Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Waiting and Hastening

This sermon was delivered on the second Sunday of Advent in 2005. Comments or questions are always welcome.

“Waiting and Hastening”
The Rev. Zachary S. Sasser
December 4, 2005
Advent 2B

A young woman named Ashley Still from Thomas Dale High School died this week in a car wreck. I would like it if we could begin this time of reflection on the gospel with a moment of silent prayer for her family and in thanksgiving for her life and the important and seemingly inconsequential ways in which she influenced this world.

Amen.

Holiday shopping and Christmas Merriment are in full swing. Were I a bettin’ man I ‘d wager that most of us have full calendars even though the month has hardly begun. Choices have been made as to which sets of relatives you’ll see and when, and whether or not you will travel. Christmas cards are being written in a hurry. The Middle School Youth have already been working on their float for the Christmas parade, the children have been working on the play for a month, and almost all the angels on the Angel Tree are already gone. The rush to beat the Christmas rush is in full stride, and it is just barely December. In the mall the other day I had a Mother Theresa experience. Or at least I think it was. I once saw a greeting card with her picture on the front and a quote inside stating, “I often love to shop so that I can see all of the things I will never have a need for.” There is some humor in the fact that someone is making money off of that.

Today’s text from Second Peter enters into our experience at a pace that interrupts the hustle and bustle of our lives. It catches us broadside and makes everything slow down, but only for a moment because the language is so harsh that we find it threatening and uncomfortable. So let’s sit with it and struggle for a blessing from it.

Having been born after the advent of the nuclear bomb and raised during the cold war, it is hard to think of this as anything but a prophecy of global nuclear annihilation. For those growing up post 9/11 it is hard not to think of this as a foretelling of a nuclear attack by terrorists. Yet the reality is that this text is neither, as far as we know, and even if it is, that doesn’t matter. As it says in Mark 13:32 “about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” And again in 2 Peter 3:10 “the day of the Lord will come like a thief.”

Still, this talk of the sky melting with fire is the stuff of nightmares, and as many of you have told me, often the reason many will choose to worship in this place where grace and mercy are understood as the way by which God reveals Godself to us and to our children. Unfortunately we can’t cut that part out and leave it on the floor. We have to hold this vision of reckoning up with our knowledge of grace. We have to know that Christ’s coming into our lives means constant change. Living in a world where people make choices and where our souls are housed in a fragile carcass means that calamities fall on the just and the unjust alike. Receiving grace means a sure knowledge of what could have happened if you did not get it just as a shadow testifies to the presence of light in a room.

After Thanksgiving my family had the good fortune of being picked up at the airport by Charles Holmes, a man of diverse and intelligent musical tastes. He shared with us a song from a compellation of American roots music recordings called “Jesus Hits Like an Atom Bomb.” This song was originally recorded in 1950 by Lowell Blanchard and the Valley Trio, and was written by Lee V. McCullum. The performing group Chanticleer released it in 2004 with slightly modified lyrics. Charles shared it because he thought the song peculiar and unique, and when I read today’s scripture text I could not help but think of it. The refrain repeats throughout the song:
You know now, everybody's worried 'bout that Atom Bomb,
Well no one seems worried about the day my Lord shall come
You better set your house in order, well he may be comin’ soon
And He'll hit like an Atom Bomb when He comes, when He comes.

Again, this rhetoric is typical of the traditional “call to salvation” that has been confusing and offensive to some because of the way in which those who stand by it are often perceived as standing in judgment and presuming to know who needs to have their house in order and just how they should do it. Friends, believe me, I am not here to do that. I have too many chinks in my armor to begin counting those in someone else’s, and I don’t believe that is what Jesus calls us to be about, or what Peter is talking about either. Peter is talking about a radical and fundamental change that reorders the cosmos but does not leave us out. I believe that happens in our lives today, right now, regardless of what the future brings.

Here’s an example from a friend of mine named Jean. She’s a Director of Christian Education at a Presbyterian Church in Georgia. Her husband is the director of Camp Cherokee, that was my Camp Hanover when I was a child. In an email she writes:
In the last three weeks I have been bombarded… my family and I have had to deal with learning that our son has scarring on his eardrums, the demise of a car, the fender bender in the in-laws car that we borrowed due to said demise while on the way to be with my Dad who had bypass surgery, complications from the surgery which resulted in a few days back in the hospital, our cat's diagnosis with a severe cancer (in her FACE!), her rapid decline and death, and finding out that a friend has mysterious tumors. If it weren't so awful it would almost be funny – like a bad joke, right? So we're finally home, we've not had a chance to catch our breath, really, from all this. The devotion in our staff meeting this week was centered on Leviticus chapter one – you know, the one with all the regulations about precisely how to slaughter and burn the animal sacrifices. And as he was reading all of the blood and gore, I started thinking, "that's what I feel like right now – a burnt offering." The point that was made in the devotional was that maybe we are still meant to offer things that are important to us. (Even though Christ has been offered as the atoning sacrifice for our sins) Then this Sunday after church, I went out to go home and the car wouldn't start – wouldn't even crank. I honestly thought about laying my head under someone's rear tire and waiting for them to pull out. But with the help of two lovely gentlemen from the church, two sets of jumper cables and two other vehicles we finally managed to get it started. And as I was driving home I started thinking about Leviticus again, and it hit me… that this passage really does relate to Advent after all. Christ didn't erase the need to sacrifice. He just changed the landscape. The Leviticus passage is very specific about the ritual of the sacrifice and emphasizes the selection of a sacrifice, the separation of its' parts, the cleansing and the offering. And while I certainly don't plan to sacrifice a sheep any time soon, maybe there is something else I can let go of. I'm not saying I'm good enough to just "let God have it all" – I am after all, an anxiety prone queen of control! But maybe just one little thing – could I just lay my family baggage up there; recognize it for what it is; separate it from the other parts of my life; and then offer it to the One who knows I'll still have most of it tomorrow, but appreciates my efforts today? Maybe that's our response to the promise of the Advent season – to make a sacrifice of our own, so that when the child comes, we will be more able to fully welcome him.


I think Peter would agree. In fact he does, saying, “in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”

The reality of God’s grace is that we have been saved from eternal judgment through the faith given us in Jesus Christ. Our salvation begins when we take responsibility for our lives and the world we live in while also waiting for God to move through our interests, our passions, and our challenges. The coming of Christ into our world is a great disruption that reorders all of our thoughts and feelings, and it happens every time we open ourselves to it. So don’t worry about the Atom Bomb, or terrorism, or anything else. Worry, if you must, about the order of your house, the stewardship of your resources, and the things you can give over to Christ so that you will be received as one without blemish. Whether it comes in a mountain top epiphany of joy, a personal tragedy, or even an apocalyptic blast of fire and destruction, as Christians we look forward with great joy to the advent of Christ’s coming, and we strive to live as though he already has. Certainly we do not want bad things to happen. But we have the assurance of scripture that tells us that for those who hang their hat on a sure belief in Christ as God’s son and their savior, for those of us who understand ourselves to be children of God, even when we are crushed we are not destroyed, and we may be at times confused but never perplexed. Above all we are never without hope. By degrees we will experience the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.

We say that this morsel of bread and sip of grape juice is a foretaste of God’s kingdom. Not because of anything special about the products themselves, but rather because of their commonality. God takes common things that produce joy, suffering, and even indifference and uses them for a holy purpose, that purpose being an invitation for everyone to acknowledge our connectedness to one another, our responsibility to one another, and our need for the acceptance of the one who has forgiven us before we ever even asked for it… the one who longs for our acknowledgement as God and Father. As a parent I can tell you that nothing is like the sound of your child calling you “Daddy, Momma, Hey You…” We’ll take whatever acknowledgement we can get. But goodness its precious to have our constant and abiding love acknowledged by our children. And so it is with the one who is patient enough to wait for all of the children to get on board… the one who suffers with the child who skinned a knee and the parent who mourns the loss of a child, with the youth who doubts and the elderly who fears irrelevance.

The movie “Places in the Heart” is set in the dustbowl of America during the Great Depression, Edna, played by Sally Field, is facing a harsh reality. After her husband dies in an accidental shooting, she must find a way to provide for her family and keep up the mortgage payments on the family farm. Salvation comes with the arrival of an itinerant black man and a blind white man who add their support to her efforts to bring in a cotton crop.
The closing scene, set in a church, has the characters that we met during the course of the film including Edna’s husband and the man who killed him as well as others who are both living and dead, enemies and friends. All are sitting together in worship, sharing communion. The message is clear. We are all connected. Through God’s will and by God’s grace all things work toward God’s good intention for humanity. Though we can envision a scene where friends and enemies come together, it will never happen until we begin to look past our own limitations and become as Christ to one another. If we embrace our commonality in all aspects of our lives, we can live as citizens of God’s kingdom now. As we take the bread and the cup, let us remember not only the part it plays in reminding and confirming our own salvation, but also the part we play in one another’s and in the coming of God’s Kingdom. Amen.