Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
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………..so the Realm of God is yet to be fully established by the people of God. We have to wait it out…..to 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…..to 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…..new 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.” 
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…..it’s not about worldly chronos time… …..it’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
 Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion. Bartlett, Taylor, Long, Editors. (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky.) 2014. p ix.