A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

In the first letter to the Corinthians appointed for today, Paul tells the people of Corinth, Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.
(I Corinthians 8:2-3)

Knowledge puffs up, LOVE builds up.

Today’s Gospel is from Mark. There are two things about reading Mark’s Gospel that for me stand out right away.

First, the Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the Gospels, is written with urgency. In today’s reading we are only 21 verses into the whole Gospel and Jesus is a full-grown man who has already been born, baptized by John, spent 40 days in the wilderness and gone out and gathered up disciples. In the other synoptic Gospels, it takes Matthew three chapters and Luke four entire chapters to get to this point.

And second, I find it is easy to identify in Mark with the disciples Jesus gathers along the way. Because I know about Jesus. I get it. And I can get might “judgy” about the people in Mark’s gospel who do not know Jesus; like the people who are encountering Jesus for the first time, like the people in Capernaum from today’s story.

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

New Testament scholar Luke T. Johnson beautifully sets the stage for how one can approach reading the Gospel of Mark…

If you think you are an insider, you may not be, if you think you understand the mystery of the kingdom and even control it, watch out; it remains alive and fearful beyond your comprehension. If you think discipleship consists in power because of the presence of God, beware, you are called to follow the one who suffered and died. Your discipleship is defined by HIS MESSIAHSHIP in terms of obedience and service.
(Luke T. Johnson, Writings of the New Testament, page 158. Published in 1946)

Johnson goes on to say that it does little good to try to figure out who the bad guys are in Mark’s narrative, who Mark is taking aim at. He’s talking to us. We are the ones in need of the Holy One who has come to make God’s presence in our very midst known.

In this very first public action of his ministry as told in Mark, Jesus sets about both teaching and healing at once. Although the text does not share what Jesus taught. Only that he did so with an authority, with a power that was new to the hearers.

This story is not one I love trying to tell children.

Why don’t I love retelling this to children? Well, demons. If anyone is particularly excited about broaching this subject with children, they probably ought not to be around children. There is no doubt in my mind that children have an understanding of evil, but when you name it as a demon it gets tricky. For them and for us adults, too.

The original hearers of this Gospel would not have had the same backstory you and I bring to hearing about an exorcism, no images from horror movies flashing in their heads. Talking about demons was not out of the ordinary. It was a common way of naming that which was not of God.

And in today’s gospel “that which is NOT of GOD” knew good and well who had the power in the room when encountering Jesus. “Have you come to destroy us?” he asks. And all Jesus has to say is BE SILENT. And “that which was not of God” left the man restored to be fully the beloved child of God he was made to be. Jesus possessed, possesses, the power, the authority to call out what is not of God and send it off. This is what got people talking.

The urgency with which Mark speaks is apocalyptic, not that Mark is describing the end of the world in a fiery ball, but that Mark is revealing to the world the power of Jesus. And that power looks markedly different from what we often associate with authority.

Jesus is not puffing up himself with his authority, he is building up the world, revealing the nature of God’s love. Jesus throughout Mark’s Gospel tries to keep the talk about him to a minimum, avoiding the limelight, telling his disciples to zip it and not talk too much about him.

Jesus, whose life and ministry leads to the cross, is clear about where His authority comes from. FROM THE LOVE OF GOD. And as theologian Elizabeth Schlusser Fiorenza says, he does so with “steadfast resistance” to anything – any demonic force, any political or religious construct, anything at all – that would seek to do anything else but BUILD UP all of God’s people. Jesus moves through Mark’s Gospel story in “steadfast resistance” straight to the cross. Straight to sacrificial love. To the cross where we learn what power and authority look like in the Kingdom of God.

Our Tuesday book group has just finished reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. It is a beautiful book and I highly recommend it. The story follows a family of four girls, their mother, and their missionary preacher father as they travel into Congo. The father, Nathaniel, is hell bent on saving the residents of the village, determined to get them all down into the crocodile-invested river to baptize them. He feels he has the knowledge about Jesus that these villagers need, hollering through sermon after sermon AT them. And he is incredulous as to why they won’t accept his heavy-handed invitation for a baptism in the river and a chance to be taken under by a crocodile.

Nathaniel throughout his time in Africa sought to overcome others with his knowledge of the authority of Jesus, rather than demonstrating Jesus’ “steadfast resistance,” Jesus’ transformative, restorative love.

His time there was not spent walking toward the cross like Christ, serving in love. Instead, Nathaniel seemed to be standing at the foot of the cross screaming about the authority that he knew about, but they did not. His insistence on his knowledge kept him from building anything. In fact, he destroyed his family, the village, and himself in the process of trying to prove himself right.

In thinking about who I might hold up as someone who has lived their life in “steadfast resistance” to that which keeps us away from the love of God, I came up with a several people, well known for resisting hatred and violence in this world. And thank God for them. But it seemed more important to me to think about people whose “steadfast resistance” goes largely unnoticed.

Are there people you know whose lives have been built on love, sacrificial love? I believe there are many known to us. People who day in and day out quietly serve those in need and in doing so are quietly walking the way of the cross. People who without fanfare or fuss do something to bring God’s love into this world no matter the cost to themselves. People who know what it feels like to be possessed by a demon, to be held captive by that which is not of God – hatred, greed, self-harm, self-loathing – who have been freed through God’s love, restored like the man today. And they take that freedom and offer it to others in humility, not on authority.

The world is filled with people like this. We are surrounded by them, known and unknown.

As we hear the story of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark throughout this season and this lectionary-year cycle, I want to listen with humility, like I am an outsider, one ready to live in “steadfast resistance” to anything that is not of God.

I pray that we hear THE GOOD NEWS in Mark as Jesus’ power and authority are revealed on his way to the cross and build up this world in love.

Amelia McDaniel

A Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Did you notice that the Collect for the Day we just prayed includes a pretty bold assumption? The prayer assumes that Christ himself will call you. When? How? For what purpose? Well, who knows? But he will. And probably already has for each of us here, and not for the last time, I pray. What we ask God for is not the grace to be called, but the grace to say yes.

The Bible among other things is a treasure trove of stories of God calling to us. Actually, if you think about it, most of the Bible bears witness to all those times and places where God calls to one of us and we hear it, and something happens. The details of what God is calling us to do or say is usually a little fuzzy: go to the place I will show you, God says to Abraham; tell Pharoah to let my people go, God says to Moses; you’re going to conceive and bear within you the Holy One of God, God says to Mary. And in one way or another, every time God calls one of us, our hearts are broken by how big the love is that calls us: a love that calls us out of our world and into his, from our way of seeing things, to God’s ways of seeing things, and what God cares for become our cares, too.

For the Prayers of the People today, we’ll use a set of prayers that remember and thank God for all the great families in the household of Christian faith that started somehow, some way with God calling someone, and the breaking open of a heart by love. And I promise you, not one of them set out to create a new denomination. Luther did not set out to make Lutherans. Calvin did not answer a call to create Presbyterians. Wesley’s call was not to form the Methodists. William Seymour was not called to create the Pentecostal movement out of a warehouse revival on Azusa Street in Los Angeles in April of 1906. An Albanian girl named Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu never planned to become a saint named Mother Teresa when God called her. For all of them, there was a day and a place when God called them to love what he loves, to care for what he cares for, to heal and mend something precious to God, and their hearts were broken open.

And because it’s easy to think that God only calls these big important people, remember Moses at the time God called was on the run from the law, and Mary was a country girl in first-century Palestine whose unwed pregnancy was as hard to explain as you can imagine, and William Seymour’s father lived in slavery. So just in case you think God only calls the big important people, I want to tell you a story. It’s possible you’ve heard it before or some version of it. Most of us have a few stories like this that God has given us that are our spiritual North Stars, experiences of grace through which God is still speaking, still healing, still strengthening us, still picking us up when we’ve fallen. They are like the Holy Scriptures written on our lives that God gives us to read again and again. This is one of mine.

Over spring break in 1993, I went with a group of kids from The University of the South in Sewanee on a mission trip to Kingston, Jamaica. These kids were the best and the brightest. They came from the first families of Savannah and Memphis and Dallas and Charleston. They were smart, faithful, and were probably bound for careers in medicine or law or finance. They sang in the All Saints Chapel choir or did community work down the mountain or mentored underclassmen. They were really good kids. I was a seminarian at Sewanee and went as their chaplain. We’d been meeting twice a month for months to get ourselves prepared and to learn how to work as a team. There were three different communities we were going to serve while we were there. One was a school, one was the Missionaries of Charity house, and one was a community in nearby Riverton City.

Riverton City is just outside Kingston. It’s not actually a city. What it is is the city dump. And it’s a place where at that time about 5,000 people lived. Somehow, in the middle of the trash heaps they’d cleared out a large open space and built a school and a community center. We went there to lead a vacation Bible school for four or five days. We taught Bible stories and sang songs; we did artwork and played games. But mostly each of us walked around with little kids draped all over us, carrying little ones on our hips and slightly bigger ones piggy-back or on our shoulders. I don’t know how it was possible in that place, but those children were filled with as much joy and mischief, as much wonder and silliness as any other kids anywhere.

One of the kids from Sewanee, a young woman named Sarah, is the point of this story. She was a part of the group but not really. She hung around the edges, and I only really remember her talking one time. She was with us, but she kept herself to herself mostly. She was one of the kids who went to Riverton City. Something happened to her there. She came alive. Literally she came alive.

One afternoon after lunch, we were all laying around in the community center. It was nap time and there were these clusters of children and our kids just flopped out on the ground. Sarah was sitting on the ground, leaned against a plywood wall. There were three little girls lying on her asleep, on her legs on her lap on her chest. A fourth girl was combing Sarah’s hair and whispering in her ear from time to time. Sarah saw me looking at them. And she looked at the girl on her legs and the one on her lap and the one on her chest and the one beside her combing her hair. And then she looked up and mouthed the words, Thank you! And then she smiled such a smile and I thought, ‘Oh, there you are!’ She had found herself. It’s like it was the first time I’d ever really seen her. Where before she’d stayed back, kept her cards closer to her vest, there she was, fully present, alive as alive can be.

We came home maybe a week later, back to school, back to our regular lives. Maybe a week after we’d gotten back I was crossing the grounds near All Saints Chapel and I heard someone shouting, Hey! really loudly. I looked around and saw Sarah storming towards me. She was furious. Her shouting made other people stop and look to see what was going on. She stormed up to me and shouted, “You have got to tell me something!”

I said, “Sarah, what’s going on?”

“What’s going on?! I want you to tell me when I will stop hurting! All I can think about is those little girls who I left behind living in a dump, a literal garbage dump, and look at us here! When am I going to stop hurting? All I want to do is sell all my clothes and shoes and my stupid BMW that my dad just bought for me one day and everything else and give it all to those girls! Like Sessee who is smarter and better than any of us but lives in a dump. When am I going to stop hurting?!”

The thank you she had whispered at Riverton City for those girls where she found herself and the breaking heart always go together, because that’s what God’s holy love does for us.

The Lord had called to her in Riverton City, and without quite knowing what she was signing up for, she had already been given grace to say yes, and yes with her whole heart. She had been taken out of her world and into God’s where what God cares for were now hers to care for.

When Jesus calls us, because that’s what he does, he calls us to a life like his. Which even when it breaks your heart is still your heart’s desire. Follow me, Jesus says. When he calls, Lord, give us grace to say yes. Amen.

The Rev. David H. May

A Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany

I don’t know why exactly, but when we were kids, my sisters and I did something really rotten to our little brother. We told him that he had come to our family as a refugee from an Eastern European country. Why a refugee and why one from Eastern Europe? Who knows. But what that implied was that he wasn’t actually one of us, he wasn’t really a part of the family. Why did we do that? I have no idea. But we did. We were a pretty lively crew, the four of us, so maybe it was just a normal part of the general nonsense that regularly went on between us. Or maybe we thought it was just too ridiculous to be believed.

But it really struck a chord with my brother. For some reason, rather than just pushing back (which would have been the usual thing to do) he found himself wondering if maybe, just maybe, it was true. His memories couldn’t refute it because our memories only go so far back. Maybe he really was a refugee our family had taken in. Maybe he really wasn’t part of the family. It was pretty upsetting to him.

I didn’t exactly understand his reaction at the time. Why didn’t he just push back in the usual way? Maybe I didn’t understand his reaction then, but I do now. We had touched on a really tender place in us human beings without knowing it. It’s a basic need we all have to have, or our lives can go sideways. We all need to know that we belong, somewhere to someone.

I do want to say before moving on that there was hell to pay for this little prank we pulled on our brother. Our mother took care of that. But in a surprising way. But it also happened in the ways that it does for all of us, I’m afraid, where we’re on the receiving end of messages and actions that say you don’t belong. The world is called ‘the school of hard knocks’ for a reason. Who belongs at the cool table in the school cafeteria and who doesn’t. Who belongs in this neighborhood and who doesn’t. All of it. There’s a kind of great sorting of the wheat from the chaff that seems to be a part of human nature, or at least fallen human nature. Rich, poor, educated, uneducated, black, white, immigrant, native, believers, non-believers, and on and on, answering the question who belongs and who doesn’t.

Which on this day, the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, in one way or another is the situation Jesus wades right into the middle of, standing in the Jordan River. His cousin John is there thundering away at the miserable state of affairs of people who assume they belong to God, or assume that they don’t, or aren’t too sure. None of that matters to John. For John, the people are grass, sprouting with dew in the morning and gone by sunset.  He shouts that God is coming and you had better get it together and clean up your act as if your life depends on it, because it does. But then he spots Jesus making his way with the crowds of people by the water. He knows at once who he is. He says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” So why is he there with all the rest? John didn’t want to baptize Jesus. He isn’t worthy and besides, Jesus doesn’t need it. But Jesus won’t have it any other way. His place right beside us has nothing to do with being worthy or not. His baptism upends all of that because with his baptism he says, “Here I am, with all the rest, right where I belong.”

After Christmas time, our lost-and-found basket here at church is generally fully restocked. There are scarves and reader eyeglasses and car keys and gloves and other little thises and thats that wash ashore from the high tide of Christmas. I was looking through all those things the week after Christmas to see what was there. I saw a sporty pair of green and black gloves, the kind that don’t have fingertips. I picked them up and thought about the hands that fit into them and wondered if they would ever be reunited with the hands they belonged to. Which, from that thought, in my mind at least, was just one small step to bringing to mind the lost-and-found basket that Jesus puts himself into with us when he is baptized. John thinks all of us lost gloves can find our way back to the hands we belong to. Jesus knows better; sheep get lost and can’t find their way back. John thinks we need to clean up our act to save our own skin. Jesus says God will do the saving for us. Jesus finds the place our lost lives belong.

I told you there was hell to pay when my mother caught wind of what we’d done to my brother. She would have been perfectly within her rights to have gone John the Baptist on us, putting the axe to the roots as John said God is going to do. But that’s not what happened. What she did was go to the closet where there was a big box of pictures, stacks of black-and-white Polaroids back then. She picked through them, found the ones she was looking for, and then got my brother and they sat down at the kitchen table. And she told him a story, his story, using those pictures. A picture of her in the home stretch of her pregnancy just before he was born, him wrapped up in a blanket carried by our dad when he came home from the hospital, her sitting on the floor with him in her lap while our dog licked him, his first Christmas with the rest of us in front of the tree, between his sisters on a sled.  She said, “Trust me, I brought you into this world. You’re mine. You belong in this family. I’ll deal with your sisters and brother.”  That sealed it.

Isn’t baptism like that too? In the prayers over the water, we hear the story of God’s great saving deeds from the first day the Spirit blew over the face of the deep till that same Spirit rested on Jesus in the waters of the Jordan, and throughout the life he led to show us what it looks like to belong to God and to live like that. And what that looks like is a table around which are seated down-and-outers who suddenly feel like up-and- comers, and people you wouldn’t be caught dead with from the wrong side of the tracks and from the right side of the tracks and everyone in between. And because of the one breaking bread for us all to share, you see, we belong.

In just a few minutes, that same Spirit will be hovering over the water in that great baptismal font, and God will establish an indissoluble bond with Kate and Charles and Coleman and Brooke and Davis; they will receive the grace of heaven through the sacrament of baptism and be sealed as Christ’s own forever. And a place at the Lord’s Table will always be set for them. And for you. Because it is the Lord’s Table – the place we belong with him. Amen.

The Rev. David H. May

A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

One of the unexpected joys of my work here at St. Mary’s is that I have been given the opportunity to age up. In the congregations I have been in previously, my work centered around children and youth, and I rarely ventured into the territory of people who had mostly stopped going to the orthodontist.

I am grateful that my life here includes coordinating a number of book studies, some adult forum programming and preaching. Turns out I like grown-ups too.

Currently our Friday morning book has just completed, Miracle on 10th Street. It is a compilation of writing by the great Madeline L’Engle, an author who wrote for both children and adults. It is full of pieces of prose and poetry about Advent and Epiphany that have given us a great many things to talk about over the last few weeks.

I could not help to think about today’s Gospel when I read these lines from her poem “First Coming”:

He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

Mark’s Gospel does not begin with any sweet birth narrative or genealogy. Mark comes out swinging, right in the midst of the tarnished world.

There’s no gussying up with any pedigree showing how Jesus is from the House of David. There are no angels sweeping in and upending Mary’s world. No trip to Bethlehem. This isn’t John’s beautiful, “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.”

Right out of the gate in Mark’s gospel we meet John, the crazy cousin, clad in camel hair and eating bugs and honey in the wilderness. He jumped right into the messy world to make way for Jesus.

John has something to say. And it’s not particularly sunshiny. Most prophets, including Isaiah who we heard today as well, have some pretty hard things to say. Prophets are not people who have any particularly great status or power. They are usually not from “the right side of the tracks.” But prophets are undeterred by their lack of credentials. And they make it their work to point out the ways that people are not behaving how God intends. Prophets open the “thing drawer” in the kitchen, that place where you stuff all the junk, and reveal that not all is well.  They look at God’s people and shout, beg, whisper, cry whatever they can to get us to see something we do not want to or cannot see for ourselves.

One time with a group of four- and five-year-olds I asked about believing in things we cannot see. So, we talked about things that we know are there, but we cannot see with our eyes. There were answers like germs and wind. Some kids mentioned love and God. One child looked at me incredibly intently until I called on her.

“I cannot see my face.” she said. “Oh,” I said, “but you can see yourself in a mirror.” To which she replied, “But that’s just my reflection. I’m not really seeing my face. And I can’t see my own eyes.”

Prophets take us by the shoulders, look at our faces and tell us what we cannot or will not see about ourselves.

The words of comfort we hear from Isaiah today come after 39 chapters of Isaiah taking God’s people by their shoulders and telling them what their faces look like.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (1:16-17)

The first portion of Isaiah speaks to the leaders and people and shows them the ways in which they have failed to live in God’s justice and righteousness. How instead of living in the Covenant God had made with them, they had ignored the needs of God’s people and sought their own power in arrogance.

But prophets speak out not to obliterate God’s people, but because they have the imagination to see how things can be different. Prophets can tell of God’s love that passes all understanding for the same reason they can tell us where we are off track, because they can see our faces.

So, Isaiah also speaks words of God’s saving grace. Of hope. Which is what we heard today. Which is how Mark begins his whole story of the life of Christ …

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.

A voice cries out:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,

John came proclaiming repentance and forgiveness of sins. Which is to say John came proclaiming that he could see God’s people in ways they could not, reminding them of the ways that they were not living into the Covenant God had made with them so long ago. He looked into their faces asking them to change, to repent meaning to turn their hearts towards God’s love.  And he told them that God was at work bringing the power of God’s love and righteousness into their very midst.

I often wonder if John the Baptist were to appear today if I’d go out into the wilderness to hear him. The Gospel says that many people were going to him. I wonder what drew them there.  Was it the power of his clarity, knowing the nearness of the proximity of God’s love? Was it that the people who came were desperately tired of the way the world was working?

It may seem a strange juxtaposition in the midst of preparing for the birth of Jesus to in this Gospel be placed on the banks of the Jordan River with John. I suppose no less strange than last week’s Gospel either, grappling with when the world will cease and begin again.

There is a want, at least for me, to just to rest in the comfort of knowing that sweet baby Jesus is on the way. Not so easy, according to the prophets.

It is good and right to wrestle in these coming weeks as we await the birth of Christ with John’s call to repent and ask for God’s forgiveness. To prepare for Jesus’s arrival with anything less that this would be cheap grace.

What would John the Baptist say to me were he to look at my face? What would John the Baptist say to all of us? That is a question worth turning over in these next weeks.

I confess that I am disheartened by what I imagine John would say. Not only by what he would say to me but about the state of the world. I can see how prophets throughout the ages have looked around and let loose with harsh and painful words. I don’t think a one of us would say the state of the world today is our best effort. And I lack the imagination to begin to think of how things could ever change.

But then I remember that the prophets speak hope too. A hope that imagines…

Valleys lifted and mountains laid low.

A hope that promises us that

He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,

and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

And in this sense of hope, I’m struck that Mark’s story begins by calling people to be baptized, one at a time, to begin again.

He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

I do not want to come to the wonder of Christmas morning without stepping into the Jordan River with John.

I want to be willing to heed the warnings of the prophets, willing to acknowledge and bewail the ways in which I have fallen short, the ways in which this still tarnished world falls short of making pathways made straight for all of God’s beloved creation.

This Christmas I want to peer into the manger, ready to meet the gaze of the one who sees my face, the one who sees your face, and in great love shines on us all the Light that will never go out. And then our faces although we cannot see them for ourselves may reflect that love, that light into this broken, tarnished world and we together begin again.

Amelia McDaniel

A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

Driving to church a couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a story on the radio about the death of the sun – our sun, the one that’s a little scarce this time of the year, which makes the time it’s shining even more lovely and welcomed. The scientist being interviewed calmly described how the life of the sun will end. He said, eventually, the sun will burn all its hydrogen fuel and then cool and finally explode. He said the timeframe for this to happen is about 5 billion years. I was struck by how matter of fact he was in his description of these events. He said, “Then the sun will explode and the solar system with it and all the matter and debris will drift away forever into the infinite silence of space.”

While he was talking, I was stopped at a red light and saw two children, probably aged six or seven. They had enormous backpacks on their backs and were facing each other, talking and talking. (By the way, what does a six- or seven-year-old need that requires such a big backpack to hold?! Sorry, a question for another day.) Anyway, one of them was listening to the other with eyes wide open, and I saw her mouth the words, no way! and the other little girl nodded and laughing did a funny little dance that ended in a twirl where she lost her balance and the two little girls fell in a heap together. Up above I saw the jet trail of some big passenger jet streaking 30,000 feet up in the clear blue sky. It was filled with passengers on their way somewhere; a plane full of people, probably named Jeannie or Buck or Salmon, each with their own lives and their own stories. Like a 25-year-old flying out of a dangerous part of the world to safety and wondering if he’ll ever see home again, or an older woman on her way to a place she promised her husband before he died that she would visit for him, or maybe just someone trying to get home. And then, some kind of teensy flying bug I had never seen before in my life landed on my windshield. In its own way, it was perfectly perfect. Perfect little legs moving it across the slick windshield. And then it furled out tiny little wings and was gone so fast it was like some kind of disappearing act.

“Then the sun will explode…” the scientist was saying as the light turned green and I headed on.

I know 5 billion years is a long time. None of us will be around to see that ending. Truthfully, I don’t know what will be around in 5 billion years or if it will bear any resemblance to a day with a jet flying high in the sky full of lives or a magical bug lifting off from my windshield. But that didn’t stop me – for just a moment – from feeling this sharp pang, this oh no! in my spirit. Oh no, that plane full of people and the sky it’s flying in and those two little girls on their way from one great moment to the next and that amazing bug, gone, poof, forever.

These are sobering thoughts to share, I admit, to begin this new season in our lives with the beginning of the season of Advent. Why worry about the end of the world, especially if it’s 5 billion years away from now? Today has its own challenges that I can’t keep up with as it is.

Yet this is where the Spirit of God is leading us in the Gospel reading for this first Sunday of Advent. Each year, we hear Jesus describe the end of all things and how he will come again to us. We hear his words, or try to, but it’s hard when you’re on board the train racing towards Christmas that feels like it could jump the tracks at any moment. More sober souls among us have always been inspired by these readings to search out the signs of the times to calculate precisely when the Lord will come again even though Jesus says no one knows when that will be except the Father.

Honestly, sometimes, I think his second coming could be lost on me. I was raised with these images of how it’s supposed to be, Jesus coming like a hero on a winged white horse breaking the darkness of the collapsing world with the light of his love. But what if – Jesus being Jesus – his second coming will be more like his first coming? There are similarities. There was a great heavenly light in the mighty firmament of heaven the night he was born (which you’d think more people would have noticed), and the angels of heaven – a multitude of them – came pouring out of heaven singing, rejoicing. But all that seems to have happened largely unnoticed except by a few bedraggled shepherds. What if Jesus’s Second Coming is more like his first? It will be Jesus, yes, with a heavenly light show in the sky to end all light shows. But it will be him, coming with the same perfect love God gave us as a baby. And maybe his coming will be in the way he always comes among us now, somehow hidden in a stranger, or someone hungry, and coming when you least expect it we’re told.

So, keep alert. Keep awake. But how do you do that?

My grandmother used to put a rubber band around her wrist. I asked her about it one time, asked why she did that. She said that when she noticed it on her wrist, she’d snap it to help her remember something she was supposed to remember. I asked her if it worked and she said, “sometimes.” Are we supposed to have something like that to keep awake, that we can snap and remember the Lord is coming? What is it that we’re supposed to do?

Well, “Look at the fig tree,” Jesus says. It’s just like him to bring us back to earth a little. Consider the lilies of the field, or a seed planted in a field, or a fig blooming tree. Don’t try so hard. God is already speaking through all the life that’s going on all around at every moment. So that every square foot could be crammed with parables of the Kingdom if God reveals that to you and you were paying attention at the time. Like two kids rejoicing, or a plane full of stories, or a tiny magical bug, or even a church full of people, where you notice a face you see every Sunday but realize you had never really seen before, until now anyway. Stay awake to that, love what God loves, care for what God cares for. And sense the preciousness of all of it – including you! – to God, which is what Jesus came to give us in the first place.

Whether Jesus will come again to us in 5 billion years or five minutes from now is less important than living like he’s about to come into our lives now – not because you have to, but because you can, because he was born for us to see and love like him, awake for his next coming. Amen.

The Rev. David H. May