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The Strength to Escape

Rev. Karen McArthur
Sun, Dec 02

The First Sunday of Advent
TExt: Luke 21: 25-36

With the beginning of the season of Advent today, we begin a new liturgical year. We ended last year with the “Christ the King Sunday” and now we begin a new journey toward the birth of the Christ-child. Each year, we focus on either Matthew, Mark, or Luke, which are called the three “synoptic” gospels, since they look somewhat alike. The lectionary rotates through these three, with John’s gospel interspersed throughout all three years. This year, it’s Luke: Luke who brings concern for the poor, healing and feeding. It’s my favorite of the three and I was looking forward to preaching on Luke this morning.

But I have to say, I was a bit concerned when I saw that today’s reading started out with “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” People fainting from fear and foreboding … I know that Advent always starts with the apocalyptic visions of the coming of Christ’s reign, but this caught me off guard. I’m used to thinking of Advent as a time of vigilant watching and expectant waiting. It’s like the rhythm of the church calendar gives us an escape from the distractions of shopping and the details of holiday planning. How do we, in Luke’s words, find “the strength to escape all these things” so that we can stand before the One who is the focus of our faith?

Each year, we begin Advent with the same idea. We prepare ourselves for the coming of the Messiah – or as Luke calls him, τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, the “Son of Humanity” or “Son of Man.” The gospels instruct us to watch and wait – to stay awake and keep alert so that we don’t miss the big arrival. All three begin with signs in the heavens -- the sun and moon and stars. For every gospel writer, there is a reason we might miss the Messiah. For Matthew and Mark, we might not stay awake. Mark is the most direct:
13:35 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.

Matthew is quite similar:
24:43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.
But Luke’s concern is different; Luke’s biggest worry is that we’ll be distracted:
21:34 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.

I don’t know about you, but it seems like there are more and more distractions in our world. Places to go, and people to see, more and more people to connect with on email and facebook and twitter and a whole host of social media that I have yet to hear about. There are more countries and conflicts to know about, and more details of our lives to learn about. When I was growing up, a family had one phone line – and one US mailbox. I don’t know about you, but our family has five phone lines and at least as many email accounts – all of which are full of messages and connections – and all of which come with a monthly bill! Letters and packages arrive via US mail, UPS, and FedEx, among others. Some days, I’m not sure how to keep up with it all.

So, here’s my question: Why is it that the character we idolize at this time of year is the one who can keep up with it all and do everything at once? He can keep every child’s name on the tip of his tongue, keep his list organized, answer his mail, supervise the elves at the North Pole, and then on Christmas Eve, visit the home of every child in the blink of an eye?

Now, lest you think this line of thought is a distraction, I have been thinking about this connection between Santa Claus and the Messiah since my very first sermon. It was my turn to preach for my Introduction to Ministry class at HDS and I had no idea what to do or how to do it. Sitting in my apartment with my Bible open and a blank piece of paper, I did what I do best -- I procrastinated. The mail had brought the December issue of Ms. Magazine, and in it, I came across a holiday poem that transformed my thinking about Christmas.

It’s a poem about a kindergarten class in the restless weeks before Christmas vacation. One little girl asked a simple question. She asks, "Can Santa be black?" Well, of course, her question raised others. Can Santa be thin? Does Santa always have to be a him? Their questions sent their teacher into somewhat of a panic. He went to consult the principal, and she in turn called in the head of the PTA. An emergency meeting was called, at which the parents and teachers decided to write directly to Santa to find out the answers to these all-important pressing questions, to which they clearly did not know the answers. The reply came back and makes up the end of the poem.

Dear Mr. Slater, Dear Girls, Dear Boys,
Once a story writer caught me bringing you toys.
The year he spied me opening my sack,
my skin was white, my boots were black.
You probably know how that story goes...
I laid a finger aside my nose?
All these years, needlessly,
that story worries children who don't have a chimney.
All year long I listen to the news,
read people's thoughts, see people's views.
At the end of the year, when I see what's needed most,
I take that shape, like a Christmas ghost.
I can pass through keyholes, windows and locks,
apartment buildings, hospitals, tents, and trailer lots.
One year I used a wheelchair in place of my sleigh,
Once I was blind and had to feel my way.
It's hard to understand when I don't leave a toy:
you can't unwrap a gift like hope or health or joy.
My skin has been black, white, yellow, red, brown;
my eyes have been slanted, crossed, and round.
Sometimes I have been a she: all these things are a part of me.
You may not believe all this is true,
but that's okay, boys and girls, because ... I believe in you.
-- B.J. Wrights in Ms., December 1984

This poem totally transformed my thinking about Santa – I admit, that there was a time in my life that I wondered about Santa, just like I wondered about God. Our conception of Santa Claus is very securely linked to our image of that white-bearded, red-suited man whose jolly "ho ho ho" shakes his belly like a bowl full of jelly. We hear the jingle bells and reindeer hooves and we know that Santa is coming.

Our poet reminds us that once a storyteller saw Santa and initiated a story which we've all come to know and love. However, this is only one time. Santa comes again and again, year to year. Once, God came to us in a baby boy born in Bethlehem. Yet God comes again and again, Advent to Advent. So what is it that you need most this year? What will give you the strength to escape from the distractions and worries of this life?
Brent Coffin, our preacher two weeks ago, and our Havruta Scholar-in-Residence, led the Executive Council on Monday evening in a reflection about being a “listening community.” He reminded us of the story of Martha and Mary – you know, the one about how Jesus came to visit in their home, and Martha got upset that she had to do everything while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to what he was saying. Luke says Martha was “distracted by her many tasks” and Jesus praises Mary for “choosing the better part.” It’s a story that is only told in Luke’s gospel, and it sheds light on this distinction between doing and being.

The verses come right after the Good Samaritan – another story found only in Luke. It’s the story of the person who helped the injured man on the side of the road. Others had been distracted by their work or the requirements of their office and had passed by on the other side. But the Good Samaritan interrupted his journey to to bandage his wounds, take him to an inn, and pay for his stay while he recovered. Sometimes, I think that story tells us we need to do all of those things. But now I’m wondering – about Luke’s concern about our being too distracted to notice the coming of the kingdom of God, too distracted to take time to sit as Jesus’ feet, too distracted to interrupt our lives to take time to care for someone in need.

What can we do this Advent season so that we’re not distracted? Even the Massachusetts Department of Transportation feels they have to remind us not to be distracted. The flashing signs had a new message this morning: “Be alert. No headphones while driving.” And the next one: “No driver headphones. One earbud for cell phone only.”

What can we do so that we’re not distracted? And how can Santa help us? Think about it – Santa never seems distracted. He is present and focused on each child who comes to visit. He asks for the child’s name and listens to their heart’s desires. He puts care and attention into each toy, and always seems relaxed and jolly.

This brought to mind some other advice I received from a Jesuit priest when I was a hospital chaplaincy intern and was wondering how I could be everywhere I needed to be to care for everyone who needed me. “Remember,” my Jesuit friend advised me, “you’re not Jesus Christ.”

And so I say to you: remember, you are not Jesus Christ, you are not God, you are not Santa. Distractions will be an issue – clearly this is not a new problem, if Luke mentioned them way back in his day. We may not be God or Jesus or Santa, but we have them on our side, modeling for us a life of focus, and care, and attention. You know the moments, when everything else disappears, and you are “one” with the person you are conversing with, and listening to. Or you are intently focused on the game you’re playing or the work you’re doing.

Every year on this first Sunday in Advent we are reminded to make the space, take the time to be alert, avoid distractions and turn our attention to what is truly important. May we all have the strength to escape from the world’s distractions and open our hearts and minds and souls to a new understanding of God’s love for us. Amen.

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