Saturday, December 7, 2013

Staying Awake*

I didn’t expect to be ordained. Formal religion made me feel claustrophobic, like I couldn’t get enough air. Institutional maintenance was not work that I felt called to or competent to perform, yet I knew that it was a big part of any priest’s job.Yet my spiritual director at that time—now the Bishop of Massachusetts—said that I had a vocation to the priesthood. Who was I to protest?

The framed certificate in my study says that I was consecrated to the Sacred Order of Priests in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and in accordance with the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church on the third of December, 1983—thirty years ago this Tuesday. It was signed by Frederick Barton Wolf, the Bishop of Maine. So it must be true.

Shortly after my ordination, I attended the annual clergy conference in Massachusetts, where I was serving as associate Rector of the church in Wellesley at that time. The retreat facilitator was from the Alban Institute in Washington, D.C, a kind of congregational think tank. He had all the clergy—and there were well over a hundred of us—break up into small groups by years of ordination.

I was in the 1-5 year group. Then there was the 5-10, 10-15, and so on up to the thirty and over group, which was the end of the line. The facilitator had us look around the room. The thirty and overs were venerable to be sure—many were Rectors of the large cardinal parishes in the diocese, one or two went on to become Bishops—but they looked a little rumpled and out of shape. Bunch of old farts, I thought.

Well, here I am—thirty years and counting. Mind you, I didn’t expect to be ordained.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says: Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. Who was this Son of Man of whom Jesus speaks?

The phrase has several meanings. In the Hebrew scriptures—the Old Testament—it means simply, son of a human being, which is to say, the fully human one. It also signifies the one who will appear in history to usher in God’s judgment, not unlike its context in today’s reading from Matthew. Finally, in Matthew’s gospel and elsewhere, it refers to the centerpiece of the whole narrative—that is, the one who will suffer, die, and be raised again by God in glory.

Furthermore, the Son of Man, as God’s judge, is an agent of the apocalypse—the end times—when, minding our own business as in the days of Noah, we will all be swept away, or one taken and the other left, at an unexpected hour. So we need to stay awake and be vigilant. These are hard sayings and the preacher could spend entire sermons explaining them. I’ve done so exhaustively over my thirty years as a priest. And, frankly, I’m not sure that it helps much.

Let’s just say that apocalyptic literature was woven into the fabric of ancient times. Whether the historical Jesus himself actually adopted the apocalyptic worldview is a matter of debate even among scholars today. But the dominant dynamic of the reading is relevant never the less—that is, the unexpectedness of the events of which Jesus speaks.

No one knows, Jesus says in today’s passage – neither angels nor even himself – no one knows when this will take place except the Father. And it’s this element of the uncertainty, even unpredictable-ness of life, which offers a point of entry into this otherwise bizarre passage.

I didn’t expect to be ordained but once I was, I found that my priesthood was all about learning to live with the unexpected, the unpredictable, and the uncertain. Priests are specialists in being present to the unpredictable, which is to say, to the impermanent, precarious nature of our lives, of showing up at emergency departments and deathbeds and heaven knows where. 

Or we aren’t, and become specialists instead in avoiding or denying the unpredictable and painfully precarious, numbing ourselves with all manner of substance abuse or sexual misconduct. In that sense, we are not alone, but quite at home with the rest of humanity, even leading the way.

But there’s another side to the story as well and that’s about staying awake. You know what time it is, Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.

Staying awake to the unpredictable and precarious brings the promise of life’s preciousness, of indescribable moments of grace and heartbreaking beauty that bring tears to our eyes. We won’t catch those moments if we’re numbed out and asleep. Such moments are all about salvation, about becoming whole and fully human, sons and daughters of God.

As a life-long student of world religions, it has always struck me as fortuitous—which is to say, very cool—that the beginning of Advent coincides with the anniversary of the Buddha’s enlightenment. In Zen, the Buddhist tradition with which I am most familiar, it is called in Japanese rohatsu, meaning simply the eighth day of the twelfth month. In most Zen communities, there is a rohatsu sesshin—an intensive retreat leading up to the anniversary of the Buddha’s enlightenment or awakening on December 8th.

There’s a story that when the Buddha started to wander around northern India shortly after his enlightenment, he encountered several people who recognized him to be an extraordinary being. They asked him: Are you a god? No, he replied. Are you a wizard then? No, he replied. Well, are you a man? No, he replied again. Becoming very perplexed, they asked: So what are you? Buddha replied simply: I am awake.

Awake to what, you might ask? Awake to the reality that everything is impermanent, everything changes. Awake, too, to the reality that everything is interrelated, what the celebrated Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls InterBeing. Interbeing describes that luminous web of life where all is intimately connected and reflects everything else, where all is precious and irreplaceable.

No one can know for sure when the Son of Man will come, Jesus says, but in the meantime we can stay awake. Even in the midst of the precarious, unpredictable nature of life, we can welcome God’s advent: surprising moments of grace and beauty, of healing and wholeness, of light in the dark, all manifest in every precious human life.

And lest I be accused of clerical despotism, staying awake is rightfully the work of every Christian, not merely the ordained, even an unexpected old hand like me. AMEN

A Sermon by the Rev. David S. Heald

St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough
December 1, 2013
First Sunday of Advent: Year A
Isaiah 2:1-5; Ps. 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24: 36-44