The purpose of Advent
SERMON: 1 Advent B 12 3 17
Isa64:1-9; Ps80:1-7;1 Cor1:3-9;Mk13:24-37
We've all noticed the great anticipation of the coming of Christ. Or at least Christmas. Or at least of gifts and feasts and holidays. We've all noticed it, haven't we? The stores with Christmas Carols immediately following Halloween. The decorations that sprang up the day after Thanksgiving. Everybody's getting ready for the coming of Christ, aren't they? Aren't they?
If that were true I suspect their prayer of delight at Jesus' coming would go something like this: thank you God for Jesus, who inspires Santa to bring me lots of stuff. Or, thanks for Christmas, I mean Jesus' birthday, when my store sells a lot more stuff. Or something else utterly missing the point of Christmas.
This is why we have the season of Advent. We need time, no matter how many Christmases we've experienced and celebrated, to remember the importance of Christ's birth. So we have this season called Advent, derived from Latin, which means, "coming."
I know. I know. For weeks we had "It's coming!" signs around the church. That was New Consecration Sunday, though. This is something else. Sometimes the spirit of Christmas gets confused with the spirit of the coming of winter. So without being too churchy or critical of those who don't know the difference between Advent and Christmas and winter and a big sale at Macy's, I offer the following timely questions:
What is red, white and blue this time of year? A sad candy cane.
What do you get when you cross a snowman and a vampire? Frostbite.
What did the gingerbread man put on his bed?
Where does Old St. Nick keep his money? In a snow bank. (Obviously.)
And saving the best for last: What is a snowman's favorite Mexican food? Brrrrrrrr-itos!
Now I'd like to go back to Advent. You may have noticed a similarity between this Sunday's readings and a few of the most recent Gospel readings we've had assigned. They warn us to be alert, to be prepared, to pay attention. This is not a subtle message. It can even be scary.
Last Sunday, because our only service was at 4 pm, Molly and I went to St. Paul's in Pleasant Valley. Mother Megan preached on the Gospel, predictably. And she said she was not so sure about the eternal punishment declared for those who failed to welcome, clothe, feed, visit and otherwise care for those in need. Like my friend Megan I believe the message we need to get is that we are being shown a path to a better life and an eternal life when we are instructed on how to follow Jesus. Forget those who always ignore others; forget the times when we fail to care for others. When we do care for others we are preparing for the coming of Christ, and enjoying the life we want to have because it feeds us and fills us with joy and it helps us realize and experience the---are you ready?---the JOY OF CHRISTMAS. The meaning of Christ coming into our lives and our hearts and making us whole.
Now I know I kinda just did something like shout "Alleluia!" during Lent. I realize it. Worse, it was intentional. But that is how important this being attentive/paying attention/ staying awake stuff is in terms of our faith and our vigilance for Jesus. I am a fairly practical person in my faith. I find that when I pray and give thanks and recognize God's active role in the world I live in my life goes smoothly, cheerfully, spiritually. When I fail or forget to do so, the opposite happens. I prefer a happy faith to a grumpy agnosticism. That's why I focus on these messages for us to pay attention.
That was also a large part of our experience of the Renewal Works program during the last year. We took stock of where we were in our respective lives in faith and in our shared life in faith and made some decisions about what we wanted to do differently. The Renewal Works survey showed us where we felt we wanted to change. We ended up selecting five areas for attention. Do you remember what they were?
One goal was to experience an instructed celebration of the Holy Eucharist. On April 30 I conducted instructed Eucharists at both the 8 and 10 am service. I explained the different portions of the service, the readings, the music and the prayers, then paid special attention to the Eucharistic portion and the commemoration of Christ's Last Supper. The response was gratifying and we said we'd repeat the Instructed Eucharist once each year.
Musical diversity was another goal of our Renewal Works engagement. The most striking example of its fruit is our "Caribbean hallelujah" which precedes the Gospel reading at the 10 am service each Sunday. The organ restoration and use of other instruments in church also reflect this goal.
The Renewal Works program reports that most parishes that use their program seek to embed the Bible in more of their church activity and everyday life. We were no exception: a new Bible Study program was initiated on two Tuesday evenings each month at St. Paul's.
That actually led to our fourth area of focus: offering the Daily Office more frequently. The Daily Office is a cycle of prayer services, the key ones being Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer and Compline. Your Vestry voted to organize committee meeting at St. Paul's to begin or end with Morning or Evening Prayer or Compline. Since initiating this program we have offered the Daily Office two to three times per week.
Enough curiosity about Anglicanism led us to establish a tutorial in three parts which deals with Anglicanism's careful balance of scripture, tradition and reason in its worship worldwide. Presentations were planned on these features and Anglican tradition has been presented at an evening forum with a very positive response from the congregation.
Presentations on scripture and reason are slated for this month. Our Formation Committee has planned a comprehensive Renewal Works update during the month of Advent, as we watchfully await the coming of Christ. We will use this time to reconnect with our experience in prior Advent and Christmas seasons and to reconnect with the work our parish has done in the past year under the rubric of Renewal Works.
The venue for this Advent adventure will be our traditional Advent supper series. There are only three Wednesdays between the First Sunday of Advent (today) and Christmas: Dec. 6, 13 and 20. Our practice is to have a signup sheet in the narthex for folks who intend to participate. Someone brings soup, someone brings bread, someone brings juice, and in the following weeks other people bring those things. Please consider signing up for this spiritual outing.
On Dec. 6 our Renewal Works facilitator, Aleen Josephs Clarke, will guide us through our process in the preceding months and help us to see clearly the decisions for the five elements chosen at St. Paul's. We will explore in more depth than I've presented today what we've done, why we've done it and where we hope it will take us.
Wednesday, Dec. 13 Warden Mark Debald will speak on the subject of Anglican reason, the thinking behind Anglicanism from its very roots to the present.
On Wednesday Dec. 20 I will talk about Anglican handling of scripture and the "via media" or middle road chosen by Anglican theologians and philosophers over our denomination's 500 year history.
From experience and from a considerable amount of reading and learning I've had on the subject I can tell you: spiritual deepening does not light on a person like a holy butterfly. It takes attention, exploration, discussion and determination to resolve our own, personal, unique relationship with God. That may sound arduous. I suppose it is. But it is lovely labor in pursuit of closeness of the one which gives us our life and our purpose.
Please ask yourself if you would like to deepen your faith and weigh carefully whether this is a unique opportunity to do just that. And plan to attend our three Wednesday sessions Dec. 6, 13 and 20. Whether or not you choose to attend, may God bless you and guide you in that direction. Amen
A sermon given at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY Dec. 3, 2017 by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector