Today we begin our experiment with extending Advent, which is why you see purple altar hangings and vestments. As I’ve said in a variety of settings, it’s not about rushing Christmas, it’s about having time to focus on all the themes of this very important season of expectation for the Advent (or “coming”) of Christ, the Messiah. His first Advent at his birth in Bethlehem, certainly, but equally important, his Second Advent when he returns to reign over his God’s creation in glory.
And the readings assigned for the day couldn’t be clearer – the vision of God’s purpose and goal for all he has created (in Isaiah), and the reality check of Luke’s Gospel that even things that seem permanent, rock-solid will eventually pass away if they do not serve God’s purpose.
In the passage from Luke, Jesus and the disciples are in the Temple in Jerusalem. It is the week following the Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Jesus has been teaching and ministering in the Temple by day, and withdrawing to the Mount of Olives outside the city at night. The Temple was a tremendously impressive building, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and its importance for Jews was like the Capitol Building, the Statue of Liberty, and the Washington National Cathedral all roll into one. So for Jesus to respond to the disciples’ admiration of it by telling them that it all would be thrown down, not one stone left upon another, was shocking and disorienting.
And then the disciples wanted a schedule and signs of the impending destruction; maybe they could arrange to be out of town that day.
Jesus’ answer wasn’t too satisfactory; in fact, he probably even ratcheted up the anxiety - "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom,” and he went on to talk about personal exposure to censure and danger. Thanks a lot, Jesus. All this sort of thing was to happen before there would be resolution, before God’s goal would be fully realized. And in the meantime, his followers should know that no matter what, no matter how bad things got, God would be with them. The process of bringing God’s purpose for the earth and its people to fruition, what we might call the Reign of God, would see dismantling and destruction before there would be a new wholeness and completion.
Why? I believe it is because our institutions, and social structures, and ways of organizing life – however good and venerable – if they are not receptive to the on-going presence and renewal and reconstruction of the Holy Spirit – will eventually become obstacles to God’s love and justice, and will be set aside, dismantled.
Woah, that’s pretty harsh!
And we have just lived through months of harsh campaign rhetoric, and exhausting, draining emotions. As I said in my note to the parish on Thursday, for some the outcome of the election was a shock, and for others it was welcome news; but either way I don’t think we have seen an American election quite like this in living memory. And the reactions to the election have been just as stark, with numerous incidents of people being targeted with ugly threats and harassment by strangers who don’t like the way they look, speak, or love. Some of these who have been targeted are people I know and value and care about. Maybe you know someone who has been harassed also. That is never OK. And the surges of protests in a number of cities are also stark, although maybe not surprising, given that during the campaign, voters were hearing that if the election didn’t go certain way it meant the system was rigged. The difference between the popular vote and the Electoral College vote probably adds another layer. No matter the result, there were bound to be demonstrations on one side or the other. But it is all disturbing and disorienting as we wonder what it all means for our country and our democracy – a stark place to be.
In contrast, we have the reading from Isaiah that lays out the vision for God’s joyful, abundant, and peace-filled reign when earth and heaven come together, one united sphere of God’s presence. And in Isaiah’s language that’s all about longevity, community, family generations, fruitfulness, and a deep-seated peace between those who, by nature, would be considered enemies and dangerous to one another: the wolf and the lamb, the lion and the ox. In God’s reign these are not predators and preyed-upon, but fellow creatures sharing in God’s blessedness and peace. That is what it looks like when God is fully ordering and inhabiting creation, the goal towards which history is moving.
Well, we could certainly use some of that peace here and now. But we don’t get there without some dismantling of the things that don’t serve God, and without God’s judging the affairs and conditions of humankind – more about that next week. There will always be things that are dismantled all around us, changed, up-ended. And then there are the things that we should be dis-mantling, taking apart, in our own hearts, minds, and habits – and for that we need the help of the Holy Spirit.
But then there are the habits and practices that we need to cultivate and build if we are to work and prepare for Christ’s Second Advent, the goal to which all human and created history is moving – that vision of the Peaceable Kingdom - as the Beloved Community - as Martin Luther King called it.as it is sometimes called. One of those habits is the Passing of the Peace. It’s role in our liturgy is to express and extend the Peace of Christ that is in us and in our community. It is not just a “Good morning, good to see you” or Part 1 of coffee hour. We gather for worship, coming from all our diverse lives and experiences. We hear from God in the Scripture readings. Maybe what we hear is challenging, maybe it is consoling or strengthening, maybe the Scriptures show us something we need to work on or ask forgiveness for.
Then in the Prayers of the People we offer our intentions for a wide variety of others. Maybe there is someone for whom you have a hard time praying, or whose memory causes you pain or grief, as well as those for whom you pray most easily and fervently. After the prayers we make our confession to God, aloud together, offering up all that gets in the way of being in union with God and one another and our neighbors, both broadly and specifically s Once we have received absolution, heard God’s gracious pardon and reassurance pronounced, then we share the Peace with one another. Now we are in a fit state to come to the altar, as a community, not just as individuals, as the Body of Christ.
We take the peace that God has given us through Scripture, prayer and confession and we extend it to one another. That’s why we say “Peace be with you” or “The Peace of the Lord” and shake hands. It’s not a perfunctory greeting. It’s a stitching together of God’s People, an acknowledgement that we are all in this faith together, we are all in God’s world together, we depend on one another, and are enriched by one another.
Of course sometimes the hardest thing to do may be to pass the Peace with someone with whom you have been at odds, to whom you have said harsh things, or who has hurt you. If that has been true for you, I am not asking you to act as though nothing happened, as if you never argued or hurt each other. But I am asking you to recognize that God’s forgiveness and love are bigger than both of you put together. And by extending a hand and a voice to offer Peace to one another, an opening for reconciliation may take place. No matter what, you are both held and loved by God.
And then this practice of Peace is a gift for you to take out into the world, a world which needs it so badly. By learning how to make Peace here before the altar, maybe we can learn to make and share God’s Peace with our neighbors, our co-workers, the people we hang out with online, the people we come across in our everyday lives.
The world and our country need God’s Peace – we need to look for it, offer it, make it, hold it; even as we wait with eager longing for the fullness of Peace when Christ comes in all his glory to bring to fulfillment his Peaceable Kingdom, the Beloved Community.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, kindle, we pray, in every heart the true love of justice and peace, and guide with your wisdom those who take counsel for the nations of the earth, that in tranquility your dominion may increase until the earth is filled with the knowledge of your love; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. ~ BCP
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Second Sunday before Advent
November 13, 2016