The Stuff of Stars
I had a little down time this week, and I enjoyed getting to some of the books I’ve had stacked up around the house, waiting to be read. In particular, I read several books by John Polkinghorne. Polkinghorne is a British theoretical physicist, theologian, writer, and Anglican priest, an unlikely combination of professions. He writes about the relationship between science and religion. Now, math and physics were not my best subjects in school, but I was really riveted by his explanation of what is called Anthropic Fine-tuning. Anthropic fine-tuning describes how our universe is uniquely set-up to make our life possible, down to the sub-atomic level. This is not just that the Earth is exact right distance from the sun to support human life; it goes much deeper than that. There are six numbers, six constants, which govern how atoms and sub-atomic particles interact with each other. For instance, the number described by physicists as N is the ratio of the strength of the electrical forces that hold atoms together to the strength of gravity. It is about 10 to the 36th power, that is one with 36 zeros after it. Lambda controls the acceleration of the long-range expansion of the universe. Its value is about 10 to the negative 120th power. Epsilon defines how firmly atomic nuclei bind together. It is about .007. It turns out, Polkinghorne writes, that if any of these numbers were appreciably different from their presently observed values, not only would there be no life on Earth, but there would, as far as anyone can tell, be no prospect of intelligent life anywhere in the universe. To give one example. If N, that 1 with 36 zeros after it, were even slightly higher, all stars in the universe would be blue giants, and if it were slightly lower, all stars would be red dwarfs. Because red dwarfs don’t explode to make supernovae, there would be no second-generation stars and no carbon, oxygen, and so on available to make life on planets. And blue giants have lifetimes of the order of tens or hundreds of millions years, which is much shorter than the four billion years or so that seem to be required for the evolution of intelligent life. To give an idea of just how fine-tuned these numbers are, Polkinghorne considers Omega, which measures the amount of material in our universe and gives the relative importance of gravity and expansion energy. At the beginning of the universe, say one second after the big bang, Omega would have had to be between .99 (sixteen 9‘s) and 1.0000 (fifteen zeros...1), that is within one part in 10 to the 15th power of 1. Well, imagine you are making a sponge cake and the recipe calls for equal quantities of flour and granulated sugar. A grain of sugar is about .5 mm across, so to get a quantity of granulated sugar right to within one part in 10 to the 15th power, you’d need 10 to the 15th power of such grains, which would be equivalent to about 180,000 tone of sugar. Or suppose you are putting a golf ball. A hole is 108 mm in diameter, and the ball is 42.67 mm in diameter, so let us say for simplicity that you have to get the ball within 100 mm of the center of the hole. The world record hole-in-one distance is apparently 448 yards or 410 meters. So the best hole-in-one has an accuracy of about one part in 4100. One part in 10 to the 15th power would be getting a hole-in-one from 10 to the 11th power km away - which is about thirteen times the maximum distance from Earth to Pluto. The universe appears to be extremely fine-tuned to make life possible.
So, how did this come about? There are, Polkinghorne writes, essentially four possibilities:
As I said, I’m just fascinated by all of this. I know that some of you have struggled a bit with how to square scientific theories like the big bang and evolution with your faith and with what the bible says. Polkinghorne’s work suggests that there is room within science for God, and that there is room in the bible for science. As I studied our gospel lesson this week, I was struck how John, who wrote almost two thousand years ago in a pre-scientific age, almost seems to be aware of modern scientific theories, and how he makes room for them. John begins his gospel with “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and Word was God.” He is, I think, almost certainly intentionally trying to echo the words from the very beginning of the bible, from Genesis: “ In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” Both Genesis and John make the same point: before there was anything, there was God. And in both Genesis and John, God creates through the Word. In Genesis, God says, “Let there be light,” and there was light. John uses the Greek word logos, which is translated in our bibles “Word.” Logos is more than a part of speech, more than simple communication. Logos implies a will and intention, a mindfulness, even an action. Logos reflects what God is thinking, what God desires, what God wants, what God does, what God brings into being, what God creates. This finely tuned universe we inhabit can be understood as one magnificent expression of God’s logos, one way that God’s will and desire is revealed. And John says that Jesus is also the Logos, Jesus is the word of God. When John calls Jesus the Logos, what he is saying is that in Jesus, God speaks God’s mind. In Jesus, we see what it means to be fully and completely human. In Jesus, we see the potential that exists in each of us to be truly children of God. In Jesus, we see how God calls us to live this life. I think part of what God shows us in Jesus is someone who is more fully conscious and intentional in their interactions with others. Instead of automatically shying away from or avoiding people on the margins, or people who are sick and might have a contagious disease, or people who are from different walks of life, Jesus works to bring people into the center, works to bring healing to people who need it, works to bring people together. Instead of jumping to conclusions about why the lonely woman is at the well by herself in the middle of the day, Jesus tries to show her that she is a beloved child of God, despite what her culture says. Instead of assuming that Zaccheus is corrupt and evil because he is a tax collector, Jesus invites himself over for dinner. Even while he is dying on the cross and being taunted by the soldiers and crowds below, instead of lashing out at them, he tries to make sure that his mother and friends will be cared for after he is gone. In Jesus, God shows us what life can be like when we are not stuck in bad habits of relating to one another, not stuck in automatic routines that deny that we ourselves and the people we meet are beloved children of God, not stuck in knee jerk responses of lashing out when we feel attacked.
Within a few seconds of the big bang some fourteen billion years, all the matter and energy that would ever be created was brought into being. The ratio of hydrogen and helium was perfectly suited to combine into bigger atoms like oxygen and nitrogen and to one day result in life here on earth. The very fabric of the universe, the forces that hold atoms together, was finely tuned to make our lives possible. The same matter that makes up the stars in the heavens combined to make human beings: you and I are made of the same stuff that stars are made of. And if that isn’t miracle enough for you, God spoke again through the person of Jesus. Jesus was made of the same matter that we are; Jesus was made of the stuff of stars. In Jesus, we see how God would have us live, we see our God-given potential. We see what it means to be a child of God; what it means to be a child of the stars. That is the miracle, that is the good news, of this Christmas season. Amen.
A light-hearted story by way of an introduction. Billy was six years old the year that he asked his mother for a bike for Christmas. Not a tricycle – he already had one of those -- but a real, grown-up two-wheeler. He explained to her that he knew he’d have to use training wheels for awhile, but that was okay. And, he’d only ride it in the driveway, and around the circle of their cul-de-sac, where there was hardly ever any traffic. He’d even wear a helmet if his mom thought he really had to. He could already see the bike in his head – shiny red, with silver handlebars and a black leather seat and a loud horn. Billy’s mother sighed, and said, “Well, I guess you better ask Santa.” Billy did not like that answer, not one bit. Last year, when he was five, he asked Santa for a puppy. Christmas morning came and went: no puppy. His mom explained that Santa had thought about it carefully, and didn’t think it was a good idea for them to have a puppy because both Billy’s parents worked long hours and there would be no one to take care of it. The year before, when he was four years old, Billy had asked Santa for a cell phone. Both his mom and dad had cellphones, and they talked on them a lot, and Billy figured if he had a cellphone, maybe he could call them. Christmas morning that year came and went: no cellphone. His dad explained that Santa thought he was just too young for a cellphone. Maybe when he was twelve, but that seemed like a long way off. Anyways, Billy was not about to put his hopes on Santa again; he’d been disappointed too many times. So, Billy went up to his room and sat on his bed and tried to figure out what to do. Then it came him. For the last couple of weeks, Billy had been rehearsing for the Christmas pageant at church. This was the first year he was in the pageant, and he was pretty excited. He was going to be a shepherd, with a cool robe and a weird hat thingy and the best part of all: a really big stick with a hook on the end, which he knew was NOT to be used to hit anyone with, even though he sometimes sorta forgot. Billy and his family had only started attending church recently, something, he’d heard his mom say to his dad, that was important “for the children.” He’d learned a little bit about Jesus, enough to know he was a pretty important guy. And, just a few weeks ago, his Sunday School teacher had told his class about Jesus doing miracles, like feeding five thousand people with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. This gave Billy an idea. He got off his bed and went over to his desk and took out a piece of paper and a pencil. Then he started a letter. “Dear Jesus,” he wrote, hoping that he was spelling his name right. They never really talked about spelling in Sunday School, which was a relief because sometimes it felt like that was the ONLY thing they talked about in regular school. He kept writing: “Would you please give me a bike for Christmas?” He paused. He knew that Christmas was really Jesus’s birthday. Shouldn’t he be giving Jesus a present instead? But it was also Christmas, and people give presents on Christmas. Besides, they had learned a song in Sunday School, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” So he thought it was probably alright to ask Jesus for a bike. He wrote, “I have been good for six months.” He looked at that for a minute or two, and then he carefully crossed out “six months” and wrote “three months.” He frowned, thinking about that fight he had with his sister on Thanksgiving that had landed him in time out. He crossed out “three months,” and wrote “two weeks.” But there was that little incident with the big shepherd’s stick at pageant rehearsal just a couple of days ago. Billy thought some more. Finally, he got up and went downstairs. He made sure his mom was busy in the kitchen, and then he snuck into the family room where the nativity scene was set up. He carefully picked up the little figure of Mary, and then he quietly went back upstairs. He opened his dresser drawer and wrapped Mary in a t-shirt, gently put her under a pile of socks, and closed the drawer. Then he walked back to his desk, sat down, took out a clean piece of paper, and started a new letter. “Dear Jesus,” he wrote, “If you ever want to see your mother again…”
Poor Billy isn’t the only one to get it wrong. Once again, we’ve spent the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas getting into arguments over nativity scenes in public places and angrily debating whether to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy holidays.” We’ve seen the news coverage of shoppers knocking each other down in stores as they try to save a few bucks, and we’ve wrung our hands about the rampant consumerism that has overtaken the holiday. And despite our resolutions just a few weeks ago to simplify our own celebrations so that we’re not so stressed, to get our shopping done ahead of time so we’re not dealing with the traffic and the crowds at the mall at the last minute, to cut back on extravagant gift-giving and give our credit cards a break, to take it easy with the eggnog and the cookies and the cheese dip, here we are, at least some of us: exhausted and stressed out. For others, despite our best efforts, we once again find ourselves feeling down. Christmas brings up memories of every other Christmas, and sometimes those memories are bittersweet as we remember people we love but see no longer, as we remember better times. Or we have a sense that somehow, other people are enjoying the holiday more than we are able to, and we wonder what is the matter with us.
There’s one thing, though, that I think we’ve all gotten right tonight: we’re here in church. Now, I know we’re all here for different reasons. Some of us are here because we love singing “Silent Night” by candlelight. Others are here because we want to see our children and grandchildren in the pageant. Some like to hear the familiar readings once again, that wonderful passage from Isaiah, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Or the familiar story from Luke, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn,” even though we really wish it still said “swaddling clothes” instead of bands of cloth. Some want the opportunity to say our prayers, and to receive communion. And I’ll bet some of us, I’m sure only a couple of us, really, would rather not be here at all, and can’t wait to get home. Whatever brought you here tonight, whatever reason you have for being here, welcome. I hope our worship provides a measure of peace and joy for you on this most holy night.
The story of Jesus’s birth that we just heard from Luke and which our young people will present in a few minutes is so familiar and beautiful that you probably know a lot of it by heart. Joseph and Mary travel from their home in Nazareth to the city of David called Bethlehem. When they get there, there’s no room for them in the inn, and they sleep in a stable. Mary gives birth to Jesus in that stable, and lays him in a manger: a humble birthplace for any child, much less the Messiah, the son of God. Luke tells us that Jesus’s birth is announced by an angel. But the angel doesn’t go to the king, doesn’t appear to the important people in government, to the high society types, or the news media. Rather, the angel appears to a ragtag bunch of shepherds out in the country. They are terrified, and I expect if I ever saw an angel, I’d be frightened, too. The angel says, “Do not be afraid (as if that ever helped anyone to not be frightened); I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Anyways, you know the rest. Luke tells us how Jesus, the Messiah, is born in humble surroundings, worshiped by simple, lowly shepherds.
What Luke doesn’t quite explain is what all of this means. For that, we look to John’s version of the Christmas story, which Lina read for our second lesson. While Luke’s version gives us the details, John’s version tries to explain what it means. John writes in a sort of dense theological way as he tries to explain who Jesus is. In the beginning, John writes, was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. Finally, John writes, this Word became flesh in Jesus Christ, became flesh and lived among us. But I think John sensed that this was still not clear enough, and so he sums it up at the end of the passage. He writes, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” In other words, if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Look at Jesus who surrounded himself with the poor, the sick, the marginalized, and the untouchables. Look at Jesus who was criticized by the religious elite for hanging out with sinners. Look at Jesus who treated women with dignity and respect at a time when that was unheard of. Look at Jesus who taught his disciples to love their enemies, to give without expecting anything in return, to overcome evil with love. Look at Jesus who wept when his friend died, who suffered on the cross, who forgave those who persecuted him. The Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood puts it this way: “The historic Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ does not simply mean that Jesus is like God. It is far more radical than that. It means that God is like Jesus.” It means that God suffers, God forgives, God cares for the poor, God cares for the sick, God loves God’s enemies.
Maybe, like me, you sometimes have your doubts about God. I struggle to make sense of the violence and suffering in the world, I ask why innocent people are killed, why good people get cancer, why life is so hard and seems to involve so much pain. I know better than to ask Jesus for a bicycle for Christmas, but I hesitate even to pray for health or world peace because I fear I’ll be disappointed and I don’t like to think about what not getting something I pray for says about either me or God. But the hope that I take from this holy night, the hope that I’ll try to remember tomorrow and the next day and next week when the happy Christmas memories have faded, is this hope of the incarnation. God loved us enough to become like us. When God wanted to show us what God is like, God showed us Jesus. That is the good news this Christmas night, the hope of our faith. I pray that it is the hope that will sustain us through the rest of the year. Merry Christmas.
Dreams and dreamers
On Thursday night, a friend of mine and I went to the Memorial Art Gallery. I hadn’t been for a couple of years, and I enjoyed seeing some of my favorite paintings from their permanent collection, as well as some paintings I didn’t remember seeing before. But the real treat of the evening was a special exhibition called “Memory Theater.” The exhibition explores, through art, how memory shapes both personal and cultural identities. There were a couple of really cool artworks. One, called “Memory Cloud” by Judith Levy, featured hundreds of small slide viewers suspended from the ceiling. You peer into the viewers and see photographs, people lined up and smiling, posing outside houses or next to cars. It was like looking through the photo albums of other families. I recently spent a lot of time digitizing my dad’s slides, pictures he took when we were kids. And the photos in the little slide viewers were familiar, even though of course I didn’t know the people in them. There’s a young mother sitting in a chair with her newborn infant. There’s the family dressed up for some occasion, the older boy looking awkward in that adolescent way and the younger girl with her hair done up. In some photos, people smile in a natural, sunny way, and others look like there’s just been a bit of an argument, or that perhaps the photo session has gone on a little too long. I could have spent hours peering into the little viewers at the pictures.
Another installation invited viewers to write on sticky notes either something they wish they could remember, or something about their earliest memory. The responses were fascinating. There were of course the somewhat obnoxious answers that probably were posted by bored teenagers. But there were also things like, “I wish I could remember what my mom was like before she started drinking,” or “I wish I could remember what my grandfather’s voice sounded like.” The responses filled a wall, covering up layer upon layer of earlier post-its, and I could have spend hours leafing through them, as well.
Several of the artworks, and several of the quotes posted around the gallery, warned about the fallibility of memory, how we tend to remember things that never happened, or how our memories of events shift and change over time so that our memories bear little resemblance to the truth. Mark Twain was quoted as saying, “When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened.” Now, there were other quotes I wanted to remember, but I left my phone in my coat hanging outside the gallery. The irony of this situation is not lost on me. In any case, if you have some free time this holiday week, or maybe some restless houseguests, you might consider visiting the Memorial Art Gallery and checking out this exhibition on memory – it closes on the 29th.
Memory is a tricky thing, and I suspect that as we read the story about Joseph and his dream in Matthew’s gospel this morning that most of us were remembering all the rest of the Christmas story. There’s the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, and the conversation the two of them have before Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” There’s the long trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the Roman census, a trip undertaken in spite of the fact that Mary is very, very pregnant. There’s no room in the inn, so there’s the stable with the cows and the donkey, and Jesus born and wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in the manger. There are the shepherds in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night, and the angels appearing to them and singing “Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth!” and sending them to Bethlehem. All of those beautiful details are implanted so clearly in our memories from countless Christmas pageants and television specials and nativity scenes and Christmas eve services. But this is where our memories deceive us. None of those details, the angel and Mary and the census and the stable and the manger and the angels and the shepherds, none of them are in Matthew’s gospel: they are in Luke’s gospel. Luke’s gospel tells us about the birth of Jesus from Mary’s perspective; Matthew tells us about Jesus’s birth from Joseph’s perspective. In Luke’s account, Mary talks to the angel Gabriel; in Matthew’s account, only the angel speaks, and then only in a dream: Joseph remains silent. Luke’s account is long and detailed and vivid; Matthew’s account is spare, maybe leaving us longing for just a bit more information. Today I’d like to look closely at Matthew’s version of Jesus’s birth and explore what Matthew may be trying to tell us about how God works and how God is inviting us to live.
Matthew starts his story in a simple, forthright way, filling us in on some background information. Mary is engaged to Joseph. Marriage in the ancient world worked a bit differently than it does today. An engagement was really a legal contract: for all intents and purposes, Mary is married to Joseph, even though they are not yet living together. So, when it turns out that Mary is pregnant, it really means she has committed adultery. Matthew tells us, the readers, that Mary’s child is from the Holy Spirit, but Joseph doesn’t know that yet. Matthew tells us that Joseph is a righteous man, he is a just man, meaning he does his best to follow the law, he tries to do the right thing. Under the law, Joseph has an obligation to divorce Mary because she has committed adultery. If Joseph divorces Mary publicly, it will bring great shame on her and on her child, and she will be forced to live out the rest of her days on the margins of society, trying to beg or steal enough food to eat. Although it is within his rights to do that, in fact it is what is expected of Joseph or any man in his situation, Joseph can’t bring himself to punish Mary in that way. He decides to divorce her quietly, not make a big deal about it, and thus give her a small chance at starting over and rebuilding her life. But Matthew tells us that just as Joseph resolves to do this, an angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream and says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will saved people from their sins.” And then Matthew explains what this means. He writes, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ Maybe those words sounded familiar to you this morning, because we read that in our lesson from Isaiah, from chapter seven: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Now, I know some of you have seen programs on television or read articles about whether or not Mary was in fact a virgin. That whole discussion revolves around how these two verses, the original verse from Isaiah and Matthew’s quotation of it, have been translated over the centuries. Isaiah writes in Hebrew, and the word he uses is almah, which is most often translated ‘young woman’ in our bibles today. Matthew writes in Greek, and when he opened up his Greek version of Isaiah and turned to this verse, he found the Greek word parthenos, which most often means virgin, but can also mean young woman. This is the sort of thing that gets biblical scholars excited, but I don’t know that it provides a cut and dried answer to the question. I think if Mary’s virginity is important to your understanding of who she was and who Jesus was, that is well and good and there is plenty of support for that view in the bible and in our tradition. If, on the other hand, you find Mary’s virginity to be a sort of roadblock, something you can’t get your head around, something that you just can’t swallow, I think that there is space for you in the biblical accounts and in our tradition. One of the great gifts of the Episcopal church, and one of the main reasons I am an Episcopalian and why I wanted to be ordained in this church, is that we make room for questions and for doubts; in fact, we welcome them.
In any case, back to our story. When Joseph wakes up from this dream, his life, which was already a mess, is now even more complicated. Joseph had figured what he thought was the right thing to do in the situation, a solution that met his legal obligation and showed some compassion for Mary. But God is asking for more. God is asking for more than righteousness, more than the just thing, more than even the decent thing: God is asking Joseph to be gracious. God is asking Joseph to take Mary as his wife, and to in essence adopt her child as his own. And for reasons that I cannot completely comprehend, Joseph does exactly that. He doesn’t ask questions, he doesn’t moan, “Oh, why me?”, he doesn’t make excuses or try and weasel his way out. Martin Copenhaver, a preacher and writer I like a lot, puts it this way: “No wonder Matthew seems to have a particular fondness for Joseph. Here is a righteous man who surveys a mess he had nothing to do with creating and decides to believe that God is present in it. With every reason to discount it all, to walk away from it in search of a neater and more controlled life with a more conventional wife, Joseph does not do that. He claims the scandal, he owns the mess, he legitimates it, and the mess becomes the place where the Messiah is born.”
Maybe your life has not turned out exactly how you thought it would. A promotion you wanted went to someone else. The relationship you thought would last a lifetime ended after a few years. The nest egg you planned to live on in retirement took a hit in the great recession and you’re left with much less than you hoped. Maybe you’re tempted to walk out the door and keep going, hoping to outrun the mess you leave behind. Maybe it seems like you have fewer and fewer options, that you’re being backed into a corner and there’s no way out. I think the good news of this simple story from Matthew is that God is with us in the messiness of our lives. God works through broken dreams, devastating disappointments, and impossible situations, breaking into the world in unexpected ways. Whatever you remember about this simple story from Matthew, even if you add back in the shepherds and the angels and the stable and the cows and the manger, I hope you will remember this: God is with us, in the simple, mundane, messiness of our everyday lives. Maybe remembering that can help us to be like Joseph, to do more than the right thing, more than the just thing, even more than the decent thing: Maybe remembering that God is with us can help us do the grace-filled thing when the chips are down. Maybe remembering that God is with us can help us to bring new life into the world even when that seems impossible. Amen.
Look & see, Listen & hear, Go & tell
Our minds have an amazing facility with metaphors. Consider for instance: we know that a blanket of snow will not keep us warm, whereas snow white fleece will not be icy and cold, but rather soft and fluffy. And, if I give a Snow White fleece to a young female relative, she may enjoy wearing her new pullover with a silk screened picture of a pure and innocent Disney heroine singing with her seven dwarves.
Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology, neurology, and neurosurgery at Stanford University studies how our brains process metaphors. It seems our ability to understand metaphor is embedded in the parts of our brain that handle our reactions to physical stimuli like smells, sounds, and sensations. For instance, if you smell or eat something disgusting, the neurons in an area of the brain called the insula are activated. Similarly, if you think about or read about someone eating or smelling something disgusting, those same neurons activate. Now, say you read in the newspaper about an old widow whose home was foreclosed by a sleazy mortgage company, her medical insurance was canceled on flimsy grounds, and she got a lousy, exploitative offer at the pawn shop where she tried to hock her wedding ring. You start thinking, those people are scum, they’re worse than maggots, they’re cockroaches…and the same insula activate. Think about something shameful or rotten that you did once, and the same thing happens. Not only do the insula manage sensory disgust, reacting to bad smells or tastes, they manage moral disgust as well.
Another example: when you stub your toe, a part of your brain called the anterior cingulate activates. When you see someone in pain, say your child getting a shot at the doctor’s office, the same region lights up, as if you were actually in pain yourself. And if you read an article in the paper about suffering halfway around the world, again, your anterior cingulate responds. The higher functioning levels of the frontal cortex can usually sort out the difference between the three situations, but at a basic level, the brain responds to them identically.
This way that our brains mix the literal and the metaphorical is demonstrated in several really interesting experiments. In one, volunteers were asked to recall either a moral or immoral act in their past. Afterwards, they were offered a token gift of appreciation of a pencil or a package of antiseptic wipes. The folks who had recalled an immoral act in their past were more likely to go for the wipes, their brains confusing the difference between being a dirty scoundrel and being in need of a bath. In another experiment, volunteers holding a hot cup of coffee were more likely to rate an individual as having a warmer personality than volunteers holding iced coffee, even though both groups were reading the same description of the individual. Similarly, volunteers evaluating job applicants were more likely to rate the same resumes as belonging to more serious candidates if they were on heavier clipboards.
I found all of this information about how our brains mix and sometimes confuse reality and metaphor fascinating, partly because it I think it might let us off the hook a little bit. You’ve probably had the experience of being unable to shake a gloomy mood when it’s dark and cloudy outside, or being unable to respond in a sunny way to a friend’s good news when you were feeling under the weather. Those responses are at least in part due to the way our brains are wired; they don’t have to be our final response, because the more sophisticated parts of our frontal cortex can reason through the situations and adjust, but maybe we don’t have to feel bad about them. So, in reading this morning’s gospel from Matthew, I wonder how John the Baptist’s physical environment played into his attitude about and his question to Jesus. Our reading finds John in prison. I imagine him thinking back on his life. Things had seemed so clear out in the desert. God had called John to proclaim repentance, to urge the people to be baptized and confess their sins, and he’d been good at it. Great crowds had come out to the desert to be baptized by him in the river Jordan, they had confessed their sins, they had made themselves ready for the coming of the kingdom of heaven. The people really responded to John, especially when he called the religious elites hypocrites and a brood of vipers, intimating that their time was coming. The crowds kept coming, and John got a bit more confident, maybe a little over-confident. Not only are the Pharisees doomed, he preached, but Herod the King himself is a sinner because he has married his brother’s wife. Now, it’s one thing to criticize the Pharisees, but another thing entirely to preach against the king, and John finds himself arrested, bound, and imprisoned deep in Herod’s palace. It’s dark down there in the dungeon, and damp, and John is depressed. The presence of God that had filled him with such confidence, the fire of God that lit him up inside so bright that he was beacon to thousands of people who came to see him in the desert, that light has deserted him. In the gloom of his cell, John is facing the truth: he’ll either die here in prison of starvation and disease, or Herod will execute him. In growing despair, he wonders why God called him to preach only to abandon him.
Then one day, some friends of John come to visit. They do their best to cheer him up, and he tries to respond and be positive, but he’s not real successful. Finally, one of them tells him about the strange stories people are telling about this fellow Jesus. John perks up a little, remembering that odd day at the Jordan river when Jesus had come to him and asked to be baptized. John hadn’t felt comfortable, somehow sensing that Jesus should have baptized him instead, but Jesus had insisted. After that day, Jesus had faded from sight again; some folks said he was off in the desert praying. Now John’s friends tell him he’s re-appeared. This Jesus has been touching and healing lepers, and curing epileptics and paralytics and those in pain. He’s been casting out demons, and he even raised a young girl from the dead. And such strange things he says! Blessed are the poor in spirit! Blessed are those who mourn! Blessed are meek!
John thinks back to that day at the Jordan, to that strange feeling he had about Jesus. And not sure what he hopes the answer will be, he tells his friends to go find Jesus and ask him: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Maybe, John doesn’t even dare let himself hope, but maybe, Jesus is the one, and any day now, he’ll be taking his winnowing fork out and judging between the wheat and the chaff. Maybe, John lets himself think, just maybe Jesus is about to put his ax to Herod’s rotten tree, chop him down, cast him into the fire, and free John from this prison. Maybe the kingdom of heaven has really come and his life will be saved.
John’s friends do what he asks, they go find Jesus, and pose John’s question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” And Jesus answers them: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” But that’s no answer at all, John thinks when he hears it. He’d already heard about the miraculous healings, about the dead being raised, about good news preached to the poor. John wants to know is Jesus the one who’ll free him from this prison? Is Jesus going to get on with the job of separating the good and the evil? And anyway, John knows what Jesus is saying, he’s quoting Isaiah chapter 35, the same reading we heard earlier this morning. John can quote Isaiah, too: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” “When a trumpet is blown, listen! For before the harvest, he will cut off the shoots with pruning hooks, and spreading branches he will hew away. They shall all be left to the bird of prey of the mountains and to the animals of the earth.”
John’s friends can understand his skepticism; they’d been skeptical themselves, but then, they’d actually seen Jesus in action. And with the way John keeps ranting, they’re relieved they hadn’t told him the rest of story. Jesus not only healed the leper, he actually touched him, making himself unclean in the process. And Jesus healed the sick, yes, but sometimes he chose the strangest people to help, like that servant of a Roman soldier. And he hangs out with such weird people, people like tax collectors and sinners, the very people they’re pretty sure John thinks will be cast into the fire when the kingdom of heaven comes.
I suspect that John was unable to see who Jesus really was both because of the physical prison Herod had put him in, and because of the metaphorical prison he had built for himself out of the beliefs and expectations he had for the kingdom of Heaven. Expecting that the kingdom would be a time of separating the good from the bad, the right from the wrong, he was confused by Jesus’s inclusion of everyone. Expecting the kingdom would come along like a tidal wave and wash away all the evildoers in one fell swoop, John can’t understand Jesus healing one leper here, one sick person there: I mean, John thinks, there are hundreds and thousands of people in need! Expecting the kingdom would mean good thing for good people and bad things for bad, John can’t figure out why he’s still in prison. It’s easy for us to fall into the same sort of trap. Our lives, the pressures of work, of making ends meet and keeping up with our busy schedules can become prisons; our certainty that life will unfold according to a plan we think we see can limit our ability to be open to other opportunities, to appreciate how God is working in the world around us. Jesus’s reply to John’s question is good advice: Look, see the broken made whole, see the dead brought to life, see the lost who have been found. Listen, hear the good news of a table big enough for everyone, hear the good news that those who are last will be first, hear the good news proclaimed that there will be comfort for the afflicted. And when you have looked and seen, listened and heard, go and tell your friends, that they may know, also. It seems to me that this process of seeing, hearing, and telling is an especially appropriate and important thing for us to do during this season of Advent.
In A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge is trapped in prisons physical and metaphorical, all largely of his own making. A man of great wealth, he lives huddled near the fireplace in his bedroom, eating gruel, cut off from the world, bitter and alone. He declines invitations to join family for dinner, he chases away people asking for assistance, he knows nothing about the life and struggles of the family of his employee, Bob Cratchit. His journey through that long Christmas Eve night is really an Advent journey. The Ghost of Christmas Past shows him that his life wasn’t always this way: he had opportunities for loving relationships with others, chances he squandered in his blind pursuit of wealth. The Ghost of Christmas Present shows him yes, the hardship of those around him, but also the joy they take in their simple celebrations, and the care and concern they express for him, albeit sometimes grudgingly. And the Ghost of Christmas Future shows him his death, unmarked and unmourned. The Ghosts help Ebenezer to look and listen to his life, to see through the prison he had constructed for himself. In that way, they helped him free himself, flinging wide his windows on Christmas morning to greet the day, buy a turkey for the Cratchits, and make plans to visit his nephew for dinner. You and I are unlikely to get help from ghosts of this sort, but this process of examining our lives, past and present and future, of identifying those prisons of addiction, unhealthy relationships, and other behaviors and beliefs that are trapping us, is a healthy exercise, a good exercise for this Advent season.
As I’ve thought about my own life this past week, I’ve found it helpful to let metaphors guide the process. Where in my life do I feel trapped? What smells dead or rotten? Who has me running in circles, chasing my own tail? What am I clinging to for dear life, and what, in that process, am I letting slip through my fingers? Where are the trees I’d like to lay an ax to, the branches I’d like to prune and leave out for the birds to pick at this winter? What little sprouts of new growth do I want to be sure I’ve protected from the icy winds, what am I mulching carefully, planning for a resurrection of new blooms in the springtime? Maybe some of these questions are helpful for you, or maybe you have your own. I pray that we’ll will follow Jesus’ advice this week, and look for the places in our lives and our world where the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. May we look and see, listen and hear, and go and tell. Amen.
Mandela, Wilderness & Repentance
This week, Nelson Mandela died at the age of 95. I doubt you could have missed the news coverage. Due to his advanced age and declining health, major media organizations had their remembrances largely completed and ready to go, so they were on the air almost immediately. I know that for some, Mandela was a controversial figure, and by his own admission, he was no saint. One of my favorite quotes from him goes, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” Over the years, the more I learned about Nelson Mandela, the more fascinating, and really, appealing, I found him. You know the story of how he was born and raised in a relatively affluent family of tribal royalty, got involved as a young man in the anti-apartheid movement, and was imprisoned for life for his efforts. He said at the trial, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and see realized. But,” he continued, “if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Mandela was in prison for some 27 years. Stories abound of his graciousness and kindness while in prison; he would receive visits from government officials and foreign dignitaries and make a point of introducing the guards assigned to keep watch on him; years later, he invited one of the wardens to his presidential inauguration. Due to increasing pressure internationally and unmanageable civil unrest at home, the South African authorities tried to get him to accept conditions such exiling himself from the country or renouncing violent resistance in exchange for his early release, and he repeatedly refused. Finally, the day that no one thought would ever come, came, and on February 11, 1990, the South African government released Mandela. After his release, he worked to make sure that South Africa did not disintegrate into civil war, but rather transitioned from apartheid to democracy peacefully. He remembered thinking, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” He reminded South Africans, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then your enemy becomes your partner.” He insisted that blacks and whites learn to live together, promoted the process of truth and reconciliation as the means by which that would happen, saying, “If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.” And after being elected South Africa’s first black president, he stepped down after a single term, insisting that he did not want to be an octogenarian president, and that democracy and freedom must prevail.
I enjoyed getting to know other sides of Nelson Mandela in the media remembrances this week, more human sides. His quiet sense of humor appeals to me. After being elected president, he joked, “In my country, we go to prison first, then become president.” He said, “It is wise to persuade people to do things and make them think it was their own idea.” On NBC, Brian Williams interviewed Richard Stengel, who wrote several books about Mandela and spent a lot of time with him over the years. The interview recounted Mandela’s pragmatic side. Stengel remembers traveling around South Africa with Mandela, and whenever they would meet young children, he would ask them what they had for breakfast, wanting to know if they had enough to eat. Brian Williams recalled interviewing Mandela shortly after he was elected president, and he asked him what was his biggest, most important goal for the country, and Mandel replied, “Regular trash collection,” recognizing the practical realities of governing. Many commentators probed just what made Mandela who he was, what kept him grounded and down to earth and gifted with a self-deprecating sense of humor and committed to reconciliation and forgiveness. He said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies,” and “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” And maybe my favorite Mandela quote, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background or his religion. People learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
This quality, of turning anger and hatred into love, forgiveness and reconciliation, is I think ultimately what the world finds so appealing about Nelson Mandela. No one had more reason to be bitter, to want to lash out, to want to get revenge for everything that was done to him and his people, and no one I think acted with more grace, displayed more quiet courage and resolve, or set a better example of what it means to forgive, what it means to love your enemies as yourself. Mandela wrote in his book Long Walk to Freedom, “I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people. There was no particular day on which I said, Henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.” As I listened to, read, and watched all the remembrances about Nelson Mandela this week, and as I studied our gospel reading for this morning, I began to wonder if Mandela didn’t know a thing or two about repentance. Our reading opens with John the Baptist appearing in the wilderness outside of Jerusalem. John is a pretty extreme fellow. He wears clothing made out of camel’s hair, his own hair is a tangled mess and it doesn’t look like he’s ever shaved. He’s dirty and he smells, and if you look too close, you can see the wings and legs of the locusts he eats still stuck between his teeth. And even more extreme than his appearance are the things he says: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” He’s like those people who stand on street corners with a sign saying “The End is near!” in one hand and a bible in the other as they get in your face and tell you you’re going to hell unless you shape up, today. He’s the kind of person I’d go out of my way to avoid, crossing the street if I saw him coming toward me. But for some reason, as bizarre as he is, people do come. It’s hard to explain, but they must be looking for something, something they can’t find in Jerusalem. They’ve been to the temple, they’ve been to the rabbis, they’ve been to the priests in search of something, and they haven’t found it. They stream out of the city to listen to this crazy man in the wilderness. What he says speaks to them, somehow, even though he doesn’t have a lot of details. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Nothing about what the kingdom will look like, or exactly when it will come. So many people go out to hear John that even the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the Jewish elite, the folks who work pretty hard to be holy and are pretty sure they have things figured out go to take a look. John sees them coming, and he tells them point blank that they are dead wrong: all the things they think will save them, all of their piety and their following the rules and their hanging around in the temple will count for exactly nothing in the coming kingdom.
As hard as it is to explain, people keep coming, drawn to John, in spite of, or maybe because of, his bizarre appearance and his challenging words. And, they’re drawn out into the wilderness because of what John offers them: a chance to come clean, to stop pretending they are someone else, a chance to start over again. John offers to wash their old selves away, to clean them off in the river Jordan. This bath, this baptism, is John’s own invention: this isn’t something Jews did, this isn’t approved by the rabbis or the priests, this isn’t happening in the temple. You have to let yourself be drawn out of the city, out of the familiar, out of your everyday comfortable life. You have to go out into the wilderness, stand next to this bizarre, smelly, unpleasant man, and let him dunk you in the cold water. And somehow, when you come up, sputtering and soaking wet, something is different. Where before you saw only one way forward, now there are options. In fact, you can turn around entirely, go in a wholly new direction, free from your past, free from everything you are carrying but don’t really need, free from all those voices telling you how you don’t measure up. And that, I think, is the good news, the good Advent news of this distinctly un-Christmas-y reading. It’s good news because that is what repentance really is. It’s not about beating our breasts and wailing about what miserable sinners we are. Rather, repentance is about God’s desire to realign us in the way God would have us live; it is about God’s desire and God’s power to transform us into Christ’s image.
I say this is good news, but I’ll bet some of you have already seen the catch. The catch is that this story about John in the wilderness reminds us that God probably more often than not waits for us in our own wildernesses. Or maybe we’re just more likely to notice God when we’re lost in the wilderness. I think that’s when God set Nelson Mandela on his path, through his experiences in the wilderness of apartheid and his prison cell on Robben Island. Wilderness and repentance aren’t one time occurrences, and they’re not necessarily big momentous events, either. As Mandela wrote, “I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people. There was no particular day on which I said, Henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.” God works repentance on us, picking us up and setting us on new paths, little by little, day by day, in the wilderness moments of our lives.
Wilderness and repentance are the themes for this second Sunday of Advent. For most us, our wildernesses aren’t going to be as hard as Mandela’s; we probably won’t even have to deal with strange characters like John. Our wilderness may be as simple as the quiet moments we find in a busy day, the moments when the questions like “What is this all for, what does this all mean, why am I running so hard” aren’t drowned out by the noise of our lives. Our wilderness may come when we feel temporarily lost in a relationship with someone we love, or when we find ourselves in an unfamiliar and unwelcome situation. Our wilderness may come in the hard times in life, in moments of loss and heartbreak. However you experience wilderness, be awake to the possibilities that God is working out, be alert to the ways that God is picking you up and turning you around, be aware of the things God is washing away, the ways God is lightening your load. Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. Amen.
A story by way of an introduction for this sermon. There was a man named John. One day, a friend of his gave John a parrot. At first, John was delighted. The parrot had bright colored feathers, and John enjoyed watching the bird as it strutted about its cage, looking this way and that. Pretty soon, however, John began to have misgivings about the gift parrot. It turned out that the parrot could indeed speak; unfortunately, whoever had taught it to speak had not been satisfied with cute phrases like “Polly want a cracker.” Instead, the parrot’s instructor had taught it all sorts of foul curse words and nasty insults. Soon it seemed to John that from sun-up to sundown, all he heard was the parrot swearing and cursing at him, insulting him with the most graphic and inappropriate language. John was too embarrassed to have guests over or even to talk on the phone, in case someone should overhear the foul-mouthed bird. He tried everything he could think of to clean up the parrot’s vocabulary. He tried teaching it more polite phrases, but the parrot was having none of it. He tried playing soft, soothing music, but that just seemed to annoy the parrot more. He pleaded with the parrot to clean up his language, but the parrot just mocked him and came up with new combinations of curse words.
Finally, John was fed up and he yelled at the parrot. The parrot yelled back. John shook the parrot’s cage and the parrot got angrier and even more rude. Finally, in desperation, John opened the cage, grabbed the bird, threw it in the freezer, and slammed the door shut. For a few minutes the parrot squawked and kicked and screamed. Then suddenly, there was total quiet. Not a peep was heard for over a minute. John got concerned and was worried he might have hurt the parrot. He opened the freezer door carefully, and the bird was standing there looking at him. John extended his hand, and the bird walked up his arm and perched on his shoulder. Then the parrot said, “I believe I may have offended you with my rude language and actions. I am sincerely remorseful for my inappropriate transgressions and I truly intend to do everything I can to correct my rude and unforgivable behavior.” John was utterly flabbergasted. As he was about to ask the parrot what had made such a dramatic change in his behavior, the bird spoke-up again, saying very softly, “May I ask what the turkey did?”
In this morning’s reading from Matthew, Jesus is trying to get his disciple’s attention, trying to shock them a bit, wake them up, get them to pay attention to their world in a different way. He is talking about the end times, and he says: no one knows when they are coming. No one, not even the angels in heaven, not even Jesus himself: only God knows. The end times will come like the great flood came: everyone was going about their business, eating and drinking and marrying and having families, and then one day, with no announcement or warning, it started raining and it didn’t stop, and everything was swept away. The end times will be the same sort of thing. Two people will be working in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding wheat together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake, Jesus says, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. It’s like being the owner of a house: if you knew when the thief was coming, wouldn’t you stay awake and be ready for him? The day of the Lord, the coming of the Son of Man, is coming like a thief in the night.
Our Christian tradition has puzzled over just how to understand this passage over the centuries. One interpretation takes this passage and others like it as a fairly literal description of a future historical event. Jesus will return in glory and sit in judgment; some folks will be taken up in glory, while others will be left behind and subjected to God’s wrath. The early Christians thought that day was coming soon, was coming even in their lifetimes, and were confused when it didn’t happen. Many Christians today are still waiting and expecting the final judgment to take place, and they hear this passage as a warning to be ready, because these things may take place yet in our lifetime.
Another interpretation has seen the day of judgment not at the end of human history but at the time of each individual’s death. Each of us will stand before God’s judgment seat as soon as we have taken our last breath. We will have to give an accounting of our life and be weighed in the Lord’s balance. The lesson of this passage is clear: we dare not put off doing what Jesus has commanded. None of us can know when death will overtake us, and then it will be too late.
A third understanding of this passage emphasizes instead the symbolic character of Jesus’ language. The point is not to speculate about a day of judgment sometime in the future, whether at the end of all humanity or at the death of each individual, but rather to confront us with God’s radical claims on us here and now. Each day is a day of judgment, so I should always be asking myself: Am I living in the way Jesus calls me to? Am I trusting in God alone? Have I allowed myself to be distracted by my own selfish concerns?
Now, I expect that none of this sounds like very good news this morning. Most of us have spent the last few days celebrating with family and friends. Some of us have probably been shopping and decorating and planning for Christmas. But it is the wisdom of our tradition that on this day, the first day of the season of Advent, that we don’t sing Christmas carols, we don’t have Christmas decorations put up in the church. Instead, we hear these unexpected and unwelcome words: Keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. And so, I’d like to offer three brief thoughts on how we might be more alert to our world, more awake to the possibilities and the work of God around us this Advent season.
First. This past week I read Pope Francis’s letter titled “The Joy of the Gospel.” It is a long but really pretty fascinating document. You can find it online. The pope’s language is surprisingly fresh and informal: I don’t think anyone ever expected a pope to call overly serious Christians “sourpusses” or to say that bad homilies are painful for the faithful to listen to and painful for the clergy to give. The letter has created a bit of controversy this week, both inside and outside the Roman Catholic church. Francis writes over and over again that the church must be open to looking at what is not working and be willing to change, words that worry many conservative Catholics. And some conservative commentators outside the church have taken issue with the pope’s warnings about our being controlled by our rampant consumerism and our belief that unchecked capitalism is the best way to provide for the needs of all people. Francis, as he has said in speeches since he became pope, writes that our economic system leaves too many people behind, that too many people in our world are poor, and that is our gospel mandate to help those in need. I think he is right. I am shocked, over and over again, by the number of folks here in Hilton, a relatively affluent community, who do not have enough to eat, who are not able to pay their rent, who are not able to buy Christmas presents for their family. This year, we will once again work with the Hilton Parma Food shelf and other churches here to provide Christmas meals and assistance to needy families, and I think that is good, gospel work. But maybe this Advent season we can begin to think about how our economic systems, how the decisions we make everyday with our own money, are creating a society where there seem to be more and more folks who simply do not have enough to live on.
Second. I went to Indiana this week to have Thanksgiving with my parents, my sisters and their husbands, and my four nephews. It is a lot of people under one roof and a big meal to prepare for so many people, and my sisters decided that this year we would simplify things. This was not a decision that my mother and I were especially happy about: my sisters thought that instead of a whole turkey that turkey breasts would suffice, instead of the real deal that Stovetop stuffing would be fine, and that frozen vegetables heated up in the microwave and gravy from an envelope would round out the holiday meal. You know that I like to cook, and I like good food, so this really didn’t sound like a great idea to me. But I have to say, as grumpy as I was inclined to be about it, the meal was fine. The boys certainly didn’t notice the difference, and the easy and quick preparation meant we had more time to have fun in the afternoon, and that we avoided the annual Thanksgiving day arguments in the kitchen. I pass this along to you and your families as you make plans for Christmas. Maybe there are things that seem important but really aren’t, whether it’s a complicated meal getting in the way of connecting with family and friends, or accepting too many invitations out which leave everyone exhausted and cranky, or family traditions that no one really likes or cares about anymore, or extravagant gift giving which leaves us with credit card bills when a simpler gift would have said the same thing. Maybe this Advent season you can be alert to ways to simplify or cut back in order to focus on what is really important and life giving.
Finally. The image of the day of the Lord coming like a thief in the night reminds me that God and God’s work is most often revealed in quiet, in silence. You remember the story of Elijah on the mountainside waiting to see God. There was a great wind, so strong that it split the mountains and broke rocks into pieces, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, there was a sound of sheer silence. God was revealed to Elijah in the silence, and I think God is revealed to us today in the quiet times in our lives. Take time this Advent, whether it is a few minutes with the light of your Advent wreath, or a time of prayer when you get up or before you go to bed, or a moment of silence stolen in the middle of a busy day, take time to listen to what God is saying to you, to listen to where God is leading you. Make those moments of quiet and silence an Advent gift to yourself.
Jesus says to his disciples and he says to us: Keep awake! Be alert! Look for the coming of the Lord in unexpected places, at unexpected times. On this first day of Advent, may we be alert to where God is working in the world around us, where God is leading us to work in our own lives. During this holiday season, may we work to figure out how to focus on what really matters and how to celebrate in life giving ways. May we listen for what God is saying to us in the quiet moments. Amen.
The Rev. Paul Frolick has been the priest at St. George's since August 2012.