December 3, 2023 “Advent 1: Pregnant with God’s Beloved Community”
Lisa Wiens Heinsohn
Homily by Lisa Wiens Heinsohn for St. John’s Episcopal Church on December 3, 2023
The First Sunday of Advent: Mark 13:24-37
As some of you know, this year my husband Jeff and I fulfilled a lifelong dream and bought a small piece of land with a tiny cabin in the forest near Ely. We want to care well for the land so we had someone from the Minnesota DNR come out to the property and walk it with us, teaching us about what is there. One of the things she told us was about a tree called Juneberry, nicknamed serviceberry. She said it’s called serviceberry because it usually flowers at the same time as the ground has finally thawed enough after winter to have funeral services; because you can finally bury your dead. It turns out people throughout human history have been finely attuned to the rhythms of the natural world, because we had to be. But many cultures also elevated this attunement to be one of great respect, delight and attention. They understood what science is only now really beginning to perceive: that we all exist within a vast web of life in which everything impacts everything else. The way to cultivate right relation with the earth is begin by observing it carefully—not from the detached, so-called “objective” stance of an analyst, but with the rapt attention of a lover who has empathy and communion for the world of which we are a part.
I’m speaking about all this because of Jesus’ words in today’s gospel reading about learning the lessons of the fig tree. As someone pointed out in Tuesday’s noon Eucharist service, the natural world shows up a lot in today’s reading. Fig trees, winds and clouds, sun and moon and stars. Jesus tells his disciples that just as people know how to read the story of the natural world around them, so too we can learn to read the story of the signs of God’s presence and of the coming reign of God. He tells us to stay awake. And this paying attention, this anticipation of the reign of God, is at the heart of Advent, where we finally are! Did you know that this Sunday, the first week of Advent, is the church’s New Year? During Advent we anticipate the coming of Christ, the birth of Christ and also the great mystery the church has called the Second Coming of Christ.
And these two things, the heart of what Advent is about—that hopeful paying attention to the signs of God’s presence, and anticipating the coming of Christ—is also the heart of what it is to follow Jesus’ Way of Love, or to use other language the heart of Christian discipleship. This is where it all starts. So let’s unpack those two things.
What does staying awake, paying attention, being mindful mean to you? I was speaking recently with a veteran who had been part of a terrible experience in the military where every other member of her unit was killed, and she herself had so much shrapnel in her body that she has had more than sixty surgeries to remove it. She said that the trauma has made her hypervigilant all the time. She always knows who is in a room, who is coming in and out of a room, and the level of threat they might present. That’s an extreme example, but many of us who suffer from anxiety or trauma know what it is to be hypervigilant, and constantly anticipating danger and what could go wrong. I don’t think that’s what Jesus means by staying awake. In fact I think he might be speaking of the opposite—a kind of clear, grounded mindfulness in which we are so present that we are able to read the subtle but unmistakable signs of the life and presence of God, the same way that people can learn to read the natural world.
Yesterday Jeff and Carly and I went for a walk, to a big park with many acres of woods and lakes. We were standing at the shoreline looking out at flocks of swans, geese and ducks that were all gathered on the lake. I’ve never seen so many swans in one place at one time. Suddenly from almost directly over us a bald eagle swooped down toward the flocks on the lake then flew into the woods on the other side. We had had no idea the eagle was there, silently sitting in the tree right over our heads. A little later we noticed quite a few feathers on the ground nearby. One of them had the green shimmer of a Mallard duck, but the base of the feather was bloody. It would have been easy to walk past it without ever noticing it. But the feathers told the story of an eagle who had caught a duck. The natural world is an open story that is available for any of us to read, if we notice it, if we pay attention.
I believe the way we learn to read the signs of God’s presence is the same way we learn to read what is happening in the natural world. We do it with a silent rapt attention, a wonder and love and curiosity. My teenaged daughter Carly was with the pilgrims who went to serve at St. Nicholas’ food shelf a month or two ago. St. Nicholas is an Episcopal church in Richfield that has a Spanish speaking service for members who are part of the immigrant community of Richfield. During the pandemic when many of them were suffering from lack of work and no safety net, the rector Julie Luna started collecting food and bringing it to peoples’ homes. Pretty soon they had enough food that they started serving it on Saturday mornings. Now a wide variety of people from many countries come to the church on Saturday morning to get food. When Carly went there to help serve she was deeply moved and wanted to go back. There were Mexican members of the church who called her over and asked her to help them sort some vegetables. It was a gift to her to connect with people from other cultures who were so vibrant and welcoming and alive. She came home raving about the experience and wants to do it again. That is a sign of God’s presence and the activity of the Holy Spirit. In two weeks that rector Julie Luna is coming to St. John’s to preach and lead the adult forum and I highly recommend that you come to hear her.
I could have skipped over Carly’s experience. But I am learning to pay attention to the signs of life and hope and meaning that are the hallmark of God’s Spirit. And we at St. John’s can cultivate that same kind of awareness in our community and our personal lives too. I believe this is part of what Jesus means by staying awake. It’s looking, not for what can go wrong, but for the life and love God’s Spirit is manifesting around us all the time. Where have you experienced love and life like that recently?
Now let’s turn to the second aspect of Advent which is the coming of Christ, in both senses—the birth of the Christ child, and also the great mystery called the “Second Coming of Christ.” In today’s gospel reading Jesus talks about the Son of Man coming in great glory in the clouds. He is actually taking bits and pieces from several prophecies from the Hebrew scriptures from Isaiah and Zechariah and Daniel, changing some of them, re-working them. He is weaving together strands of the Hebrew prophetic imagination that the reign of God, in which love is stronger than evil, becomes a human reality. Jesus does speak about a time when what we have done and how we have lived is reviewed by God and revealed for what it has been. But the end is always the dwelling of God with people, in heaven and on earth. The end is always a world in which God wipes the tears from peoples’ eyes and dwells among them as light itself. In this world there are people from every language and tribe and nation. In this world God is not a benevolent dictator, but is more like the tree in the center of the city, growing on the shores of the river of life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.
This imagination about the reign of God, the Beloved Community, is part of what is meant by the second coming of Christ. We are called to be a people who dare to hope, dare to believe, that the impossible is possible, that by the power of God humanity can live in right relation with God, with one another and with the earth, far more than we do now, and that we are to orient our lives toward this reality. Some might say it is foolish or naïve to believe this is possible. Certainly history is full of evidence to the contrary. But history is also full of impossible things that happened because people believed they could. Mahatma Gandhi achieved a nonviolent overthrow of British rule in India. Martin Luther King had a vision that Black Lives matter, that there could be a world in which people of different colors could live together in harmony and that one would not oppress the other. Houston and San Diego are cities experimenting with ending homelessness. The Dakota and Ojibwe people lived in right relation with this fragile earth that we call home, and Indigenous people like Robin Wall Kimmerer are teaching others what the hallmarks of such a world could look like.
There is far too much despair in this world, and there is good reason for anxiety all around us. But invisibly, also all around us all the time, is the kingdom of God, the presence of God, the activity of God’s Spirit which manifests as love and life and wholeness and imagination. Just like the eagle sitting silently above Jeff and Carly and I in the tree, just like Julie Luna following the nudge of God’s Spirit to provide food to hungry people, so too is the quiet working of God. Can you see it?
Advent is about daring to hope that the God’s Beloved Community is possible, and that we can orient our lives toward participating in God’s work to make it happen. We can pay attention closely, reading the story of God’s Spirit at work and then participating in it and strengthening it. In fact you might even say that in Advent, just like Mary, we are pregnant with God’s Beloved Community.
This Advent, consider making it your practice to cultivate a deep inner mindfulness, looking for life and love, hope and the presence of God quietly all around you all the time. Even more, consider what it would be to dream of a world where we can live in harmony, in right relation with God and each other and our beloved earth, and what Christ might seek to do through us to bring that to birth. Amen.