The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Saturday, May 31, 2008

December 3, 2006
Advent 1C
Luke 21:25-36

In the name of God: who was, who is, and who is to come. Amen.

What time is it? There are a lot of ways to answer that question. Undoubtedly some of you are thinking, “It’s time for a nine-minute sermon.” Some churches choose to tell time by placing a large, easy-to-read clock in the back of the nave as a polite reminder for the preacher to be succinct. The ways that we use time in our times of worship can tell us quite a lot about who we think we are. My father was preaching a few weeks ago in the little Methodist church in East Tennessee where he and my mother attend. A couple of days later he and I were talking about his sermon and he said, “I didn’t preach long… About 25 minutes.” Incredulously I informed him that in our church I’ve been told to aim for about ten minutes. He paused, and then reflected: “I suppose that’s long enough for a good sermon… It’s probably too long for a bad one.” I suppose he’s right.

But, we spend so much time in our lives worrying about time. What time is it? When is our anniversary? When is your birthday? When will the check come? When is the bill due? What time do I pick up the kids from football or band or even church? Act now! While supplies last! One day only! Back for a limited time! It’s 10:00; do you know where your children are?

From “Once upon a time” to “Happily ever after” we consume and are consumed by time.
I’ve always had a strange sense of time. When I refer to something that happened “the other day”, I could just as easily mean “earlier today” as “four years ago”. I blame much of that on my mother. When I was growing up, I would sit with her many evenings and watch recorded episodes of “Days of Our Lives”. In that fantastic world a six year old child would go away to summer camp and return one month later as an 18 year old. Then that same young man would spend a month on the night of his senior prom or two weeks in the three hours before his wedding. So for me, time has always seemed less like a “time-marches-on” constant line through history than it has seemed to be like a kind of breathing: expanding and contracting, quickening and slowing in response to its environment. Sometimes moments feel less like points on a linear progression and more like loops looking back and taking in before moving on. But as these loops and twists become more complex from day to day, it can make us begin to wonder if our “Once upon a time” will ever yield to the promise of the “Happily ever after”.

We, in the church, can have some peculiar patterns of time-telling, too. Look around. Thankfully we are not one of those churches that have chosen to display a giant clock in the back of the church; but, we do employ subtler means of communicating what time we think it is. The cross that hangs bare above the altar is a reminder that we live in the time of the resurrection. Marjorie Suchocki, one of my favorite writers in the field of theology, says, “Resurrection depends upon the reality of God, not simply as that which God can do but as that which God is.” So in saying what time we think it is, we are saying something about who and what we think God is. God is the God of Resurrection and new life. This Baptismal Font that found its new home in the center of our community just a few weeks ago is a way of reminding us that it’s time to act on the covenant that we’ve made and renewed throughout our lives. This reminds us who we think we are: we are people of the covenant that keeps us in community with God and with each other. And if you’ve been here in the past few weeks, you’re likely to notice that the banners and hangings around the church have changed for today. As beautifully as we celebrate the season of Creation in this church, there is something comforting and hope-filled about moving into this new year through deliberate preparation in Advent. The changes in our banners and colors tell us that it is time to make that transition.

But the lessons seem to be telling us another story. Everyone knows that December is the time for us to begin to prepare for Christmas. Why are we hearing this story proclaiming the second coming of Christ? Aren’t we supposed to be gearing up for the first coming? Did we make some horrible mistake and read the wrong text this morning? We must have. We can’t be preparing for Jesus’ birth when he’s already starring in the stories that we read. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, this is actually Jesus’ last parable in Luke’s gospel. Chronologically, Jesus would be heading for Palm Sunday and Holy Week in just a few days. We’ve obviously made a mistake.

Or did we?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about time this week. Mostly how there is not enough of it. While most of us are just beginning to ease in to the most hectic time of the year in the holiday season, you’ll be happy to know that your seminarian is boldly forging ahead of you. As I move in to the last days of this second-to-last semester of my time in seminary, it strikes me how much shorter the weeks seem to be now than they seemed to be at the beginning of the semester. And while these weeks and days grow shorter, my work for the semester in school is coming due. Even if you’re not in school, I’m sure you can relate. At the end of this month we’ll mark the end of the calendar year. For many people that means the end of the time to make your sales or productivity goals. It will mean the last days to make charitable contributions to count on this year’s tax returns. School plays and concerts, Christmas pageants, caroling, holiday parties, secret Santa’s… The list grows longer and the time grows shorter with every passing breath.

As my own anxiety about my lack of time came to a head earlier this week I was in the midst of a little Advent of my own. My brother is here visiting from Mississippi this weekend, so in addition to all of my usual school and church work I spent much of this week planning and preparing for his arrival. There was so much to do in advance of his arrival if I were to ensure that I would have time to enjoy his visit. Around Tuesday, my anxiety around what I had perceived as a lack of time was on the cusp of developing into full-fledged panic. When I was talking with Barbara Conroy before Evening Prayer on Tuesday night, and telling her about my brother’s visit, she must have sensed my anxiety because her first thought was that I must be upset that my brother is visiting. Nothing could have been further from the truth! But as my anxiety increased it began to spill over into this area that should have been the source one of my greatest joys – the Advent of my time with my brother. At that moment, I knew that I had to change my perspective. Rather than being consumed by anxiety over a lack of time, I needed to slow down and be deliberate if I were going to effectively manage my time. As long as my thinking remained fixated solely on the future, I had no space to remember the past and its many contributions to a future worth planning.

I wonder if this might be some of the wisdom of examining a broader picture of Jesus’ life in our discipline of preparing our hearts for a new and deeper awareness of God in our midst. The Gospel According to Luke was probably the last one to be written of the three synoptic gospels, including Matthew and Mark; but, it was still early enough that those first Christians remained expectant from moment to moment of Christ’s return. They were just beginning to learn what this new way of living with God among us might mean. Perhaps, living in a new faith under an oppressive Roman regime without the sympathy of their larger Jewish community, they had not yet had an opportunity to reflect on the magnitude of all that they had experienced. Perhaps this was a part of the reason that they needed to tell their stories and to write. They needed an outlet to process their past in the context of their new hope for the future.

Where we go wrong in our head-first dive into the busy-ness of this holiday season is very often rooted in the fact that we fail to stop and take seriously the business of remembering. We forget to remember what time it is. We forget that we live in the time of the resurrection and new life. We forget that it’s time to live out our baptismal covenant. We forget that it’s time to remember. It’s a hard thing to do. People, deadlines, and events will still clamor for snippets, and even chunks, of our time in the coming weeks. Tempers will shorten in a direct function to the length of the Christmas shopping lines we encounter. Anticipation will grow, and if we’re not careful, it may ferment into anxiety. But it doesn’t have to. Learn from the mistakes of your seminarian. Try to keep perspective. Try to discern what your actions say about what time you think it is. Is it time to panic? I doubt it. Is it time to remember our source of hope? Perhaps. But, how will we do that?

Amen.

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