A Sermon by the Rev. Barbara Mraz

St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
November 27, 2022

Matthew 26:36-44

The first Sunday of Advent 2022: that time of waiting and preparation for Christmas to come, for a promise to be kept, for a child to be born.
What are you waiting for this year? For the welfare of those you love? For relief from an illness or disability? For our country to settle down politically? For your anxiety and grief to abate? For less fear and more faith?
All of the above?

Today’s Gospel from Matthew is about waiting, and it is a tough parable because it reminds us that we live in the reality of uncertainty; “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken, and one will be left.” Then the claim that if we “keep awake,” we prevent the thief from breaking into our house.

Except we can’t always prevent it. A wonderful woman I have been friends with for fifty years had one of her two adult sons die unexpectedly last week and no amount of preparation or attentiveness could have prevented it. The funeral was yesterday. One was taken; one was left. Only God knows why – if there is a why. The unfairness of it stings as much as the grief.

Like at this moment in time why were we fated to live here and not in Ukraine? Why are we spared the famine devastating Somalia?

So many things come as compete surprises in our personal and collective lives: Covid, 911, the almost-daily shootings; the pervasiveness and depth of racism; sexism and homophobia; but also fabulous fall weather; a magical dinner with friends; recovery, dogs. We live in the tyranny and grace of the unexpected. That seems to be one thing the Gospel is saying.

Not all waiting is the same. Waiting with expectation nine months for the birth of a child is different from the torture of failing to get pregnant; waiting for a dreaded medical test result is different than waiting for your favorite holiday. There’s the “oh boy” waiting and the “oh God” waiting.

First, a story from filmmaker Ken Burns to introduce the main thing I’d like to talk about:
Matthew Brady was the greatest photographer of the American Civil War in the 1860’s. Once he died, hundreds of his undeveloped negatives made on large glass plates disappeared in warehouses or were sold as glass.

Years later, one day in a greenhouse in New York state, the gardener who was caring for the plants there happened to look up and on the greenhouse glass above him were images: a soldier on a horse; a man with a musket leaning against a tree; a young boy carrying a water jug. Matthew Brady’s photographs, developed in the sunlight, carried the story of a distant time inviting awe, gratitude, sadness.

Advent calls us to look up and around with attention as we wait. Like the gardener, sometimes we need to position ourselves for grace. What might this mean?

This might mean (1) restraining our impatience. My impatience accelerates when I’m working online and there is a nanosecond’s wait for the information I want to come up on the screen and I’m – “Come on!” (Which is why I have a little paper mache of an old typewriter on my desk, to keep my perspective at such times. It’s right next to the framed motto, “There is a difference between preaching and nagging.”) This Advent, perhaps we can restrain our impatience in our relationships as well.

Americans overall are bad at waiting. On Halloween I went into a store in Roseville called Home Goods. I gasped when walking in the door because half the store was loaded up with Christmas stuff. One woman had her cart piled high and the irony she was wearing her Halloween costume with a black cape and a witch’s hat. I really wanted a picture…. Black Friday deals -usually beginning the Friday after Thanksgiving—now begins weeks earlier, often making me completely sick of it all by Christmas.

“Positioning ourselves” for grace might mean (2) coming to church during these four weeks and suspending our criticism. We “like” or don’t like the music; the sermon, the coffee hour, the vestments, the readers. As someone who taught public address for forty years believe me, this is hard —I have to remind myself that I don’t have a clipboard in my lap to evaluate – well anything – as I’ve done for decades as a teacher. … I invite you to intentionally deflect your negative criticism for these four weeks thereby positioning yourself for the grace that may come to you.

I am the only person in my family who goes to church. This saddens me of course, but my kids seem to be accessing good values to live by without it, yet they are missing things. For example, when the poet Ranier Maria Wilke was asked the question, “How do you do it, poet, when the times are so desperate and hopeless?” His answer: “I praise.” We come here to praise which also lifts us up ourselves. We come here for a community in which to give and receive support. Immersing yourself in a religious tradition also helps temper what I call the “emergency room syndrome” of thinking nothing about the big questions and what they mean until your back is against the wall and you are nearly paralyzed with fear and worry.

I become impatient knowing this is a hard time to preach because it seems that everyone is a preacher. Social media is saturated with little sayings about being kind and forgiving yourself; a lot of advertising has appropriated “goodness” as a way to sell products; a popular news anchor signs off with the reminder to “take care of yourselves and each other.” This is great in some ways, I suppose but there is no follow-up, no support, no specifics, no resources about why or how to do these good things, which is why organized religion is important in the midst of the words out there.

Positioning yourself for grace could be giving something a chance that you’re pretty sure won’t be worth our precious time. I confess that I just couldn’t get into the last book that the St. John’s book group read so I dropped out for a few weeks, but when I heard that there would be a Native American speaker the last session so I zoomed in.

And Jim Rock rocked my world.

A Dakota from Sisseton, South Dakota, his elders taught him about people’s connections to the stars and ”the world above our own.” He learned that the stars are campfires around which the ancestors gather. Rock went on to study chemistry, engineering, astronomy and earning a degree in astrophysics, teaching and serving as a teacher and consultant, invited by NASA to both moon launches, including the recent Artemis launch.

He echoed Carl Sagan’s words that we are 93% star dust, made from the same elements that were generated 13 billion years ago when the world exploded into being. He saw the moon launch as a way to say hello to the stars from which we came. He sent seeds on the spacecraft to germinate – to come to life –in space and then bear fruit on mother earth, echoing the process by which we were created. He believes that the spirits of the ancestors are still with us, echoing Bishop Steve Charleston’s words that at the table, they are right “beyond the candlelight.” Did any of you sense that at Thanksgiving?
Abraham Lincoln reportedly said this: “I can see how it is possible that a man may look down upon the earth and be an atheist, but I cannot conceive how a could look up into the heavens and say there is no God.”

The Benedictine nun and teacher Joan Chittister writes, “We all want something more. Advent asks the question what is it for which you are spending your life? What is the star you are following now and where is that star leading you? Is it a place that is really comprehensive enough to equal the breadth of the human soul? …It is while waiting for the coming of the reign of God, Advent after Advent, that we come to realize that its coming depends on us.”
It was St. Theresa of Avila that gave us the specifics: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

This Advent once again, the coming of the Christ for which we wait, depends on us, and positioning ourselves to receive the grace necessary to be up to the task, all this below the “other world of stars” from which God created us.

Resources: Ken Burns, The Civil War.
Joan Chititser, OSB, The Liturgical Year.

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