1 Advent – November 27, 2016

Matthew 24:36-44

So, it’s the beginning of the new year, the new church calendar year – it is the first Sunday of Advent.  Just when we think we should start hearing about shepherds and stables and stars, we get floods and kidnappers and thieves.  So what’s up with Advent?  Why do we begin here, with stories about the end times? Perhaps because “getting ready” is not about lights and poinsettias and wreaths and trees. In the Church, “getting ready” is about the heart. Getting ready is about a state of being aware of Christ’s presence in us and around us at all times.  Are we ready to see Christ in the world around us, in others – our neighbors?

In our gospel for today Jesus recounts the story of Noah and the building of the ark. It’s a different focus than when the story was told in Genesis because in this case it’s about how people were going about their daily lives. They were occupied with eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage: ordinary and acceptable human activities. The problem lies not in these activities, but in how the people of Noah’s time “didn’t know until the flood came, and took them all away. . . .” They were sufficiently distracted by the usual business of life that they ended up losing their lives.

Perhaps the separation of those taken and those left does not depend on people’s behavior, whether good or bad, so much as on their awareness, whether they are capable of recognizing Christ when he comes. What’s called for is not perfect behavior, but alertness. What’s required is not abstaining from ordinary life, but maintaining in the midst of the ordinary a sense of the extraordinary, a recognition of the holy.

“Are you ready”? Is a question that often gets asked by those who feel that they are ready and you are not. They are the saved and have secured an ocean view cabin on Noah’s cruise ship. They are taken. Those who aren’t ready? Well … we love to determine the condemnation of those who still have their suitcases in their closets, who don’t have their bags packed.

But then comes Matthew in our gospel reading this morning, who ends up equalizing the “rapture” two by two. No determined discriminatory details to help us decide who will end up saved with Noah or who will be left behind.

So maybe, “Are you ready?” is not just a question for the other about readiness for the coming of Christ, or a question for yourself, but a question about your acceptance of the consequences when that coming happens. Are you ready to believe that the one whom you have judged a sinner in whatever state of sin you have determined as sin, could end up on the ark, with you — or without you? Are you ready to see that the one working alongside you could be one who gets on the boat, when you had hoped they would end up on some life raft, at best? So now what?

My colleague, Karoline Lewis has another question for us — do we believe that Jesus is ready? Do we believe God is ready? Do we believe that God is about readying God’s self to show up, regardless of the response of the two in the field and the two women grinding meal together? And what difference does this make?

Well, it actually imagines that God might have a stake in our readiness. That our being ready is not just about us, especially us as individuals, but us as persons in relationship; as us in some sort of manifested commitment to the other. This is the overlooked detail of this passage. Two by two. Relationship. Companionship.

You see, God is committed to relationship. Relationship in the Kingdom of Heaven is not about determining who goes and who stays, but being there together in the field, grinding meal together … and trusting that God is getting ready, too.

So, Are you ready? Is not only a question for you, but also that which you ask your neighbor. What can I do to help you be ready? What do we need to do to be ready together? There is someone else in the field with you. There is someone else grinding meal with you.

This is not about an easy fix, quick forgiveness, mending without grief, or putting the past aside. Rather, it is to reclaim the fundamental truth of our God — our God is a God of relationship. God cannot not be in relationship and is relentless when it comes to maintaining relationships. God called Abraham, and then just kept on going, interjecting when it seemed the relationship was going astray or strained, and coming up with a new strategy for those who had yet to know “Immanuel.”

At the same time, God was not exactly compliant or complacent when it appeared that there was “disagreement” between God and God’s people. There was conversation. There were words. There was truth-telling. We might take our cue from God when it comes to our own relationships. Tending, nurturing, maintaining relationships, it seems, is a mark of discipleship.

To get ready in Advent is to affirm God’s own readiness for and commitment to relationship. Are you ready for this kind of relationship? This kind of intimacy? This kind of togetherness that does not allow one-upsmanship, that does not permit the determination of another’s fate? That insists on two-by-two and not single-minded, “my way, I’m right you’re wrong, too bad so sad for you,” left behind, unyielding, judgmental, condemnatory, isolationist, siloistic, relationship? This should be obvious: Relationships, by definition, are mutual and reciprocal.

Let’s end by switching our metaphor from a boat to a train.  This little piece of wisdom is from an unknown source:

Life is like a journey on a train…with stations…with changes of routes and with accidents!  At birth we boarded the train and met our parents, and we believe they will always travel on our side. However, at some station our parents will step down from the train, leaving us on this journey alone.

As time goes by, other people will board the train; and they will be significant, for example, our siblings, friends, children, and even the love of our life. Many will step down and leave a permanent vacuum. Others will go so unnoticed that we don’t realize that they vacated their seats!

This train ride will be full of joy, sorrow, fantasy, expectations, hellos, goodbyes, and farewells.

Success consists of having a good relationship with all passengers…requiring that we give the best of ourselves.

The mystery to everyone is: “We do not know at which station we ourselves will step down. So we must live in the best way—love, forgive, and offer the best of who we are.”

It is important to do this because when the time comes for us to step down and leave our seat empty—we may leave behind beautiful memories for those who will continue to travel on the train of life.

I wish you a joyful journey for the coming year on the train of life. Reap success and give lots of love. More importantly, thank God for the journey!

Lastly, I thank you for being one of the passengers on my train!  Amen.