The First Sunday of Advent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Dec. 1, 2019


Isaiah 2:1-5

Romans 13:11-14

Matthew 24:36-44

Psalm 122

Many of you, most of you, will know the famous prose-poem or, if you prefer, the famous confession by the Lutheran Pastor, Martin Niemöller. It’s about his time in Nazi Germany, and it goes like this:

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

There are certain ideas that just hang out in our cultural waters. Even if you have never seen the original Star Wars trilogy (and I am appalled to think that there may be people who have never seen the original Star Wars trilogy), you know the broad arc of its tale: if someone puts on their James Earl Jones voice and says, “Luke, I am your father,” you probably know what they are talking about. Even if you have neither read Treasure Island nor seen Pirates of the Caribbean, you probably have a mental image of someone with a peg leg, a parrot, and an inexplicable fondness for prefacing sentences with the word arr.

And even if you have never read the Left Behind series, even if you have never hung out in a church that has something Left Behind-ish as part of its theology, you probably know about the rapture. And as a consequence, Left Behind probably shapes how you hear Jesus’ words today, it certainly shapes how I hear them:

Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.

Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.

Thanks to Left Behind, what do we know about what Jesus is teaching us here?

Well, first, to be taken is something supernatural. One minute you are standing there and the next – Pop! – you are not. Maybe you just vanish or maybe an angel come and gets you or maybe you are sucked into the sky. Julianne Moore was in a movie that came out maybe 15 years ago that featured people getting sucked into sky. Folks flew up, up, and away out of the frame as though on an invisible bungee cord. The movie was okay. But that effect was amazing.

The second thing that we know from Left Behind, that we know about the rapture, is that to be taken is good. You want to be taken, to be taken means that you are good with God. If you suddenly find yourself alone in a field when, just a moment ago, your co-worker was standing beside you, that is not good news. To be the one saying, “I have been left behind” or, as they express it in French, “Je suis gauche derrière,” means either that God has found out who is naughty and who is nice and you are in the wrong column or, at a minimum, it means that God has a seriously difficult task waiting for you.

Either way, being left behind in the field sucks.

Here is my thesis for this morning – or at least the first part of my thesis. I want to suggest that if you and I were to learn Aramaic and then hop into our time machines and hang out with the crowds following Jesus, and if we were to stand up on a rock and announce these two assumptions – to be taken is a supernatural event and to be taken is good – both the crowd around us and Jesus himself would be utterly gobsmacked.

Because what Jesus and his friends living under empire know is the same thing Martin Niemöller knew. And that is that there ain’t nothing supernatural about being taken. And there sure ain’t anything good about it.

If you are working in the fields and one of you is taken it is because the men in uniforms have come. If you are grinding meal and one of you is taken it is because those same men have just kicked the door off of its hinges. If you are taken, you are not going to heaven, at least not directly. You are going to a cage or to a box car or to a place remote enough that no one will hear either the screams or the gunshots.

My father is 94 years old. And like Martin Niemöller, he lived through Nazism, although Dad was a generation younger. And Dad has stories of people being taken. People who criticised the government or complained about the wrong thing of the wrong public figure. Usually the disappeared were never seen again. Although Dad does tell the story of one person who had been taken returning to their village. All of this man’s teeth had been kicked out. And no one, no one, dared to ask him:

What happened to you?

Taking people is how empire functions. Rome had its famous peace, the Nazis at the height of their power were able to occupy huge amounts of land without a whole lot of soldiers keeping an eye on things because everybody knew that to cross empire was to risk being taken and to risk the ones whom you loved being taken.

In a sense, therefore, there were and there are two ways of being taken by empire’s violence. The first is the obvious one, this is the scenario in which the soldier’s come and grab you. This is what happens to John the Baptist and to Saint Stephen and to the folks in my father’s hometown and to Jesus himself. Jesus is taken by the soldiers to the cross. But there is a second way of being taken, and that is the way that Niemöller talks about in his poem, in his confession. This is when we are taken up and into empire’s violence by witnessing and doing nothing.

I am not a communist, so I will not speak out.

I am not a homosexual, so I will not speak out.

I am not a Jew, so I will not speak out.

I am not black in America, so I will not speak out.

I am not transgender, so I will not speak out.

I am not an undocumented immigrant, so I will not speak out.

And while in this second scenario, in this second kind of taking, we may not be taken away in chains, our liberty is nonetheless taken from us, our consciences are taken from us, a part of our humanity is taken from us. Here is Peter, near the end of the story, denying that he knows Jesus.

And so while, a moment ago, I said that Jesus is taken by the soldiers, there is a sense in which Jesus is never taken at all. Because Jesus is the one who, up until the very end of his earthly life, refuses to be taken up into empire’s hatred or into violence. Remember what we read last week: as he hangs on the cross, Jesus could be excused for cursing the soldiers, he could be excused for cursing the thieves who mock him. What he says is forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing. What Jesus says is Today you will be with me in paradise.

And maybe this is the choice that all of us as Jesus’ followers must make. When empire and its violence comes, will we be silent, will we allow ourselves to be taken? Or will we do something hard and good, something Christ-like, and choose to be left behind?

First Sunday of Advent by The Rev. Martin Elfert


Jeremiah 33:14-16

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Luke 21:25-36

Psalm 25:1-9


Be on guard, Jesus says, so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.

Or that day will catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.

It is the start of Advent, the start of a new church year, the start of a year with the Gospel of Luke. And as we begin, this is Jesus’ advice to us, maybe his command to us.

What does Jesus mean?

I am familiar with two-thirds of the things that Jesus speaks against. I know what Jesus means when he speaks of drunkenness. And I know as well about the worries of this life – gosh, do we all know about the worries of this life. But I am less sure about the first item in this forbidden trinity, about dissipation. Dissipation isn’t a word that most of us reach for all that often. Dissipate – this word in verb form – we drawn on a little more regularly. Smoke dissipates, so do clouds in the sky, maybe an audience dissipates when the curtain comes down and the lights go up. But in noun form, in the form that the New Revised Standard Version translates Jesus’ word, this word doesn’t just mean things moving apart and vanishing from sight.

Dissipation has the connotation of squandering something.

The Greek word that the NRSV renders as dissipation is kraipalē, so the ancient root of our contemporary word crapulence. And to leaf through one Bible translation after another is to find that no one can entirely agree about what kraipalē means in English. Various translators, the ones who don’t reach for the word dissipation, tell us that kraipalē means a drunken headache. Others tell us that it means carousing. The King James Version, with its lovely poetic English, offers us the old-school word surfeiting. Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase of the Bible called the Message, uses the word parties.

Actually, it’s worth pausing here for a second to hear Peterson’s rendition of Jesus’ sentence in its entirety. In the Message, Jesus says:

Do not let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping.

Think about that as our society enters into the lead up to Christmas, a time that is basically defined by parties and drinking and shopping.

Maybe this constellation of translational possibilities of kraipalē, maybe Peterson’s full-on sentence, get us a little closer to what Jesus means in this verse.

My sense is that we can say with some certainty that when Jesus says, Don’t let your hearts be weighed down with kraipalē and drunkenness and the worries of the life, Jesus doesn’t mean, “Don’t go to parties.” We know that Jesus loves partying with strangers and friends.

We can probably say as well that Jesus doesn’t mean, “No one should ever drink.”  We know that Jesus loves to eat and drink. And besides, he doesn’t say doesn’t say “don’t drink,” he says, “don’t be weighed down with drunkenness.” Alcoholism is real: there are people whom I love and respect who must not and cannot drink. And that acknowledged, enjoying wine in moderation with your friends on a Saturday night is a really different thing than polishing off a dozen beers by yourself on a couch on a Tuesday afternoon. Drinking on the one hand: being weighed down with drunkenness on other.

Jesus is not, in other words, commanding us to engage in a humourless or a puritanical life. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say that when Jesus says don’t be weighed down in the worries of the life, he doesn’t even mean that we shouldn’t worry. Jesus is fully human, and so he knows that a certain amount of worrying is part of being alive. At the end of his life, Jesus will sweat blood in the garden because of his deep and entirely understandable worry about what is to come when Judas and the soldiers arrive.

I wonder if what Jesus means in this sentence is something like this:

Don’t do stuff that leaves you numb. 

Now, the popular writer and researcher Brené Brown would be quick to jump in  here and say that absolutely everyone engages in a certain amount numbing. Pain is the price of admission being alive and we all respond to it by – what? – logging on to Facebook, eating muffins, gambling, playing video games, staying frantically busy, shopping, the list goes on.

A certain amount of numbing is permitted, it is okay. After a hard or a disappointing day, you are allowed to apologise to yourself, to give yourself a treat, by turning on Netflix and eating bonbons.

The problem comes shows up when you are still on Netflix at 3am and just vibrating with the sugar in your bloodstream.

That moment at 3am (maybe you know that moment, or maybe you have an equivalent to it in your life) is when we approach or cross the boundary between reasonably healthy numbing on one side and obsession or compulsion or even addiction on the other. This is when we are numbing instead of living our lives, numbing instead of engaging with God and creation and neighbour. This is the moment, when these activities or things that are officially pleasures – Netflix, sugar, booze, eating, whatever – end up robbing us of our joy.

Most of us sense the joy-robbing nature of deep numbing, sometimes even as we do it. I’ve had the fork holding the piece of cake partway in my mouth and said, Why am I doing this? I’m going to feel awful after eating this and the sugar and the suspicious icing hits my bloodstream. I’ve been the guy still in front of a screen in the middle of the night saying Why am I still here? This stopped being fun hours ago.

What Brown’s research has found is that when we articulate that why, whether it is in the moment or the next morning, we are naming the reality that deep numbing comes at a deep cost. That’s because human beings are wired in such a way, we are created in such a way, that we cannot numb the valleys without also numbing the peaks.

I guess I’m talking a bunch about screens this morning because they are one of the principal forms of numbing of our time. Through constant use of phone, through constantly being in front of a TV, we seek to eradicate silence and the sadness that can come with silence. The strategy works. The silence is gone and the sadness gets crowded out for a while. But what else gets crowded out when the silence is gone? Silence – in the woods, in a chair in the hum of the afternoon, even in church – is so often when joy shows up, when clarity shows up, when God shows up. When we are weighed down with kraipalē and drunkenness and worries (sometime worrying, too, is what we do instead of living, instead of paying attention to God and neighbour) the moment that matters comes and we are so far from ready that we are like someone setting off a trap.

A few days ago, I went to John Hammond’s 90th birthday celebration. There was one remarkable speech after another, one testament after another to John as teacher and as friend. At the end, John himself spoke.

This was one of the worst years of his life, John told us. This was the year that Alice died.

And then John said that, simultaneously, This was one of the best years of my life. Maybe the best year of my life.

Here are the peaks and the valleys together. Here is someone who, to use John’s own language, has chosen the hard and life-giving work of entering into an apprenticeship with his grief. John has chosen not to numb his grief. And as consequence, this thing that he did not want and would not have chosen and that he would not wish on anyone else, the decline and death of a spouse, has become an occasion for growth, for drawing nearer to God, for becoming more fully human.

Advent, like Lent, is a time of waiting, of getting ready. In the busyness and bustle of this time, may we take Jesus’ advice, may we obey his command. May we not be weighed down kraipalē and drunkenness and worry and food and shopping and screens, may we not be so numb that Jesus’ coming catches us like a trap. Or still worse, may we not be so numb that we do not even notice when the star hangs in the sky and the Christ child enters the world. May we be ready, may we pay attention, may we hold the holy and hard silence that permits us to listen for the voice of that child and to welcome him once more into our hearts and into our lives.

First Sunday of Advent by The Rev. Martin Elfert


Isaiah 2:1-5
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44
Psalm 122


Keep awake.

Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

One of the major gaps in my theological education is that I have never read any of the Left Behind books. Nor, for that matter, have I seen any of movies or TV shows that fall into the same broad genre as it does, a genre that, I suppose, we could call “rapture action” – here are a lot of people disappearing, here is a lot of stuff blowing up, here is a lot of Second Comingitude in general.

Notwithstanding this deficiency in my training, I have a hard time hearing the passage that we just heard from Matthew without thinking about the rapture. Maybe you have the same experience. I suppose that’s because the notion of rapture so thoroughly permeates our collective imagination; it permeates it in the same way that the story of Dracula and Frankenstein permeate it. Even if you have never read Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley, even if you have never seen a screen or stage adaptation of their work, you know about guys wearing capes with pointy fangs and shambling monsters built from stolen corpses. And even if you never read even one of the seventeen, count ‘em seventeen, bestselling Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, you know about people abruptly vanishing from their homes and their cars, you know that these disappearances are evidence that God is on his way and that he’s feeling cranky.

You know that there’s going to be some wailing and some gnashing of teeth.

Rapture gives us a ready-made hermeneutic for reading Jesus’ words this morning. “Hermeneutic” is a three-dollar academic word. And notwithstanding its multisyllabic and slightly pompous nature, all that it refers to is the lens or the technique or the method that we use to interpret something. A hermeneutic is the set of glasses that we put on in order to read scripture or – let’s try a couple of different metaphors – it is the shovel that we use to dig into scripture, it is the X-Ray machine that we use to examine scripture’s body.

The given hermeneutic that we employ radically affects how we understand scripture. When you read with the hermeneutics, with the assumptions, of Calvin or Luther or Augustine you will end up in way a different place than when you it with the hermeneutics of Nadia Bolz-Weber or Sallie McFague or Rob Bell.

And that may tempt us to say, “Well, I’ll just read or listen to scripture without a hermeneutic.” But – and I’m going to risk making a bold claim here – that is an impossible goal. The popular turn of phrase notwithstanding, there is no such thing as “the plain meaning of scripture.” All of us come to scripture with a particular perspective, a particular set of assumptions, a particular set of biases, a particular history, a particular context. How we understand scripture is shaped by the culture and the time in which we live, by the people around us, by the very language in which we read the Bible. (There are all sorts of plays on words in Hebrew, for instance, that just don’t translate into English. And there are fascinating studies that explore how human beings actually think differently when we speak or write or read in different languages.)

Our choice, therefore, is not “Will I or will I not read the Bible with a hermeneutic?” Our choice is, “Will I be aware of the hermeneutic (or probably more accurately, the hermeneutics) that I bring with me to the Bible? Will I name those hermeneutics and will I engage with them critically?”


Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.

What does the hermeneutic of Left Behind and of similar stories tell us when we apply it to these words of Jesus? What are the assumptions of the “action rapture” genre?

Well, here are three of the assumptions that I see in Left Behind. One, the people who are being taken are being taken by God. They are being taken back home to heaven. Two, with the exception of a handful of people whom God deliberately leaves in order to carry out some kind of divine special mission, it is the good and the devout and the holy people who are taken. When the rapture comes, you want to be taken. It is bad news to be left behind. And three, this business of being taken will happen at the end of days – at the apocalypse, if you like – when Jesus comes back.

Fair enough.

But let’s try a different hermeneutic. Let’s see if we can recapture the hermeneutic of Jesus’ audience and of Matthew’s audience, which is to say the hermeneutic of an oppressed people, a people who live under the boot of a brutal empire.

What does it mean to be taken when you live in a context like that one?

My paternal grandfather knew the answer to that question. Born in the late nineteenth century, he lived in Germany, first under the Nazis and later under the communists. And I don’t think that he saw a lot of distinction between the two of them. While the Nazis were officially far right and the communists far left, my grandfather’s experience was that the political spectrum is actually a political circle, so that far right and far left end up in the same place, a place of cruel totalitarianism.

Both under the Nazis and under the communists, my grandfather saw people taken. To use slightly different language, he saw people disappeared. In rare instances, the disappeared people would resurface. My grandfather told the story of a neighbour who returned home after a number of months. All of his teeth had been kicked out of his mouth and no one dared ask what had happened to him. But most of the time, the disappeared were just gone.

And my grandfather saw neighbours who were taken in another way. These were the people who didn’t physically disappear. These were the folks who disappeared morally, the people who responded to the violence of the state with silence, with indifference, with apathy. And maybe with collaboration.

The Roman soldiers who oppress Jesus and his friends and, later, Matthew and his friends wear different uniforms than the Nazis and the communists. Their instrument of death is the cross rather than the gas chamber or the bullet to the back of the head. But there isn’t actually a whole lot more than distinguishes them from one another. In every case, the reality of Empire refutes the hermeneutic of Left Behind.

Let’s go through the three points that I listed earlier again.

One, those who are taken (and I mean those who are taken physically as well as those who are taken morally) are not taken by God. They are taken by the state.

Two, being taken is not a reward. Being taken is a terrible kind of punishment. The hope, for your body and your soul alike, is that you will not to be taken. Notice that Jesus likens being taken to being swept away in the flood, he likens it to a brutal death by drowning. It is only Noah and his family who survive. The hope is to be like those on the ark. The hope is to be left behind.

And three, being taken does not occur at the end of days. For Matthew and for my grandfather after the taking, after the disappearances, the world continues. For Jesus’ friends after Jesus is taken, taken to the cross, the world continues. For better or for worse, for those left behind, life continues and they have to figure out what to do next.

I don’t want to dump on the left behind books: they have strengthened a bunch of people’s faith, and that matters. I do want to suggest that Left Behind is entirely unhelpful for interpreting Jesus’ teaching today. I want to suggest that, once we escape the hermeneutic of the Left Behind books, once we stop reading this passage from Matthew in an action-movie kind of way, Jesus’ words start making a whole lot more sense and carrying a whole lot more power.

Because when we realise that Jesus’ words are about right now, that suddenly means that the coming on the Son of Man is not some apocalyptic future to be hoped for or to be prayed for. The coming of the Son of Man is a reality that, with God’s help, we are called to create today.

And how do we create that reality? Well, the command that Jesus gives us is as simple as it is difficult:

Keep awake.

Notice that a number of liberation movements use the language of waking up or sometimes, simply, of being woke. To wake up is to become aware of the oppression that is part of our culture: the oppression of women, of people of colour, of GLBTQ folk, of undocumented immigrants, of the physically or mentally atypical, of the poor. And having become aware, it is to offer resistance to that oppression. Now, some of us are waking up pretty slowly. And there is a temptation to be impatient or disdainful when we see a slow awakening taking place, to react with a hoot of derision when a straight white man first allows the possibility that privilege might be part of his life.

But I hope that we can celebrate every step closer to being awake, even as we push for that awakening to deepen. And – this might be harder – I hope that we will accept the pushes that our allies may give us when they ask our own awakening to deepen.

A number of my colleagues, including Grace’s own Ken Powell, travelled a couple of weeks ago to Standing Rock to join those protesting against the pipeline, to join those protecting the water. They slept in tents. And my colleagues say that the day began early when a voice from outside the tents began to chant:

Wake up! Wake up!

This call was one of those moments when the literal and the figurative intersect. Because, on the one hand, this call was purely functional in nature: like at summer camp, it was a call to get out of bed and to get the day started. But it was also a deeper call, a kind of parable.

Wake up, that voice called. Wake up and see what we are doing to the earth.

We often speak of Advent as a season of waiting. And that is, indeed, what it is. But what Jesus tells us today is that waiting is not a passive exercise. Waiting is something that we do intentionally and actively, it is something that we do as a community, it is something that we do with God’s help. The kind of waiting that we do in Advent is about connecting with those on the margins, it is about seeking out allies, it is about learning. It is about declaring that we are ready, that we are awake and that we are getting more awake every day, that we will not be taken without a struggle, that we will not disappear, that we intend to be among those who will be left behind to greet the Son of Man.


Wake Up Call + First Sunday of Advent by The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver


Isaiah 64:1-9

Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Mark 13:24-37

When we come to the end of the liturgical year and begin a new one, it seems to come with a bit of a jolt. We always know that it’s coming….we expect it…..even plan for it. We know the colors will change from the green of Pentecost to the blue/purple of Advent, the world’s mood will change from summer vacations….. through back-to-school thinking and raincoats…… to a time of preparation for winter weather and Christmas. Time seems to speed up and our multitasking becomes more intricate with school finals, gift buying, house decorating, intricate family planning, Black Friday, and yes….extra events and special services to attend at church. There is barely enough space to fit it all into our busy schedules.

Advent has a way of arriving a little sooner than we expected, and….that’s not all that surprises us. No matter how often we’ve arrived at First Advent, we are still a bit taken aback by its tone. With some measure of liturgical avoidance we rely on our knowledge of its change, but we forget or deny the reality of God’s sudden demands of us after being lulled by the stories of miracles and parables during Pentecost.

We tend to think of Advent as a time of waiting and that’s true, but we fool ourselves into thinking of that waiting as a passive activity. In a way we’ve become too used to its predictability …..and so we become immune to its urgency to give it the kind of attention God demands. We allow ourselves to become so caught up in the world’s anticipation of all things temporal, that we tend to fall asleep to all things spiritual. We become deaf to the sound of Advent and its message slips by us…… so used have we become to it as a staging time for Christmas. And in the midst of missing all things spiritual for the sake of all things secular………the true message of Advent could face a real danger of being completely lost, were it not for a strong wake-up call to us from Jesus to keep alert and pay attention to it.

Entering into the Gospel of Mark we hear a strong and stern warning from Jesus to be ready at all times for His arrival, because we never know how or when the Messiah will be made present to us. We’ll hear similar texts throughout Advent, moving us into an acute awareness of the need to be ready, the need to be thinking outside of ourselves and living our lives in a state of readiness of Christ. This is nothing less than the voice of God wrestling our attention away from the secular whirlwind kind of preparation that surrounds us so that we don’t lose our central focus on God.

Yet for all its severity, it does not carry with it the kind of driven anxiety that the world imposes in the name of Merry Christmas……nor is it the kind of waiting that carries a dread of what we might hear on the news in the morning. It’s not a message about waiting for Christmas or about waiting for the next ball to drop…….it’s about waiting for Christ…..waiting for Hope….waiting for Love…..waiting humbly for our God to come again…..waiting and watching for Christ’s presence in our midst.

We all know when Christmas will come and what we have to do to wait for it….. we have it on our calendars and we know how we will move to meet it and experience it but waiting for Christ….waiting to recognize and experience Christ in our midst again is very different. It requires a different kind of waiting…..a waiting filled with expectant intention and awareness….a kind of watchfulness that is not passive, but keenly intuitive and alert, because we can never be sure when Christ will appear in our lives. It’s an active kind of waiting, filled with expectation and possibility.

We can think about the gardeners among us…..waiting passively through winter for Spring to come again and when it does, we plant seeds in the rain-softened earth and wait with an active expectancy as we watch carefully for the first signs of new life in the small green shoots that appear.

This is the kind of active waiting that Jesus is asking of us….that expectant kind of waiting….filled with curiosity, open anticipation and enthusiasm.

Jesus’ potent message of His coming again holds within it an already/not yet essence which can seem confusing. Within Advent’s divine drama, Jesus has already created the means for us to be in relationship with God, but our human weaknesses keep us from complete communion with God. So like the seed we planted deep in the ground and which we know is there……so the Realm of God is already made evident. And yet, as that seed does not yet reveal itself completely until it is nurtured by the creative hands of the gardener……… the Realm of God is yet to be fully established by the people of God. We have to wait it out… live in the space of time between what is present and what will be…..what is already and what is yet to be.

Jesus warns us that this is the time to sharpen our awareness of how we are living our lives in accordance to the Risen Christ…. so that we will be spiritually ready to enter into and embrace the realm of God when it is finally realized…….. even as we recognize the signs of it in the here and now. There is an essence of presence but yet a presence that is yet to be. We are to be the stewards of God’s Kingdom. The seeds have been sown through our Baptismal Covenant, and it is through our stewardship that we can become co-creators with God.

Here at Grace, we have experienced this entry into Advent in a very real way with the departure of Father Stephen and Ann. We knew the Advent of their departure was coming, we expected it and planned for it for months. But the time that seemed far off came much quicker than any of us realized and suddenly our passive waiting was exposed by the reality of our farewell events for them last weekend. Suddenly our life experience here at Grace and, even in this sanctuary, has changed. There is a different look, a different sensibility, a different tone. But it is….and we are……. still Grace.

Father Stephen and Ann, each in their own way, created a large presence here for over two decades. So it is not surprising that we can all still sense and feel that presence today. We look at the Altar and we can still imagine that Father Stephen has simply stepped away and will return in a few moments. Those of us with young children can still imagine that Ann is downstairs in the parish hall, spending time with them. We can still sense their lingering presence in the sounds and sensibility of the liturgy, in various events of church life and in familiar places like offices and hallways.

Each went about doing Christ’s work in this place and each found the presence of Christ as they worked…and so it is not hard to imagine that they are still here.

To bring this awareness into focus, let us take just a moment or two, to honor that presence which still lingers and find Christ in that presence.

Last Saturday and Sunday, our months of planning and preparation culminated in an unforgettable evening and Sunday morning experience for Father Stephen, Ann and their family. They have expressed this pivotal event in their lives as a sendoff they never imagined could be so perfect. It is because it was a weekend of quintessential Grace, large G, filled with grace, small g. It was filled with love and appreciation, gratitude and yes….sadness. And Christ was present for it all. God, and the Holy Spirit were easy to notice in our voices and in our hearts, even as Christ was waiting to come again.

And then the time came for Father Stephen and Ann to leave. They left because their work at Grace was completed and because they are human. And God is with them even as God remains with us here at Grace. God remains. The Holy Spirit remains and Christ remains. God is moving with them as they walk into a new life and God is still moving in the lives of all of us here at Grace who let them go.

And so on Thanksgiving Day, I found myself alone for the first time since arriving at Grace almost 9 years ago, at that sweet event that Father Stephen and I loved so much, serving together at that little Altar. Yet, happily, for the first time, we were able to put the lectern up near the Altar, to create more room. But, even so, I missed him. And today, it seems a bit lonely at this Altar and I half expect to see my friend trying to make eye contact with me so that I could read his mind about what was to happen next. I miss him today, but he is not here…he has taken another road just as God as called me onto my own.

He is not here because he has taken the opportunity to walk in a different direction. Ann is not in the church school today, she is not here and it is time now for her to do the same. So we acknowledge their absence. Let us now take a moment or two to honor that absence and to be aware of Christ’s presence in their absence and Christ’s presence which remains with us.

Father Stephen and Ann loved being at Grace….and why not. Grace is a singular parish with a diverse, interesting and interested congregation. We are a church for all people, a church where open hearts and open minds thrive and grow in the love of God and neighbor. We are a church that welcomes and tries to understand the concept of via media. As part of the body of Christ, we belong to a larger Church that understands how to love and let go.

In each of our lives there comes a time when we are ready to embrace change, when we capitulate to God’s desire for us to take a fork in the road, not only for our own good, but for the good of those around us. Life is precious and fleeting and we are to spend it in the realm of new opportunity and discovery. And now it’s time for us to open our hearts and minds enough to let Father Stephen and Ann go into that realm of new opportunity and new discovery for how to use their gifts.

So let us take a moment or two to become alert to our own feelings and awake to God’s desire for Father Stephen and Ann to move freely toward all the new possibilities that await before them. And let us be aware of Christ’s presence to them as they journey into that future.

It’s an Advent kind of thing, this kind of change and it’s happening here to us in a very real and undeniable way. Father Stephen and Ann are already embracing a new sense of being and we, too, are being called by God to continue on embracing a new way…… with a new sense of being.

It takes courage and intention to live into Advent on God’s terms by being awake and alert to Christ’s presence…….even as we make our earthly and spiritual shifts within this season… recognize that presence when it is right in front of us. Christ’s continuing presence was made evident to us immediately last weekend, when we learned about a new baby born to one of our own, Maya Crawford, baby Muriel, born in our midst during our farewell weekend for Father Stephen and Ann. As we ponder about our way forward…… we see Christ revealed in every new baby born among us……. We see His presence in every new member who walks through our doors each week…..every new baptism….every new confirmation with which we share and in which we find joy. Christ is with us as we embrace each other and each of these moments of renewed hope and anticipated joy…..and Christ is with us as we embrace all that Advent offers us. It is within this loving embrace that we find Christ.

We won’t find Christ in regrets. We won’t find Christ in clinging on to what might have been. We won’t find Christ in complaints or judgment about the change that has come about at Grace. We will find Christ in our communal embrace of mutual possibilities and in our courage to allow ourselves to let go and to be let go in return. We will find Christ in the work in which we are about to embark…searching for a new Rector, for a new era…..a new chapter in the life of Grace.

And so I need not feel alone at the Altar. We are all here together. We can go forward with joyful anticipation through these Advent weeks of waiting for the gift of Christmas… hope, and renewed faith in new possibilities in the world around us and in the world of Grace.

Just as the beautiful flowers which covered the high altar last weekend are slowly fading away to make room for these beautiful greens of Advent, so we too, make our graceful transition from one way of being to another.

Barbara Brown Taylor, an editor of the Advent Companion, says it well, “Advent is a time for God’s people to find the courage and spiritual strength to remember that the holy breaks into the daily. In tiny ways, we can open our broken hearts to the healing grace of God, who opens the way to peace. May that peace come upon us as a healing balm, as a mighty winter river, gushing and rushing though the valleys of our prideful fear and our own self-righteous indignation.” [1]

So let us join together as we make this journey through Advent and beyond. Let us heed God’s wake-up call. Let us make ready, be alert….for all things on heaven and earth may pass away, but the words of Christ will endure.

And let us remember that Advent is not about us…’s not about worldly chronos time… …’s about God’s kairos time.   Our earthly problems are human…..our earthly choices are human….our earthly decisions are human. But when we are alert to God’s desire for each of us and for our community, our decisions, our choices and our desires reach a spiritual realm….and, as Paul says, we are not lacking in any spiritual gift and we are given a glimpse into what could be.

God’s wake-up call makes us deeply aware that we are not only entering into a new liturgical cycle called Advent…..we are entering into a new time at Grace…. ……a new era in which new possibilities will be showered upon us as gifts. We just need to be prepared and alert enough to receive them.

Written to the Glory of God
The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver+
November 30, 2014

[1] Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion. Bartlett, Taylor, Long, Editors. (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky.) 2014. p ix.