Shuck and Jive

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Expecting: A Sermon

John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

November 29th, 2009
First Sunday of Advent

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Luke 21:25-36


I'm a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf's big with its yeasty rising.
Money's new-minted in this fat purse.
I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I've eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there's no getting off.
--Sylvia Plath

Twice in three Sundays we are faced with the apocalyptic Jesus. I would normally skip over this ancient superstition, but since I am following the lectionary, here we are. As I spent time talking about the apocalyptic two weeks ago, I will refer you to that sermon, Embracing Change. It was based on Mark 13. Luke 21 is a rewrite of Mark 13.

Here is my short version explanation of this text in Mark and its parallels in Matthew and Luke:

This refers to an historical event that is long gone, the destruction of the temple and the burning of Jerusalem that happened in 66-70 CE. The gospel authors writing during (or in Luke’s case) after the event put on the lips of Jesus who lived 40 years before this event a prediction of this event.

If you have interest in this period of time, pick up a copy of Josephus, The Wars of the Jews.

The gospel authors, Mark, Matthew, and Luke all use a combination of apocalyptic imagery and possibly reports of actual events and put it all on the lips of Jesus as if he is predicting it all.

Why would they do that?

By having Jesus predict his own death and his resurrection and having him predict the major political event of the millennium, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans, it provided a sense of hope.
All the stuff that we have been through and are going through is part of the divine scheme, so we shouldn’t get too freaked out about it.
John Hagee, Pat Robertson, the Left Behind authors and all the wild and woolly rapture predictors are misreading the Bible. That is no surprise. Throughout history folks have been poring through the Bible in search of clues to predict “the end.” In times of crisis, both real and perceived, apocalyptic types take center stage and rile up the masses. It is an old trick.

I wonder if there is a psychology behind all of this. I am just playing armchair psychologist but I wonder if it has to do with anxiety on two levels.

1) Anxiety about no end to the universe. It will go on without me.
2) Anxiety about my end. The universe will go on without me.

Wouldn’t it be nice if a divine being, the creator of all, tied up all the loose ends by ending the universe and creating a new one in which each of us (at least the good people) lives forever in it? It would solve the problem of the universe not ending when it should, and of us ending when we shouldn’t.

Hope in that scenario is hope in an endless existence that the creator will provide. I can live through any temporary setback, inconvenience, or hardship, because one day I am going to cross the Jordan and rest on Canaan’s shore.

That is pretty much the theology of Christianity for these past 2000 years.

We would have been fine with that if it hadn’t been for those meddlers, Galileo and Darwin. Galileo uprooted the heavens putting Earth where heaven is supposed to be and heaven where Earth is supposed to be. Darwin uprooted humanity making us closer to the orangutans than to the angels.

Ever since, science has taken us at warp speed away from our superstitious past.

The problem is that science isn’t so helpful in the hope department. A member of our congregation recently told the adult forum that while Richard Dawkins is a fun read, on the death bed he is not a warm fuzzy.

So while we are content, in fact demanding, of what science has given us, it seems we have yet to find meaning and hope in its world.

We have tapped into Earth’s crust and from its oily nectar created a world that neither Jesus nor the Gospel writers could have ever imagined.

The dark side of that is that we use Earth. We call what we use resources. Thus we have reduced ourselves, us wise humans, homo sapiens, created in the image of God, to consumers of resources. That is a demotion. It is not fitting to who we are as human beings nor is it fitting to our responsibility to and to our relationship to Earth and its living beings.

Not only that, but we homo sapiens--wise humans--are making the most unwise decisions. We are not living as though we (that is the human race) are going to be here for a while. We are living as though this Earth is going to be destroyed as part of a divine plan and we are going to be magically transported to a new one.

We are living as though John Hagee, Pat Robertson, and the rapture wackos have won the day. We have handed meaning-making over to them. Their meaning is this:
“Use it up. Let’s get this apocalyptic ball rolling. The sooner the place gets devastated, the sooner the saints get into heaven.”
Even most of my mainline colleagues still think--as far as I can tell--that hope is about getting into heaven when we die. We have not discovered and articulated clearly a theology or a philosophy of hope that centers on Earth as both home and destiny.

Maybe we already are on Canaan’s shore.

Maybe our work should be how to make Canaan a little more heavenly or at least a little less hellish.

Or if we can’t do that, maybe we can hope for peace of mind that accepts our limits.

Maybe we should just admit with Carly Simon that “these are the good old days.”

The Christian season of Advent is rich with metaphor. Its posture is one of waiting. It is the invitation to take a breath or several and wait. Not do. That freaks me out because I want to do.

At our house we do this cruel thing to the animals. We have three dogs now. Every now and then I say, “Treat!” And they get all excited. I get out the bag of treats and they get more excited. Then I go into the living room with the treats and say, “Sit.” They sit. Then I put the treats in front of them, one in front of each. I say, “Wait. Wait.” They look at the treat or they look at me. Finally, I say, “Take it!” The treats are gone.

I don’t know why I do that. Probably some kind of need for power and control I have that I take out on my hapless dogs.

The posture of Advent is waiting. Marvelously agonizing it is. The whole buildup. My daughter told me just recently how much she loved Advent and having the Advent candles be lit in church, one at a time. It helped her as a child to know how many candles were left to light until Christmas.

The waiting is an expectant waiting. One of the symbols of Advent is pregnancy, particularly Mary pregnant with the Christ.

I really like this kind of old fashioned way of putting it: “She’s expecting.” It sounds more mysterious and proper than “She’s pregnant” or “She’s got a bun in the oven.”

She’s expecting. She’s waiting with anticipation. This waiting includes preparation. The waiting cannot be rushed. It won’t happen before its time.

Life is changed for us when we are expecting. We anticipate big changes, a new way of living. We use this time of pregnancy to prepare for a new way of living, for the changes that this new life, literally, this new baby, will bring. Those changes have already begun. We are already starting to live as if this new reality has begun.

Advent waiting is living now as though what is promised is already here. We wait with expectation.

We are also very alert and very present to the present.

It is a time of dreaming what our child will be like and a little anxious worrying if we will be good parents or not, or if we are really ready or not.

(The answers are:
1. the child will be both like you and unlike you;
2. yes you will be fine parents; and
3. no you are not nor will you ever be ready).

A woman expecting, pregnant with possibility, is an image for Advent.

Medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart said:
"What does God do all day long? He gives birth. From the beginning of eternity God lies on a maternity bed giving birth to the All. God is creating this whole universe, full and entire, in this present moment."
Or we can flip it around. If God is pregnant with the world it is also true as Angela of Foligno said:
"The world is pregnant with God."
And to flip it again, to quote Eckhart once more:
"We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born."
That is the creativity. That is our salvation. To use the ancient words of Luke:
“Your redemption is drawing near.”
Luke wrote his gospel to provide encouragement and comfort. In Luke’s three-tiered universe, redemption was the Son of Man returning on a cloud.

Perhaps for us our redemption is to give birth to the Cosmic Christ. We are to give birth to wisdom, to creativity, to life.

In either case, whichever the metaphor, hope is that the Divine Mystery is close. As anxious as we are about what is happening around us, we are invited to stand up and raise our heads,

--to be human beings.

The way of letting go, the via negativa is letting go of the quick fix. We want to fix things. We want a better world right now. Waiting is a path that asks something of us first. It is a path that says we have some things to learn first.

Wendell Berry is a good poet for Advent.

I will give him the last word:

(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill-more of each
than you have-inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your work,
doubt their judgment.

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.



  1. This was a good sermon. I especially liked the part:

    "We are living as though John Hagee, Pat Robertson, and the rapture wackos have won the day. We have handed meaning-making over to them. Their meaning is this:

    “Use it up. Let’s get this apocalyptic ball rolling. The sooner the place gets devastated, the sooner the saints get into heaven.”
    Even most of my mainline colleagues still think--as far as I can tell--that hope is about getting into heaven when we die."

    Yep. And...

    "We have not discovered and articulated clearly a theology or a philosophy of hope that centers on Earth as both home and destiny.

    No. We haven't. It's a good thing to think about.

  2. I think we have a theology that offers hope and embraces Science - Creation Spirituality. There is more to the theology than the four paths - Take a look at The Universe Story by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry. God is never articulated and the science of evolution is hopeful. The Universe Story offers a creation story for the planet a way for all people to come together. It will take a few decades to change the story but it will get here sooner the faster we get started!

  3. Yesterday at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland (where I am "in exile" from Christian dogma) our lay speaker was a scientist, who made essentially the same point John does when he says that science is not so good at meaning and metaphor.

    I'll send a link to him so he can see that there are Christians out there (as well as in UU churches) who are looking for the metaphor in the same places the enlightened scientists are.

  4. Thanks you three!

    What do we hope for?

    I ask myself that question a lot.

  5. What do we hope for? Simply, I think, that everything will turn out alright in the long run.