Sunday, November 30, 2014
First Congregational United Church of Christ – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
It is the first Sunday of a new year for Christians. Our liturgical year begins again with each Advent. It is always a bit of a shock to me to open up the Bible this first week of the year and discover we are beginning at the end. The end of the world, that is. How odd that we begin this season of waiting for the birth of snuggly little baby Jesus with portents of doom. But we do. We begin at the end. Every year, in fact. The Revised Common Lectionary, which is what we follow for our scripture readings each week, is a three year cycle. And each year the first Sunday of Advent has a gospel passage about the end times.
The sun and the moon are darkened. The world quakes. We await the Son of Man. And Mark’s Jesus admonishes us, “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.”
Rabbi Marc Gellman has written a wonderful collection of modern midrash titled Does God Have Big Toe? Stories About Stories in the Bible. The art of writing midrash is an ancient Jewish practice. Scholars, rabbis, and everyday Jews listen to their sacred texts, ask questions, and then imagine new versions of the stories. God is still speaking through midrash, and Rabbi Gellman’s stories are no exception.
One of the stories in this collection is “The First New Year.” In this story, Adam is surprised by the setting of the sun in the Garden of Eden on that first day. The garden is suddenly dark, cold, and scary and the animals crowd around Adam for reassurance. Adam eventually falls asleep and is awakened by the warmth of the sun on his neck that next morning. He jumps up and rejoices with the animals. He assures them that the sun must be here to stay this time…..but eventually the sun begins to sink and they frantically try to build a barrier to keep the sun from setting. It doesn’t work, of course, and the animals and Adam are plunged once again into darkness and fear.
But this time God takes Adam aside and explains that everything is okay. This is just “time,” God says. The sun will do this over and over again and it will divide time into days and nights. There will also be weeks and months. Reassured, Adam starts keeping track of the passing of time – one day, two days, three days, a week, three weeks, a month, three months, and so on. All is well, until….
One day Adam notices he has marked off 11 months, 3 weeks, and 6 days. He becomes worried. “I’ve used up all the time!” he exclaims. “Tonight the sun will sink and it will never rise again because this is the end of time. I am going to have to wander around in the dark and it will be cold and I will trip over things. O, Lord, what will I do now?” Adam gathers together the animals and explains that he’s not sure if there will be a tomorrow. They huddle together for warmth and cry as they watch the sun set for the final time.
But then….the sun begins to peek up over the edge of the garden. Just as it always has. Just as it always will. And Adam hears God counting, “Ten years is one decade….ten decades is one century….ten centuries is one millennium….ten millennia….” And Adam falls asleep to the sound of God’s voice and the birds chirping.
Every time I read this story – every single time, gosh darn it – I cry with Adam and the animals as the sun sets. How silly is that? But there is something so powerful about that image of huddling with those you love at the end of the world. Especially because we know what’s coming next, right?
It’s Noah and the animals shut up tight in the ark, wondering if the rain will ever end. It’s Queen Esther standing afraid and brave outside the King’s door, preparing to go in and plead her case. It’s the Psalmist singing that we are all like grass, here for only a short while before the world changes again. And it’s Jesus’s disciples huddled together on the night of Good Friday, weeping - for the world as they know it has ended. And it’s the women who went to the tomb on Easter morning, only to discover that the ground has shifted right under their feet.
It’s death and it’s Resurection and it’s hopelessness and a sliver of hope. It’s broken and it’s being made whole. It’s the end and the beginning and it’s messy and it’s beautiful and it’s all wrapped up together.
I think that’s why we begin at the end every Advent. The temptation of Advent, for me at least, is to get really excited about a snuggly little baby all wrapped up in the hay. Because, really, who doesn’t love a baby? Who doesn’t love the hope that exists in that moment when you first hold new life? Eternity stretches out before you and everything is possible. This baby is perfect and it is all too easy to lure yourself into thinking the sun will stay high in the sky forever. But then you make it through the first sleepless night, the first high fever, the first time you can’t get the baby to stop crying and you don’t have any idea what to do. And you begin to realize…..the sun will set, the sun will rise. There will be endings, there will be beginnings. And they’ll all be messy and wrapped up together.
And just like those real babies in our lives, the Christ Child comes in a mixture of hope and hopelessness, peace and unrest, joy and despair, fear and love. This tiny infant is heralded with the songs of friends, family, and strangers. Zechariah, Mary, Simeon….they all know that this baby has not come simply to coo and grin. This baby is here because humanity has reached a point of ending and beginning.
Zechariah, John’s father, holds his newborn baby boy and sings out, “Praise the Lord, the God of Israel….Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death and to guide us to the path of peace.”
Mary. Mary may be young, but she understands the magnitude of what she has been asked to do. As she contemplates the life within she sings, “God has scattered the proud and haughty. God has brought down princes from their thrones and exalted the humble. God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands.”
And there is perhaps no more poignant image of the ending and beginning all wrapped up together than Simeon, old Simeon, who was present at the Temple when Mary and Joseph brought their baby son. Simeon held the infant Jesus and said, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace…I have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all people. He is a light to reveal God to the nations, and he is the glory of your people Israel!”
In these songs I hear the voices of people who understand: it’s never as simple as “once upon a time” or “the end” as you close the book and put it back on the shelf. We are always beginning and ending….all at the same time. When you came in this morning, you should have received a piece of purple yarn. If you didn’t, please give a wave and the ushers will make sure you get one.
I’d like you to hold on to this piece of yarn. It’s has a beginning and an ending, yes? Now, take the yarn and bring the beginning and ending together. Tie it into a circle. This yarn is yours to carry throughout Advent. You may want to stick it in a pocket or bag. You may want to wear it on your wrist. But when you look at this piece of yarn, I hope you’ll remember that we begin at the end. Contemplate the places in your life or in your world where there is an ending. Relationships end, loved ones depart, priorities change, our bodies slow down, dreams die. In the wider world, we see shifts in leadership, we notice the rhythms of the world are altered.
Many of us gathered in this sanctuary earlier this week and prayed that the unrest in Ferguson would be a beginning and an ending. We heard the powerful words of UCC pastor and poet, the Rev. Maren Tirabassi:
I have a dream that Trayvon Martin
and Michael Brown’s names
will be remembered
the third Monday of every January
by our grandchildren
as the last to die,
and that their loss will be honored
as the reason our country
finally turned around.
We pray and hope for an end. We understand that the evil of racism will be with us until we have a hard and firm ending. We plead with Isaiah, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…” Bring us an ending, O God, for we have had enough. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.”
And yet, we hope for new beginnings. Like Isaiah, we remember, “Yet, O God, you are our Holy Parent; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” An ending is never just an ending. It is always a beginning, too. As you look at your yarn in the coming weeks, I hope you will see the beginnings happening all around you. New life, new loves, new dreams, new opportunities, new ways of being in the world.
Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote and spoke, oh, millions of words during his all-too-short life. Why is it, do you suppose, that the ones we hear most frequently are about his dream? I think it’s because he was pointing towards all of the beginnings he saw in the world around him. He painted a vibrant picture of what the world could be. People were hungry for that. People are hungry for that. Our ability to see and name the beginnings we see – I do believe that is one of our most powerful weapons in fighting the great sin of racism….and every other systemic sin, too. In order to shake off the shackles of the past, we have to move toward a new beginning together. So when you look at your yarn, I hope you will honor the endings and beginnings, and remember that they are always tied up together.
On Monday night this past week, I was walking to my car on the way home from work. The moon was high in the sky and it was a tiny sliver. I was rushing home to hear the results of the grand jury investigation in Ferguson. I looked up at the moon, so tiny in the sky, barely a speck of light, and I thought, “I wonder if the moon is waxing or waning right now? Will there be more or less light tomorrow?”
It has been a dark week – a week of pain and anguish. I have sat with my friends who are Black and heard them say things like, “If I had a son, I’d get him a gun and teach him to shoot to kill,” and “We just all need to leave this country. We are systematically hated here,” and “I’ve decided I can’t have children. I can’t bring any more Black children into this world that devalues their lives.” These are not just random people on the Internet. These are some of my dearest friends. I have wept countless tears this week. I have prayed that God would tear open the heavens and shake this country to its very foundations.
As Advent begins, it seems we are praying for an ending. We are praying for a beginning. God, help us to remember that the endings and beginnings are always messy and tied up together.