Mark 13: 24-37
I was trying to watch a video on Hulu last week. I guess it had been a while since I’d done that because I was surprised to see that underneath the video I selected, there was a little box with the come-on question “What are you thinking?” Next to this box was another hyperlinked box that said, “Post to Facebook.” From the moment the video started to play the opportunity to comment was there, too. Not after the video finished or even halfway through – right from the moment I clicked on it to play.
I immediately homed in on the word “thinking.” There was, in fact, no opportunity for thought before that question appeared. Maybe if the little box had said “React – now!” I wouldn’t be talking to you about it tonight. The medium and the message would have been in synch that way. But it asked what I was thinking. As if I had experienced enough of it to formulate a thought. As if I had had time to reflect – or even to finish viewing it once through. As if anyone should care in the slightest about whatever slop I might slap into that box after 10 seconds of viewing.
What are you thinking – right now? If you were to post your “thoughts” on the sermon right now, what would you have to go on? Do you know where I’m going or what you’ll think of it by the end? Have you taken in enough to actually be thoughtful?
This is the season of time, of space to consider and reflect before posting. Come, thou long-expected Jesus. Come, Lord Jesus. O come, O come, Emmanuel. This is what we sing and pray today and throughout the season of Advent. Come, be on your way to us, God-with-us. It’s interesting that it takes 4 weeks. Of waiting, reflecting, praying, anticipating, making room for God. And, since we’re not waiting only for Christmas day but also for Christ’s second coming, it’s probably going to be longer than 4 weeks. About the day or hour no one knows (v. 32).
The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says Advent reminds Christians that we “live out of a kind of deliberate emptiness.” Deliberate emptiness. Purposely not filling up. Intentionally leaving room. Do you know what that feels like? Rohr claims that this way of living – leaving ourselves “open to grace and to a future created by God rather than ourselves…is exactly what it means to be ‘awake,’ as the Gospel urges us!” (Preparing for Christmas, Richard Rohr, p. 4).
I know this sermon is a hard sell. Boiled down, here it is: Stay awake and be patient. You’re awake a lot right now anyway, with classes ending next week and exams starting. You don’t get much sleep in a good week and now we’re heading into Def-Con 1. You crave sleep and Jesus urges us to keep awake. Many of us have trouble waiting in line at the grocery store so how are we supposed to handle 4 weeks – or longer? We especially have a hard time with deliberate emptiness. When’s the last time you waited in line, by yourself, without checking your phone/email/Facebook?
It’s a hard sell because we like feeling in control. We like cramming people and iTunes and texts and social events into every single hour of our days. We like to look at the list of all those things we’ve checked off and take pride in our accomplishments. We have trouble accounting for an afternoon of deliberate emptiness – offline, unscheduled, reflective, thoughtful. Truly thoughtful, not merely another excuse to Facebook the world with every thought that flits through our minds.
When it comes down to it, the waiting makes us nervous. The empty space of possibility and potential often unnerves us more than excites us. If God won’t show up right here and now in a way I can recognize and appreciate, then maybe I’ll enjoy whatever I can cram into this space instead. Known quantities are more peaceful, aren’t they?
Beware, keep alert, keep awake. We don’t know when the time will be but we’re likely to miss it if there is no room in our days, priorities, or hearts for God. Come, Lord Jesus.
Keep awake. Feel the tension between overflowing and deliberate emptiness. Feel the tension between Christ’s first coming and the next one. Already-not yet. Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.
I haven’t preached yet (or posted on Facebook) about the Occupy Wall Street movement. Luckily there is no “What are you thinking?” box on my TV or the car radio so I’ve been simply listening and watching and wondering. I’m not sure what I think yet . It seems clear that our country’s financial system needs reform. It seems clear that the gap between the richest and the rest of us has grown significantly while no one was looking. It seems clear that a lot of people are deeply, emotionally invested in bringing this conversation into the mainstream. But this is not “Occupy Pulpit.” Maybe after some more space and reflection I’ll have a thought to post or preach about, but for now I have an observation.
I’ve noticed in the media coverage that reporters are quick to distinguish between “actual protestors” and people who are homeless and choose to camp along with everyone else. That strikes me as an odd, missing-the-point categorization. Isn’t being homeless in one of the world’s richest countries itself a statement about our wealth and financial priorities? Isn’t it just this sort of distinction that people are protesting in the first place? Between “types” of people who “deserve” differing treatment depending upon their means?
When I look out of the corner of my eye, these tent cities kind of look like the kingdom of God. On earth, as it is in heaven. Everyone welcome, no distinctions. It’s just out of the corner of my eye. When I look straight on I see foibles and reporters and the attempt to make distinctions here and there.
But that’s what we get while we wait: glimpses. A vision here, a song of praise there, a moment where bread becomes body. It’s enough, while we wait, to sustain us.
It’s incredibly hard to see or taste this without the waiting, without the space for God, without time passing. It’s incredibly hard to know what you’re looking at if you are posting to the world before you’ve even taken in the whole scene.
I came across another glimpse of the kingdom recently, reading the poet Luci Shaw, who lives in Washington state where, apparently, the madrona tree grows. She describes its peculiar way of salvaging dead limbs: “When a madrona branch withers and dies, it is not in the nature of the tree to allow it to rot or drop off. Its mother tree refuses to abandon it. Rather, as the young, healthy wood and bark grow, they creep up around the aged gray appendage like a bandage, a second skin, covering and protecting it, welcoming it back to tree-ness. No wonder the word ‘madrona’ means mother” (Luci Shaw in God With Us, Greg Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe, eds., p.94).
It’s not in the nature of the tree to allow any part to drop off or rot away. No homeless branches, no graveyard of lost limbs on the ground below, no one left out. The rest of the tree surrounds the dying branch and welcomes it back to tree-ness. Like God embracing the whole of who we are – the dead and stagnant parts, right along with the alive and beautiful ones. Like the kingdom of God, where the last will be first, the dead brought back into the land of the living.
But to see this tree do its thing and to then be reminded of life in the kingdom takes time. Months, I suspect. You have to notice the tree to begin with, then watch part of it dying, then see how the rest of the tree responds. A quick look won’t tell you the whole story – the one you long to hear.
We need time. We need waiting. We need to reflect and consider before we even know our status. Stay awake and leave room for God to creep in around you in the midst of your days, to cover and protect you and reclaim you like the madrona – mother – tree.
In a few more weeks we’ll be hearing about Mary and Joseph spending the night in a stable during the census, without means or family nearby. Don’t be anxious to get to that night. Keep awake these Advent days that will lead us there and deeper into the heart of God. Deliberately empty out some of the junk in your line of sight, your schedule, your priorities, your heart. Make room for God to be born again right here in the middle of Def-Con 1 at UVA, in this most improbable time and place.
By the grace of God, we’ll get glimpses along the way. A vision here, a song of praise there, a moment where bread becomes body. It’s enough, while we wait, to sustain us.
Thanks be to God!
© 2011 Deborah E. Lewis