Longing

November 30, 2014

Sunday, November 30
First Sunday of Advent

Focus Theme
Longing

Weekly Prayer
Creator of the world, you are the potter, we are the clay, and you form us in your image. Shape our spirits by Christ's transforming power, that as one people we may live out your compassion and justice, whole and sound in the realm of your peace. Amen.

Focus Reading
Isaiah 64:1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
  so that the mountains would quake at your presence ó
as when fire kindles brushwood
  and the fire causes water to boil ó
to make your name known to your adversaries,
  so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
  you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
  no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
  who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
  those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
  because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
  and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
  and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
  or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
  and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
  we are the clay, and you are our potter;
  we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
  and do not remember iniquity for ever.
  Now consider, we are all your people.

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
   you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim,
   shine forth before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
   and come to save us!
Restore us, O God;
   let your face shine, that we may be saved.
O Sovereign God of hosts,
   how long will you be angry with your people's prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
   and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
   our enemies laugh among themselves.
Restore us, O God of hosts;    
  let your face shine, that we may be saved.
But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
  the one whom you made strong for yourself.
Then we will never turn back from you;
  give us life, and we will call on your name.
Restore us, O Sovereign God of hosts;
  let your face shine, that we may be saved.

All Readings for this Sunday

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

Focus Questions

1. How do you plan to observe Advent this year?

2. What sort of prayers most move your spirit?

3. How do you feel connected to the people of Israel long ago?

4. What do you think would happen if Advent were observed more faithfully in our "Christian" culture?

5. When was the last time you experienced "the holy" breaking into "the daily"?

You're invited to share your thoughts and reflections on these texts at https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

Reflection by Kate Matthews Huey

Most of us depend on our calendar to help us keep track of time. We remember events and appointments in our personal lives, and follow the events of the world around us based on a calendar that turns over a new year on the first of every January. This week, as it does each year, the church gets a head start on the rest of the world by beginning a new year on the First Sunday of Advent. Nora Gallagher uses the church year and its seasons as a framework for her graceful meditation, Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith. "The church calendar," she writes, "calls into consciousness the existence of a world uninhabited by efficiency, a world filled with the excessiveness of saints, ashes, smoke and fire; it fills my heart with both dread and hope."

Dread and hope: words as good as any to describe the mood of both of our readings from the Old Testament, the deep longing of the poet of Psalm 80 and the sorrowful questions of the prophet Isaiah. Both were writing in the midst of, and out of, the suffering of their people, God's own people, Israel. Where are you, God? Why don't you act to fix this awful situation we find ourselves in? Why don't you "come down" and make things right? Where is God now? Readers of Night, Elie Wiesel's classic account of his youth spent in a concentration camp, surely hear echoes of that same question, asked by the inmates forced to watch the ordeal of a child, the "sad-eyed angel," hanged by the Nazis for being a spy: "Where is God now?"

The psalms are a book of prayers that hold back nothing in the heart of Israel: praise and thanksgiving, but also anger, doubt, guilt, even demands. The demands only slightly resemble reminders, just in case God has forgotten the promises of old or God's habit of intervening in wonderful ways on behalf of Israel. Remember, God? Remember that we are your children and you are our loving Parent; we are the clay and you are the Potter; we are the vine that you yourself have planted and cared for, tenderly. How long, O Lord, how long will we have to wait for you to "give ear," to "stir up your might," to "restore us," to "turn again" and "let your face shine" upon us? This psalm, Talitha Arnold observes, "confesses the people's trust in a God who is big enough to hear their hurt, strong enough to handle their anger and pain." They "are in a world of hurt. They want God to know about it."

How can we expect God to act?

The people could have been suffering in slavery or exile, in crushing defeat or on the edges of a power structure, after the return of Israel from exile. The beauty of the psalms is that they can be prayed by Israel in all of these settings and times, and, alas, in concentration camps and during pogroms, because they express the heartfelt, anguished questions of a people who have a history with God. This long, long history holds memories of God stepping in and doing something when the need was great. We can understand that shared stories of defeating Pharaoh, raining bread from heaven, and enjoying the glory of David might lead the people to have certain expectations of God. And that is the word for Advent: expectation. In what way can people of faith "expect" God to act?

Like our ancestors in faith, we and all of humankind stand vulnerably before God in "helplessness and need," James Newsome writes: "And so the psalm text utters a simple and primal cry: O God, help!" But the psalm doesn't say anything about repentance or sin, according to Charles M. Wood: "There is simply sheer need for God: the pain of absence and the longing for God's presence." Or, as Anne Lamott has famously summarized the two basic prayers of the human heart: "Help me, help me," and "Thank you, thank you!" (She has more recently added "Wow!"--in her book, Help! Thanks! Wow!--as in need, gratitude, and praise.)

Purple instead of red and green

The text from Isaiah does speak of sin, but seems to blame the people's unfaithfulness on God's decision to remain aloof: "because you hid yourself we transgressed" (v. 5c). Isaiah, however, knows that there is iniquity (v. 9b) that God will have to forget, as we ourselves hope that God will forget our sin today. And so the church's time of expectation that coincides with the world's jolly celebration of "the season" is at least partly about repentance and turning back to God. That's why we use symbols and signs of this season in the church very different from the red ribbons and green holly of the world around us; the color purple, James Brenneman writes in The Christian Century (11-18-08), is "the color of remorse....warning us not to greet God prematurely or presumptuously...until we acknowledge that we are clay in the divine potter's hands, people chastened by God's silence, ready to be molded anew as the 'work of [God's] hand.'" [Note: Blue is also used during Advent; for an explanation, click here.] Brian K. Peterson adds to this sense of repentance as being re-formed or re-shaped when he remembers a preacher who "describes repentance as being realigned to reality, rather than to our own deadly self-delusions." How would you describe the "reality" of God to which we need to be "realigned"?

Of course, Advent is also about the nearness of God, our hope to experience God, right here, "down" here, on earth, God's radiance and power and love. While the commentaries on these Advent texts from the Hebrew Scriptures necessarily speak of hopelessness and repentance and doubt, Nora Gallagher takes a different route, a gentler but unsentimental route to the same conclusion. She draws on Esther de Waal's description of Celtic Christianity, "a practice in which ordinary people in their daily lives took the tasks that lay to hand but treated them sacramentally, as pointing to a greater reality which lay beyond them. It is an approach to life which we have been in danger of losing, this sense of allowing the extraordinary to break in on the ordinary." Patricia De Jong writes in this same spirit: "At Advent, God's people summon the courage and the spiritual strength to remember that the holy breaks into the daily." Perhaps that's the difference between a calendar and a journal, because the latter helps us to notice, and mark, those experiences of the holy in our days. As this new church year begins, perhaps a good "new year's resolution" would be to keep just such a journal, a daily record of the holy breaking in, or bursting from within, our lives.

What can we expect, and what do we long for?

If Advent is the season of "expectation," we might explore further what our own expectations are. As Brian K. Peterson writes, "expectations are tricky things. We go through times of expecting far too little, or nothing at all. At times, we become deadened to hope, because the world and its sadness seem to continue plodding along the same old road." And true enough, Advent comes this year as we listen to a drumbeat of reports that diminish our hopes and lower our expectations of peace: reports of strife between and within nations, including our own, and the seeming inability to find common ground; a profound sense of how far we are from being a society marked by justice for all; reports of persistent and worsening poverty and the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few; threats to our environment and a sense of helplessness about fixing it (made even more anxiety-provoking by volatile weather patterns and the damage they inflict), and, of course, wars and rumors of war and the ever-present threat of terrorism that gnaws at our sense of well-being as individuals and communities.

Advent finds us, then, still longing, as we are in every year, for peace in the world: years after distressing, controversial wars appear to be drawing to a close, they re-erupt in strife even more violent and appalling, and we wrestle once again with whether to "put troops on the ground," that is, to send soldiers, human beings, to faraway lands in the desperate hope to  make things better for other human beings, even as we accept the limitations of our expensive and sophisticated weapons to bring peace. We long to fashion a new way of living together, as massive numbers of God's children continue to live with the after-effects and consequences of our actions, however well-intentioned. Advent arrives this year as Ferguson awaits a verdict and braces for what will follow, not just immediately but in the long-term. Advent arrives this year in the middle of, and perhaps as an interruption of, reports of school shootings and barbaric executions by extremists of innocent aid workers; discouraging political discourse and continued exasperation with the processes of governing or not governing; the frustration of our attempts to solve our own problems (for example, fracking seems to bring worse problems that it solves); stories of children exposed to violence and drugs; the challenges faced by our schools in serving the most vulnerable among us: a steady drumbeat, yes, and yet, Brian Peterson writes that "God will neither submit to our demented definitions of what is good, nor let us and the rest of the world plod our weary way to hell." Nevertheless, he does note that we worship a God who "cares enough to hold us accountable."

God regularly breaks into reality

No matter how bad things are, we are reminded that we belong to God, and that all the earth belongs to God, and we believe that God breaks into this reality regularly. Sometimes, this inbreaking is dramatic and publicly celebrated: one thinks of the fall of apartheid in South Africa, for example, or the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the dramatic progress in marriage equality in this nation. Sometimes it's felt in private consolations and reconciliations, a relationship restored by forgiveness or a return to health. "The coming of Advent," Patricia E. De Jong writes, "jolts the church out of Ordinary Time with the invasive news that it's time to think about fresh possibilities for deliverance and human wholeness." Advent calls us to a time of self-examination as well as hope, and De Jong sadly remembers "a comment that our country has changed over the past years from one that wanted to be good to one that wants to feel good." Perhaps the radical transformation that God will work may bring us back to wanting to be good rather than merely feel good.

There are many folks in our ongregations who may be unhappy with the absence of Christmas carols and red ribbons in church throughout December. We want Christmas to feel the way we think we remember it did long ago. "Hope," Talitha Arnold writes, "is mixed with longing for the past....Especially at Christmas, our congregations are often filled with people with that same yearning for restoration to a life we once knew, be it the life of our families, relationships, churches, or even nation. But while we may look back, God always looks ahead." And, at some deep level, we know that. We know that things will never be good in exactly the same way they used to be good, but that God will always be good. And so we enter this season in what Walter Brueggemann calls "a spirit of yearnings for that which would be too good to be true: some new and unique expression of God's intention to save a world gone wrong." As we begin a new year in the church, we look ahead with hope and expectation, knowing that God is near in every difficulty and heartache, and yet also far ahead of us, calling us forward into the bright new day of justice, healing, and peace for which our hearts long. What is the thing that is "too good to be true" for which you pray, and yearn, this Advent?

For a preacher's version of this reflection (with book titles) and a sermon on Mark 13:24-37 and 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, go to http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/november-30-2014.html.

For Further Reflection

Anna Freud, 20th century
"If some longing goes unmet, don't be astonished. We call that Life."

George Eliot, 19th century
"It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them."

Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
"Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one's weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart."

Saul Bellow, 20th century
"There is an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are and what this life is for."

Madeleine L'Engle, 20th century
"Some things have to be believed to be seen."

Bruce Springsteen, 20th century
"For what are we, without hope in our hearts, that someday we'll drink from God's blessed waters?"

Henri J. M. Nouwen, "The Wounded Healer," 20th century
"To announce, however, that the Liberator is sitting among the poor and that the wounds are signs of hope and that today is the day of liberation, is a step very few can take. But this is exactly the announcement of the wounded healer: 'The master is coming - not tomorrow, but today, not next year, but this year, not after all our misery is passed, but in the middle of it, not in another place but right here where we are standing.'"

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 20th century
"Driven by the forces of love, the fragments of the world seek each other so that the world may come into being."

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CONTACT INFO

Rev. Kathryn Matthews Huey
Dean of the Amistad Chapel
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland, Ohio 44115
216-736-3855
hueyk@ucc.org