27 November 2016; 8 a.m. Said, 10:00 a.m. Sung Mass
Homily Delivered by the Rev’d Fr. Tony Hutchinson, SCP, Ph.D.
at Trinity Parish Church, Ashland, Oregon
Advent 1 A
Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
God, give us hearts to feel and love,
take away our hearts of stone, and give us hearts of flesh. Amen
“But of that day and hour no one knows… It will be just like in the days of Noah: just before the flood, people were [doing the normal things people do] … and they were totally in the dark until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 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. Keep awake therefore, for you have no idea when your Lord is coming… you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming when you least expect him.” Matthew 24:36–44
Yikes. Matthew’s Jesus here is talking about the Day of the Lord, when God will settle all accounts and make all things right. This Day of Judgment is also called the Day of Doom (from the Middle English word for a final settlement of law), as well as the Day of Wrath, when all God’s enemies will be punished or annihilated. Here, it’s coming to get you, you don’t know when, and so you must stay awake, watch, and never, ever, fall asleep again. Yikes.
This is Apocalyptic stuff. Two in the field, one gets zapped; two grinding meal, only one gets out alive! If you aren’t ready, you’ll be left behind! It just doesn’t seem to fit in with the Christmas decorations, the carols, or the merry parties from now until January.
But it does fit with the dark underbelly of the season: the secular myth of a right jolly old elf who keeps score, knows who’s naughty and who’s nice, who brings great presents to the worthy and a piece of coal and a switch for the rest. At least we know the day and hour of his arrival. We need not stay awake, but rather have to go to bed and sleep before he comes!
It also seems to fit in with the popular but false theology handed out in some churches: God will bless you if you work hard and are nice; if you are lazy or mean, not so much! Jesus is coming soon, and boy, is he … angry! Follow the rules, pay your money, don’t complain or raise inconvenient questions, and you will be caught up in the cloud to meet him in rapture, while the others will meet their doom.
Apocalyptic suits the spirit of the age we’re in: a great struggle between the forces of light and darkness. Us versus them. Mean-spiritedness toward the other, whether on the right and the left. An unrelenting call for justice, law, and punishment.
This reading is from the Gospel—the Good News—of Matthew. So where is the good news? Where is the grace? It all sounds like Law and Punishment to me. Get ready for the great and terrible day, or it will indeed be for you a Day of Doom, a Day of Wrath.
But this does not ring true to what we know about the historical Jesus. His parables taught about a God of grace and love, and his announcement of the coming of the Kingdom was not set in the distant future: “the Kingdom of God is already in your midst. Open your eyes and see it!” Where all around Jesus were people who thought that simple justice demanded that the coming Messiah put down the wicked and make it once again a great thing be a Jew, Jesus taught that God gave blessings of rain and sun to both the wicked and righteous, and that we should be perfect in compassion just as God is. If the coming of Jesus was the coming of the Messiah, the punishment of the Great and Dreadful Day looked like a baby placed by his family in a feeding trough because of its poverty; it looked like a helpless man brutalized and killed on a cross by the powers that be. God’s setting of all things right looked not like a battle scene or a capital court, but rather like the reconciliation of former enemies by a loving mediator willing to suffer to fix things.
It was only when second or third generation Christians began to worry about how long Jesus was taking to return that they began to cast their hope again for apocalyptic salvation in the future. The horrors of the Roman War that destroyed Jerusalem in 70 C.E. brought back such traumatized future wish-fulfillment with a vengeance. When suffering Christians heard the risen Jesus speaking words of comfort to their hearts, loaded with the images of the Apocalyptic literature they still read and studied, they put those words onto the lips of Jesus in the Gospels they wrote about him. That’s why sometimes Jesus seems so schizophrenic in the Gospels: the historical Jesus with his kingdom that’s already here is mixed with the words of later Christians’ more traditional comfort in a coming Day of the Lord.
Matthew’s Jesus’ words here to watch and not sleep, when seen in light of the historical Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom here and now, become an invitation to open our eyes and see the hand of God at work in the world about us. The Reign of God is in our midst, even with all the messed up and sick way our world and our lives are ordered. We must open ourselves, our eyes, to the incredible, amazing, and sometimes shocking love of God that will eventually set all things right by winning all things over to himself. God’s hand at work is right there in front of us—two men in a field, two women grinding meal—and unless we open our hearts and eyes, we’ll miss it. God invites us to watch and rejoice.
That’s what today’s collect, based on today’s epistle, is all about. Until our 1979 Prayer came out, this was the collect for Advent, to be said every day of the season. Many of us still pray it each day until Christmas.
It teaches that the mixed light and darkness we see about us is precursor to a dawn. It is not deepening into gloom and night. It is brightening, ever so gradually, but ceaselessly, into day. Opening our eyes to God at work about us gives us gratitude and thanks, and empowers us to “cast away the works of darkness.” This is done only by putting on Christ as a garment, and a protective armor.
Note that Paul here does not say we need to worry about rules or purity: all we need is to show love to each other, since love in fact is the source of all truly good action. If you truly love God and neighbor, everything else will take care of itself. There is no worry about the specifics of rules. No naughty-or-nice list. Just grace and love. It’s what Paul calls earlier in Romans “not conforming to the world, but being transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Rom. 12:2)
Beating ourselves into submission and forcing ourselves to follow rules against “works of darkness” is a recipe for unhappiness and tension—the very kind of tension that leads us to feel compelled to engage in works of darkness. “Clothing ourselves in Christ” will bring us to the light more and more, and actually empower us to show love, and the bad behaviors will of themselves drop off and cease.
Paul is talking about putting the example of Christ before our eyes, putting gratitude for what he has done for us in our hearts. A heart full of gratitude has little room for the selfishness that generates unjust, hurtful, abusive, and wanton acts.
This is the first Sunday of Advent. This is a penitential season, to ready us for the coming of Christ, whether in the Feast of the Nativity in the coming weeks, or in the Great Day of Reckoning whose hour no person knows beforehand. I pray that sometime before the Christmas Feast begins in four weeks, we all may look into our own hearts, and try to see the darkness that remains there. Then cast it away. Grab it with both hands, and give it the old heave-ho.
I started the season by talking to my spiritual director and making confession. It took a great load off of my heart. I invite you all to do the same.
As you leave Church today, we will be handing out advent calendars for your use at home. Put together by our friends at the Forward Movement, it provides daily exercises, readings, and short reflections to help us make room for Jesus in our hearts before Christmas.
Let us cast away the works of darkness and put on the Jesus as a garment, an armor of light. The day breaks; the shadows flee away.
In the name of Christ, Amen.