November 29, 2015 – Be ready

Advent 1   November 29, 2015   Psalm 25:1-10, Jeremiah 33:14-16,

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 1:5-25          Be ready

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Early in the week I settled on ‘Be ready’ for a sermon title. But by mid week, as Black Friday and the seasonally-affective-disordered side of the season began seriously encroaching on my soul’s consciousness, soon I was thinking the sermon title probably should be ‘Ready for what?’ Ready for Advent and Christmas of course. But how does one actually get ready for Christmas in such times as these? And somewhere (actually on a Christian website), I saw the words of theologian Jon Stewart jumping out at me saying, “It doesn’t feel like Christmas – until someone gets pepper sprayed at Target.” Be ready for whatever. And do not forget your oxygen mask, if you heading for the mall.

This is not exactly the kind of readiness the angel Gabriel expects of Zechariah, the elderly priest serving in the inner sanctuary of the Jerusalem temple. Priests are supposed to always be ready for the presence of God. Zechariah (as he himself reminds the angel) is no spring chicken. He’s served his priestly calling for many a year. He knows what to do to be ready. Yet still he isn’t ready – when Angel Gabriel appears with good news of a long-hoped-and-prayed-for child for him and his wife, Elizabeth.

I can relate. I’m seldom well prepared for the Christmas season. I try to prepare, reading again the stories of Christ’s coming to birth; singing again the songs of Advent and Christmas. I start early, sketching outlines of Advent and Christmas worship, filling in details, day by day. I know how to do the technical parts of being ready for the season.

But it still always takes awhile for me to actually get in the right spirit and frame-of-mind for Advent and Christmas. It’s a struggle for me, mostly because I rebel a lot against so much of what comes in this season, that seems so out of harmony with the original story… And even though I’m not at all sure how much difference my resistance makes…I still work at trying to make the season simpler…slower… and much more focused on God. And my main struggle now is just to keep these goals in focus… And remember always – Who it is I’m trying to be ready for.

Over the years I’ve come to believe… the simplest, oldest ways are often best. Not that all traditions are good. Traditions are good or bad or some of both, depending on how we do them. Like the song from Fiddler on the roofTradition! Tradition! There are some traditions that we do for reasons no one seems to remember. Yet there are also traditions, thanks be to God, that remind us of how the story actually goes… And help us to remember to be thankful… to God and for those who have kept the faith alive… in times before us, in times at least as difficult as these…(and…)

I still don’t know any better way to prepare for the coming of the Lord than the ancient traditional spiritual practices of prayer…Reading the scriptures… Visiting the sick, the lonely, the shut-ins. Feeding the hungry. Striving to show God’s love to deserving and undeserving alike. (Remembering I myself have always been in the undeserving camp.)

This is pretty much all I know about getting ready for Advent and Christmas. Except to add that of course we practice gratitude and prepare for God’s presence every day – not just Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas… God is an all-seasons God. But God has also been working on me to show me…there’s no contradiction between the every day practice of God’s presence.. and appreciating each unique season…

So we read again the gospel – the good news according to St Luke – who opens his telling of the Jesus story with Zechariah the priest, father-to-be-of-John-the-Baptist, who is not ready for the angel’s good news. Reminding us – tradition always needs to be maintained as living tradition.

Zechariah knows this, I’m sure. Just as he knows the ancient story of childless Abraham and Sarah, who receive their long-promised boy-child late in life; the story of childless Hannah, who receives her child after many years of tearful prayer. (Stories to be remembered whenever we wonder what’s taking God so long.)

Of course if we have prayed the same prayers, day and night, for many a decade – it can be hard to always remember and be fully aware of what it is we’re praying for. It’s easy to be surprised – even shocked out of our socks – when prayer is answered… just when we least expect.

I’m a creature of habit. Most days I say my prayers, much-the-same-way I did the day before. I recite many of the same familiar scriptures day after day. I drink my morning coffee, I sip my afternoon tea, I take my walk every day.

Now I am trying to add more variation to my routines. Trying to learn a new prayer, a new scripture, take my walk sometimes by a different route, at a different time of day. And as I try to consciously make some changes, I notice – how often this seems to make no real difference… And yet again, sometimes… it does.

On Thanksgiving Day I did my usual walk down Red Brook Harbor Road to Scraggy Neck Road towards Lawrence Island… But I felt a slight tug to go home by a different route. And when I did, I met someone who let me know pretty quickly that they needed a prayer. And this has been a pattern God’s been showing me lately…

Another day this week I had plans to be busy doing a bunch of things that needed doing. But at the same time, I was wondering (as perhaps Zechariah may have wondered when he’d been about his familiar routines for a long time) – how much does some of what I do actually really matter?

Then I got a call asking me to visit someone who was feeling sad. I went to visit. Difficult changes were happening. She had been weeping a lot. And… she was so happy just for me to show up; I didn’t really have to say much; just be there and listen. Three or four times she said how very glad she was to be visited. Which made me feel rather useful after all. (What a nice surprise. Of course after awhile, I also felt a bit guilty for all the other visits I ought to be doing… But a little guilt can be a good thing…)

A little guilt can help me do what I know I ought to do. Things I’ve resolved to do but haven’t allowed to get to the top of my to-do list. Reminding me of a story told by Henri Nouwen, priest and author – of a man who told him: ‘I used to think my life was always way too full of interruptions…Interruption after interrution that kept me from doing my life’s work… Till finally I realized – these interruptions were all from God… And my life’s work really is in the interruptions.’

God so often does come to us through holy interruptions. Our daily routines may be all good. Most of us need to get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, be about our work. But so often it’s in the holy interruptions to life-as-we-know-it… that we meet Emmanuel… whose name means God-with-us

Wednesday afternoon I went next door to the church, to see what I could do to help prepare for our community Thanksgiving meal. So many people were already there to help that it was actually hard to find anything that needed doing. Finally someone said “you can put a knife in these salt shakers, get them unstuck so the salt will be able to pour tomorrow.” But before I even finished one shaker, someone said, “never mind, we have enough salt shakers already.” So quickly all the tables were set. There was nothing to do but wait for the squash to cook…

Great practice for Advent. The psalmist says to God in our psalm today, “For you I wait all day long.” Advent means waiting. Waiting is holy work – when we’re waiting for God – waiting on God’s people. And thanks God, Reah, Rohi and I were able to just sit with Tom and Paula and drink tea, and catch up with each others’ lives a bit… Thanks to the holy interruption of having to wait for squash to cook.

Thanksgiving Day again we had so many volunteers that many who came to help had to wait. Everyone did get to help, eventually – with set up, serving, or clean up or all three… But most of us also had time to eat and talk with our guests and one another… We got to practice hospitality, and experience hospitality.

Jesus said ‘when you feed the hungry and welcome the stranger you are feeding and welcoming me…’ So I found myself silently asking God, each time someone came in the door or sat at table, “Is this you, Lord? Welcome, again, dear Lord.”

The day after Thanksgiving I had ambitious plans to write this sermon on time (for once), do some phone calls, finish getting ready for Charge Conference (Annual Meeting) early… But by mid-day I wasn’t getting much done. And our daughter kept asking me to spend time with her. Her mother encouraged her. And I did remember – the angel telling Zechariah – his future son, John the Baptist, would be on a mission from God… To turn the hearts of parents to their children…

So we went off to Falmouth, spent time at the big playground by the school and library, all full of families taking advantage of the sweet late-season warm weather… Then over to Chapaquoit for a walk in the sand, watching waves dance across the shoreline…

Back home again I found myself still stuck with writer’s block… But before bed Reah told me how Rohi had said to her, “This is so great, mom!”

And perhaps Zechariah and Elizabeth and their child on the way – is a metaphor – for the people of God, getting on a little in years….Yet still eagerly expecting new birth….

And now I have finally begun to remember. Advent means waiting. Holy Waiting. Waiting for God…And… There’s no need for hurry…

God will be on time.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.