A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

By: David H. May, Rector


In her beautiful sermon last week, Amelia McDaniel reminded us that the time in which we live is sacred; which means that God’s hands are on it and that God’s own Spirit leads the times of our going forth and our coming home again. Now of course, the ticking of a clock leads us forth too and brings us home, because children have to get up and off to school and we have work to go to and meetings to make. But we do live lives upon which God is writing the life of his son, Christ the Lord, through the times of our lives: times of being lost and being found, times of healing and being healed, times of darkness and the light of revelation. God’s redeeming love is woven all through the living of our days as we are given eyes to see and ears to hear.

And today it is the beginning of the season of Advent, the first season of the new Church Year. The word Advent means ‘coming’ which directs us to shake off any sleepy-headedness and look to the future with a holy hope for the Lord’s own coming into our lives. We are people called to be alive and awake with hope in this sacred time, and not fall asleep. The Bible readings for this Sunday couldn’t be clearer. The Apostle Paul writing to the Church in Rome says, ‘you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep’. In the Gospel reading, Jesus’ jarring images: a flood, a kidnapper, a thief sharpen the same point – stay awake; for the Lord is near.

I’ve been wondering what it means to be ‘asleep’ in the sense these readings are cautioning us against. In part, I think it must mean that hope for what is coming in the next moment or week or year or our lifetimes has been worn down by just how hard this world can be sometimes. Life can be hard and can make us hard too and we can fall asleep. Which brought to mind an image my homiletics professor, Bill Heathcock, once talked about to my seminary class. (I say talked about, it was actually closer to a rant at us.) He said that Jesus had a strong center and core, so strong that he didn’t have to protect it with some hard outer shell to keep the world out. On the outside he was soft and always open. He saw the world around him and especially the people around him and love it all with a holy healing love. Bill said too often we don’t live that way. Instead, we make our outer shell hard and impenetrable because we think our center is soft and fragile. “That’s hogwash,” Bill yelled at us. “We’re disciples of Jesus – or are supposed to be. How’s God’s supposed to use you with a hard outer shell?! He will keep your center strong, literally for Christ’s sake, you keep your outsides open and soft like Jesus.” Bill didn’t see that as negotiable. He was telling us to wake up. Sleepers, wake!

A little over ten years ago, my wife Emmy and I traveled to Tanzania. We were there to see how our parish could contribute to a ministry called Carpenter’s Kids. It’s a ministry that Bishop Mdime of the Diocese of Central Tanganyike in Tanzania had established to minister to the legions of children in his diocese who were HIV/AIDS orphans. In this ministry parishes in the US adopt a parish in Bishop Mdime’s diocese. A US parish provides 50 orphaned children in the parish village it has adopted with school uniforms, school supplies and a nourishing breakfast every morning of the coming year.

One day while we were there, we went to a village to help celebrate the arrival of new school uniforms and supplies and to help pass them out. The whole village came out to the festivities. There were hundreds and hundreds of people there and the celebration went on for the whole afternoon. There were songs and dancing. There were speeches and formal greetings given and received. It was wonderful. But as we walked back from the open square outside the church where everyone had gathered, I found myself hoping that it would be time to say our good-byes and head back. I was tired and ready to call it a day. I’m a little bit of an introvert and I was way past my ‘being with other people’ time.

But, our group of visitors was broken into four smaller groups and told that we would be taken to people’s homes for supper. Emmy and I with Noel our translator were introduced to our host and we set off along the dusty village paths.

We came to the home where we would have our meal. The walls of the home were made of mud bricks with a simple stick roof. The room in which we were welcomed was perhaps eight feet by eight feet with mats on the ground. We took our places and our hosts began to bring in pots of rice and potatoes and chicken.

Being tired and craving solitude, I found myself placing a kind of mask on my face. A happy, pleasant mask, but an artifice, a shell behind which I placed myself. But there was something more to it than an introvert’s fatigue.

As I sat on the mat in that simple home, I thought about that something more, something that had happened just a short while before. Earlier during the formal festivities, I had seen a small boy in the crowd. He was sitting apart on the edges of the crowd. He was looking right at me, staring with nothing between his strong center and me. For a little while, all the celebrating and laughter and noise faded away. For just a little while, it was as if it was just him and me. He was small, five or six years old, with dirty clothes hanging on his small body. The dust that was everywhere turned his rich dark skin pale. He was not laughing and clapping like everyone else. He was sitting quietly, just looking at me and I at him. And with a kind of electric jolt, I felt a knot in my chest and I saw him and he saw me – we saw each other looking at one another across a mighty, vast, unbridgeable chasm that suddenly had been bridged. Neither one of us had a hard-protective shell on. And then this boy smiled. And waved.

So, it wasn’t just an introvert’s fatigue. It was that boy’s face, his eyes reaching across the dusty square to mine, and a breaking shell like waking from sleep. The Lord was coming near.

But then I was brought back to our host’s home. I noticed a conversation going on. Emmy and the young mother of the house, Esther were engaged in lively conversation. I listened to them through our translator Noel. And do you know what they were talking about? They were talking about being mothers, their kids, fixing meals, their homes, the tasks of the day. Their conversation and laughter was easy and relaxed. I didn’t see any distance at all between them. So much, such differences, should have kept them far away from one another. But there was no distance at all. No masks, no hard shells separated them from one another, only being awake to a shared common humanity. I asked Emmy about this later and how moving it was to me. She said simply, “David, all women are sisters.” Sleepers, wake!

Now maybe it was the dramatically different place we were in, maybe it was stepping out of the habit and comfort and routine of our normal lives, maybe it was the electricity of such different kinds of people coming face to face. Or maybe it was simply God’s grace – wherever we are and whomever we are with – to keep us strong in our core and lead us to keep our outer self soft and open like Jesus. Such grace makes everything different and God is all in all.

Advent is our season of hope for such things as this. We live our lives in sacred time, with the knowledge that the Lord is coming. And though not one of us knows when that will be, his coming now into our lives til he comes completely at the end of all things gives us hope, always hope. Hope enough to be strong in our core, and soft and welcoming on the outside like him, to be awake in him. Amen.