29 November 2020
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 Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
“All this has happened before.
And it will happen again.”*
Advent is our liturgical reset button. Where we go back to the chaotic darkness of Genesis…the tohu bohu…the formless void…the tehom, the primordial watery abyss—the deep…Back to the future where Jesus says, “In those days… 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.”…
All this has happened before…“In the beginning the earth was without form and void and darkness was on the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2)
And all this will happen again, “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1) “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.” Advent returns us…to the darkness…to await the light…the Son…who is coming.
All this has happened before…
The past several weeks we’ve heard something similar from him in Matthew…We’re now in Mark, but he says something similar in Luke, always right before he is arrested and crucified, and the world is plunged into the darkness of Good Friday awaiting an Easter dawn. The sun darkened, and the moon not giving its light…that’s a mashup of quotes from Isaiah, and Ezekiel…prophets who warned their communities, about the difficult times ahead…the destruction of Israel, the exile into Babylon, the difficulties of return.
This section that we heard from Isaiah…is from what scholars call second or Deutero-Isaiah…because it was likely written by a disciple or group of disciples of the original Isaiah at the end of the Babylonian exile….Today’s text is not about the threat of being carried away by invading armies, but rather the disappointment and frustration of dealing with the realities upon returning. There was no “return to normal” for them…or rather there was a tragic return to the normal corruption and malfeasance that brought about the exile in the first place…”The watchmen are blind, all of them,” the prophet says…”they are all dumb dogs…they are greedy…everyone has turned his own way, Every last one seeks his own advantage” (Isaiah 56:9-12).
All of this has happened before…
It’s impossible to know when the Psalms were written. They are ancient, many are some of the most ancient texts in the scriptures. Today’s psalm may have been a lament for the fall of the Northern Kingdom around 722 BCE (Jewish Study Bible), or it may have been composed at a moment when it was under threat but not yet destroyed. Whenever it was…it was a liminal time…a time of already and not yet…a time when people cried…“Restore us, O Lord God of hosts, show the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” Looking into the gathering darkness…waiting for vaccines…seeking the light… knowing that there are still many more months to go… and grieving those who have already passed and who will not survive…we pray for salvation…“Show the light of your countenance upon us.”
All this has happened before…
For months we’ve been hearing how “unprecedented” 2020 is…
But, six years ago, my first Advent here with all of you, was just days after a Grand Jury in St. Louis decided not to indict the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. And on that Sunday six years ago, I said, “The issues surrounding race, and diversity, and privilege are difficult conversations we need to have at multiple levels in this country.” And I’m grateful that in the past six years, we have taken steps to have those conversations more consistently and more faithfully…and yet, we all know that there is still a long way to go…and a long history to come to terms with. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, and the 160th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.
In September 1918, public schools in Boston were shut down and all public gatherings were banned because of the global influenza pandemic. Forty years ago the first clusters of HIV/Aids were being detected in major US cities.
In 1894, the year this parish was founded, the US was in the throes of the economic panic of 1893 and still crawling out of the “long depression” (or what was then called “the Great Depression”—it was called that until the 1930s) and in both “great depressions” thousands of businesses failed, unemployment sky-rocketed, wages declined.
All this has happened before…and in many ways 2020 is incredibly precedented. But it does depends on how you look at it.
Some analysts have begun to ask…is it a black swan or a grey rhino? Black swans happen but they cannot be predicted. Grey rhinos on the other hand are obvious dangers with known and devastating impacts, and they can be seen coming from quite a ways off. The COVID pandemic, the 2008 financial crisis, the tragic killings of unarmed people of color, are they black swans…Or are they grey rhinos…Global climate change, income inequality and financial imbalances, the unjust structures that continue to prop up racism and sexism are all clearly grey rhinos…things we have to deal with.
Which is what Jesus actually tells us to do…pay attention to what’s right in front of you. “From the fig tree learn its lesson”…not from a fig tree that suddenly puts forth kumquats…but, from one that puts forth leaves, and so that you know that summer is near. Jesus reminds us that what we should be focused on is not the uncanny but the reality in front of us. We are not to throw up our hands in a “who could have predicted this?” kind of fatalism… but to “keep awake,” become aware of what’s going on and face it with a faithful pragmatism. Which I believe is what we have been doing…and what we will continue to do here…
Advent is a liturgical reset button…a reminder that all of this has happened before…but that doesn’t mean that we are destined to relive it exactly as it happened…we can always learn from all of the previous iterations and make better—more faithful—choices this time around.
This Advent may it be so. Amen.
* This quote appears in many places…Battlestar Galactica for one (spoiler alert), which is where I started. But it’s also the opening line of Peter Pan, and a version appears in the book of Ecclesiastes 1:9. In the final episode of Battlestar Galactica, a character responds to the line with the question, “But the question remains: does all of this have to happen again?” This is the question at the heart of this sermon and the one we have to wrestle with.