Saturday, November 29, 2008

“Keep alert; you do not know when
the hour will come.”

(Mark 13:33)

Year B Advent I

Jan Robitscher
St. Mark’s Church
Berkeley, CA
November 30, 2008

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80: 1-7, 16018

I Corinthians1:3-9
Mark 13: 24-37

With inward pain my heartstrings sound,
my soul dissolves away;
Dear Sovereign, whirl the seasons round,
Dear Sovereign, whirl the seasons round,
And bring, and bring the promised day,
And bring the promised day.
(Early American Hymn-from An Advent Sourcebook, p. 4)

In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we begin another Church Year. It is the season of Advent, which means literally “to come to”--primarily God to us--and us to God. It is a season of waiting, of hoping, of longing--and, especially in these times, impatience, despair and frustration. Hoping and longing. Already and not yet. Trying to keep our focus, our intention on waiting in hope is the work of this season. But what are we waiting for? And, when we are impatient, why does it seem that God does not hear our cry?

Advent always begins for me with a vision of the cosmos--deep space, “galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses”1 --a peaceful and silent scene of God’s pristine creation. Close your eyes just for a moment and imagine it.

But then I see the ring of space junk around the earth and I remember again the Story, beginning with the creation and the stories of Adam and Eve how for their disobedience they were expelled from the garden, and how that propels the whole story of Salvation History. Look at the windows around the church, you will see it there. We hear it each week in the eucharistic prayer. And we will see it play out writ large over the seasons of the Church Year between now and Pentecost.

I think of the People Israel; their Exodus from slavery, their wanderings in the desert, both physically and spiritually; how they received the Law, then begged God for judges and kings, and still they wandered from God. And God sent them prophets (lots of prophets) who came with dire warnings and imploring prayers:
But you [God] were angry, and we sinned...We all fade like a leaf
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away...Do not be
exceedingly angry, O Lord... (Isaiah 64: 5, 9)

The Psalms are full of both the exhortation to wait patiently upon God and the cry of impatience in bad times:
Restore us, O God of hosts;
show the light of your countenance and we shall be saved. (Ps. 80:3)

And we want to cry out:

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

Then came John the Baptist, preaching a baptism of repentance. “Make straight the Way of the Lord!” John the Forerunner, preparing the way for Jesus to come. Of John Jesus said:
What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more
than a prophet. (Matt. 11:9)

And God did rend the heavens and come down--though not in a way that anyone expected: the First Coming of Christ.

That was not the end of the waiting--30 years before Jesus’ public ministry; three days in the tomb before his resurrection. Yet there were many times in his earthly ministry that Jesus did “rend the heavens” to heal the sick, give peace to those in mental distress and raise the dead, and finally trampled down death by his own death to gift us with eternal life. Eventually the disciples could look back, as we can, and see that they were never alone--and neither are we. Jesus was there all along--from the beginning, “the Word made flesh” --and he is here with us now, walking with us on our journey through hard economic times and wars and change and transition. “And remember,” he has promised, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age. This is the gift of the First Coming of Christ.

And Jesus ascended to heaven and the disciples waited until God sent the Holy Spirit upon them and the Church was born. And from its beginnings, has been waiting with expectation and longing (and, at times, great fear) for the Second Coming of Christ. St. Paul encourages us with the words he used to encourage the Church at Corinth:
[Christ] will strengthen you to the end, that you may be
blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. (I Cor. 3:9)

And the Church is still waiting for that great and terrible and joyful day when Christ will come again. We say so every Sunday in the Creed, that we believe that Christ will come to judge the living and the dead. But, says Jesus,

...about that day or hour no one knows, neither the
angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father... (Mark 13:32)

Three times in this Gospel passage Jesus exhorts us: Keep Awake! And we need to hear it in an age of anxiety when we would rather hibernate in the dark days and nights or rush headlong into whatever is left of the shopping season to take our minds off the news. Keep awake! Watch the Advent wreath each week as we light another candle. Listen as the music of this season gives us both expressions of Christ coming again in glory and the most tender consolations of his lowly birth. Hear the story again. Stay alert! Keep awake!

And if you are wondering what this all means or what this kind of waiting looks like, we need look no farther than our Communion anthem today to find out. Paul Manz wrote “E’en So, Lord Jesus Quickly Come” by the hospital bed of his dying son in the late hours of one dark night, so the story goes (perhaps now embellished by urban legend). With words from the end of the book of Revelation, it is at once a “Rend the heavens! cry and an act of waiting in hope, and even of letting go, knowing that God will act at just the right time. God did act, and the child lived.

Which brings me back to that opening vision of Advent: the stars of night, but this time unspoiled by space junk. I see new heavens and a peaceful earth, restored and healed. And surprises beyond our deepest longings and expectations. These are the gifts of the Second Coming of Christ.

So what do we do in the meantime? We wait. And if the times are too hard and the waiting becomes unbearable, we cry out to God:
O that you would tear upon the heavens and come down!

Or we can pray again that Early American hymn:

With inward pain my heartstrings sound,
my soul dissolves away;
Dear Sovereign, whirl the seasons round,
And bring, and bring the promised day,
And bring the promised day.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

“The souls of the righteous are in the
hand of God...”

(Wisdom 3:1)

All Faithful Departed
Jan Robitscher
St. Mark’s Church
Berkeley, CA
November 3, 2008

Wisdom 3:1-9
Psalm 130
1 Cor. 15:50-58
John 5:24-27
In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Yesterday we celebrated All Saints’ Day with festival hymns and banners, and great confidence that those whom the Church calls Saints (Apostles, Martyrs and those who lead heroic lives for the faith) dwell with God and we with them--the Communion of Saints. And we said bravely that “we look for the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting”.

But then the music fades and the banners are put away, we are suddenly left in silence. What then? What of those near and dear to us? After all, the earliest Church called them “saints”, too. And yet we wonder: How is it with them? Where are they? Do they remember us? Will we remember them? How will we ever fill the hole they have left? We feel so alone. Perhaps it is for these reasons that the Church invites us to gather and offers us the commemoration of All Faithful Departed.

The mystery, the human anguish, the sense of loss, the desire for continued communion... these things have from antiquity found their ritualized form of expression in each culture and age...1 One expression of these is a Mexican saying that we die three deaths: the first when our bodies die, the second when our bodies are lowered into the earth out of sight, and the third when our loved ones forget us.2 These are fearful questions that are reflected in our society by an almost absolute silence about death. But this is not the response of Christians, and here is where we can learn from the practices of different cultures. In Mexico, in the mixture of Christian traditions and indigenous cultures, death is not feared; rather, it is celebrated. Tonight we have chosen to share in a part of that celebration. Look over there! See the Día de los Muertos altar we have constructed together. Many photos stand as a testimony to those whom we love but see no longer. Like icons of the better-known saints, they are windows to God in whom they now live and move and have their being, though in a different way than we do now. That is one way we can overcome the “three deaths”.

Another way is through the music which the Choir offers tonight. Jacob Clemens non Papa lived from 1515-1555, almost all of his short (and at the end, fraught) life of 40 years in the Netherlands. Little is known about his life except that he was a priest, a composer of many choral works including masses, motets, Psalm settings, and the Requiem which comprises most of our liturgical music tonight.3 While we don’t know for whom this Requiem was written, we do know that Clemens (the appellation “non Papa”--not the pope of the same name--is more humor than humility) has infused it with an intimacy and emotion that was not common in his time. Each part begins with the liturgical chant and then continues with Clemens’ beautiful polyphony.4 I hope you will allow the music to surround you; to hold and enfold you like a lullaby and give you the words and notes to go with the pictures on the table or in your mind’s eye of those who have died.

Music reaches into us in deep and profound ways, but it, and the picture-altar we have created are not the only ways to overcome “the three deaths”. Our readings all attest to God’s unfailing care of us for this life and for the next. Indeed, all the words and actions of our liturgy bring us the Good News that “life is changed, not ended”. It is Jesus who begs an invitation to come to us in Communion to fill the holes left by our departed loved ones. And it is the Holy Spirit who prays in us when we are not able to find the words... which leads us back to the music of this night’s liturgy.

The Funeral Ikos, of the contemporary composer John Tavener, which we will hear at the end of the Liturgy, gives us another way in which to hold our loved ones before God. Here, in words gathered from the Orthodox funeral of a priest, we encounter the questions I posed at the beginning--and the answer. At the death of a loved one we are always left wondering: Why? How are they now? Do they remember us as we do them? All of these questions are a natural part of the mystery of death and of our grief. But we must listen to the very end! For, like a procession, this piece begins far away. Yet even as the questions grow more urgent and the description of death more real, the Alleluias after each verse grow more confident until they become a cry of victory. And at the very end we hear that our departed loved ones dwell in God’s presence, and we are invited to join the procession:

Let us all, also, enter into Christ,
that all we may cry aloud thus unto God:

Alleluia, Alleluia, alleluia.