In the name of the One God, who is here, and who is coming. Amen.
If you were to drop into Wilbraham from another country, from a place that knows little about Christianity, and you visited our churches, you would see the contrasts that we have intentionally set up. The church, for better or for worse, is counter-cultural and it would not be hard for a newcomer to pick out the things we do differently. While the homes and shops of Wilbraham are decked out in red and green, we are wearing purple, or blue as I am discovering is preferred by some folks. Rather than hearing songs about Frosty, Rudolph or the silver bells, you’d be listening to songs sung in a minor key, about someone with the funny, foreign-sounding name, Emmanuel. If you were an outside observer you’d notice how the church people are tending to look inward, quietly being reflective, while the outer culture is as extroverted and outgoing as it often is. You would notice that the days, at least in the northern hemisphere, are growing darker and darker as we approach December 21, and in the church, we are lighting candles slowly, one by one and week by week, we bring the light up and up and up. Yes, we are counter-cultural, we Christians in every time and place.
As it turns out, this bringing up the light is a good thing, in this darkest time of year, because this year of all years, who does not need a lift, be it emotional, mental, physical, or spiritual? We need a way to manage our realities and to find a way to realize our hopes. For us, as Christian people, there is always hope and this year, the church reminds us, is no exception.
For our ancestors in the faith, Isaiah and the Psalmist, there was an urgent cry going forth to God to intervene, and quickly. They were living in the midst of very hard times of loss and confusion, and their cry for intervention was pointed. In fact, it was almost a taunt, a ploy to jab at God’s pride. It was as though Isaiah and the Psalmist were saying, “Others mock us, your faithful people, and jeer, saying, “Where is your God, and what good is he to you anyway?” Isaiah beseeches God, “Prove to them who you are. Come down and show them, show us, what you’ve got!”
But as with many things, you have to be careful what you wish for, and careful what you pray for. Jesus, as he sat with his disciples, answering their questions about the end-times and what it would be like for God to tear open the heavens and come down, painted a pretty gloomy, dark, and scary picture that has stuck with the faithful throughout our long sojourn with our Lord. The end times, Jesus said, would be preceded by wars and natural disasters. This was something the Jews had been talking about and expecting for centuries, the sure-fire way to know that something Big was about to happen. And Jesus was right, change was coming.
In the year 70, about a generation after he lived on earth, Jerusalem was overrun and sacked by the Romans. In the year, 79 Mt. Vesuvius erupted and Pompeii, back in the news recently, was buried in ash. People living at the time of Christ and when the gospels were being written would suspect from their own experiences that God’s day of reckoning was near, even if they, and Jesus himself, did not know precisely when it would be.
All that gloom and doom that Jesus talks about reminds me of an experience I once had with friends on a sailboat in the Rhode Island Sound. It was summer and they and my husband and I were out on a yacht owned by our friend’s father. It was 42 feet long, had crossed the Atlantic several times, and the Dad and our friends were experienced sailors. But I was not prepared for the total, gray, chilly fog that enveloped us seemingly out of nowhere on that strange August afternoon. We were in the shipping lanes and I started to be quite concerned about the possibility of being run over by a container ship or a tanker or a ferry that just would not see us in time. Clearly that didn’t happen, but the fear, the darkness, the possibility of the end, were palpable, so much so that the others asked me to go below to contain myself.
That being on the water in the fog is something Cynthia Bourgeault, who lives in Maine, writes about in her essay, “Ordinary and Spiritual Awareness”. She contrasts ordinary awareness, in which we proceed through life, noting differences and distinctions in things and people, and spiritual awareness which “thinks” by approaching things and people from a perspective not of distinctions but from a perspective of kinship, an integration of belonging to the whole. So to the fog –
Cynthia regularly sails a small craft off the coast of Maine and she writes, “On a bright sunny day you can set your course on landfall five miles away and sail right to it. But in a fog, you make your way by paying close attention to all the things immediately around you. The deep roll of the sea-swells as you enter the open ocean, the pungent scent of spruce boughs, or the livelier tempo of the waves as you approach the land. You find your way by being sensitively and sensuously connected to exactly where you are, by letting “here and now” reach out and lead you.
This little metaphor, she asserts, is a pretty good analogy of how these two levels of awareness actually work. Ordinary awareness is like sailing by reference to where you are not, heading for what is out there and up ahead. Spiritual awareness is like sailing by reference to where you are in the present moment. The latter is a way of living at a much more visceral level of yourself.
This is what St. Paul is telling us in his second letter to the Corinthians today. People in his day and time were also anticipating the end times, perhaps even more immediately than we may be today, and so he writes to assure them. Paul, who we have to admit was pretty spiritually aware, finds the coming of our Lord not wrapped in gloom and doom, but a good thing, something to anticipate with rejoicing. He comforts the Corinthians, some of the most obstinate and worldly people of the ancient world, with the word that they will be all right, because they could look around and know they have Christ in their hearts and in their lives, already. They are living, if you will, with spiritual awareness that they are one with a community and something much greater than themselves and each and every day that awareness helps them find their way. They and we have professed our faith and hopefully are living with it constantly, in a sea of it if you will, and because of that, we will be all right.
So, should the anticipated coming of our Lord be a caution for us? Not if we are preparing for that day, and are awake and aware when it comes. Paul would say, what we have, what we already know will serve us well as the day of the Lord approaches, whenever that may be. So for now, as we anticipate the arrival of our Lord on December 25 or at any time, live each day observing, not so that the cosmic terror won’t catch you by surprise, but so that we might see the light shining brighter and brighter with each passing week. So that we might attain the fulfillment of the faith-filled life we are already living with God and one another. Let us make ready, yes, for Christ, and for the joy, the peace, and the brilliance that his coming portends. In many ways, we are already so, so ready for a shake-up. Maybe this year that’s not so counter-cultural after all. Amen.