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Advent in a Minor Key
November 30, 2014
Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-37
A Reading from Isaiah:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence–
as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
From the Gospel of Mark:
“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake–for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.
I live in two worlds. This one world I live in, the world where I see that holidays are creeping up further and further each year, where Christmas begins in October instead of December. Where yuletide carols are sung before the Christ-child comes among us. And I don’t really mind so much, so that I can go to Garden Ridge and purchase garlands and ribbon even before the rush of Thanksgiving. And I get excited. I can’t wait! And the other world I live in exists when I sit at my computer screen, scrolling through the posts that my friends have placed on Facebook. I see countless articles about how, yes, indeed Hobby Lobby has placed its Christmas section in their stores in the month of October, and that seasonal music has already begun in the mall before Thanksgiving, and how we should be outraged. I read infographics of lists of stores that are choosing not to open on Thanksgiving because they want store employees to spend time with their families. I once heard a pastor claim that she would absolutely not allow for Christmas decorations to be placed in the Sanctuary until the Christmas Vigil, also known as Christmas Eve.
Two worlds: a world of cultural and practical reality on one hand and a world of righteous indignation on the other. In seminary, I felt like we came close to making an oath to never have white candles burning in the Sanctuary until December 24th, to not sing Christmas carols until the eve of our Savior’s birth. To hold back the festivities until we had properly prepared; to be sure to inform the choir master that Lessons and Carols was not to be sung until after Christmas. And that’s a world I lived in: one of righteous indignation. So, when I started my ministry here at UPC, I must confess that I made it my mission to fulfill the law set out for me in seminary: to move the Lessons and Carols service to the Sunday after Christmas. To move the festivity back. To remind the congregation that we cannot sing “glory to the newborn king” before the Christ-child has been newly born. Moving all mentions of a nativity to Dec. 25th where they belonged, I would then feel like we had done church right. To move the story of the wise men coming to the Christ child to January 6th, I would then feel like Christ would be honored. To put things back into their proper place, I would then feel like we were truly decent and in order. Oh how naïve of me. Oh how foolish. Oh little Krystal, to think that my righteous indignation could compare with a practical reality.
So, on December 14th, when we sing Christmas carols and go through the birth story of Jesus Christ, just know that this church will be on some sort of Austin Seminary blacklist. I exaggerate, but for me in seminary, I remember that concern about bringing us into the story of Christ’s birth too early. I remember refusing to sing the carols on the third week of Advent in protest. I remember being so angry about keeping the carols at Christmas because in seminary, as I would discover, you learn the orthodoxy. Whether they want to teach that or not, you learn the orthodoxy. You learn the ways in which church work is “supposed to be run.”
And the lectionary is orthodox. The lectionary passage of today, refuses to bring us into the nativity story. The lectionary passage leaves us in an apocalyptic view of the world, listening to prophetic voices. No gentle animals in a stable. No very pregnant Mary on a donkey. No manger. No shepherds. No wise men. Just a distant voice in the desert. Tearing the heavens, quaking mountains, fire, boiling water, eclipsing sun, and once again that fig tree that Jesus does not seem too fond of. All the scenes of a truly fearful scene with an ominous warning at the end of our gospel passage: “Keep awake…” And the ominous and unfinished aspects of our prophetic texts come through in many of our Advent hymns being written in a minor key. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” has that unresolved tone to the melody. Those chords do not sit with us well. Their unfinished chords sound almost sad and foreboding as we approach a season of glad tidings of great joy. And as we bust out in major-keyed carols like “Joy to the World” on the first Sunday of Christmastide, we can’t remember why we waited in the first place. Even during the Hanging of the Green, I could not resist singing a Christmas carol… or three with my college students as we hung garland and decorated the tree. The melodic tones of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” were much easier on my ears than “Wait for the Lord.” And while the echoes of those collegiate voices singing the carols will ring in this Sanctuary, other voices echo in our Sanctuary walls. Voices that understand all too much what it means to wait. And they do not sing the triumphant songs of Christmas just yet. They cannot. They sing in a minor key the songs of Advent. They listen to the words of the prophet Isaiah and nod knowingly. For they have seen the heavens open up and the earth quake and the stars falling from heaven. They have seen tear gas and fire and the sun turn dark because of ash. And then there are some who just stare at the ceiling wondering when anything is going to change. Wondering when the electric bill will not be in the red. Wondering when the food stamps will arrive in the mail. Wondering when tomorrow will be different. And there are those waiting as one of the 5.8% of people who are unemployed. And those waiting for release from jail. And those waiting for the other shoe to drop. There are so many in this country who are waiting for more than the great deals at stores on Black Friday or for the Christmas decorations to be put up.
This week a city in America exploded with violence over a young black man who was shot by a white police officer. And this case is merely the tip of the iceberg as far as race relations in this country go. This identifying incident is pointing to a much larger systemic issue that is bigger than a town in Missouri, much like World War One had larger systemic issues than the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. We see that the -isms of our day and age, in this case racism- take on new personas. The enemies are no longer in uniform. The perpetration of racism comes in the form of racial bias now, much less easy to see. Much less easy to pinpoint. Much less easy to call out. We have racial “preferences” and we call them that, and then someone ends up hurt or violated or dead, we wonder where that came from. Because while we have dealt with overt racism through the changing of laws, we have not dealt with the underlying bias that people have for their own race. And there are people waiting for that change. There are people begging for it. There are people willing to overturn cars and light buildings on fire for it, and I have to think to myself, there’s got to be another way. There’s got to be a non-violent way to call out the biases, to announce the preferences. To bring them to the table and say how wrong they are.
My generation is the generation growing up with enemies that don’t look like enemies. My generation is growing up with biases, and it’s the same thing that past generations fought against. My brothers and sisters in the Feminist movement gave me voice and my brothers and sisters in the Civil Rights Movement gave me awareness. Our –isms look different now, but they are not gone. Racism, sexism, liberalism or conservatism, homosexism. The names haven’t changed, but the way they present themselves is new, and when I read stories about Ferguson, I cannot help but think of an apocalyptic scene where we were all just too self-focused to keep awake, keep watch and take heart. And I just want to ask each person caught up in the systemic issues of our day what it’s all for anymore. What’s our goal? I just want to sit down with those caught in a cross-fire and ask them: What are you waiting for? What’s the end result here? I think we lost it somewhere.
It’s this time of year when I think of the disciples watching Jesus ascend into heaven. Yes, I know all of you good Presbyterians are thinking to yourself, “Krystal, this is not Ascension Sunday. You have your days confused. That’s in the spring!” So, just go with me for a moment. And the disciples are all just staring up into heaven as Jesus blasted off into the clouds, just keeping watch on the mountain top, while a song played in a minor key, and they just stared at Jesus’ toes and wondering when he was going to come back down. But he didn’t, and angels came down from heaven and said, “Hey, what are you waiting for? Jesus is going to come back just the way he went up.” And determined, with great purpose, they went to the work of ministry immediately in the next verses.
So, keep awake. Keep watch, but don’t just stare at the clouds and wonder when God is going to intervene. Look around. To borrow a phrase from Mr. Rogers, “Look for the helpers.” Even in the midst of scary news, even in the midst of horror, fires, and tear gas, even in the midst of –isms, there are always helpers; there are always allies. There are always those who want to help, angels in our midst. Angels who are singing of Christ’s birth, even in the midst of the unrest. And we are commanded to notice the songs of the angels, the glimpses of the Kingdom in our midst. It’s the Christmas truce of World War One, where British and German soldiers wished one another Merry Christmas in 1914, despite the fact that they had been shooting at one another five minutes before who sing “all is calm, all is bright.” It’s in Ferguson where the customers of stores that were destroyed by the violence who came and helped pick up the shards of glass and burned out buildings who sing “Peace on Earth, goodwill toward all.” It’s the choir here at UPC who boldly proclaim Christ’s birth on Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of rejoicing, the Sunday that gives us a bold reprieve in our Advent waiting to rejoice even in the midst of dissident notes and minor keys. And they will sing, “O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.” I would have known nothing about Gaudete Sunday, the rejoicing Sunday in Advent had it not been for this church, for all of us being disciples, helping each other. For us actually being the bearers of Christ instead of just talking about theories of what Advent is “supposed to look like.” This is the place where orthodoxy and the righteous indignation that comes with trying to keep things orthodox comes in contact with real people and real situations, and they create harmony with one another, sometimes in a minor key.
Our text today leaves us in that kind of quiet reflection we grow to know during these reflective seasons, watching the sky turn dark and the mountains quake, but in the midst of all of the chaos, there is always that one set of hands, holding us and shaping us into the people we need to be in this world, the helpers we need to become. Because before we can hold the baby Jesus in our own hands, the hands of God hold us first. God molds us and shapes us during this season of Advent to be Christ-bearers in this world. And we gather as a community to sit together and be shaped together and wait together. And on Christmas Eve, we will stand together, holding our lights, our symbols of Christ, singing our Christmas carols in major keys, pronouncing boldly joy to the world, and just for a moment the whole world will seem to breathe peace. And it will come. It always does.
But for today, we will listen to the minor keys of Advent and who is singing these waiting songs, and we will wait with them today. Even if we cannot wait for Christmas carols and gold and white stoles and angels and shepherds, and Mary and Joseph in their stable, we will wait with those who have to wait. Those who don’t have a choice. Those who wait for the world to change. Those who wait to be saved. Those who wait to be heard.
And let’s sit with them and sit with one another asking the question, What are you waiting for? And then the next question, Can I wait with you?