What are you waiting for?
My sermon for this Third Sunday in Advent…
May the grace and peace of the anticipated Christ, the incarnate Word, come to you in these words.
The coming of the anointed one – the Messiah, the Christ, the one foretold – is not what we expect. Perhaps this is the message of Advent. Wait. Hope. Anticipate. Prepare. …but as you do these things, be open. Don’t build up your expectations. Don’t presume to know definitively. And so we might start to ask: what are we waiting for? What are we hoping for? Who are we anticipating? For what are we preparing?
We end up in something of a bind. How do we do church if we don’t know what to get ready for? How do we live ready?
In effect, it’s like that message from Romans on the First Sunday of Advent – a couple weeks ago – live honourably. In all you do – in all we do, collectively – do it well, and with a mind for others and the needs of creation.
In a day when we’re keenly aware of changes – decline – in faith community, it’s important to be aware of how the trends affect us directly. It’s important to be aware of outside perceptions of us – and we can work at changing such perceptions! This is from a national newspaper…
At a time of year when many Canadians traditionally turn to their faith, The Globe and Mail [looks] at the state of religion in Canada. What [is] seen is a sea change in 40 years, a march toward secularization that mirrors what’s happened in Europe. A look at the youngest Canadians suggests the transformation is gathering pace. In 2002, 34 per cent of 15-29 year olds said religion was highly important to them. Data from Statistics Canada’s 2009 General Social Survey show that number tumbling to 22 per cent.
Only the persistence of religious traditions among immigrants, whose religiosity has increased slightly over the past 25 years, has slowed the march away from our places of worship.
[That which is attractive about church to] native-born Canadians … these days, says religion sociologist David Seljak of St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont., is the availability of parking, quality of preaching and children’s programs, in that order. It’s not doctrine or liturgy or biblical scripture (The Globe & Mail)
What I take from this is that we need to work at presenting faith tradition better. Parking, preaching, and child-minding – to the exclusion of things like liturgy and biblical literacy – seem inconsequential in the great scheme of things.
In today’s gospel text, we find John the Baptist in prison. Remember last week? We heard about people going to the wilderness to be baptized, and we saw Jesus connecting himself to the baptismal rite that John was carrying out. But Jesus did not seek to continue things exactly as John did them – he changed them. He empowered others to be movement-builders, as well. Today, it’s almost as if John is asking, “hey, is Jesus doing things the way I did them?” And then Jesus has to reframe things for John – look at the effect of doing things this way: people are being empowered, re-socialized, connected again with the community around, and that is changing the structure of society for the better!
And when people begin to look at Jesus as though he may not be doing things quite right, he puts it back on them. Going out to join in a movement never means returning as one left. It automatically means change at some level. Ideally, a movement is to build momentum in order to effect structural change.
“What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” Is that all you were doing? Were you being looky-loos? You make the step to go out there, so evidently you’re in search of something; evidently you see that the societal structures are not perfect. What, then, were you looking for?
And us, here, today, in this place: What are we here for? Surely we don’t come here in order to carry on as we did before. Surely joining in stories, sharing food, and singing together is not just for the edification of our day-to-day lives. If that’s all we came for, why bother?
We know that life is not complete in only the routines of buying groceries, preparing meals, putting in time at the office or other workplace. We know that we need to have our intellects challenged in such a way that we feel whole in body and mind – in spirit – and so this gathering ought to be pushing us to new places. …and then we go back to daily life with a new outlook, and encouragement for others in their perspectives on life. We don’t arrive here expecting to leave here unchanged in some way; if we do, it may be that such gatherings actually are pointless.
Hear the story of someone who was changed, and then could not go on living as he did: In June 2002 in India, Narayanan Krishnan witnessed something that changed his life – he saw an old man suffering from acute hunger and eating his own human waste. Now, Krishnan was a twenty-one year old chef at a five-star hotel, and was being groomed to take a position as a chef in Switzerland. But he left that opportunity, and chose to spend his savings and time feeding people like this destitute and desperate man on the side of the road.
Krishnan would cook at carry food to the impoverished, feeding people one by one. As an old man ate the food given to him, he would hold Krishnan’s hand, giving a very real sensation of a powerful energy. This triggered an experience of inner happiness and fulfillment Krishnan had never felt before. So, this young man began Akshaya Trust.
Akshaya cares for helpless, mentally ill, very old, and the destitute living and dying on Madurai roads in India.
In September 2010, over 400 people are served freshly cooked food, three times per day, costing Rs.15,000 (approx. $337 CAN) per day.
Krishnan said the name Akshaya is Sanskrit for “undecaying” or “imperishable,” and was chosen “to signify [that] human compassion should never decay or perish. … The spirit of helping others must prevail for ever.”
He seeks out the homeless under bridges and in the nooks and crannies between the city’s temples. The hot meals he delivers are simple, tasty vegetarian fare he personally prepares, packs and often hand-feeds to nearly 400 clients each day. (www.akshyatrust.org)
Jesus says that the least in the kingdom is greater than John the Baptist – one who is the greatest of those born of women.
The world is turned on its head. The kingdom is not for those who have the world by the tail – those who have their interests met, the freedom to make choices, food on their plate. The kingdom of heaven is about now, and it’s about those whose needs are not met.
Think for a moment about what that means.
That means that while we may say, “don’t do ministry there unless there’s a noticeable return,” we’re being told, “go and do ministry in those places where there may not be a return.” Go among those who may not be able to pay. Go among those who may make your clothes stink if you happen to rub up against them. Go among those who may not decide to come sit in a pew on Sunday. Go among those who are looking for a place to feel welcome, and included. Go among those… whoever they may be! However old they may be! Whatever characteristic may be a part of who they are! We are called to be with all, and to invite all – to be generous and hospitable for all.
This is such a pivotal piece for what the church is in this day. We – perhaps especially as Lutherans – MUST go to those who are outside of our walls, those who have little interest in what takes place within these walls. Our community may only exist to provide a base for a few of us to go and connect with the throngs of people needing a compassionate word, or a helping hand, or some affirmation of their being.
Some might say that they attend church to meet God. But one might ask: How have you been the presence of Christ, God-incarnate, to others – whether here in this place, or outside this place?
It’s so contrary to our social structures which operate on a business model: if it isn’t paying for itself, don’t do it. If you can’t turn some kind of profit, it doesn’t deserve to exist. But ministry is a reverse-economy. If you treat kingdom of heaven living as a business, you miss the point.
We’re being called to give to causes that won’t give back – at least not in ways we expect. We’re being called to show hospitality to people who can’t repay the favour; we’re being called to be generous with people who may not show generosity themselves.
If you’re looking for a numerical outcome, we may well not get that, either. But take heart in the fact that Jesus had twelve committed followers (well, relatively committed – until the going got tough, anyway!) and Jesus didn’t live lavishly either, getting his meals and accommodations as he went, living on the charity of women. So if we have much, we are reminded that we’re to share of that abundance! Consider less the message of scarcity with which we’re bombarded with in media and commercials, and think more of the great abundance out of which we have to be generous.
That’s the constant challenge. That’s also what we believe and live out in our sacraments. We need to embrace the baptismal life, and Eucharistic sharing, once again.
No one is left out. All receive enough. Grace flows abundantly – some for each and every person.
And we’re empowered to live this way. We’re reminded weekly as we come to this place; we’re driven to live this generous and hospitable way in our daily lives.
It means embracing different living. But that’s good news because the kingdom of heaven – which we can experience even in these days – is life for all.