When I was in law school I lived in Manhattan, in New York City. I was in my twenties, and it was fun to live in New York. On New Year’s Eve we used to join the annual new year celebration at Times Square. Every year before midnight the crowd gathers, and exactly at 11:59pm, there is this giant rhinestone and strobe light studded ball at the top of the building at One Times Square that takes 60 seconds to drop, which finishes at the stroke of midnight. The crowd roars and counts down the seconds, and you can hear the countdown from Central Park, it’s so loud. Then New York does what New York does and celebrates, and I’m told this year they cleaned 50 tons of trash from Times Square after the people were done with their confetti and champagne and craziness. New Yorkers know how to celebrate.
So this is the New Year in our culture. We celebrate! In fact I’d say the culture of America is all about the belief in endless possibility that the New Year represents – no limit to what you can imagine or create or build. For the Enneagram people in the house, I’d say America is a “Seven” – endlessly happy to do something new. Some of us perhaps even make New Year’s resolutions, but I can tell you that none of us at Times Square were doing that. We were just happy to be open to limitless possibility and to have fun.
Some of you might be wondering why in the world I’m talking about the New Year today, on December 2, when we haven’t even gotten to Christmas yet. That is because today, the first Sunday in Advent, is the church’s new year. Now at first blush I suspect some of us might prefer the craziness in Times Square to what we’ve been doing this morning so far – beginning in the dark, listening to strange scriptures full of teachings about the apocalypse. Advent is about waiting for the coming of Christ, on two levels:
waiting for the birth of the Christ child, the impossibly wonderful idea that God comes to us, not as a stern slightly disapproving grandfather, but as a baby who is vulnerable and willing to be in solidarity with the human condition. During advent we’re pregnant with this possibility, remembering the birth of Jesus and getting ready to celebrate it again. But Advent has also always meant the Second coming of Jesus, and that’s where some Episcopalians might get nervous. How many of you grew up with movies like the Left Behind series, or even the Thief in the Night series that I grew up with in the seventies? We’re all familiar with street preachers or full page New York Times ads predicting the end of the world or the Rapture on a particular date based on some interpretation of the scriptures that speak about the second coming of Christ, and that’s where many of us start smiling politely while slowly backing out of the room.
But our scriptures have always spoken about the coming of a Messiah, of a Son of Man, before whom all that was wrong is made right; before whom the evil and oppression of empire are crushed forever; before whom the poor of the world can finally lift up their heads and breathe, because they will no longer be vulnerable to the exploitation of other humans who always have been willing to turn a blind eye to their distress. That kind of vision is worth something. But looking forward to a future like that seems like a pipe dream. So what are we supposed to do with Advent? It’s safer to just remember the birth of Jesus and skip over the idea of any future Jesus sightings.
But being safe has never been what following the way of Jesus is about. Today, at the beginning of our New Year, we shouldn’t be afraid to allow ourselves to trust that the new world our scriptures speak about is not some utopian fantasy but a reality toward which we can orient our whole lives and energies. Advent is about light in the dark. It is about acknowledging the craziness in the world around us, but being oriented toward and committed to a different reality. I was studying the scripture for today, the gospel text from Luke, and I noticed at the beginning and the end, there is a repeated emphasis on standing up. First it says, “when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” At the end of the reading, Jesus says, “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” These are images of a person who may be bowed down under the weight of the distress and fear and roaring all around, but whose attention is not on these things: it is on the coming of God’s presence in this world. That presence is enough to get our attention, to make us stand up, because we anticipate what God’s presence means: the restoration of all that is broken, the ability to make us whole.
There is a modern day Episcopal theologian and contemplative named Cynthia Bourgeault. How many of you have heard of her? Bourgeault speaks about Christian hope in this way. She says that the very reality of which we are made, the ocean we are swimming in, is the love and mercy of God that is made manifest in Jesus and indeed in all creation. She says this: “[The mercy of God] is literally the force that holds everything in existence, the gravitational field in which we live and move and have our being.”1 She goes on to describe the spiritual journey as being one in which we learn to perceive this reality; we learn to recognize our union with God, the union that Jesus experienced and makes possible for us as well. When we recognize Christ within ourselves and others, it transforms us and changes the way we live. It gives us power to experience kinship across lines of difference and work for justice in the world.
But how? For the mystics and contemplatives of St John’s, I’ve been speaking your language. But for the concrete thinkers here, and those who consider themselves “religious but not spiritual”, this may sound like a bunch of spiritual mumbo jumbo. To you I can say this: don’t worry: there is a simple way to begin to practice the Christian hope that the love of God is the ocean in which we are swimming. Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has offered us a rule of life, a way of living, that is so simple, your children can understand it, but so challenging that it could take your whole life to embody in its fullness. It is called the Way of Love. He launched this rule of life in July 2018, at the National Episcopal Convention which occurs every three years. It is composed of seven practices that are very simple, but not easy. These practices are not new – they are distilled from two millennia of Christian spirituality.
First, Turn. Pause, listen, and choose to follow Jesus; choose to follow the way of Jesus. Choose which direction you are headed. Choose to face Christ in yourself and others.
Second, Learn. Reflect on the scriptures every day; learn something about them and about how our small stories fit into the great stories of God’s liberating love.
Third, pray. Dwell intentionally with God every day.
Fourth, worship. Gather with other Christians weekly to be nourished and blessed and to celebrate the presence of God.
Fifth, bless. Share faith and unselfishly give and serve.
Sixth, Go. Cross the boundaries that divide us from one another, listen deeply, and live like Jesus.
And finally, Seventh, rest. Receive the gift of God’s grace, peace, and restoration.
These seven practices are like the steps of our journey in and toward the kingdom of God. These seven practices grant us a life oriented toward the coming Christ, the Son of Man, who is always seeking to make everything whole. These practices are not meant to be another set of rules, but a way of walking in the world that is based on having thrown ourselves into the arms of God’s mercy and trusting that God’s love has the last word.
In Bishop Curry’s sermon during National Convention this past summer, the sermon in which he launched this Way of love, he spoke about why he personally has chosen to follow this way. Bishop Curry is an African American whose mother’s family is from Birmingham, Alabama. His aunt’s church was called the 16th Street Baptist Church, and it was one that Ku Klux Klan members bombed on September 15, 1963, killing four little girls who were Bishop Curry’s age. Bishop Curry said that over the years since then, even though our country still struggles with racism and white supremacy, the Birmingham of today is not the Birmingham of 1963, because followers of the Way of Jesus have given their very lives for the love of God which impels them to work for justice. This same Way of love is what impelled Mariann Budde to declare the Episcopal Diocese of Washington a sanctuary for all immigrants. It’s the same Way of love that moved Dietrich Bonhoeffer to oppose Hitler and
William Wilberforce to oppose slavery and Dorothy Day to work to end poverty. But we can’t sustain doing these big things if we haven’t practiced the way of Jesus in the small things, in the every day – in interactions with the relative who most bugs you and in how you vote and what you choose to do with your own big feelings.
So, Bishop Curry urged all Episcopalians to follow the Way of love like those who have gone before us, based not on trust in our own efforts, but trust in the love and mercy of God. He said that we should be like Peter in the storm. Do you remember the story of when the disciples were on a boat at night and a storm hit? They were afraid for their very lives. Then they saw Jesus, walking on the water toward them.
Peter got out of the boat and started walking toward Jesus, and as long as he was looking at Jesus, he was ok. But the minute he turned his face away he started to sink. Bishop Curry told us that we need to do more than politely glance in Jesus’ direction. We need to be like Peter and throw ourselves into the arms of God in Christ, and on that basis, begin to follow his way.
Bishop Curry is an amazing preacher, so sometimes my daughter Carly and I watch him on youtube. Carly likes to watch him because he gets excited when he preaches. He is way more fun than I am. So when Carly and I were watching this sermon, and he said we ought to throw ourselves into the arms of Jesus, Carly said, “Hey Mom, that’s just like what I do when I see you: I run at you and you catch me.” Kids, do the rest of you ever do that with your parents? Well I have something to ask of you: can you remind your parents that that’s what they need to do with God?
Advent is about pointing ourselves toward the reality of God in Christ. It is facing in the direction of the Christian hope that God is not an idea but a living reality in this world. It is walking in the way of love toward that reality, and loving unselfishly, even sacrificially, to follow Jesus. Let us walk this way together. Turn. Learn. Pray. Worship. Bless. Go. Rest.
1 Cynthia Bourgeault, Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God (Cowly Publications, 2001), chapter 2.