The morning’s sermon begins just before the 16 minutes mark. Member Mary Ann Breisch’s haunting composition Refugee is sung as the Offertory just before the 31 minute mark (text follows the sermon below.)
Happy New Year! I bet you didn’t see that coming, did you? But you know today’s the first day of the new worship year. Indeed, the church calendar begins in Advent and runs through the year until Christ the King Sunday, or the celebration of the rule of Christ which we marked last week.
In between those two bookends we live through Mary’s pregnancy, Jesus’ birth and baptism, the arrival of the Wise Men, Jesus’ to Egypt to avoid Herod’s violence, the Crucifixion, Resurrection, Pentecost, and lots of wonderful stories of Jesus’ healings and teachings, until we once again acknowledge Jesus as King, or in more modern language, as the one who has ultimate authority over this world and all of us.
It’s still kind of weird to think of this as the beginning of the new year. Let’s be honest, when we think of the New Year many of us probably think of counting down to midnight as that huge ball slowly descends into Times Square on December 31st. Or maybe we think about great parties. Or maybe New Year’s resolutions, like getting back to the gym, or eating better, or finishing unfinished projects. Like it or not, we live in a secular culture and the rhythms of the culture are the default settings to which we often return. What struck me as I thought about beginning a new church calendar year was how very different human timing and God’s timing truly are. God’s ways are not our ways, nor is God’s calendar our calendar.
Nothing could be more obvious as we consider this morning’s lectionary reading. Happy New Year– the sky is falling! This is no sweet baby Jesus, asleep on the hay. This is Christ coming again in power, without warning, to rule over heaven and earth.
The scripture Jennifer just read is part of what can best be understood as “crisis literature” –texts that speak to catastrophic moments in time which make us question God’s presence and righteousness. It’s spoken in the voice of Jesus, but actually used by Mark forty years after Jesus’ earthly life for a very specific purpose. Mark wove Jesus’ words into his writing to give hope to people suffering from the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 of the Christian era. The Temple was the center of Jewish religious, political, and economic life and its destruction by the Roman Empire was a catastrophe of epic proportions. Its ruin was the undoing of the people’s’ connection to the past, sense of identity in the present, and hope for the future.
I talked to a lot of people this week who are struggling to feel hopeful about the future. Some were still processing the experience we had at the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement office two weeks ago. Some were devastated by reports from allies in the sanctuary movement that detainees were being severely abused by U.S. government officials at the border. Others were sickened and enraged by ongoing revelations of sexual harassment in the workplace, never ending racism in the highest office of the land, and legislation that will enrich the already wealthy at the expense of the middle class and poor. But I also heard stories of what felt like personal apocalypses– families and individuals dealing with health crises, relationship problems, and deeply painful losses. So I am really moved by today’s lectionary text, known in scholarly circles as Mark’s “little apocalypse.” I think it’s nothing short of a word to us in the twenty-first century from our forebears in faith in the first century.
It’s a word of hope. You see, this isn’t your typical apocalyptic judgment scene. Oh sure, the disturbances in the natural world –sun and moon going dark, stars falling from the sky–are pretty catastrophic, but notice what happens when the Son of Man appears. He gathers his people from the four corners of the earth. This is a story of Christ coming near, not to judge, but to gather his people unto himself. And the promise is that even if heaven and earth pass away, Christ’s words–words of hope and great love–will not pass away.
This isn’t meant to be one of those scary or wacky end of the world predictions. It’s an assurance of Christ’s love and a call to staying awake in the midst of our earthly struggles while we wait for his final revelation and full presence with us. This is where, as theologian and lawyer Rev. Martha Simmons puts it, the “sweet bye and bye meets the nasty here and now.” We’re living in a pretty nasty here and now, but as people of faith we’re called to keep an eye out for Christ’s presence that will finally and fully make all things new.
We don’t know when that will happen. That’s the word that leaps off the page at me–no one knows, not the angels, not the Son, but only the Father. As I said earlier, God’s ways are not our ways and God’s calendar is not our calendar, and that uncertainty can be very, very hard. Our patience can wear really thin with waiting, especially when it feels like there’s no end to injustice, cruelty and suffering. But here’s the thing–our waiting isn’t passive waiting. It’s waiting in a state of watchfulness and wakefulness. It’s remaining present to the people and situations in our lives and keeping our eyes open to see God in the midst of them.
Teacher and activist Parker Palmer has given me pause to think about the importance of waiting in hope. “Of all the virtues, ‘hope’ is one of the most -needed in our time,” he writes. “When people ask me how I stay hopeful in an era of widespread darkness, I answer simply: ‘Hope keeps me alive and creatively engaged with the world. When privileged people like me choose hopelessness over hope, it’s not a reflection of the state of the world. It’s a reflection of the state of our souls.’”
I don’t know about you but my soul has been weary of late and there are days when I just want to pull the covers over my head and stay asleep. I know that I try to numb my pain, to sleep if you will, by spending too much time on Facebook, or zoning out on insipid TV shows, or by simply allowing myself to remain stuck in depression and helplessness. How about you? Where and how do you go to sleep?
Perhaps the more helpful question is how we support each other in staying awake. John and I almost put each other in a coma on Tuesday in our team meeting. We were both in a terrible mood about the state of the world and our despondency became highly contagious. It made me think of that scene in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy and her friends are nearing the Emerald City, hoping to find their way home to their truest selves. Do you remember what happens? The Wicked Witch creates a field of poppies that puts them to sleep. I think that’s exactly what the forces of evil and death want. They want us to sleep. Fortunately, John and I are both extremely resilient and love to laugh at ourselves, so we laughed a lot on Wednesday about the contagion we had shared with each other, then hit the “reset button” and began again. But that made me realize what an important role community plays as we try to stay awake, present and hopeful. Later that same day as I met with my teammates on the Sanctuary Committee I experienced hope in the very midst of some very painful deliberations. I looked around the table at the luminous souls who have brought loving hearts, keen minds, and diverse gifts to providing welcome and embodying Christ’s love in a terribly difficult situation. I thought of so many of you who have faithfully served Leonor, and realized that community is a key to staying awake.
Community is that place where we can vent our worst fears and pain, lift each other up, and collaboratively and creatively respond to God’s call on our lives. John’s and my laughably morose meeting notwithstanding, we aren’t all down at the same time. When one of us is flagging there are others to pick us up. We can take turns supporting and being supported if we will allow that to happen. And in this community we can remind each other of the story that gives us all life–that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. Yes, Christ will fully come again and gather us into his loving embrace, although none of us knows when that is. Until that time, we can remind each other of the ways Christ comes to us in the here and now–in the meal we are about to share, in those with whom we minister, in the vulnerable and suffering, and in the communion of saints on both sides of the veil who lovingly surround and support us.
So Happy New Year! Happy New Year to all of you, my dear sisters and brothers, and thank you for your commitment to staying awake with the help of God and one another.
“Refugee” by Mary Ann Breisch
We’ve heard of the refugees
Seeking a safe place,
And the slaughter of the innocents
For someone was afraid.
See a mother great with child,
Tired and displaced.
See a father pressing on,
Desperate to be saved.
Moving though the darkness,
Following the stars.
Looking for some shelter,
Traveling so far.
Who will offer welcome here?
Who will make a space?
Who will offer home and hope?
Who will let them stay?
Welcome to you refugees.
Come into my place.
You family of innocents,
You must be afraid.
Welcome is your little child.
Welcome, full of grace.
Welcome said the innkeeper,
Hesitant and brave.
Say, out there in the darkness,
Did you see the stars?
Come in from the night now,
For you have traveled far.
I can offer welcome here.
I can make a space.
I can offer home and hope,
But can I let you stay?
We can welcome the refugee.
We can make a place.
Innkeepers for innocents,
Though we may be afraid.
We can offer the little child
A home in our heart space.
For we may be the refugees
This child came to save.
Moving though the darkness,
Looking for a star.
Shine a light within us
So we see who we are.
I am a poor wayfaring stranger,
A-traveling through this world of woe.
But there’s no sickness, toil or danger
In that bright world to which I go.
I am a poor wayfaring stranger,
A-traveling through this world of woe.
I’m just a goin’ over Jordan.
I’m just a goin’ over home.