Thursday, December 5, 2013

Advent Sermon – Paying Attention to What Really Matters

The Rev. Leah D. Schade
Advent 1, Dec. 1, 2013
Matthew 24:36-44; Romans 13:11-14

View the video of this sermon here:

There they were – the faithful followers eagerly awaiting the coming of God’s Kingdom.  They stood gawking up at the sky with a calendar in one hand and a stop watch in the other.  They were giddy with an excitement that had spread far and wide.  Surely, the time was almost upon them – the end was almost here!

Am I talking about the disciples with Jesus?  No!  I’m talking about the followers of Harold Camping who had convinced thousands of people that May 21, 2011, would be the end of the world as we know it. 
Family Radio Network, the company that sponsored Camping, had a huge countdown clock on their website.  They spent millions of dollars advertising about the end-of-the-world.  No matter that the 89-year-old man had been wrong before in his 1994 end-times prediction.  This time he was sure he had gotten it right.  The hype was unbelievable.
And then the hour arrived - 6:00 on May 21st came and went.  No earthquakes rumbled across the planet.  No fire fell from the sky.  The planet kept on spinning as it has done for billions of years.  One of Camping’s devoted followers stood in the middle of New York’s Times Square, after having spent his own money to put up advertising about the end of the world, nearly speechless with confusion and disbelief.  “I can’t tell you what I feel right now . . . I don’t understand it.  I don’t know.  I don’t understand what happened.  Obviously I haven’t understood it correctly because we’re still here,” he said.[1]
Well, he’s in good company.  Because Jesus himself said he didn’t even know when the end of the world would occur.  “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  Strange that even the Son of God did not claim to know the end of time, but Harold Camping, like so many apocalyptic fanatics before him, were so sure.

Of course, we all breathed a little sigh of relief on May 22.  I called a friend of mine that day and said jokingly, “Oh, I’m so disappointed to get hold of you.  I thought for sure you’d have been taken up in the rapture by now.”  And we had a good laugh.  But then then we soberly reflected on a deeper reality.  The world actually did come to an end for tens of thousands of people on May 21, 2011.  In fact, 70,000 people died that day.  That’s approximately how many people die every day on the earth.  Endings are a natural part of life.  What is distressing is how many of those deaths were due to human cruelty and systemic evil.  In fact, 7000 of the people who died on May 21 suffered from entirely preventable maladies such as malaria, water-borne illnesses, infections, and hunger – all in the poorest places on earth.  People in those areas don’t get hyped up about global cataclysmic catastrophes.  The end of the world has already swept through their villages, lives and bodies, with or without Harold Camping’s predictions.
The real sin is just how much money was spent on this end-times campaign for absolutely no reason.  “Family Radio spent millions on more than 5,000 billboards and 20 RVs plastered with the doomsday message.  In 2009, the nonprofit reported in IRS filings that it received $18.3 million in donations and had assets of more than $104 million, including $34 million in stocks or other publicly traded securities.”[2] 
I know their motivation was to save souls for Jesus.  But if you really want to save souls, you need to spend that money on saving their bodies first.  All those millions of dollars could have been invested in the things that Jesus does call us to do:  feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, and help all those who are most vulnerable. 

The other reality is that the end is coming.  Maybe not today.  Maybe not next week, or next month, or even in the next few years.  But and end is coming to the way of life as we know it.  The sun melting the polar ice caps because of the depleted ozone layer; hurricanes and climate changes are wreaking havoc on the earth.

  People are indeed scared, and with good reason.  Always the next terrorist attack looms on the grey horizon.  Always the random act of violence or the planned military attack of so-called enemy nations threatens our peaceful existence. 

But no matter how much we try to distract or protect ourselves from it  -- bad things are going to happen.  There was the flood of the typhoon in the Philippines and Hurricane Sandy before that and Hurricane Katrina before that, and many more catastrophic weather events to come. 
And at some point, the world as you know it is going to come to an end.  You will get the news from your doctor that will change your world. You will lose your job or retire. Your relationship with who you thought would be your life partner will end.  Your friend or family member will die.  You will die.  

Two women set out for work in the morning.  One comes home in the evening, one does not.  Two men are making supper, one collapses suddenly, one is still standing.

But there is a fine line between being prepared and being worried to the point of distraction.  It’s very easy to tip from having a healthy concern about the future, to reacting with fear about what might happen.  And our culture and the consumer machine around us feeds on this fear, reaping an incredible amount of wealth from our intangible feelings of worry and dread.

So what are we going to do with this?  How do we live with the reality of the end times in whatever form they come?  Well, look again at our Scripture from Luke and Acts.  Jesus instructs his disciples to “keep awake.”  The Greek word is “gregorio” and it means to keep watch, to pay attention, to wake up. 
How do we do that? 
Our Buddhist friends have a word for this.  It’s called “mindfulness.”  It means being in the moment, attending to your life, keeping your attention on the people and tasks before you.  It means putting aside those things that are trying to distract our brains from paying attention.

In our consumerist culture it is becoming increasingly harder to do this.  It saddened and angered me on Thanksgiving that the one day that has been respected as sacred time in our country has now been violated by stores opening as early as 6 p.m. for shopping.  Thanksgiving was the one interfaith Sabbath day in our pluralistic society – a day regarded as holy, set apart from the frenzy of acquiring more and more.  But a line was crossed this year, and not even that day is sacred anymore.  How are we supposed to pay attention to the things that really matter – family, friends, serving the community, and simply resting – when we are distracted by blaring announcements of “incredible store-wide savings”!  Not to mention all the workers who are forced to choose between their jobs and their families when the corporate demand for “more” violates their sacred time.
Christians, this is where our message becomes countercultural and will be regarded with hostility by many.  Our Scriptures are very clear that there are values that ground us to the love of God and hopeful expectation for the coming of Christ.  St. Paul reminds us to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, [to] live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not by giving in to extreme sensual pleasure or disregarding the sacredness of time and space, not in fighting or desiring what others have,” (Romans 14:12-13, paraphrase).

I invite you to live your life differently this Advent.  Instead of succumbing to the cultural and consumerist expectations of spending hundreds of dollars on presents, that you talk with your family and friends about giving the gift of “presence” instead.  Presence – meaning spending time together, talking, listening, walking, creating, doing something that does not require the exchange of money. 

It may feel awkward at first, and you may even feel like you’re letting people down or copping out.  But remember – it is not God who is telling you to put thousands of dollars on your credit card.  It is not Jesus who is demanding that you worship at the altar of the mall.  It is not the Holy Spirit who is guiding you to aisles and aisles of prettily-packaged goods all waiting to disappoint as soon as the wrapping is thrown away.

St. Paul says, “Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provisions for the flesh to gratify its desires.”

People like Harold Camping and advertising executives have a great deal of money to make from our feelings of inadequacy, our fears, and our insatiable desires for more.  Camping convinced his followers to give him their money to secure their place with God.  Our capitalist society convinces its followers to give their money and acquire so many material goods with the false hope of securing their future and keeping the end away.

The longer I live, the more I am convinced that is the relationships we cultivate that matter.  Our relationships with our friends and family, our co-workers and people at church, and especially those who suffer who I don’t even get to see.  My relationships with them matter too.  I want to live my life paying attention to them, honoring them, treating them as bearers of Christ.  When I do that, I am much less afraid of the end.  I am filled with joy of the Holy Spirit!  I don’t care whether it’s Harold Camping or or my doctor or my next-door-neighbor who tells me that the world is coming to an end.  I’m going to say, help me pay attention, Lord.  Show me how I can praise you.  Show me how I can serve your people.  Show me how I can be filled with the Holy Spirit.  Show me how I can be ready for the coming of Christ.  Amen.

[1] McKinley, Jesse, “The only rapture was in the anticipation,” Philadelphia Inquirer; New York Times News Service, Sunday, May 22, 2011; A4.
[2] Ibid

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