see it. It’s jarring to remember the time before 9/11. The time when those towers were simply a ubiquitous part of our cultural zeitgeist. There’s a sense of nostalgia about seeing them…but also this…foreboding…because we know what happens.
There is something similar going on in today’s gospel. Because Luke’s gospel was written AFTER the destruction of the temple. So when Jesus talks about the temple being thrown down, and the disciples ask, “When will this be?” everyone in Luke’s audience already knows…EXACTLY…when that will be. Because it’s all already happened. The wars and insurrections…the rising nations…the earthquakes…the arrests…the persecutions…all of that has already happened. The characters in the story don’t know it, but the community that is gathered around to hear Luke’s good news…they do.
The same is true of Isaiah…these verses were likely set down towards the end of the Babylonian exile or possibly during the post-exilic period when the rebuilding of Jerusalem was already underway. So wasn’t not exactly prognostication to say that God was doing a new thing in Jerusalem…because God was actually doing a new thing in Jerusalem. True, many of these verses still haven’t come to fruition…yet…but there’s only so much “before time/after time” you can see from the thin space of the present. What looks bright and eternal…might crumble to dust. And what doesn’t look like anything at all…can be the star that guides us through the long, dark night ahead.
The book that the Religion and Culture Reading group chose for Native American Heritage month was “Ladder to the Light” by Bishop Steven Charleston. He’s an Episcopal bishop, and a Choctaw elder. He opens the book with an anecdote about a conversation he had years ago in a New England parish filled with “largely professional people with comfortable incomes…well educated, well read, and alert to the news of the day.” I know for a fact he was at All Saints in 2001, but I won’t presume that he’s necessarily talking about us…but…if the shoe fits, right? “By all of society’s measuring sticks,” he says, “they should have been among the best and brightest and most optimistic, the bedrock of an enlightened spiritual community. They should have been confident, but…they were just the opposite…they were worried.” He asked them “to name one institution—one public system in our culture—in which they had complete confidence. And the room was silent.” Remember, this was more than 20 years ago…maybe even before 9/11…but if the answer then was silence, what would our answer be today? Are we more confident than we were 20 years ago, or less? “We are beset by questions that make us uncertain,” says Charleston. “It does not matter whether we label ourselves conservative or progressive; the reality we share means many of us are losing confidence…We are worried…we are afraid…and we are looking for a way out of the darkness.”
Today’s gospel really pushes all those buttons, doesn’t it? Hearing it is not a whole lot different from hearing the recent news…wars and insurrections. Check. Famines and plagues. Check. Dreadful portents…Check. We are still worried. We are still afraid. We are still looking for a way out of the darkness.
“A people without hope,” says Charleston, “even if they possess all the wealth in the world, are weak and easily swayed.” Therefore: “We are only as strong as what we hope.”
If we can’t answer the question: what institution, what one public system, do we have confidence in…then maybe that’s the wrong question, and leads to a draining of hope. Maybe the question to be focused on instead is: What do we have faith in? Who are the beings who are actually around us? What does give us hope…real hope, not false hope.
Looking backwards it’s easy to be enthralled by both nostalgia and progress, to be vexed by how much or little has changed. Looking forward we can be transfixed by the promises of technology and human ingenuity or reduced to shuddering dread at the coming collapse. “All fear, (and [all false] hope),” says Margaret Wheatley, “arises from looking backward or forward.” So the thing to do, she argues—quoting a nineteenth century Tibetan Buddhist, is “Don’t prolong the past, don’t invite the future, don’t be deceived by appearances, just dwell in present awareness.” Which to me, sounds an awful lot like Jesus saying, “Don’t be led astray, don’t follow people claiming, to be “The One”. Don’t prepare a cogent 12 point defense of your beliefs …instead abide in me…abide in present awareness, and by your endurance you will gain your souls.”
Of course, abiding in present awareness is incredibly difficult when all of these things are going on…but, as Wheatley says, it is only “in the present moment, free from [false] hope and fear, [that] we receive the gifts of clarity and resolve. Freed also from anger, aggression, and urgency, we are able to see the situation clearly, take it all in, and discover what to do.”[Beyond Hope and Fear].
Bishop Charleston echoes this when he says, “Don’t look down, don’t look back, don’t look away. Look up and be confident…learn from the past. Look at life as it is, without editing it to look better. See what is really there…Hope arises when we embrace [this] sacred reality.
“In the darkness, in the valley of shadow, we can feel isolated and afraid. But once we have the light of hope, we begin to see just how many people share in our struggle…Instead of seeing strangers in the dark, we recognize fellow climbers in the light.” When we see by the light of true hope, we can see what truly needs to be done…right here, and right now.
Advent is this wonderful, mysterious before and after time. We know that Christ is coming as liberator and as judge…and we know that the light of Christ is even now glimmering in the gestating darkness. We know that Christ has died and is risen and will come again. And we are watching and waiting for all of this to unfold…So the best thing we can do is wake up…not get lost in the fear or anticipation of either before or after…but faithfully prepare…cultivate true hope…and be ready for the present moment when Christ is revealed among us. Amen.
- What opens up when we remember who we are and how we got here, accept the inevitable, honor our grief, and prioritize what is pro-future and soul-nourishing.
- A fierce and fearless reverence for life and expansive gratitude — even in the midst of abrupt climate mayhem and the runaway collapse of societal harmony, the health of the biosphere, and business as usual.
- Living meaningfully, compassionately, and courageously no matter what.