Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Proper of the Day: The First Sunday of Advent

Today we begin the season of Advent, the time in the church year when we prepare for the coming of Christ the first time at Christmas and again at his Second Coming. Today I was invited to preach and preside at historic St. George's Parish in Astoria, New York City, as they need a resident priest and so this was my audition. Here's what I offered:

St. George’s Church Astoria

First Sunday of Advent 2007 (Year A RCL)

Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matt 24:36-44

The Rev. R. F. Solon, Jr.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be always acceptable to you, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen!

I want to thank Canon Juan Bosch and the Wardens and Vestry of St. George’s for your kind invitation to worship with you today. It’s a privilege for me to be with you and I’m deeply honored.

I’ve always loved cities. I grew up in Toledo, Ohio. Toledo is on the far western shore of Lake Erie, and the entire metro has about 660,000 people. Not very large by New York standards, is it? But I liked it. I especially liked going to downtown Toledo whenever I could. I liked the high rises and the older buildings and the traffic and the shoreline along the river. I thought it as pretty cool. I always loved visiting the downtown area of every city I visited. I visited Detroit, not too far from Toledo, and saw lots more big buildings and such than in Toledo. The larger the city, the more I liked it. I eventually visited Cleveland and Columbus and then Chicago. Now Chicago was, I have to admit, pretty impressive. Who has been there? The El is pretty cool, and I like the Magnificent Mile a lot too. But of course, there came a time when I finally visited New York. I’d never been there, and I was really looking forward to it. I recall stepping out of the cab from the airport the very first time. I just stopped in my tracks. I don’t even remember exactly where I was, but I just remember the energy of it all. The people rushing by. The traffic. The noise. Everything about it. I was entranced. It seemed like everything about the City was bigger and better and faster. More expensive, too, especially the housing, but I’d learn that later. The point is that there is something about New York that draws all kinds of people, probably for very different reasons. But you have to understands that there is no place else in America like New York. There’s just something about it. I don’t know, maybe you have to be a visitor or immigrant to feel this away.

But boy, it can be maddening at times to live here, can’t it? I mean, sometimes the simplest things just take a lot of time. Getting any place means deciding bus or subway or both, or maybe car. Shopping can be very easy if you’re in the right neighborhood, or really difficult. Thank God for FreshDirect, although they don’t have it yet in Bayonne where I live. Laundry can be a pain if you don’t have facilities in your building. Taxes are high, the schools can be good or bad, and of course the price of housing is just astronomical here. I pay twice as much for my little apartment in Bayonne than I pay for the mortgage on my house in Indianapolis, and it’s nearly three times as large! For all its culture and sports and shopping and music, New York is still a real pain. All cities of any size have their issues, and New York certainly does as well!

Cities, and one city in particular, were on the mind of the prophet Isaiah, too. For Isaiah, a prophet writing perhaps 800 years before Christ, Jerusalem was the center of his universe and his great love, probably like New York is for me. Hear again the magnificent vision Isaiah has: “Out of Zion shall come forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem….they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not rise up against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Those stirring lines are immortalized in stone in a plaza on First Avenue just across from the United Nations complex in Manhattan. They express a wonderful future – God’s future – when there will be no war, no hatred, when God’s peace will reign. And it’s amazing because it’s God’s goal, God’s vision, God’s desire for what humanity really is intended to be. It’s a vision that resonates deeply in our hearts, especially in this time of war in Iraq and elsewhere, with discord in the Anglican Communion and a hard close election nearly upon us here at home. There’s just something about it, like the good parts of New York without all the not-so-good parts. And it’s all centered on Jerusalem. Our Psalm for this morning also expresses this hope and belief about Jerusalem. For these writers, there is no greater joy than Zion, the City of David. Sometimes it seems they just couldn’t stop talking about it! There was just something about it. It had captured their imagination and their hearts.

Jerusalem is on Jesus’s mind too. In today’s Gospel, Jesus is telling his disciples what the end of the world will be like. It was a common topic of conversation back then, just as I suppose it is today. There’s always all kinds of speculation about what’s going to happen. This season of Advent, which we begin today, asks and reminds us about exactly that. Advent means “Coming” and in these four Sundays before Christmas we prepare for the coming of Jesus in the manger as a babe, but also the coming again of Jesus in triumph.

The whole topic of the last things or end times can be a really difficult one. Many of our fundamentalist brothers and sisters, who try to take every word of the Bible literally, read into bits of today’s Gospel and the Book of Revelation especially an entire sequence of events about what will happen and when. If you have heard about the Left Behind series of books, you know what I mean. People have tried to construct all sorts of fanciful meanings for John’s visions. The problem is, Revelation is not meant to be taken literally. But today’s gospel from Matthew doesn’t get into fantastic signs and symbols from heaven. Rather, it talks about the uncertainty of when whatever is going to happen actually does. And I think the most important part of the entire passage is the first verse: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the son, but only the Father.” I think that’s really significant, because here Jesus tells us not to be too worried about what will happen or even when. After all, he admits he doesn’t even know. But Jesus does warn us not to slack off. When the gospel of Matthew was written, most believers thought that Jesus was coming back any day – in their lifetimes.

And so warnings like we have this morning make a lot of sense. But of course, given that we are sitting here today in 2007 still waiting for Jesus to return, then we have to rethink what it means to be ready and watchful and waiting. In fact, this theme of watchful waiting is so important in Matthew that there are no less then two other parables about it. You can read for yourselves the Parable of the Bridesmaids and the Parable of the Talents – they follow right after today’s Gospel in chapter 25.

So Jesus is talking to his disciples about the end of the world and they ask him about the Temple, the center of Jerusalem. All of chapter 24 is about his answer to them, and it’s worth a read – just remember it’s not meant to be taken literally. Jerusalem figures prominently there, and even more prominently in the Book of Revelation. In fact, the great climax of that vision of St. John is in the last two chapters, 21 and 22, and it’s all about the New Jerusalem, “coming down out of heaven adorned as a bride for her husband.” The City itself is perfect – no traffic problems there! – and the leaves of the trees in it are for the healing of the nations. It’s a stunning image of Jesus as the Light of the transformed city and how all people will come to it. And it’s here on earth, it’s not up in heaven. It’s a vision of what this world can and will be like, not some prediction of what heaven will look like. The Pearly Gates will be here, with us, not in heaven!

And of course, the New Jerusalem is compared to a bride on her wedding day. And the church – the community of all believers, is often called the Bride of Christ. And so when I hear the vision of Isaiah that says, “For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem,” I think of us! We’re the New Jerusalem, that perfect City that tops even New York in all its glory. We’re to have the word of the Lord that inspires people to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning forks. We’re the ones who are supposed to bring that message of grace to the world right now. Advent is about getting ready for the First Coming but also the Second Coming, and we need to prepare for that as well. So it’s we who are supposed to help bring about the time of heavenly peace. Our job is to help get the world ready and to bring that about as much as we can. We can’t slack off - Jesus warned us not to get complacent.

None of us has the luxury to just do nothing. Even though Advent is in part a time of waiting, and a time of slowing down, it’s for a purpose. I think Advent is a time to reflect on what each of us is doing to bring about that vision of the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem. What are you doing to bring a message of peace to those around you, in your home and where you work and where you hang out? And what about this worhipping community of St. George’s parish in Astoria? It’s the mother parish of Astoria, as I understand it, and so you have a proud history. But Jesus very clearly reminds us that history and two bucks will get you a subway ride. What is the role of St. George’s in offering a vision of peace to Astoria and those who live in it? How can this parish become again a New Jerusalem, where instruction comes forth, and people here and do the word of the Lord? For we, you and I, do have the Word, both in Scripture and in Sacraments. Astoria needs to hear it, people in the new senior housing need to hear it, you and I need to hear it, again and again and again. This is a place, right in the middle of the bustling, maddening City of New York, where the New City can shine forth in light. I don’t know very much about St. George’s, but you do. What can you do this Advent to take stock of yourselves, to pause a bit in Advent stillness, to look around and see how you the people of St. George’s can be a place, as the Psalmist says, “to which the tribes go up, to praise the Name of the Lord”? I’d like invite you to invite yourselves to use this Advent season to look inward, to prepare for the coming of the Christ Child at Christmas. But more than that. I invite you to prepare, to help make ready, to help bring about, Isaiah’s famous vision. My friends, the world needs, New York needs, Astoria needs, what you have to offer. Let this Advent be your time to get ready for it!



PS - Eucharist is now using Year A, Office is Year 2!