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Sunday, December 02, 2018

How to Survive The Apocalypse

A Sermon Preached for ADVENT I
December 2, 2018 - Proper Year C / RCL

 The Episcopal Church of St. David, Kinnelon, NJ

"American carnage." Isn’t that the term used in the inaugural speech of the present occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

Dark. Bleak. Chaotic. Fear. Foreboding. Apocalyptical.

Some of our ‘end time’ Evangelical brothers and sisters clapped their hands with great delight on hearing the term “American carnage”.

They would like nothing more than for the Apocalypse to happen, for the Second Coming of Jesus to happen now. Right. Now. This now. Now, now.

The church has been expecting Jesus to return for a long time, and he hasn’t done it yet.

“It’s hard to stand on tiptoe for two thousand years,” says William Willimon.

We've seen some of those apocalyptic images come out of Alaska after their 7.0 earthquake. The images look fearsome and foreboding. 

One of my friends who lives in Alaska, where they can have up to 24,000 earthquakes a year - admitedly, none of them of quite this magnitude - said, jokingly, "Tell everybody if they want to help, send dishes."

We also caught some glimpses of that American carnage just this week when a few hundred refugees and asylum seekers and their children from the American-funded carnage in Central America rushed the border between Tijuana, Mexico and the United States.

So, in the face of all that, what are we to make of this morning’s passage from the 21st chapter of Luke’s gospel? How are we to avoid the temptation to see what’s happening in our world today through the lens of the apocalyptic chaos of this piece of scripture?

Well, the first thing is to understand that these words of Christian Scripture are poetry. 

Yes, poetry.

We don’t listen to poetry and try to drag meaning out of it. We let poetry be poetry. We let its images dance a seductive dance over our imagination and creativity. We let it carry us to places deep in the inner recesses of our memory where the sacred lives.

Apocalyptic passages, like poetry, challenge reason and pull us to consider what is possible and what is impossible. 

That’s what Jesus is doing here in this passage. As C. S. Lewis once wrote—Jesus is describing a God without disguise who comes at us so unmistakably that he will “strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature.”

And, Jesus is asking, “Are you ready?”

Ready not just for the first coming of Jesus as a sweet babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, but ready for His coming again into your hearts as a light into these dark days.
 
So allow me take you where this amazing piece of apocalyptic poetry from Jesus took me as I considered what is happening in the world, what is happening in my life, and how it is I am to prepare for this Season of Advent.

I was seven or eight years old (not so very long ago!), the oldest of four, when I discovered the truth about Santa Claus. 

I didn’t mean to. I was just exploring my house for a quiet place to hide from my younger siblings so I could read my books in peace when I found that the door to the attic was unlocked. I climbed slowly up the stairs and scanned the room quickly and found a few spots, actually, where, with the addition of a blanket and pillow, would be most acceptable.

That’s when I saw it. 

There, over in the corner, hidden under a blanket were some of the toys we had asked Santa to bring for Christmas. I was confused and devastated. My carefully constructed fantasy world caved in on itself.

It was the end of my childhood innocence as a whole Pandora’s box of questions came flooding out at me: Why had my parents lied to me? Why didn’t they just tell me the truth? I mean, did they think I’d never figure it out? Did they think I was that dumb?

Just then, my mother came up the stairs and put her arms around me. She didn’t try to explain or excuse it. She just said, “I’m so sorry you had to find out this way. We meant to tell you earlier. We thought we still had some time. We never meant to hurt you.”

Now, I’m not going to get into a whole thing about Santa Claus and what you should do about your children and grandchildren. (I understand a substitute teacher in Montville, NJ told her first grade class that Santa isn't real and now she's out of a job.) 

That’s not the point of my telling the story. I believed my mother when she said my parents never meant to hurt me. I later figured out for myself that this is what happens when you take poetry and metaphors literally. 

People can get hurt.

Anyway, my mother said now I was old enough to help her wrap the presents for the younger ones and begged me not to tell them what I had learned the hard way. She promised that she would make sure to tell them before they found out on their own.

Not only that, she said, but now I was old enough to have my own room.

Well, THAT was a Christmas miracle I NEVER expected.

I mean, we lived in a small tenement apartment on the second floor of my grandparent’s house. There were two bedrooms. There were four kids. My parents had converted the parlor into their bedroom. My baby sister slept in a crib in their room. My younger sister and I slept in twin beds in one bedroom. My younger brother – whom we called, between clenched teeth, ‘The Little Prince” – slept in the other bedroom, which he had all to himself. Grrrrrr.

So, to trust that another bedroom would magically appear after learning about the lie of Santa Claus seemed like way too much to ask. My mother spread out her arms and said, “Welcome to your new bedroom. Daddy is going to paint the walls and we’ve got a nice rug to put down and your godparents have given you their daughter, Judy’s bed because she’s gone off to college. You just wait and see.  It’s going to be lovely.”
 
And, it was. It was ready by Christmas Eve – my first night in my new room. I was so excited I could barely sit still through the evening’s festivities.

In all the excitement, it wasn’t until it came time for my parents to tuck me in that we realized there was one important feature missing.

A nightstand and a table lamp.

There was a light in the ceiling – right in the middle of the room – with a long string that hung down from it. Which meant that when the string was pulled and the light went out, the only light was that from the hallway at the bottom of the stairs. Which wasn’t great but it was okay. I mean, I had my own room. How cool was that?

“Good night,” my parents called from the bottom of the stairs. 

“Good night,” I called back.

And then, it happened. They closed the attic door and turned off the hall light. Suddenly, it was completely dark in my room. No, I mean pitch-black dark. I couldn’t see my hand in front of me which meant, of course, that now I could begin to see everything that wasn’t there.

Scary things. Monster things. Fear and foreboding sank over my body and settled deep into my bones. If there wasn’t any Santa Claus, were guardian angels a hoax as well? 

At age eight, I knew one true thing: There WERE monsters under my bed. I knew that if I got out of bed to pull the light string, they would get to me before I was able to get back under the covers.

And then, because I was like every eight year old girl who ever lived in any time or any place anywhere, EVER, I had a flare for the dramatic. 

I KNEW – knew beyond a shadow of a doubt – that I. Was. Going. To. DIE.

I started to weep softly as I said my prayers, hoping against hope that there was actually a God and that hadn’t been all a lie my parents told, too.

And suddenly, I heard it. 

Despite all the noise in my head, I heard it. 

It was the unmistakable sound of the click of a wall switch. 

I opened my eyes and there, at the bottom of the attic stairs, was a little sliver of light at the bottom of the attic door. My parents had turned on the hall light which was just enough to comfort me and rescue me from the depths of my despair. 

And, ever since then, from that time forward to this very day, when I am anxious or frightened or just flat out terrified, I look for that little sliver of light. That, for me, is how I understand Jesus. That’s who I understand him to be – a little sliver of light in the midst of fearsome darkness.

As the Season of Advent moves steadily upon us and the world around us continues to swirl seemingly out of control, I hope that you can remember this little story. 
 
I hope you can remember that apocalyptic passages are, essentially, poetic passages and ought to be treated as such. We don't demand literal interpretations of poems, we ought not to demand them of apocalyptic passages.
 
Introduction to Poetry
By Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.
 
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
 
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
 
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
 
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
 
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

In preparing for this sermon, I've untied Luke's Gospel from the chair and I've stopped trying to "torture a confession" from the "sun, moon, stars, and earth".

I encourage you to do the same.
 
Rather, I hope you will press your ear against the Gospel hive, listening for the buzz. Or, blindfold yourself and feel along the walls for a light switch of inspiration and insight.
 
Allow it to carry you away from the doom and gloom of life and into another metaphor of your life which is life-giving and salvific. 

It occurs to me that its a good way to prepare for Advent.   

I recommend waterskiing across the surface of the Gospel stories of Advent and Christmas while you wave to the authors at the shore. 
I strongly urge you to drop a little church mouse into a Gospel story and watch him probe his way around, looking for a morsel or two of goodness upon which to feast. 
 
You may discover there the small sliver of the light of Christ which dwells in you. 

To your great surprise, you may even learn that YOU are the sliver of light in the darkness that shines for others.

When Christmas finally arrives, like Jesus at his coming, may you strike “irresistible love” into the hearts of every living creature.

Are you ready? 

Amen.


5 comments:

Linda McMillan said...

I LOVE THAT!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you. I had a great deal of fun writing it.

Catherine said...

Thank you, Elizabeth+ for this poetic and meaningful "revelation".

SimplySuzi said...

I missed this earlier, so am SO glad Lindy posted a link to it. Just wonderful! Thank you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I'm really honored. Thank you so much, Catherine and SimplySuzi!