The Sacrament of Advent – Dec. 3 2017 Reflections

“The Sacrament of Advent” Reflections by the Rev. Joe Summers given at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on December  3rd, 2017. (Readings Advent 1B: Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7,16-18, I Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 12:24-37)

“Show us the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” (Psalm 80:7)

We are living in a very different country than we were living in one week ago.  This country has had some very dark hours, but I think that sooner than later we are going to recognize that the tax reformation the Senate passed on Friday was one of them.  A congress that was unwilling to help poor and working and middle class people who were losing their homes in the midst of the mortgage crises, because it was too expensive, has now proved to be willing to spend twice that amount to make the wealthy wealthier and to borrow money to do that.  The evidence suggests that for the foreseeable future every program that helps poor and working people will be opposed or cut because, they will claim, we cannot afford to go further into debt. The Bible is very clear on its judgment of those who make the wealthy wealthier at the expense of the poor and nations that allows this to happen.  What happened this past week is world changing, but I fear that today we will get caught up in reacting to what’s happened, rather then focusing on how we need to change, individually and collectively, if we are going to reverse this evil, if we are going to be able to create the kind of country we want to live in.

“Show us the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” (Psalm 80:7)

I want to talk for a moment about the idea of being counter-intuitive, which is when you think or act in a way that is opposite of your instincts. In most of our lives we rely on our instincts to see us through things so this idea of being counter-intuitive is itself very counter-intuitive.

My favorite example of being counter-intuitive is those signs on beaches that tell you if you get caught in a rip-tide you shouldn’t try to swim against the current, but rather relax and let it carry you where it wants to carry you until you can somehow get to the edge and beyond it.  That all sounds great until you get caught in one and realize you are being carried out into the ocean where you are certain you will drown and every fiber of your being tells you to do all you can to resist it.  The only problem with that is if you go along with your instincts–you are more likely to drown.  If you can’t tell, I’m talking from personal experience here.

Another one, I’ve also experienced, is that if you have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) if leaves you wanting to do everything you can to avoid anything that might stimulate your fears.  It’s like you want to surround yourself with nice white fluffy clouds and so people with PTSD often retreat behind thick walls into private gardens and surround themselves with soft lights and quite music.  Often out of concern your friends will encourage you to do this. The only problem is that retreating behind those walls ensures that you’ll remain controlled by your PTSD. The only way to get better is not to try to avoid what might stimulate it.  That is so counter-intuitive.

Another favorite one is that if you are anxious about doing something your mind tells you just to avoid thinking about it and you’ll feel better, but procrastination ultimately makes anxiety so much much worse.  It took me a long time to learn that one.

I’m saying all this because on some fundamental level the practices of Advent are very counter-intuitive.

“Show us the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” (Psalm 80:7)

This is the first Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of the church year, and on it we find our scriptures today are filled with metaphors about light and darkness.   As warm blooded creatures we tend to want to avoid the cold. As social creatures we often avoid being alone.  As creatures who can’t see in the dark–we tend to like the light.  But advent calls us to open ourselves to the cold and the darkness and the silence of this time of the year, to let it be for us a kind of sacrament, a material means of grace, so that we can be transformed by hope.  That’s very counter-intuitive.

Advent begins with a call out into the wilderness.  The wilderness is an area that hasn’t been completely domesticated. We tend to like to live our lives feeling in control of things, but the definition of the wilderness is an area in which things haven’t been brought under our control, an area where we are confronted with the unknown.   Advent says, if we wish to live in reality, if we wish for the divine to lead us and guide us, we need to be willing to recognize that often our light is really a form of darkness and we will only discover the true light if we are willing to enter into the darkness of not knowing, if we are willing to listen for what we’ve not been hearing, if we are willing to at least temporarily be unable to see so that we can begin to see what we are not seeing. We’re only able to discover what we don’t know by moving beyond what we think we know.

“Show us the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” (Psalm 80:7)

Isaiah today speaks of feeling cut off from God’s presence.  “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence–as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire cause water to boil…so that the nations might tremble at your presence.”    Isaiah goes on “We have all become like one who is unclean and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth….for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us into the hands of our iniquity.”

The Hebrew faith tells us that what most cuts us off from knowing God’s presence is idolatry: the attempt to transform the divine into a thing, the attempt to takes what’s living and fluid and mysterious and make it into something that is fixed and static and therefore controllable.

Idolatry is rooted in our anxious grasping hearts which want to hold onto and control whatever is most precious to us so we constantly have to struggle with having an unhealthy attachment to whatever that is: our partners, our children, feeling good,  feeling in control, money, sex, our ideas, our health, God.

In our hearts we are to maintain the holy of holies, an empty space in which we can encounter the divine, the living, but we are constantly tempted to fill that empty space with idols, things, so that we don’t have to experience the emptiness and the silence. Advent tells us we can only know the divine presence once again when we are willing to empty our hearts of those things and empty ourselves.

Advent speaks of a new beginning that begins with visions of the end. In our gospel today we hear of what would feel like the end of the world: the sun darkened, stars falling from the heavens, heaven and earth shaken. Often, the new beginning we are needing can only happen when we confront the end. Often, for us as individuals or for us collectively, change only happens when it is the last possible alternative.

Advent encourages us not to be afraid of visions of the end. Most of the time we try to avoid being pessimistic or seeing things in a negative light, but in advent we are given permission to face the darkness: to see where we really are in all its negative light, to recognize where certain kind of action and thinking and feelings are leading us, to let ourselves experience the fruit of how we’ve been thinking or acting has been effecting ourselves and others, and to let this grief empower us to let go and turn away from what has led us to a place of desolation.

Sometimes Advent can be about our need for a kind of complete turning, a recognition of some fundamental way in which we need to turn or die, individually or collectively.  What worked for us at one point in our lives, may now be killing us or threatening to kill us.  What may have worked for us collectively, at one point in our nations history, may now destroy us.  If you are awake, it’s pretty hard not to feel that this nation and humanity generally are needing a fundamental turning if we are going to have any kind of good future or even to survive. Advent gives us permission to face that reality, without panic, praying and asking God to meet us here, to make a way where all we can see is no way.

But even when our lives seem to be going well, we need this annual journey into the darkness to be reconnect to the world, to reconnect with reality, to reconnect with ourselves, to reconnect with God.  As symbol making creatures we create symbols to navigate and respond to our lives and world.  We encounter someone or something and we take a kind of mental photograph and label it, as part of the way to make some sense of them.  But the problem is that those mental photographs, that initially might help us connect to that person, or that reality, can over time disconnect us from them as we hold onto our mental snapshots and stop paying attention to how that person or reality is living and changing.

Thus marriage counselors tells us that couples who are married a long time often, over time, know less and less about each other, because twenty years ago you said you felt or thought such and such and I’m stilling holding onto that idea when the reality is you haven’t thought or felt that way for a long long time.   And what happens to us individually also happens to us collectively. We develop an idea or a story about something and don’t see how that idea or that story is now keeping us from seeing our reality, much less respond to it.  We need to be particularly aware of how this happens with our religions faith.  Religion is meant to bind us to reality, but if we have an unhealthy attachment to our faith, it can disconnect us from reality.

When that happens, our light becomes the darkness as what we think we know keeps us from really knowing much of anything.  The tools which were a means of helping us know and respond to ourselves and others and our world have become barriers to knowing and responding.  At its worst, you find some people who hold so hard onto their ideas that when they look out all they can see, all they encounter, seems to confirm their perceptions, because they can  no longer see anything but their own ideas.  The result of being trapped in this delusion is that they can go through life feeling that they are almost never wrong, but in their wake you see a trail of wreckage.  That’s what we hearing in the testimony of all these men who only now are waking up to the harm they did to others.  That’s what I think we’ll soon see in the wreckage this new tax plan will cause, as it results in suffering for millions.   Though the premises of this plan are based on ideas that have been thoroughly disproven, people instead chose to hold onto their ideas of what is helpful over that evidence.  But as much as we may want to project this kind of wreck less foolishness onto others, Advent tells us it’s something we must all guard against.

“Show us the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” (Psalm 80:7)

Advent is an invitation back to unknowing, back to what the Buddhists call “beginners mind”, the willingness to see and experience things anew, as if we were seeing them for the first time.

Advent is an affirmation of the power of humility. When we are in our right minds it’s clear that there is so much we don’t know and yet, that’s okay, we don’t have to run or hide from what we don’t know.   We can acknowledge our ignorance.  Real curiosity is born in that space in which we realize there is something we need or want to know that we don’t know.  The darkness we fear is not our real enemy–rather it’s brimming with an invisible light that would lead us and guide us if we can loosen our deadly grip on our need to be in control by claiming to know what we don’t know.

In this way, Advent becomes a yearly invitation, to return to reality, to return to ourselves, to return to our lives and world as they are, to have the courage to see and name–where we are now, where we are starting from, and to invite the divine to meet us here, not where we wish we were because that’s a fantasy and the living God dwells in reality, and can only meet us in reality, or not at all.

Our society does all it can to block out the growing silence, coldness, and darkness of the natural world at this time of the year.  Strikingly, historians tell us we’ve been doing this for thousands of years.  In the ancient world, at this time of the year, you also had the same frenzied consumption and almost the same proportion of goods being bought and sold as we have today. Rather than fleeing the darkness, the silence and the cold through consumption, Advent calls us to be open to it.

We are like seeds that need the dark cold earth in order to germinate.  Though we think that the darkness is an enemy that we must fight, the advent story tells us there is an invisible light–reaching out to us through the darkness and that light is our hope and the hope of the world.  Advent tells us that beyond all the noise there is a silent song which if we can hear it will bring us joy and joy to the world.  Advent tells us that in the cold there is to be found a divine warmth that no amount of gaiety and parities can come close to.

So let us embrace the sacrament of advent, the sacrament of seeing in this season of the year a grace that is calling us, wanting to encourage us, wanting us to lay down the burden of denial and the isolation it brings, wanting to comfort us, wanting to empower us, wanting to help us become creative again–human again, in our thinking and responses to our lives and the world, if we will but turn and be open to it.

For if we are willing god is able and if we are ready God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us.  Amen

p.s. While we need to address our collective reality, I’m sensing that today it would be helpful for us to start with our personal reality.  So I’d like to pose the question of where you find yourself, at the beginning of this new beginning that we call advent.  Where are you?  What is the darkness or unknown that you are confronting?  What do you sense you are being called to turn away from, or to turn towards?

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