Escape to the Present

Advent WreathA short sermon for the First Sunday of Advent (since the worship service is especially full with The Great Litany and a Choral Eucharist.)  The scriptures are Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-9, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, and Luke 21:25-36

Listen to the sermon HERE

In our first reading, Jeremiah warns that things are going to get bad before they get good, but eventually, God’s people will live in safety.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus also warns of rough days, but then he says something that, to me, sounds a little counter-intuitive.  Stay awake, he says. Be on guard. Be alert.

Given all the bad things Jesus talks about (“signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, … distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves… People faint[ing] from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world ….”), most sensible people would do their best to avoid dealing with any of this.

There are all kinds of ways we might sensibly avoid fear of the future—we might dedicate ourselves to our work.  We might pour ourselves into family.  Or more honestly, we might avoid fear of the future through too much food, or drink, or TV, or “fill in the blank” with whatever helps you escape most thoroughly and surely.

But instead, Jesus calls us to “escape to the present.” (Perhaps the most difficult and radical escape possible.)

We just heard his words in Luke’s Gospel, but I’ll read them again:

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Jesus encourages his disciples and us to be alert, that through this alertness, we’ll become strong, strong enough to endure whatever comes.  This kind of teaching by Jesus is often overlooked, as the Church gets caught a bit more on “do’s” and “don’t’s.”  The idea of mindfulness has come into our culture largely through Westerners who have studied Buddhism like Jon Kabot-Zinn and Herbert Benson, or Buddhists like Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama who have helped Westerners understand more about meditation.  But here Jesus is, basically saying to us: Don’t get thrown off-track. Stay centered. Be mindful.

How do we be mindful when our world is racing?  Through deliberate practices.

If I read from the Bible in the morning before I check the news, my day goes better.
If I say a prayer in the elevator or the hallway before visiting someone in the hospital, our time seems more God-filled.
If I pause to breathe a few times before going into a crowded room full of holiday revelers, I find the conversations go better, I gravitate toward sanity, and I’m clearer about my agency in being in the social setting that can easily overwhelm me.

Being alert and at peace requires a certain level of faith:  faith that things will be ok, if we take a minute or two out.  Faith that God is somewhere, somehow in charge.  And faith that we will, indeed be made strong enough, strong enough for anything.

The 11th century Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm, is often known for his heady theological arguments and attempts to convince or prove the existence of God.  It’s from Anselm that we get the much-loved phrase Anglicans aim for:  “Faith seeking understanding.”  But as philosophical and theological as Anselm could be, he also knew that alertness, wakefulness, and mindfulness to God’s world involves a relationship.  It involves our being open to God.  In the beginning of his Proslogion, Anselm wrote,

…[E]scape from your everyday business for a short while, hide for a moment from your restless thoughts. Break off from your cares and troubles and be less concerned about your tasks and labors. Make a little time for God and rest a while in him. Enter into your mind’s inner chamber. Shut out everything but God and whatever helps you to seek him; and when you have shut the door, look for him. Speak now to God and say with your whole heart: I seek your face; your face, Lord I desire. (Proslogian I, Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th c.

As we move through this season of Advent, hearing again the prophecies of the Church and the story of God coming, let us take time.  Let us practice being mindful, and may the Spirit help us escape to the present.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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