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    Dec 08, 2019

    The 2nd Sunday of Advent

    Passage: Matthew 3:1-12

    Preacher: The Rev. Sarah Carver

    Series: Year C: 2019-2020

    Detail:

     

    As we’ve been hearing, the lectionary readings during Advent are fairly challenging—and might even strike us as being bizarre. All this talk of the end of the world, the coming of Jesus, judgment, repentance, can feel unreal to those of us 2000 years out from Matthew. It can feel maybe even a little hokey as we think of all those who have dared stand in public and preach that the end is near. But it struck me recently, that the idea of the world ending is not as far fetched as one might think. For one thing, there is the climate crisis that is ongoing and that is what some are calling the existential threat of our time. But the world can also end much more subtly, and not only once, but that it can happen all the time, every day in fact.

                You see, the world doesn’t have to end in some kind of cosmic blast, it can happen to anyone of us when we experience the loss of a loved one, or our own devastating illness that changes how we live, or even how long we thought we were going to live. The world can feel like it is ending when we are faced with choices we never thought we would have to make. I think about people who have had to flee their homes due to violence, or changing weather, or because there is no way to make a life where they live, who have to travel half-way around the world to find safety in a place that isn’t home. Any of these experiences can take the world we know and not only turn it upside down, but make it feel as if it has ended, leaving the new world an unfamiliar, unsafe, and unhappy place. John O Donohue describes it this way: “Because we are so engaged with the world, we usually forget how fragile life can be and how vulnerable we always are. It takes only a couple of seconds for a life to change irreversibly. Suddenly you stand on completely strange ground and a new course of life has to be embraced…You look back at the life you have lived up to a few hours before, and it suddenly seems so far away. Think for a moment how, across the world, someone’s life has just changed –irrevocably, permanently, and not necessarily for the better –and everything that was once so steady, so reliable, must now find a new way of unfolding.” [1] When this happens, how is it that we are able to make our way home?

                The Church’s answer to this since the beginning has been pastoral care, which is the work of caring for one another emotionally and spiritually. It is the work of being in relationship with one another and staying connected especially when the world feels like it is ending. It is walking with one another through life and death, illness and vitality, joy and sadness. Now, this is not just a part of what we do as a community, it is the core of how we live with one another. It is not what we do in community, it is how we are in community. Pastoral care is bringing our full selves to one another in the midst of brokenness, not to seek perfection, but to know the divine through being connected to one another. This means that pastoral caregivers and not just nice people who come to pat your hand when you’re feeling down—these are folks who can listen deeply to someone pouring out their pain, they know how to hold the dying, they are not afraid to face the grief of others.

    Now, this is a church that is good at loving others. You all have remarkable skills to care for those who are struggling. Believe it or not, there are important skills needed to be a good pastoral care provider, skills we all need to be adept at being in healthy and holy relationships. And here at Holy Trinity we are going to be re-emphasizing the work of pastoral care through a new formation program called Community of Hope. This is a model that invites participants to be trained in both the practice of pastoral caregiving, and in spiritual practices that will open you up to your own self while working with others. As I have said before, pastoral care is its own spiritual practice—it will change you, it will change how you see the world, how you see yourself, how you see God and the people you serve.

                Normally I find myself on the giving end of pastoral care, but after falling ill with a pulmonary embolism this past spring, I found myself unable to do very much but sit around—and so I was solidly on the receiving end of pastoral care. I went from super active mom, clergy woman, mower of lawns and hiker to someone who could barely stand long enough to take a shower. As I got a taste of my own mortality, my world was certainly shook up and I needed to have people around me to help me navigate the new reality, or even just listen while I complained about it. I was reminded how difficult it can be to be vulnerable, and to have to ask for help; but when we are in community that understands pastoral care, we are not simply divided up into those who provide pastoral care and those who receive, we are a community of people who do both the giving and the needing. Pastoral care is not about power, nor about be able bodied, it is about being connected in ways that help us to know when we need to help someone, and to know when we ourselves need help and how to ask for it.

    But the truth is that often the giving and receiving happens at the same time, for both involved. I recently had someone share a story with me about working with a young man who was blind, and dying. Now, she was not a doctor, or a nurse, she wasn’t there to be a bath aid, or help around the house. Her work was simply to be there with him, to get to know him, and support him. Well one day he asked for a favor, and at first she was a little wary, not knowing what the favor was that he was asking. But what he wanted from her was just to touch her face. He had spent hours and hours with her and had no idea what she looked like and it seemed that he felt the time had come where he could ask for this. She said yes, and what she described next was not some awkward moment for them, but an incredible experience for her—the supposed caregiver. She said that as he placed his hands on her face she had the incredible sense that she was being blessed by him, each and every time his hands touched her. And as he was able to “see” her for the first time she was able to receive a gift of grace that he probably did not know he was giving, but one that comes from being truly connected. When the divine can flow freely between us, then we can we bless one another even when it seems like the world is ending.

    Advent is a time of preparation—we are preparing ourselves to meet Jesus, we are preparing to celebrate the incarnation because Jesus is God’s pastoral response to a lonely and broken world. God in Christ is coming into the world to abide with us—to be in community with us, to know our struggles as his own, to know our mortality and finiteness as his own, to be with us in all of that. And what Christ brings to us is the message that when it seems as if the world is ending—and even when it does, this is not the end of the story. This is not the end of the story. As we hear in our first reading, the prophet Isaiah is speaking to a people who have known loss, and struggle, and who have known having their world completely upended. But there is this vision of hope, that what will emerge is a new way of life—a life of peace and justice.

    As Christians we are members of a body of hope—we are grounded in the story of Jesus Christ which is nothing if not a story of hope. And this story tells us that when the world we know disintegrates, something new will emerge from the ashes. That our God is a God of beginnings, not endings. The hope we possess is the hope poet Jan Richardson describes: hope not made of wishes, but of substance, hope made of sinew and muscle and bone, hope that has breath and a beating heart, hope that will not keep quiet and be polite…hope that knows how to sing when there seems little cause, hope that raises us from the dead—not someday but this day, every day, again and again and again.

    As we travel this advent time together, consider your own needs for hope and healing, and participate in a healing Stillpoint service some Wednesday in Advent. Take time to pray, and reflect. And also consider what your call is to walk with others and offer them strength they may not have, or joy where there is only struggle, hope in the midst of the despair. For this Advent and in every Advent, and every day of your life together as members of the Body of Christ…you do not walk alone. Amen.

     

     

    [1] John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us