SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV. DR. HAROLD T. LEWIS, RECTOR
CALVARY EPISCOPAL CHURCH, PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA
ON THE FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
1 DECEMBER 1996
"Watch, for you do not know when the time will come." (Mark 13:33)
This is the time of year in which Christians are thrown into great confusion. As far as Kaufman's is concerned, it's Christmas. There was a time when we could have reasonably expected that we would have ingested our turkey before Christmas began, but not this year. Thanksgiving was later than usual, and the merchants had to deem the Christmas shopping season to have begun earlier than usual. They just couldn't afford to lose those valuable days. And I am always amazed by the great hype around the Day after Thanksgiving, (I am at a loss as to why it has been referred to as Black Friday, by the way)* the so-called Beginning of the Christmas Shopping Season. The 11 o'clock news reports this event as if it were the Second Coming, and lays a guilt trip on any of us who did not hit the mall at the crack of dawn, credit card in hand, ready to scoop up the latest Barbie doll or Nintendo came. This time of year is confusing for the Christian because while Christmas carol musak is being piped through the mall, the church is focusing on the Second Coming. While the world is jingling bells, and roasting chestnuts on an open fire with Nat King Cole, we who profess and call ourselves Christians are just beginning Advent, the season of expectation, of waiting for Christmas.
But I must confess that even when we focus on a Christian view of the season, we are still confused. The lessons are a little scary, to say the least. There is more than a hint of fire and brimstone, and any amount of fire and brimstone makes Episcopalians nervous. We have enough of doom and gloom, thank you very much; we don't have to come to church to hear more! But Christianity never claimed to be all a bed of roses. The pivotal event --- literally the crucial event of Christianity is Christ's death on Calvary. Every now and then we must read what Jesus himself calls "hard sayings."
Today, in relating the parable of the householder, Jesus asks us to watch. "Watch, for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly." The question we would put to you this morning is: Are you are watcher or a waiter? To watch is active, to wait is passive. I could see the difference a few weeks ago when John Austin was kind enough to take me around Canterbury Place, the diocesan nursing home. There are two kinds of residents there. Some are just waiting, waiting in the hope that somebody might drop by, to bring a little joy, a little excitement into their lives, to break the monotony. But no one comes, or comes very infrequently. Then there are the watchers. They know that someone is coming to see them. Their families have visited them regularly, and can be relied upon. The patients can look forward to their visit with excitement. They spruce themselves up; they make sure their rooms are presentable. They might even give some thought to what they will say to their son or daughter or sister or friend. In fact, the coming of the relative is such a joyful event they may even share the anticipated arrival with their fellow residents.
Jesus wants us to be watchers, not waiters. He wants us to watch for the propitious moment. There are two Greek words for time: the first is "chronos", from which we get words like chronology, and interestingly enough "cronie," a friend who has been around for a long time; the second is "kairos." "Chronos" refers to the time of day. We are obsessed with time. Sometimes we believe that the eleventh commandment is "Thou shalt worship no longer than one hour." A parishioner said to me about the Installation service last Saturday that she thought that an hour and a half had gone by, but when she looked she was surprised that it was two and a half hours; she had passed from "chronos" (ordinary time) to "kairos" an appreciation of the propitious moment. Jesus says "You do not know the kairos when the master of the house will come.
Jesus wants us to be watchers, but watchers for what? Somehow this Advent parable always gets associated with watching for and being prepared for death. And we cannot escape that. We are never really quite ready for death, whether it comes out of the blue or after a protracted illness. Indeed, sometimes we are into denial. I remember taking communion to a parishioner who had a terminal illness. When she opened her prayer book to the service for communion of the sick, I noticed that a large paper clip were holding some pages together. When I inquired as to the reason for this, she explained that that was the burial service. She didn't want to turn to it while flipping the pages. A priest from the island of Nevis led a preaching mission at St. Mark's, Brooklyn last year, and I remember his saying: "You think you're rich? Think you own a lot? Then die tonight!" I was a very sobering thought, that everything we own, all our worldly goods, would revert to somebody else, either to people of our choosing, if we have a will, or to people to be determined by others, if, like most people, we die intestate. The burial prayer that includes the words "Lord, make us deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of human life" always strikes a somber chord.
We must also watch out for our besetting sins. A spiritual director once defined "besetting sin" this way. If life is a road, he explained, an ordinary sin is like a hole into which we fall as we make our way through life. In the case of a besetting sin, however, we walk along life's road, take out a shovel, dig a hole and then jump into it. Do you remember the box-office hit "Fatal Attraction"? It was about that most time-honored of besetting sins, lust, whose commission seems entirely reasonable and justifiable, but whose consequences may well be severe.
But we must also watch, lest the great opportunities for service in God's kingdom come and pass us by, unseen and unseized. Somebody once suggest that the worst "isms" in our society are neither racism nor sexism, but somnambulism. Think how different the history of salvation would have been if the great actors in that drama had not heeded God's admonition to watch. Think how different things would have been if they had fallen asleep on the job, or worse, had sleepwalked across the stage of life, missing their cues.
What if David thought that his five smooth stones were just playthings? He would not have been able to slay the giant Goliath. What if Moses thought that the rod in his hand was just an ordinary stick? The Red Sea would never have been parted and Cecil B. DeMille would have lost a great Kodak moment. What if the little boy in the Gospel story believed that the five loaves and two small fishes he had were only what his mother had packed him for lunch? The multitudes would perhaps have gone unfed. You see, God takes us, unredeemed and broken specimens that we are, along with whatever raw materials we have, and uses us and them for his service. But we have to watch, and be open to the opportunity.
We Christians have something in common with the merchants who want us to spend our hard-earned money on Christmas presents. We both are concerned with time. The merchants' season is known as Shopping Days Before Christmas. For them, time is running out. They are waiting for December 25, the Chronos, the last time they can get top dollar for their merchandise, before prices are slashed in after-Christmas sales. But the Christians' season is called Advent, and we are watching for December 25, the Kairos, that moment known as the fullness of time, when God sent his only Son, born of a woman, to fulfill his Law, and to open for us the way of freedom and peace. What time is it for us? Are we watchers or waiters?
* I am indebted to Chuck Grimstad who informed me after the service that
it is called "Black Friday" because merchants hope that after
operating in the red all year, they will turn a profit (be in the black)
on the Friday after Thanksgiving.