Sunday, December 1, 2013

Phil Kniss: What to do with your hands while you’re waiting

Advent 1: Fear not, the day is near!
Matthew 24:36-44

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Advent is the waiting season.
    In our worship—in church and at home—
        we assume a posture of waiting.
    Why, you might ask.
    Are we trying to put off Christmas as long as we can?
    No. Christmas is great.
        The sooner, the better, as far as I’m concerned.
        Holding off Christmas doesn’t improve the experience.

So why wait?
    You’ve heard it said the word “Advent,” means “coming.”
        So, it refers to the coming of God to be with us in the flesh,
            the incarnation.
        And the fulfillment of that coming is Christmas,
            when God chose to dwell with us
            in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
    But the waiting for that coming is long past.
        The people waited.
        And sure enough, God came in Jesus.
        Been there, done that.

So why wait now?
    It’s an important question for us to ponder for these four weeks.
        What exactly it is that we are waiting for in Advent?
        And what do we do while we’re waiting?

I’ll tell you a kind of waiting that Advent is not.
    We sometimes get the impression,
        and, I admit, I have sometimes implied,
        that Advent is a four-week period we set aside
            to wait for Christmas.
    To kind of delay our gratification.
        If we have to wait for something, it makes it more special.

No, it’s really a lot more than that, and a lot different than that.
    Advent is not a way to bide our time
        until something we are hoping for happens.
    As a matter of fact,
        Advent is not even something we choose to be in, or not.
        When we have a hope we are living with,
            and that hope is not yet realized,
            we are forced into a waiting period.
        Like it or not, we wait.
        Ready or not, we wait.

The Jewish people in the time of Jesus
    were waiting to be redeemed from their oppression and suffering.
They had hope that a Messiah would come and deliver them.
    But it had not yet happened.
    So they had no choice, but to wait.

We, too, have hope that one day,
    the vast forces of evil in the world
    will be overcome by the forces of good.
We have hope that the full and unhindered
    reign of God over all things in the universe,
    will come to pass.
But it hasn’t happened yet.
    So we wait.
    Like it or not, we wait.
    Because we have to.

So . . . when we hold off singing Christmas carols
    in our worship services during Advent,
    we are NOT, I assure you, just playing a waiting game.

We aren’t making you wait
    because it’s good for you to hold off your gratification.
The practice of not singing Christmas carols during Advent
    is not based on some theory of
        “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
We aren’t trying to make you enjoy Christmas more
    by holding you in suspense as long as possible,
    to make everyone so filled with longing for
        “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and
        “Silent Night”
    that when we finally get to our Christmas Eve service,
        we’ll all let loose with overflowing joy and relief,
            that finally we can sing.

No, that is NOT the reason.
    In fact, singing Christmas songs
        and listening to Christmas carols during this season
        is something we all enjoy doing, and that we all do.
    My internet radio station
        is already playing Christmas songs on my computer.
        I even listened to some while I worked on this sermon.
    And there are Christmas songs sung here at Park View
        during Advent season.
    Next Sunday night, there’s a children’s Christmas musical
        and recital here in the sanctuary.
    This Friday and Saturday,
        there’s a Christmas coffeehouse in the Fellowship Hall
            with Shekinah, and my group Cantore.
        We will be singing Christmas songs, and loving it.
        It’s not a guilty pleasure.
            It’s the right thing to do.

But here on Sunday mornings,
    in our worship,
    we’re on a different calendar.
We sing Advent hymns,
    because that is the season of worship we are in right now.
    We sing of waiting, and hoping, and anticipating,
        and looking forward to redemption.
    We do that, not just to stretch out the Christmas story of the Bible,
        and hold everyone in suspense,
        as if we don’t know how the nativity story goes in Luke 2.

We do it, because the reality is that now, right now,
    we are still waiting for the coming of the heavenly king.
    We are still in an in-between time,
        a waiting time, a not-yet time.
    Evil and suffering and oppression
        are still having their way in the world,
        and we are still having to deal with it.

So this is a season of worship where, every year,
    we remind ourselves that we’re not there yet,
    and we are waiting for a fuller redemption,
    and there is something for us to do while we wait.

We have to take this season seriously,
    if we take our Christian faith seriously.

There is good reason why on the different Sundays of Advent
    we have different themes to focus on.

On the first Sunday,
    we focus on the return of Christ,
    sometimes called the “Second Coming” or “Second Advent,”
        just to underscore the fact that we are still waiting
        for the completion of God’s work of redemption,
        and that we are still in the thick of it,
            with things to do,
            and ways to participate in God’s work today.

On the second Sunday of Advent,
    we hold up the vision of the peaceable Kingdom,
        reminding ourselves of what God’s vision of
            shalom and peace look like.
    And we hear the call of John the Baptist
        to repent and enter into that Kingdom.

On the third Sunday,
    we focus on the joy of the Lord,
    the joy that is ours when we see in a new way
        this vision of God’s redemption.

And on the fourth,
    with the texts of God’s incarnation before us,
    we focus on the love of God
        shown to us as the promised child is given to us,
        whose helplessness upsets the powerful,
    as Mary’s song expresses so eloquently.

Every year it’s basically those themes, with variations,
    since we use different scriptures each year.

This is a season for intentional, spiritual work.
    There is stuff for us to do while we wait.
So it makes sense that Advent originally
    was conceived as a season for fasting, just like Lent.
Most of us have dropped the fasting idea.
    Maybe because there is just too much consuming to do
        at this time of year,
        what with Black Friday shopping sprees,
        and office Christmas parties and banquets,
        and family gatherings and on and on.
    Fasting would be pretty inconvenient this time of year.

But what exactly is the work
    we are called to do during this Advent season?
    What does God desire of us?

Another way of saying this is,
    we need to figure out what to do with our hands
        while we are waiting.

This reminds me of the instructions I give
    to wedding parties in wedding rehearsals.

I just did this last night for the folks
    who will be standing with Sam and Aly
    at their wedding this afternoon.
One of the more difficult things that the bridal party has to do,
    while they are standing waiting on the bride and groom,
        standing at attention,
        is to figure out what to do with their hands.

Do they hold them together in front,
    together in back,
    put them in their pockets?

People are often uncomfortable,
    in front of a crowd of people,
    doing what is the most natural thing for our hands,
        to let them hang loose at our sides.

I don’t know if it’s because we are so programmed
    to be “doing something all the time” to prove our worth,
    that the idea of standing there visible to everyone,
        with our hands completely inactive,
        is somehow unacceptable at a subconscious level.
    I guess we could give them some knitting to do.
        But then we’d have to teach them how to knit.

In a sense, this is the question we all need to face
    during our Advent waiting:
    What do we do with our hands?

And I think, maybe we have something to learn
    from the analogy of a wedding party.
    The bridesmaids and groomsmen
        have one job to do, and one job only.
    They are not called wedding attendants for no reason.
        They attend the bride and groom, literally.
        They pay attention, which is the meaning of “attend.”
    Their main job is to pay perfect attention
        to the activities and words
        and everything happening there at the center,
            with the bride and groom.

Their physical posture of attending,
    that is, facing the couple,
        watching, waiting, paying full attention,
    serves as a powerful visual demonstration
        of what the rest of the congregation should be doing.

The attendants are ones who are closest,
    paying attention publicly, front and center,
    while the rest of us in the congregation
        are attending a little more distantly.

The congregation is in pews or chairs,
    so they can get away with not paying as close attention.
    If you’re sitting in the congregation,
        you can get distracted for a little bit,
            and no harm will come,
            no embarrassment to the couple.

You can whisper to your fidgety child.
    You can blow your nose quietly.
    You could even check your email on the sly.
        Post something on Facebook.
        Tweet your opinion about the wedding dress,
            or the preacher’s boring sermon.
    But the wedding party can’t do that.
        They need to attend completely.
            Pay full attention.

During Advent, that’s our job.
    We are Christ’s attendants,
        paying attention on behalf of the rest of the world.
When we come together to worship,
    as believers in the God revealed to us in human form,
    our job is to attend, fully,
        to pay attention to what God is up to now
            in God’s ongoing ministry of reconciliation and redemption,
        to assume a posture of readiness to participate,
        to keep our attention on Christ,
            the one at the center.

Which brings us to our rather pointed, and disturbing,
    Gospel reading this morning from Matthew.
    This is the Gospel story that tells us
        when the day of the Lord comes,
            “There will be two 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 do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

Pretty scary stuff.
    At least it was to me, as an adolescent in the 60s and early 70s
        when Hal Lindsey’s Late, Great Planet Earth
            and evangelistic films like Thief in the Night
            were at their peak.
    More recently, it’s been the Left Behind books and movies.

But this is a Gospel story at the heart of the Advent season.
    In Christian worship, ‘Tis the season
        for this text, and others like it.
    But I’ll tell you, and it will come as no surprise,
        that there are exactly zero Christmas carols written about this.
    It’s not exactly the message you would want to
        walk down your street singing to your neighbors . . . after dark.
    Or that Wal-Mart or Target or Old Navy,
        want to have playing over the loudspeakers
        while shoppers are cruising the aisles
            for bargains on laptops and TVs and $200 sneakers.

But you know . . . despite the popularity of Left Behind,
    I do not accept that Jesus’ main agenda in this story
        was to frighten people into faith.
    What Jesus is calling for here, I believe,
        is a lifestyle of paying attention.
    He is pointing us not to fear,
        but to a free and joyful way of living on this earth.
    He is pointing to a life of readiness to receive
        the kingdom of God when it shows up,
        whenever and however it shows up.

You know, the worst threat to our being ready,
    when the kingdom of God shows up,
        is distraction.
    We live our lives chronically distracted.
    We live in a state of inattentiveness
        to the work of God all around us.
    We have been dulled
        by too much work and too little rest,
        by over-doing and under-being.
    We get distracted by our shining culture of consumption.
        Almost by accident—because we are so distracted—
            we end up worshiping the self and its appetites,
            instead of the worshiping the one
                who invites us to lose self for sake of God’s kingdom.

The kingdom of God might be taking root and sprouting up
    right outside our door,
    but we accidentally stomp on it every day
        as we rush in and out the door
        checking off the next thing on our to-do list or shopping list.

We’re not awake. We’re not alert.
    We’re not ready for the coming kingdom, it seems.

This Gospel reading calls us to attentiveness as a spiritual discipline.
    It invites us to being ready, awake, prepared.
    Ready for the reign of God.
        It is now here.
        It is now emerging.
        It is now being given birth.

But that’s not the language we tend to use about the kingdom.
    We talk about building the kingdom, establishing the kingdom,
        advancing the kingdom.
        Ever notice how controlling that language is?
    In the Gospels, we find different language.
        Jesus invites us to recognize it. To receive it. To enter it.
        The kingdom is near you, he said.
            Watch out, or you’ll step on it.
            Stay awake, or you’ll miss it.

And here we return to the question,
    “What do we do with our hands?”
        while we are waiting on,
        while we are attending to the work of God.

Well, let’s agree that kingdom of God is not ours
    to manu-facture, man-age, or mani-pulate.
    Notice those three words all begin the same way.
        It’s not a coincidence.
        “Manus” is the Latin word for “hand.”
    Hands that control, that exert upon, that interfere with.
    Kingdom hands are hands that receive, accept,
        with palms upturned in gratitude and readiness.

That’s not to say that living attentively is living passively.
    No, seeking the kingdom often means we need to
        exert enormous effort,
        make tremendous sacrifice,
        be intentional in how we shape our lives—
            with each other, and in the world—
        to be tenacious in our striving to overcome
            the chronic distraction that has come to define our lives.

But let me leave us with the same instructions
    I left the wedding party last night.
    Let your hands rest for the moment.
        You don’t need to make anything happen.
        You only have one thing to do.
        Watch. Pay attention.
            Be ready to attend to and participate with
                whatever is happening at the center.
            Fear not.
            Do not be afraid, God will come, and be with us,
                and redeem the world, again.

—Phil Kniss, December 1, 2013

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