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Advent 1, Stop, look, listen

The following sermon was preached by David L. Miller, former Cornelsen Director of Spiritual Formation, Dean of the Chapel, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Wednesday, December 5, 2007.


Romans 13:11-14

I.

We light a candle. And I remember:
New York City, the days after Sept. 11, 2001,
Union Square, a small city park in lower Manhattan.
Dark, faceless shapes slowly process sidewalks in the midnight watches.
In twos and threes, the shadowy figures stop along the tree-lined paths, soberly meditating on poems and prayers, blessings and hopes carefully composed on newsprint that stretches on sidewalks the length of the block-long park.
I see them in the candle light. Holding each other, staring into the darkness, straining to read the handbills that cling to each tree, a cross a star of David printed on most of them, and everywhere candles along the way.
Each handbill bears a photo of a single face, mostly young faces, faces of the dead and missing; and a phone number to call … just in case you should you see the beloved face.

A sea of lights illumines the lower end of the park.
Beneath a statue of George Washington on his horse, thousands, truly thousands of flickering candles coat the ground. Holy ground.
I was there to watch and listen, interview and report. But each evening I put my camera in the bag, my notebook in the backpack and stood among the silent watchers at the lower end of the park, standing before the sea of lights. While they held each other in silence, wept or stared into the darkness. I went to see one young women.

She was there each night, among the candles, some small votives, others in glass jars.
Young, 22 or 23, I suppose. Her body small and lithe, expertly she crawled among the lights with a taper, careful not to step on a flickering wick, keeping each one lit, relighting those extinguished in the night breezes during the wee hours, tenderly watching over them as a mother her children.
Never did she seem to look up or at the silent hundreds always there. She kept the lights lit, igniting also something in us, something more human and holy and hopeful.
Our Lady of the Lights I called her, the Madonna of Manhattan. I wish I knew her name.
I never spoke to her, but I know a saint of God when I see one.

Amid shattering tragedy and grief, her tenderness evoked awareness of what was needed in the times in which we found ourselves.
As people held each other, wept, or silently stood watch, she was a living emblem of the tenderness and humanity, the care and vigilance we needed to pay each other-- and our times, if something like healing was ever to occur.
In a time of threat and fear, she was a sacrament of promise, the sign of the Spirit of God's new time, already there, amid the wretched crust, bitter tears and incomprehension of the our current time.

Two times overlapped at Union Square. No, not just there. Two times overlap in every moment of our breathing: the pain and fear, death and bitter sorrow of this time, and the healing and comfort of an age of transcendent love, a day being born in the darkness even as human souls hold each other in silent vigil.
And I saw it. And I was filled with gentle gratitude to God, who brings the blessings of a new age, the daybreak of eternity into a world worn old and cold with sin and sorrow, death and rage.

The first light of that day that never grows old dawns fresh. It comes even here, even now, revealing the beautiful face of the world's future--my future and yours. And that face is the face of our beloved brother and Lord, Jesus.

So I say to you, wake from sleep. The night is far gone. The day is near. Let us put on the armor of light.

II.

We believe, and we see.
We believe that in the resurrection of Christ and the outpouring of God's Spirit a new day dawns, the end of days appears, the rose-glow sunrise of God's eternal tomorrow lights up our present, here and now.
We are caught between the time of Jesus' resurrection and the final consummation. Yet, even now the Fullness of divine love and life in Jesus has begun to fill all that is, lighting up all that from within with the glory of that unspeakable love that no sorrow can steal, no grief can extinguish, no bombs can crush, no death can destroy, no sadness deny.

This … is the dawning of Christ's new age. But the old age lingers on.

My friend Tod still lies in a hospital bed, wondering if infections and bleeding will drain him the life we thought a liver transplant would renew.
My in-laws linger in various prisons of infirmity and suffering as the family waits for the next fall, the next phone call, wondering, what next?
The papers still bear thick tales of death in Bangladesh and Baghdad, bad politics in Chicago and Illinois--(what's new?), and a world that on most days I'd rather ignore.
Nor are we exempt. The will of our flesh remains tenaciously resilient, resisting our best hopes and efforts to be better more gracious, more giving, more forgiving, more Christ-like than we are or can be.
The works of the flesh, the works of the old age, remain in fashion: reveling, drunkenness, carousing, licentiousness, quarreling, jealousy, enmities, strife, dissentions, factions.

Put off these things, the lesson tells us. Put them off like an old set of clothes that no longer fit … because they don't. Put them off. Because they are immoral? Yes, but worse: they preoccupy and blind us to the times so that we cannot see and receive and enter more fully into the fullness of Christ's appearing.
They prevent us from penetrating the outer shell of reality that we might see the new age, the beauty of a new reality appearing and taking shape in lives and faces, in times and places of our normal dwelling.
For, the Spirit of the incarnate risen one brings the new age, a new time. The divine love labors, but that labor is so often unseen among us..
But the Scriptures do not leave us without a clue. We can know and see the new age appearing in the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control that is the fruit of Christ's risen life in human souls.
And more: the groaning in our hearts for a world of peace and wholeness not yet fully born, this we know so well. And this is the newness of Christ appearing in the depths of our desiring, seeking, pushing, longing for the Fullness of the One who is love, the One who appears in mangers and on crosses and in young women at Union Square, the One who appears in your beauty when you stand here in this room and throw your prayers and praises, laments and hope into presence of the One Love who is always present.
I wish you could see yourselves the way that I see you. I stand in this chapel on many days, and nothing penetrates my stony heart. But then the new day comes, and I hear a thin soprano, for her first time leading our prayers, and my heart again is moved to tears by the beauty of the life of the new age which you bear. And it want more and more until it fills me and you and all that is.
And even this, our frustrated longings for that love, is a sacramental sign of blessed newness stirring our souls at depths we, ourselves, cannot reach.
There lives the "dearest freshness deep down things," writes the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. For, the Spirit of the risen One broods discontent over this bent world and our broken souls until all things are engulfed in the utter newness of a love that grows not old.

So I say to you, wake from sleep. The night is far gone. The day is near. Let us put on the armor of light.

III.

We live in the overlapping of two ages, in between two times. A chief spiritual problem of this condition is that we fall asleep. We forget.

We get lost in the world, inattentive to the two ages contending for our
soul's allegiance.
We get swept up in the business of living, a kind of living that is but
half-life; busy with many things yet feeling, strangely, so empty.
Seldom is this more true than the period each year when we approach Christmas.
Frantic preparations make already busy people busier, their souls depleted, even defeated, treating time for the spirit as luxury, not necessity, valuing everything but that which truly sustains and makes alive.

And so, how shall we put Christ, donning that faith, hope and love that, Paul elsewhere, calls the armor of light?

We need the advice of my first spiritual director, Mrs. Imogene Kant. I was five; she was my kindergarten teacher. She took us to the edge of the street and said:
Stop, look, listen.
Stop all your doing for a time.
Look at your days and the world about you.
Look for the newness of life; listen for the voice of Christ in you, in those you meet, in the places you go.
Wake up. You do not live in a world where God is absent, but in a precinct of epiphany.
You wake every morning in a world where the morning star of eternal day is already shining. We await its appearing in fullness, but the light of its appearing already illumines hearts and minds with the blessed newness of love arisen and real, present and now.

This is what prayer is, I believe. It is staying awake to the nearness of the light as it appears in our place and time. It is a loving look at the real events and people of our day, with the expectation that the One who is life is there that we might see and live.

It is looking and seeking even when there seems little light to see. It is paying attention to see and savor the beauty of Christ's incarnate love coming again, even as that One comes in the Spirit's constant abiding in love and joy, peace and patience, kindness and generosity, faithfulness and gentleness.

Stop, look listen.

This is a way with Christ in the world, a way of staying awake to all his comings, to the appearance of the new age in every time and place.
It is a way Christ renews us, clothing us with faith, hope and love, the armor of light.
It is a little way we wake from sleep and know: The night is far gone. The day is near.

For the Incarnate One comes again and again to the common places of our habitation, and speaks:
"I make all things new, even here, even now, even you."

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