1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Sausalito CA on November 29, 2015.
Happy New Year! Today we begin the liturgical year, on this first Sunday of Advent. At the 9:30 service we have been eagerly anticipating this season of Advent as the arrow on the Godly Play colorful Circle Calendar has been moving from green Sundays to purple Sundays. Now that we are at last in the season of purple or blue, we get to finally do what we have been waiting for so long to do and that is… to wait. The French Jewish and Christian mystic Simone Weil said, “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.” And so it is fitting that we begin our liturgical year with this foundation of the spiritual life: waiting. However, the invitation of Advent involves more than just waiting. Advent and the liturgical year invite us into a new experience of time itself. Just as there are particular geographical places that are considered sacred, that make us feel closer to heaven (perhaps even this sanctuary is an example), so too are there particular times set aside as sacred; times when the infinite kisses the finite. Anglican poet T.S. Eliot said, “To apprehend the intersection of the timeless with time is an occupation for the saint.” Advent invites us into this holy occupation as we begin this new year of sacred time together.
Recently, I have been reflecting on time and feeling its effects not only because I just returned from Atlanta a few days ago and I have been trying to recover my circadian rhythms ever since but also because of my experience at the conference that I attended while there. The conference was the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion known as AAR, which is the world’s largest meeting for religious studies scholars (about 10,000 people attend). At these conferences, I get the chance to reconnect with many of my previous colleagues and professors, converse with some of my favorite authors, scholars and theologians, and listen to inspiring talks from people like Cornel West, Gary Snyder, Karen Armstrong and even former president Jimmy Carter. (This year one of my buddies shook hands with potential future president Bernie Sanders who happened to be passing through. Also) this year, I had the opportunity to listen to one of the most (if not the most) famous and influential theologians alive today: Professor Jürgen Moltmann, author of books Theology of Hope and The Crucified God. When asked about the future of theology, Moltmann said that the future of theology needs a theology of the future. The fancy, academic term for a theology of the future is “eschatology” (which is the study of the “eschaton,” which means “the last things” or the end of an age or even the end of the world.) In the Gospel this morning, Jesus speaks of eschatology (even though he might have scoffed at the term). Moltmann explained that a sophisticated eschatology (or theology of the future) must understand that every end is a beginning and that the apocalypse and creation are not two poles on opposite ends of a line but rather, the apocalypse and creation are cyclical and in some ways even simultaneous. The Scriptures try to get this through to us by calling God the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. And in the Gospel this morning, there’s even something jarring about hearing Jesus talk about summer on this first Sunday of Advent. He says, “When the trees sprout their leaves you know that summer is near.” This confusion and disruption of our linear concept of time invites us into that intersection of time with the timeless. In fact, all the readings this morning (including the Collect) offer challenging meditations on the night and day, the sun and moon, the present and the future, the mortal and immortal.
One reason I love the Godly Play Circle Calendar (that we use at 9:30) is because it challenges and disrupts our understanding of time as linear. (So, in some ways, we are actually preparing the children of Christ Church to be sophisticated eschatologists. One of them might even become the next Jürgen Moltmann.) We have our own circle calendar here in the form of the Advent Wreath, which also serves to disrupt our linear perception of time and invite us to reflect on the simultaneity of light and darkness, to apprehend the intersection of time with timelessness.
At the conference, I gave a presentation on the work of a leading theologian in the areas of environmental justice and feminism named Catherine Keller. The presentation was especially intimidating for me not only because I did not get any sleep the night before (due to a lethal combination of jet lag and anxiety) but also because Catherine Keller herself ended up attending the session and sitting in the front row. Fortunately, I witnessed something right before my presentation that helped protect me from a complete panic attack and helped empower me to deliver my paper relatively calmly. I witnessed something that AAR offered for the first time this year that helped me to apprehend the intersection of time with timelessness. The AAR invited Tibetan Buddhist monks from a monastery in Atlanta to construct a beautifully intricate sand mandala during the days of the conference. It just so happened that they constructed the mandala right next door to my session and their opening ceremony took place right before my presentation.
The Tibetan sand mandala (for those who don’t know) is a circular image made out of more than a million grains of colored sand, carefully poured through small tubes, over several days, by Tibetan monks in prayerful meditation. In the midst of all the nervous hustle and bustle of the conference, the monks harbored a sacred space where we could avoid racing against the sands of time (from one session to another) and instead witness grains of colored sand blossom into a portal where time stood still. In the presence of the mandala, I was able to be present to the moment, to myself and to God, who often feels surprisingly absent to me at these academic theological conferences. On the last night of the conference, the Tibetan monks held a closing ceremony, which involved ritually dismantling and destroying the sand mandala in order to convey the impermanence of life and the world. As Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Usually, the sand of the mandala is ritually poured into a body of flowing water with the intent that the sacred sand will help heal the earth. However, this time, after dismantling the mandala, they divided the colored sand into several tiny ziplock bags and gave them to us so that we ourselves can participate in the world’s healing. This Advent, I plan to carry my tiny bag of sacred sand with me to remind me to be present to the moment, to myself and to God, to remind me of impermanence and to live into that intersection of time with timelessness.
The Tibetan sand mandala also invites me to see the Advent Wreath in a new light, as an Advent Mandala. Together, as a community, we construct our own mandala here over several days not with sand but with fire; a mandala that helps us to be present, to pay attention, to be alert as Jesus calls us to do during this season, trusting that something is coming (adventus) that will bring about an end to that which is impermanent and a beginning of something new and perhaps eternal and timeless. Our occupation, as the makers of this Advent Mandala, is the occupation of the saint: to apprehend the intersection of time with timelessness, or in other words, to participate in the divine will on earth as it is in heaven; to help bring divine healing in our own unique ways to our sister earth who cries out in pain.
The Episcopal lay theologian William Stringfellow was once asked, after a talk on the politics of Pentecost, how he would identify the marks of Christian discipleship. His answer was informed by a profound understanding of the spiritual significance of the liturgical year. He said, “The first [mark of Christian discipleship] is freedom from bondage to time.” In the readings this morning, we are invited into this freedom by paying attention to the signs of timelessness that intersect time. “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Be present, pay attention, be alert. Most of what you see around you will disappear into sand and pass away and yet somehow it is still all infused with divine timelessness. The Advent Mandala and the liturgical year are spiritual portals into that which will not pass away, into freedom from bondage to time.
If this all sounds very abstract and confusing, understand that that’s the point. Our finite minds struggle to comprehend time as anything other than a linear phenomenon moving in one direction, which is ultimately towards death. The Advent Mandala, the liturgical year, as well as many physicists, suggest that there is more going on. And the saints and poets invite us to pay attention and to notice the divine timelessness in earthly impermanence, which is after all the mystery of the Incarnation.
Since Jesus spoke to us this morning about summer on this first Sunday of Advent, I feel justified in concluding with a poem by Mary Oliver called “The Summer Day,” which invites us to pay attention, to see and participate in the divine timelessness that is embodied in all the unique expressions of earthly impermanence around us. She writes,
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
 T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets: Dry Salvages: v.
 William Stringfellow, William Stringfellow: Essential Writings (Modern Spiritual Masters), edited by Bill Wylie-Kellerman (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 2013) 32.
 Mary Oliver, House of Light (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990), 60.