Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Street Preacher's Battle

The following sermon was delivered by the Rt. Rev. Larry Benfield of Little Rock, Arkansas at Christ Episcopal Church.
Advent I, Year B
In a world in which we talk about parallel universes and wormholes and tears in the fabric of space and time, I thought I had been sucked into one of those places two days ago in Chicago. There I was going down Michigan Avenue in one of the most cosmopolitan cities on America and smugly thinking that I had left, at least for a few days, the differently sophisticated South. But what did I encounter in this great metropolis? A man on a bullhorn, accompanied by another man handing out tracts, telling us that we had better take a look at ourselves. If we were unrepentant sinners we were going to burn in hell. Therefore, we had better decide to accept Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior now because twenty-four hours hence we might be dead and standing before the judgment throne. This street preacher was fighting a battle of good versus evil. I had not seen that form of evangelization on Main Street in Little Rock in my nineteen years here.

My first reaction was to roll my eyes and wonder what sort of time and world this guy came from, but then I realized that this guy was very timely, preaching an Advent sermon even if he doesn’t know a thing about the liturgical calendar. Keep awake. Be prepared. And all of it wrapped up in a package of the contest between good and evil, the struggle between life and death, salvation and estrangement, a very human struggle.

The struggle with what it is to be human, the desire for wholeness and the simultaneous reality of brokenness in our lives, is always just below the surface in most everything we do. What we as a people of faith do is go behind it and ask why it is that there is a contest between good and evil inside ourselves. What compels a person to stand on the street with a bullhorn? What compels us to be so fearful?

Today’s lesson from Isaiah is one attempt to answer the question. Isaiah has a wish, specifically the wish that God would show God’s self dramatically, as in an earthquake or volcano. “Tear open the heavens,” he says. He wants something noticeable. The theological term for what the author wants is a theophany, that is, an appearance of God. And don’t we all?

But Isaiah is also concerned with that human condition called sin, the same thing, I would guess, that we call evil. Isaiah attempts to answer the “why” question. Why is there evil? His conclusion is that we sin precisely because we do not see God, or in his own poetic words, “Because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean. You have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.”

There is a lot of language in the Old Testament about God hiding God’s self. I don’t think that Isaiah, though, is putting any blame on God. He is speaking metaphorically. He is saying that we get into trouble and we act evilly when we are numb to God’s presence around us. And people who are numb need something as dramatic as the heavens torn open and the mountains moving in order to catch their attention and wake them up.

Jesus is saying much the same thing in today’s gospel. Again, we get the image of something big happening in nature. In his case it is the image of the sun and the moon and the stars doing something totally unexpected. Jesus is trying to shake us out of our complacency; our own tendency to ignore what is going on around us. Keep awake, he says. Don’t remain numb.

It is in some ways ironic that these passages are being read on the same weekend that what we did on Thursday is still so fresh on our minds. On Thanksgiving Day most of us ate so much that we had to go take a nap afterwards, satiated to the point of numbness. Isn’t there something a bit discomforting about a nation of already overweight people having as its major cross-cultural holiday a day dedicated to eating as much as possible? We give thanks, but the food is not offered up; it is shoveled into our own stomachs. It is sort of like we are thanking ourselves for what we have been able to do. God simply gets the cursory grace, sort of like an invocation at a ball game. Then we top it all off by dozing off into a numbing sleep. It really is embarrassing. Jesus and Isaiah are telling us that in the contest between good and evil, it is when we close our eyes or go to sleep that it is time to get worried about evil winning. They are praying for something that will shake us up, stop us from being so consumed by what we are consuming.

I am going to be a bit discomforting myself and say that if someone is looking solely to feel comfortable, then Christianity might not be a good option to consider. God is always calling us to places that are not warm and safe, but is instead calling us to be a bit uncomfortable, like the guard in the gospel who knows that he has to keep awake throughout a long, cold night when what he really wants is to go home and crawl into a warm, down-comforter covered bed. As Jesus says, “Keep awake.” Keep awake to see how we are to treat other human beings. Keep awake to see how we are to treat the environment. Keep awake to see how we treat ourselves. Why? Well, for one thing, if we fail to see God and godliness in our neighbor, in the earth around us, or in our own bodies, then evil will start to take over.

Some days in Advent, as when I hear this lesson, I see God as an expectant father, pacing back and forth in the hallway and knowing that the world is about to see and experience something amazing, that is, God’s face in a child, of all things, goodness made incarnate. It is an appropriate image when the gospel lessons may be leading up to the birth of an infant in four weeks, but just as importantly these lessons are reminding us of the necessity to open our eyes and heart to see the kingdom of God in the here and now in order that good wins the contest over evil in our own age, not solely in the future, so that others will find some good news in their lives now. God did not come only once in Bethlehem; God is still coming to be among us today in some brand new ways, and our realization of that truth will move the very earth on which we stand.

You want some good news today? It is that a theophany of God just around the corner. It comes in the form of a child born in poverty who showed by his life that goodness will triumph. But it also comes in the form of a people that begins to see the hungry and the alien and the uninsured and the jobless as children of God, and then decides that goodness is going to win the battle in our own age. And it also comes in the form of people who see God in their own selves and who realize that they are the only voice that God has in the world, the body of Christ we call it. As a result of those Advent epiphanies the world will change. And one of these days someone will stand with a bullhorn on the busiest street corner imaginable and proclaim that the verdict is no longer out; in the contest between good and evil, goodness won. And the days of struggle, the days of fear will be over. That is what we are waiting for this Advent. Keep awake and watch it happen. Amen.

And may the peace of the Lord be always with you.

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