Deciding to Keep Our Eyes Open

On December 3, 2018, in Sunshine Cathedral, by Rev.Dr. Robert

Deciding to Keep Our Eyes Open Sunshine Cathedral First Sunday of Advent Habakkuk What a joy to be back at Sunshine Cathedral and see many familiar faces, and many new faces—including the wonderful windows in the sanctuary! It is especially lovely to be with you on this first Sunday of Advent—the beginning of the Christian […]

Deciding to Keep Our Eyes Open
Sunshine Cathedral
First Sunday of Advent

What a joy to be back at Sunshine Cathedral and see many familiar faces, and many new faces—including the wonderful windows in the sanctuary! It is especially lovely to be with you on this first Sunday of Advent—the beginning of the Christian liturgical year.
I grew up Southern Baptist in Louisiana and we didn’t do Advent. We did do Vacation Bible School in the summer. [slide 1] And I am proud to say that I am a Vacation Bible School graduate! Are there other folks here today who went to Vacation Bible School (VBS)? I have to confess, I almost did not graduate. We had to memorize the books of the Bible to pass. I didn’t have a lot of trouble with the New Testament, but when it came to the Old Testament, those twelve little books at the end with all those names you can’t pronounce or spell, almost did me in.

In the Hebrew Bible these books are lumped together and called The Twelve. I wished I had known that back then. It would have saved me a lot of time and anxiety. Instead of memorizing the list: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. [slide 2] I could have just said, “and The Twelve.”

Habakkuk is one of The Twelve. He was a prophet during a very tumultuous time in Israel’s history. We heard it described in the reading from chapter 1: Destruction and Violence! Strife and contention! The law becomes slack and justice never prevails! Sounds like today’s headlines, doesn’t it? Habakkuk also asks, where is God in all this? How do we as God’s people, live in this tumultuous time? The answer comes in the second installment we heard from Habakkuk today: “the righteous live by their faith.”

What does it mean to live by faith in the face of injustice, violence, and anarchy? What is faith? [slide 3]
Some might say faith is what we believe about God. Churches and denominations often formulate their beliefs into a “statement of faith.” Others might say faith is about trust in God. Rather than trusting in a set of statements about God, one trusts in God. But as Habakkuk has asked, what do we do with our trust, when it is uncertain that God is listening?

Novelist Doris Betts [slide 4]claims that faith is not synonymous with certainty, rather it is a “decision to keep your eyes open.” Faith is a way of seeing. Did you notice it in Habakkuk? He asks, “Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?” He decides to keep his eyes open by saying, “I will keep watch to see what God will say to me….There is still a vision for the appointed time.”
Faithful living in tumultuous times requires being present to what is. Too often we want to numb out, ignore or deny the destruction, violence and injustice in the world. Faith as a way of seeing doesn’t avoid harsh reality.

Living by faith in this season of Advent will have an apocalyptic dimension to it. That doesn’t mean we see harsh reality as signs of the end of the world. The work apocalypse means, “unveiling or lifting the veil.” Movements such as [slide 5] # BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, Time’s Up, and the Migrant Caravans challenge the faithful to make a decision to keep our eyes open. They are a “lifting of the veil,” an exposing, of the heresy of domination. Habakkuk said, “I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what God will say to me.” Faith is a way of seeing that looks for God in the ebb and flow of life. The faithful and apocalyptic message of Advent is that Jesus has “unveiled God” and the possibility for our participation in the divine life.

Habakkuk continues, “there is still a vision for the appointed time…if it seems to tarry, wait for it.” According to theologian Marcus Borg,[slide 6] faith is seeing the whole, and our response to it. Have you ever noticed in the New Testament when a healing encounter happened with Jesus, he often said to the person who was healed, “your faith has made you well.” Jesus saw something in them and responded—faith was that act of opening which released a flow of divine energy that made the healing possible. What I am suggesting here is that faith is not so much something we have, as something in which we participate. It has a generative quality about it. Jesus’ statement, “your faith has made you well” is an acknowledgement of the power of a transaction that occurred between him and the person being healed. A mutual recognition took place. The Hebrew word used for faith in Habakkuk is emunah which means “firm action.” When we can behold others with compassion and respond, we participate in a flow of divine energy that can bring a different kind of world into being.

Borg says faith is not a matter of the head but a way of the heart. This heart space is in the deep level of the self—deeper than our conscious self, below our thinking, feeling, willing, intellect, emotions or volition.

So how do we participate in this kind of faith? How do we cultivate a seeing of the whole with our heart? How do we stay mindful, present to reality with a compassion that releases divine energy into the world?

The best way I have found to do that is through contemplative practices and I want to talk about two of them this morning. The first one is, Pray the News. [slide7] Everyday we are bombarded with headlines from the news. They bling from our smart phones, ticker across our television screens and blare out from our radios. Praying the News is a way to cultivate faithful living by being present to what is. The way we do this is to make time everyday, to be present to the news. After viewing, hearing or reading the news, spend a moment of quiet reflection, letting your heart absorb the news stories you experienced. Let your heart direct you to a particular story. Spend some time praying for the people, circumstances and events of the story. Your prayers could certainly include people, nations, and nature involved in the events. Pray also for the “principalities and powers” the systems and structures that perpetuate violence, fear and injustice. Rather than praying to God about these events, be with God in these events. This kind of praying according to Walter Wink, believes a new world into being.

The second practice I want to mention is meditation. There are many ways to engage this practice. What is most important is that you spend time everyday dwelling in the heart space of your deeper self–deeper than your conscious self, (as Borg says) below thinking, feeling, willing, intellect, emotions or volition. Centering Prayer [slide 8] is one way to enter into that space. Find a quiet place to sit for 20-30 minutes everyday (twice if you can find the time). While you sit, choose a sacred word to focus your attention. The word might be “love,” “peace,” “grace.” As you settle into the quietness let your word be a symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within. If you find your mind wandering, gently return to your sacred word without any kind of judgment. You might want to imagine yourself at the bottom of a lake and wandering thoughts are like boats drifting by on the surface of the lake above you. Simply let them go by, do not attach yourself to them. Over time, this practice will expand your heart space for fuller communion with God and open compassionate seeing within you.

Habukkuk’s words about faith have had powerful influence over the centuries. The apostle Paul quotes them in his epistle to the Romans and when Martin Luther read them 1500 years later the Protestant Reformation was born. The writer of Hebrews quotes Habakkuk and lists the names of that great cloud of witnesses who have demonstrated such a faith, and I am sure we can add the names of those we remembered on World AIDS Day [slide 9]who lived such a life of faith. On this first Sunday of Advent, the “New Year’s Day” of the liturgical year, let us join our lives to their memory and say with Habakkuk, “I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; God makes my feet like the feet of a deer and makes me tread upon the heights.”

Wilderness Advent-ure

On December 8, 2014, in Sunshine Cathedral, by Rev.Dr. Robert

Advent 2 Sunshine Cathedral Wilderness Advent-ure Rev Dr Mona West I noticed on the social networking site ‘Tumblr’ that Advent was a trending topic. When I clicked on it there were various images and quotes from hundreds of blogs about Advent. They ranged from quirky Advent calendars and mystical poems to stick figures of reindeer […]

Advent 2
Sunshine Cathedral

Wilderness Advent-ure
Rev Dr Mona West

I noticed on the social networking site ‘Tumblr’ that Advent was a trending topic. When I clicked on it there were various images and quotes from hundreds of blogs about Advent. They ranged from quirky Advent calendars and mystical poems to stick figures of reindeer and cookie recipes. None of them featured a wilderness. Yet, that is where John beckons us on this second Sunday of Advent. He is a voice of one crying out in the wilderness and what is amazing is that people follow him out there. Some of them wanted to question his identity—“Are you Elijah? The Messiah? The prophet?” Some in our community might ask, “Are you a leather man? A bear?” Nadia Bolz-Weber claimed that John the Baptist reminded her of the people she sees panhandling on the corner in her neighborhood, except he would be holding a sign that says “Will preach for locusts and wild honey.” There was something compelling about his message of repentance and preparation that caused people to follow him out into the desert, not out of curiosity, but out of longing. One could say that Advent was a trending topic in John’s days.

Of all the sights and sounds of our current Advent season, wilderness is typically not one of them. When was the last time you saw a Christmas card with a stark image of the wilderness on its front cover? But scriptures tell us that the wilderness is important for salvation history: the Exodus of the Israelites lead through the wilderness and Jesus’ public ministry begins after a period of ‘testing’ in the wilderness. These stories teach that the desert is a place not only where God can be known more deeply but it is also a place where humans can know themselves more deeply. Advent is about God coming to us, but John reminds us that we must also go to God.

John appeared in the wilderness proclaiming a message of repentance. Repent. That is not a word that usually rolls of our tongues during this season. We don’t go to shopping malls, check out stands, and Christmas Eve services saying, “Repent.” “Have a Merry Repentance.”

Advent is a season of preparation for God coming to us and our coming to God and repentance is part of preparation. It causes us to slow down and reflect on the actions and attitudes in our lives that may be creating road blocks on this highway in the desert to God.

Author and professor, Wendy Wright, claims that “repentance is not necessarily the gloomy and self-loathing practice it is sometimes made out to be. To repent is not to be confirmed in what that little voice within keeps whispering: that you are no good, that everything bad that happens to you is your own fault, that if only others knew what you were really like, they would cease to care for or be interested in you. No. True repentance begins with the felt knowledge that we are loved by God. We are children of God. If we cannot find ourselves there then perhaps our preparation might consist of the prayer that we might know ourselves as beloved, that the divine lover might reach down into our self-hatred…and touch us….Repentance consist not so much in flagellating ourselves over our ‘failures’ as in courageously and painstakingly reorienting our priorities, unlearning old patterns, turning our faces, like the sunflower, toward the dawning of the light of God.”

This quote from Wendy Wright is related to our reading from Thich Nhat Hanh for today. The Holy Spirit reminds us and confirms in us that we are God’s beloved. The Spirit assists us in our repentance and we assist the Spirit through our practice.

Now Robert and Durrell know that I will never pass up an opportunity to talk about spiritual practices….Typically we don’t think about spiritual practices during Advent, we save those for Lent. But in the history of the Christian church, Advent was a penitential season, much like Lent. There are things we DO to prepare for the coming of the divine into our lives—not just during Advent or Lent, but in all seasons.

A spiritual practice can be just about anything, as long as it is done with intention to open us the work of the Holy Spirit. They are not about our willfulness (our willpower—that would be the unhelpful kind of repentance Wendy Wright wrote about….) they are about our willingness. Our willingness to trust in God’s love for us and open ourselves to its transforming power.

There is no such thing as a generic holiness. There isn’t this ‘cookie cutter’ Christian life that all of us are supposed to emulate. That is the power and the scandal of the incarnation—God with us. God with you. God with me. God comes to us in the particularities of our lives, the contours of our stories, the challenges of our addictions and habits.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ spiritual practice. In fact research has shown that each of us has a particular spiritual temperament that will resonate with some practices better than others. Some of us are more concrete and reasoning in our spiritual life, others are more spontaneous, while others lean more toward mystery, and others toward social action.

Our practices do not have to be elaborate or self-denying. They can be simple. I love this poem about prayer by Mary Oliver which makes this point:

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

John the Baptist invites us into the wilderness of Advent to truly know ourselves and to understand how God’s love and grace is made manifest in the particularities of our lives. Marcella Althaus Reid has said that the desert is a place where people who did not fit in with society were to be found. John and Jesus were unsettled spirits gathering at the margins of Jerusalem’s authority….

In the fourth century another group of unsettled spirits went out into the desert of Egypt. The emperor Constantine had converted to Christianity and proclaimed the entire empire to be Christian. The men and women who fled to the desert during that time, went there to be closer to God. They knew that God and empire did not mix. And just like people followed John out into the wilderness, people of the fourth century followed these men and women, who later became known as the desert fathers and mothers/Abbas and Ammas, out into the desert. They sought out the fathers and mothers for a ‘word’ from God to take back into their lives in the city. These words have survived today in what is often called The Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, or The Wisdom of the Desert.

Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not become fire?

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