A Sermon by The Rev. Barbara Mraz for St. John the Evangelist Episcopal church, St. Paul, Minnesota
November 28, 2020, First Sunday of Advent, Luke 21:25-36
The first Sunday of Advent, 2021, those four weeks of waiting for a child to be born, for hope to bear fruit, for Christmas to come. It is also the first Sunday of a new church year, so New Year’s Day in church time.
Advent messes with your head. We are used to linear time, where one thing follows another, not cyclical or liturgical time where the same Scripture readings are repeated every three years. But the Benedictine Joan Chititser observes, “Each year we come to the liturgical cycle of the seasons and find them different because we are different.”
Three years ago today, the first Sunday of Advent — 2018 — was the last time we came to these lessons. Do you remember anything about what you were doing then? What your concerns were? What you were waiting for? The world was very different: the headlines were all about Trump and his border wall, immigration, the threat of a government shut-down, rages and name-calling. We would not have known what the word “Covid” meant until three months later.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus not that the fig tree reflects the idea of cycles; it blooms, goes dormant, and blooms again. Then Jesus says that his words will not pass away.” And for 2,000 years, they haven’t.
The overwhelming theme of the Advent Gospels is always wake up! Be mindful. Prepare. In another parable, Jesus puts it this way: “Keep alert because you do not know the day or the hour.” Of anything.
I’ve built this sermon around three scenarios or stories that demonstrate this theme, all of them true, two about me and the third is about someone else.
Here’s the first one: It was a regular morning in late October and I felt strange when I woke up and a call to the doctor told me to go to Urgent Care and get checked out. I drove to the nearest clinic on Wabasha, and by then was so short of breath I could hardly walk in the door.
After some tests, I soon found myself in an ambulance on the way to Regions Hospital where I got checked out again in the ER, had a Covid test, and was told they would be keeping me overnight to do a heart procedure the next day.
“But I have no history of this at all. I have great blood pressure. I feel okay now. Are you sure?”
So on that normal October day when I had planned to do some errands and work at my desk, that same evening I found myself in a room in Regions Hospital, overlooking an angry tree that was blowing up a storm, which is how I felt.
Grateful for a cardiologist friend, I called Dr. Riendl and told him that they were going to put a wire in my heart to slow it down and this sounded really extreme! He said that it was a procedure usually done as an outpatient and I would be fine. I put him on speed dial just in case. I called more than once.
The next day a doctor (who appeared to be at least twelve) put a wire in my heart and tweaked it back on its way to a normal heart rate. They gave me some medicine and sent me home the next day.
Fortunately, I had doctor permission to preach at Diane’s memorial service the following day (Good thing I work ahead)!) I had to wear a monitor for a while and do some follow-up but I feel better than I have for quite a while, I was treated with such care at Regions, and I am in awe of medical science.
“Keep alert, for you never know the day or the hour.”
Second scenario: I know where I was three years ago, in March of 2018. I had just made the decision to sell my little house on Jefferson Avenue. Although the thought of giving up my garden was really hard, the tree that fell in the driveway was the last straw– that and the fact that the last of my four faithful Krall family snow shovelers went away to college! And, yes, this was right before Covid started to hit.
Normally, I would research all available apartment possibilities, do some kind of big list, tour multiple properties, and lose sleep. However, by a great coincidence, I had to go to the complex where I now live because someone I knew there wanted me to come over to discuss his book idea. I had been there a long time ago and liked it but this time I really liked it, especially the screened porch, so I set up a tour.
I was shown to an apartment on the 4th floor… Hmmm.. didn’t like the view from the porch… faced north — too dark — didn’t feel right. Then I was taken to the second floor and shown a sun-filled apartment that overlooked a snow-covered hill with big trees, a residential street above it where someone was walking a fluffy white dog, and that looked down on a small courtyard (which I was later allowed to turn into my own private garden).
Of all the apartments in St. Paul what are the chances I get a garden…?
Be alert because you do not know the day or the hour.
In this statement Jesus not only gives a warning of what could happen, but a reminder that some of those things will be good things so pay attention.
It’s easy to assume that things will stay pretty much the same during our lifetimes (until COVID woke us up). The Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sachs writes, “There have been many superpowers: Spain in the fifteenth century, Venice in the sixteenth, Holland in the seventeenth, France in the eighteenth, Britain in the nineteenth, the United States in the twentieth.” And the 21st? Even the mighty Roman Empire met its downfall. These facts, I think, can challenge our assumptions and our security. Then Sachs also points out that “Judaism has existed in some form for 4,000 years; Christianity for 2,000, and Islam for fourteen centuries. Religions have survived. Superpowers have not.”
So how do we wait with the knowledge that changes will come, whether we are prepared or not. Some changes will be challenging and hurtful; others positive and wonderful. And we do not know the day or the hour.
Many of us have become even more isolated and introverted during Covid. I have. Social interactions seem to take even more effort than they used to. And yet it is primarily in community, in relationships that we confront the polarization that affects us all and the suspicion and prejudices that paralyze the country. The enforced isolation does not give us permission to do nothing.
We hear a lot about vulnerability, but this is the most challenging statement I’ve heard: “What we need now is the courage to be vulnerable in front of those we passionately disagree with.” This sounds incredibly risky –couldn’t they use this against us?
So let me move to the third story, from Elizabeth Wilkerson, the Pulitzer-prize-winning African-American writer and scholar and author of the book Caste. These are excerpts from the book:
December 2016 — one month after the election.
He smelled of beer and tobacco. He was wearing a cap like those men at the rallies who wanted to make American great again…His belly extended over his belt buckle. Stubble was poking through his chin and cheeks. He let out a phlegmy cough.
I had called the plumbing company because I had discovered water in the basement. I was reliant on this man and others like him now that I was both widowed and motherless, having lost the two most important people in my life within 18 months. (I was in deep grief).
He was clearly not expecting to see an African American woman in this neighborhood so brushed by me and said, ‘Where’s the basement?’
I moved things for him to look at on the floor and he offered no help. I told him my husband had usually fixed these things and he died last year.
The puffer just shrugged and said uh huh.
The puffer was now surveying the boxes, and steps around a few of them, knocking a lampshade and wreath to the wet floor and not reaching them over to pick them up. I kept sweeping water.
He pointed to the sink. ‘That’s where the water is coming from,’ he said, looking to wrap this up.
‘But that’s never overflowed before.’ It had to be more than that.
I started moving boxes and was feeling more alone with him just standing there. I lifted a heavy box. He watched, making no gesture to help.
“‘Maybe it’s the sump pump?” I asked.
He looked. “Nothing wrong with the sump pump.” He offered to write an estimate for a new one but why buy a new one if this one is working?
I was steaming now. All he was doing was standing there watching me sweep up (as women who look like me have done for centuries) and not fixing anything.
Since he wasn’t helping, I had nothing to lose. Something just came over me and I threw a Hail Mary at his humanity.
‘My mother just died last week,’ I told him. ‘Is your mother still alive?’
He looked down at the wet floor. ‘No she isn’t. She died in 1991. She was 52 years old.’
‘That’s not old at all,’ I said.
‘No, she wasn’t. My father’s still alive. He’s seventy-eight. Lives in a house south of here. My sister lives nearby to him.’
“You’re lucky to still have your father”
“Well, he’s mean as they come.”
I contemplated this for a minute. What might his father have exposed him to when it comes to people who look like me?
‘You miss them when they ‘re gone no matter what they were like,’ I said.
“How about your mother? How old was she?’ he asked.
‘She was way older than yours, so I can’t complain about that. She was sick a long time. And you never get over it.’
His face brightned and he went to the sump pump, bent down and reached into it. ‘Okay, sump pump’s cleared out.’ He asked me to help him move a heavy table and he said, ‘I found it.’ Jubilant.
“It’s the water heater. Water heater’s gone bad.’
How different things had been just the minute before. ‘My mother must’ve been talking to your mother,’ I said, ‘and telling her to get her boy to help her girl down there. My daughter needs your son’s help.”
He charged me a fair price for the visit and wrote an estimate for a new water heater.
A bit later when I was on the phone, the bell rang and it was the plumber again. He had driven back to shut off the gas to the water heater so it wouldn’t be heating an empty tank. He came in and knew his way around now, made his way to the basement, was lighthearted and chatty.
As he headed back up the basement steps, he caught a glimpse of a box of old photographs that I had salvaged from the wet boxes and had pulled aside to air out.
He paused in the middle of the staircase. ‘Oh you want these, he said, ‘That’s memories right there.’
Then he bounded out of the old house and into the light of the day.
Advent is about more than uncertainty; it is about hope. Today we wait with hope in our hearts because we have known the love of God and the love of each other, and that these things are, ultimately, the strongest force in the world, even today.
1. Sr. Joan Chititser, The Liturgical Year, 2009.
2. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership, 2011
3. Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, 2016.
4. Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The origins of Our Discontent, 2020.