In the name of the God of beginnings and endings and everything in between. Amen.
In a sermon some time back, I think I’d mentioned about how there is this relatively new movement in the church – the last 10 or 15 years – that advocates for redrawing the annual liturgical calendar, making Advent longer. I believe the proposal is to extend it from four weeks to eight. There are even several congregations here in our diocese that have been experimenting with the idea for the past few years.
In classic Episcopalian fashion, whenever the subject comes up, one of the first concerns I hear expressed is, “What will we do about the Advent wreath? There’s only room for four candles!” Leave it to us to get right to the heart of the matter – worrying about the furniture we use in liturgies before we think about the reason the liturgy exists!
But one of the reasons for considering this change was out of a recognition that culturally, Advent has become consumed by Christmas. Of course we, in the church, are firm: Christmas begins on the 25th of December. But couldn’t we all benefit from putting even more focus on the sense of hope and expectation that is so central to our Christian heritage? Maybe a few extra weeks of anticipation couldn’t hurt.
Another reason - just in case you were sitting there wondering why your priest is talking so much about the run-up to Christmas here at the start of October - is because the readings around this time of year lead us to begin noticing that Advent is coming. It’s right around the corner.
The liturgical year, like the Christian life, doesn’t have the kinds of fixed boundaries that we try to impose on it: Year A stops here. Year B begins not one moment before! But instead, the years and the seasons tend to blend between one another. We don’t just suddenly turn our heads in another direction when Advent starts - the calendar of the church and the cycle of our readings have been slowly pointing us in that direction for a long time. There just aren’t sharp lines.
There’s almost always some aspect of the church’s teachings that are pointing us toward the miracle and the gift of incarnation. And there’s almost always some aspect of the church’s teachings that are pointing us toward the miracle and the gift of the resurrection. Though some Sundays seem to focus one way or another, it’s never entirely one or the other.
So, the lessons that we’re hearing here at the end of the liturgical year, start to take shape as a kind of advent to Advent.
It starts from a place within us that we all intuitively know: life leads to death. It’s a painful part of the story of our humanity, but one that we all have to face. In the story of Jesus, we know from the moment he’s born: he will die. But the Christian promise is that there will also be something more. The fact that “life leads to death” won’t be all there is. Death will also lead to life.
And we incorporate that into our own lives. When we celebrate baptisms or the life cycles and stages of our children, part of the gift that these moments represent for us is an antidote to our own mortality. They keep the world going even after we’re gone. And when we’re gone, and when the ones we love go before us, we trust that we’ll all live on in the promise of the resurrection, and in the resurrection incarnated in our relationships and in our communities.
The same thing is happening in the church year. Right now, in the chronology of Jesus’ life, our readings here lately are a part of the Holy Week story. These teachings and parables are being taught and told in Jerusalem, on the cusp of his death.
Jesus’ life, will eventually lead to his death. And that death will ultimately lead to greater life. And life to death, and death to life, and on, and on, through the ages.
We have to hear things over and over again before we can really learn them - before we can truly integrate them into our lives and into our beings. We have to experience this cycle again and again. We need each Advent to point to the Resurrection, and we need each death to point to some new Advent - some new season of hope and expectation that we’ve been previously unable to fully see.
And that’s a bit of what we’re hearing in this challenging parable. But this difficult tale tells us that the landlord, God, sent workers again and again to do the work of the kingdom. We hear stories like this throughout our tradition - the many ways that God has tried to deliver us from evil - or another way of thinking about it: from the shortcomings of our humanity. There are books upon books throughout the Bible that tell the story of God reaching out to people, only to have us turn away. That was the function of all of the prophets. That was the work of all of the kings. Each time, God was reaching out to the people, and each time we found some way to try to push God away.
It can be tempting to hear this parable as a kind of foreshadowing to the death that Jesus would face on Good Friday, but perhaps it’s not foreshadowing at all. Perhaps it’s not even a clever prediction. Perhaps the cycle of the tenants rejecting the messengers of the landlord is a reminder to us - not just the us of then; the “us” of the Holy Week narrative, but even us, here today.
Our history as the people of God has shown us that when we’re not paying attention, we all too often find ourselves trying to push God away. Of course, God isn’t going anywhere, but even so, it can bring harm both to ourselves and to those around us when we try to push God away.
Like those tenants so prone to evil, we, too, must be called again and again back to God. We, too, need the law, and the prophets, and the kings, and even God’s own child to remind us where we should be and what we should be doing. Like the endless cycle of life, death, and resurrection; and life, death, and resurrection… We also need the cycle of repenting and returning to God.
The cycle of the church year - with its not-so-clear and always repeating and intermingling beginnings, middles, and ends - reflects the very cycles of faith, and falling from faith, and returning to faith that make up so much of our lives.
I hope that we’re never as evil as the tenants we’ve heard about this morning. But even so, the little evils that keep us feeling separate from God will come. When they do - when you feel most alone - try to remember that while you may not know God is there, God knows you are there. God is still longing to be known. God is still trying to bring forth the best fruits of your life and labor that you have to offer. And while you’re trying to remember, use the tools and the traditions of our faith that have been given to you. Connect with the cycles of the church. Pray through the cycles of life, death, and resurrection. Embrace the cycles of faith and doubt and faith again.
The thing about cycles is, they always come around. Soon they’ll come around for you, too. Soon, what feels like death will be shown to have really been life emerging in new ways. Just don’t give up. Amen.