Advent I – November 29, 2009
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
It’s the New Year. Are you ready?
No, I’ve not gone off the deep end. Even though we have several weeks to go to the beginning of 2010, Advent I begins a new year in the Church’s Liturgical Calendar.
It’s not as crazy as it might seem. Our new year begins with the anticipation of the Incarnation. We are a people who are pregnant with hope.
I’ve been struck by verse 28 from the 21st chapter of Luke’s gospel: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
“Stand up and raise your heads.”
What a remarkable thing to say to an ancient people bowed down and bent over by the oppression of the occupied forces of Rome. Indeed, what a remarkable thing to say to anyone whose shoulders are slumped and head is bowed by anxiety or shame or fear.
“Stand up and raise your heads.”
It was Tuesday afternoon when the call came in. A student I had known several years ago was calling to say hello and Happy Thanksgiving. She is always irrepressibly cheerful and positive in her outlook, even though she’s been through a rough patch.
She graduated a few years back with her M.Div. but had only been able to obtain a 1/4 time position with a ministry with a fledgling inner city organization that provides food to those who are homeless. The rest of the time, she works at a Café. Even has some health benefits.
God, she says, is good. All the time.
“So,” she continued after the pleasantries, “can I ask you a favor?”
“Sure,” said I.
“Well, I’m wondering if I could park my car in your church lot overnight.”
“No problem,” I said, “Just put a note in the dashboard that says, ‘Guest of St. Paul’s Church’. That way, the police will leave you alone.”
“Well,” she continued, “you see, I’ll be sleeping in my car.”
“Excuse me?” I said, certain I didn’t hear her correctly.
“Yeah, see, well, I couldn’t afford my student loans, my car and my apartment. I figure I need my car for my jobs so I gave up my apartment. Trouble is,” she continued quickly, “my 14 year old daughter is here visiting so I really don’t want there to be any trouble. You know. With the cops.”
I took in a deep breath as I took in all that she was saying.
This is an intelligent woman. Creative. Well educated. Who takes care of homeless people And now, she’s homeless. With a 14 year old daughter. How could this be, I asked myself.
Strange. I had just been reading the poem by William Butler Yeats “The Second Coming.”
Turning and turning in the widening gyre“Look,” I said, “you can not sleep in your car in the church - or any - parking lot. Even if I gave you permission, that wouldn’t hold with the Chatham police – or any police department. My permission would not spare you a charge of ‘child endangerment’ – and you could lose visitation rights with your daughter.”
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
There was a long pause and she said, “Oh, right. What should I do?”
I said, “ Well, for now, just hang on and let me make a few phone calls and get back to you.”
We said a prayer together and then hung up. I thought of the words from this morning’s gospel. “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Raise your head, I said to myself. Don’t be overwhelmed by all this. Raise your head for yourself and for her and her daughter. THINK.
It was four o’clock in the afternoon. The Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Who would still be at their desk? I sent up a quick prayer before making a phone call to a friend at Interfaith Hospitality Network.
To my delight, I was able to reach her and explained the situation. “You know, we used to get calls like this oh, once or twice a month. Now, it’s three or four times a week. It’s like the center is giving way.”
I thought to myself that both Jesus and Yeats, writing at very different times in history, were right.
Sometimes, things fall apart; the center cannot hold.
She said I should give my friend her number to start the process of intake with IHN, but in all likelihood, there would be no room for her tonight.
“Call the Office of Temporary Assistance,” she said, “and perhaps, between that office and maybe some pockets you can pick, we can get her off the streets – at least for the time her daughter is visiting.”
Well, it took a little doing and no less than quite a few phone calls, but we were able to patch together enough money for an inexpensive hotel room while we started the longer-term process of finding a solution to her homelessness.
When I called my friend later that evening in her hotel room she thanked me and said, “You know. I don’t know what I was thinking. I was just so ashamed and so afraid.”
And then she sighed and said, “I need help.”
“Ah, I said, “and now you have said the three most courageous words in the English language. I. Need. Help. It’s hard to say, isn’t it? But, once you’ve said them, once you’ve taken careful stock of where you are and what’s going on around you; once you are able to say, ‘I need help’, you are able to stand up and raise your head and see Jesus waiting to help you.”
In this morning’s gospel, Jesus says, "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.”
Oh, my friend is not out of the woods, but she’s on the path. She took her first step onto the path of her own salvation when she stood up and raised her head against the rising tide of shame and fear and was able to say, ‘I need help.’
And that, my friends, is the essence of this Advent Season. That is the beginning of the New Year we proclaim this Sunday. The New Year when the prophet Jeremiah says that God will fulfill God’s promises.
The year of the Lord which begins with a birth of rude awakening in the humble stables of the Bethlehems of our lives.
The second stanza of Yeats’ poem continues:
Surely some revelation is at hand;To one extent or another, we are all slouching toward Bethlehem. I know I am.
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Many of us are stooped over by anxiety and fear. Some of us are ashamed. Others of us are grieving. Deeply. Some are angry.
We hide it well behind cheery smiles through grit teeth all tied up in a bow of ‘passionate intensity’. Most of us are able to convince ourselves and even others that we are ‘fine, just fine’.
But, we’re not. The truth of it is that all of us need Jesus in our lives. And, there is no room for Him right now, for the inns of our hearts are too cluttered with the ‘dissipation and drunkenness of the worries of this life’.
Fear not. The Light of the world is coming.
This morning, we lit the first candle of the Advent Wreath. Each week, we’ll light another. And another. Each week, the ‘rough beasts’ of our worst fears, whose ‘hour has come round at last’, will slouch a little closer towards Bethlehem, expecting to find what the world describes as King, only to find that God has given us a wee tiny babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes. The Infant Messiah.
We’ll know by the light that overcomes the darkness of our ‘rough beasts’.
We’ll know by the innocent hope we see in our children’s eyes.
We’ll feel it in the real joy that lights up our hearts which comes from sacrificial giving to those whose need is far greater, even than our own.
Hear again the words of Jesus to us this morning: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
It’s the beginning of a New Year – a new life – for a people who are pregnant with hope.
Are you ready?
Stand up and pick up your heads. Ready or not, it has begun.