Sunday, November 29, 2009

(Advent 1) In Praise of Reverence

Luke 21:25-36; Jeremiah 33:14-16

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Have you ever noticed how many worthy causes
have their own official awareness month?
Almost every disease,
and almost every important issue has its own awareness month.
And we can appreciate most of them, I think.
But maybe it’s getting out of hand.
Did you also know there was an official
Squirrel Awareness Month?
a Potty Training Awareness Month?
a Mold Awareness Month?
a Workplace Politics Awareness Month?
a Caffeine Awareness Month?
and yes, an Accordion Awareness Month?

Recently a humor magazine spoofed this trend
by proclaiming December “National Awareness Month.”
to address “our current epidemic
of complete and utter obliviousness.”
It was supposedly sponsored by the
American Foundation for Paying Attention to Things.

After I had a good chuckle, it occurred to me.
In their attempt simply to be funny,
they were being profoundly theological.
They captured perfectly a key message of Advent.
The reality of Advent is that
we really aren’t being attentive enough.
Advent is our annual wake-up call to “Be alert!”
This is the main thing we emphasize
every year on the first Sunday of Advent.
Be alert!

You may want to take a look in your Bibles at Luke 21,
our Gospel reading today.
I see in this passage, at least eight different ways
Luke records Jesus saying the same thing: “Pay attention!”
Scanning down the page, beginning around v. 28,
I see words and phrases like,
stand up . . . and
raise your heads . . .
Look . . .
see for yourselves . . .
see these things . . .
Be on guard . . .
don’t be caught unexpected . . .
Be alert at all times . . .
You might say Jesus was proclaiming
National Awareness Month in Palestine.

Awareness of what? What is Jesus asking us to pay attention to?
Well, it all depends on your perspective.
Depends on what you’re looking for.
If you fixate on all the terrible things taking place in the world—
and the Jewish people in first-century Palestine
had every reason to,
what with being occupied
by a brutally oppressive foreign regime—
if you fixate on the terrible events in your world,
that’s what you will notice,
that’s what will fill your senses, your awareness.
And Jesus gives fair warning that it’s going to get even worse.
Notice v. 25 and following.
There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars.
On earth, distress among the nations.
Roaring of the sea and waves.
People will faint from fear and foreboding.
The powers of heaven will be shaken.
And in v. 34, people react with
self-indulgence and drunkenness and worrying about life.

But if, instead of fixating on the awful circumstances,
instead of practicing worry and fear,
you choose to practice hope,
if you pay attention to God’s redeeming work in the world,
you will notice something else.
Jesus says in v. 28, “Stand up! Raise your heads!”
There is no reason to cower, to bow down in fear.
“Look! Your redemption is drawing near.”
And again in v. 30: “See for yourselves. The winter is ending.
The summer is already near.”
V. 31: “The kingdom of God is near.”
Be alert! At all times.

Advent is a season for renewing our hope.
We celebrate the first Advent—
the coming of God in the flesh
to an oppressed and weary and sin-filled world—
that coming, that Advent, has already happened, and we rejoice!
We are still the beneficiaries of that first Advent.
Because the Redeemer is still with us.
God is still present with us in the midst of our messy,
earthly, broken existence.
God is here now, to save and redeem.

But we also anticipate another Advent.
A second coming.
A further, and more complete redemption.
And that’s the good news we proclaim every year
on the first Sunday of Advent.
Which we already sang about: “Christ will come again.”

But even while we wait on that final redemption
at the end of all time,
there are continuous Advents in our world today.
Christ comes anew, and comes daily,
to save and redeem us in this world.
But we might miss it, if we don’t pay attention.

The signs of redemption are often pretty subtle.
In our text, did you notice the difference in the nature of the signs?
You can’t miss changes in the sun and moon,
and international turmoil,
and tsunamis and the like.
The signs that cause fear and foreboding are obvious.
They’re right out there.
But the image Jesus chose to give us hope?—
a fig tree, with leaves just beginning to sprout.
That’s the kind of sign we can walk by every day,
and never see it.
That’s why there’s these urgent commands:
“Lift up your heads. Look! See! Be alert!”

Paying attention is a discipline
to be practiced, and learned.
And it doesn’t come natural,
especially living in the times and the culture that we do.

Earlier this week, a new insight came to me.
At least I think was an insight. You can be the judge.
It came during our morning prayers in the office on Wednesday.
We were reading Psalm 96.
The psalm is a call for all peoples of the earth,
all nations,
to be reverent, to revere God.
To paraphrase, the psalmist is saying,
“The Lord, who made the heavens, is great beyond all gods.
Bow down.
Give honor and glory.
Ascribe to the Lord, O you tribes and nations,
attribute to the Lord all that is good and beautiful.
You nations, bow down and tremble and worship
the only great and majestic God.”

And I found myself thinking,
“Oh yeah, right, like that’s going to happen.
All the peoples of the earth
suddenly getting humble and circumspect.
Suddenly practicing reverence,
bowing down to one greater than themselves.”

Reverence is a lost art in this world,
at least in many cultures of the world—
cultures like ours that are highly industrialized,
militarized, capitalized, individualized.
We’re too proud to be reverent.
We’re too self-sufficient to be reverent.
We’re too focused on our own needs and agenda—
individually, yes,
but especially as a nation.

We just don’t do reverence very well at all,
because reverence and self-centeredness cannot coexist.
Reverence requires the ability to see beyond ourselves,
far beyond.
Reverence is the capacity to see the divine,
the transcendent, the wholly other,
and to bow before it in humility.

Then as I reflected on it, I suddenly had this realization
that the ability to be alert, to be attentive,
is directly connected to our ability to be reverent.
I can’t be deeply and truly attentive,
without also being reverent.

Being attentive, and being reverent,
both require shifting my focus from self to the other.
They both require humility.

I cannot be a good attentive listener, for instance,
if I’m always forming my next sentence in my head.
I cannot really enter into the beauty and wonder of creation,
if I’m focused on how I’m going to use it or manipulate it.
I cannot enter into a reverent encounter with God on Sunday morning,
if I get hung up on whether this or that style of music pleases me,
or whether I could have done as good a job reading,
or playing the piano.
Reverence and paying attention require that I set aside, for now,
my agenda, my needs,
and worship the God who is being revealed in the other.

Many of us have in the last few years,
gotten more connected to the homeless in our community,
through the HARTS program, or OCP, or just on our own.
And we’ve all heard it said
that we can see the face of Jesus in the poor.
That sounds great, sounds lofty.
But it takes work. It takes discipline. It takes practice.
It’s easy for me to say I see Jesus in their face.
But do I really?

Because until I can look deeply into the eyes of my neighbor
who happens to be homeless,
or mentally ill,
or chronically intoxicated,
and have a genuine sense of reverence, instead of pity,
I haven’t seen Jesus.
Even the most pitiful and derelict of us human beings
still reflect, in some manner, the divine image within us.
If we are human, we reflect the image of God,
however subtle, however blurred.

If I look at a desperate human being,
and only feel pity, or revulsion, or disgust,
I’m still focused on myself,
because I am comparing my situation with theirs,
my worth with theirs.
I may even have genuine compassion, be moved to tears.
But if all I can feel is sorrow,
I am not being attentive.
I am not being reverent.
I am not seeing Jesus in their face.
And I won’t, until I look into their eyes
and are moved to worship the God being reflected there.

That doesn’t come easy, I grant you.
But neither does it come easy
to live in a world where the sun and moon are changing,
the nations are in an uproar,
the powers of heaven are shaking,
and then to walk by a fig tree,
and notice, with gratitude, that new leaves are sprouting.

We live in an anxious world.
People are paralyzed with fear.
Fear of terrorism, fear of the flu, fear of big government,
fear of Islam, fear of climate change,
fear of the stock market,
fear of . . . you name it.
God calls us, in the midst of this fearful world,
to not be like those around us,
who according to Luke 21,
faint from fear and foreboding.
We are called to another way of living.
We are called to practice reverent attentiveness,
to notice the signs of God’s redeeming work,
to notice the signs that God’s kingdom is sprouting up.
And give thanks!

And to do this, we must practice stillness . . .
more often than our frantic schedules allow us to.
We must practice silence . . .
more deeply than our media-drenched culture allows us to.
We must practice gazing . . .
longer than our eyes—having been trained on momentary glances—
allow us to.
We must practice sustained thought and reflection . . .
longer and more deeply than our brains—having been shaped by
constant multi-tasking, sound-bytes, and catch-phrases—
allow us to.
We must seek and find freedom
from that which prevents our paying full attention.

Because what we see at first glance, is not all there is.
God’s promise of redemption is more sure,
than any threat of annihilation.
Even the prophets in the Old Testament
were sure of God’s promise to redeem.
In today’s reading from Jeremiah, we heard it said,
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord,
when I will fulfill the promise I made
to the house of Israel and the house of Judah . . .
I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David;
and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land . . .
The Lord is our righteousness.”

I suspect there’s been no time in recent memory
that it’s been so easy to point here and there and everywhere,
and see the signs of destruction and violence and oppression.
We have every right to do that.
But that is not our calling.
Our calling is to see the kingdom of God breaking in to our existence,
to see our redemption drawing nigh,
to look for, and see, with all due reverence,
God’s face in the poor, in our enemies, in our sisters and brothers.

The temptation we must fight, with all due diligence,
is the temptation to be overwhelmed by the evils around us.
Evil is not hard to find.
It’s all around us—in front, behind, beside, under, and over us.

There is a wonderful old Celtic prayer
that is the perfect way to defeat that temptation.
This prayer reminds us that it is not evil that surrounds us,
but Christ.
The prayer says,
Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ under me, Christ over me,
Christ on my left and my right.
And that same idea found its way into a Navajo prayer,
which was adapted and put to music by David Haas.
A song we have sung numerous times.
I invite us to sing it once again,
in STS #16.
Peace before us, peace behind us,
peace under our feet.
Peace within us, peace over us,
let all around us be peace.

This is a prayer for attentiveness.
In each verse, we are called to notice, with reverence,
the peace, the love, the light,
and ultimately, Christ himself,
who is before and behind us.
Who surrounds us completely.
Let’s sing this as reverently, and confidently, as we can,
as Karen, and the Mast family, lead us.
Join in on the sign language, as you learn it.

—Phil Kniss, November 29, 2009

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