November 30, 2014 | The First Sunday of Advent

by the Rev. Robert C. Laird

As I began to put pen to paper
after reflecting on this week’s lessons,
it was a day that has come to be known as Black Friday,
the day after Thanksgiving,
on which early shoppers are rewarded
with special sales on consumer goods.

The term seems to have been coined in Philadelphia
in the early 1960’s,
when police were referring to the crush
of people and traffic shopping in Center City;
the term stuck, and spread to other cities,
having now taken hold of the entire country,
and having now even spread to the United Kingdom,
where customers had complained
that Amazon customers in the US had access to great deals
that the customers in the UK didn’t,
and has spread to the rest of the shopping public;
this is a country that doesn’t observe Thanksgiving,
and doesn’t have the day off,
like many in the US have.

I haven’t gone to a store on “Black Friday”
for years, personally…
I don’t think the savings are worth the aggravation,
so I avoid it like the plague.

But that’s a privilege that my family has;
we don’t have to go out into those awful crowds
and line up on Thanksgiving night,
or in the absurd early morning hours
to buy gifts for each other,
or to get a refrigerator, or washer and dryer
that we desperately need,
and that we otherwise couldn’t afford;
and our kids will have gifts under the tree either way,
so we choose to stay home,
because we can.

There are millions of people in this country who,
while I wrote this sermon,
were out shopping because they had to,
because if they didn’t,
there would be nothing under the tree,
or they’d have to do without a fridge,
and keep making do with a cooler
that they continue to fill with ice.
There are millions of people for whom
staying home on “Black Friday”
is a privilege they can’t afford.

But there are countless millions more
who spent the weekend shopping,
spending themselves silly
because that’s what’s done on Black Friday,
right? We spend, and get ready to show
the people that we love how we feel about them
through gift giving.

At least that’s what we’re meant to do,
that’s what the retailers want us to do.

We’ve even seen it grow from the weekend
into next week;
First it was Black Friday,
then Small Business Saturday joined the throng,
and tomorrow is Cyber Monday,
when online retailers attempt to coerce us
into shopping online
instead of whatever else we have to do on a Monday;
I guess the assumption is that everyone is at work,
and can afford to goof off for a while by shopping online.

It’s an entire pattern of life
that is set up by retailers
to get us to spend money;
one of the myths of the name “Black Friday”
is that it’s the day when retailers start turning a profit
for a given year;
they’re finally “in the black” on Black Friday,
and whatever they make for the rest of the year is profit.

It’s a compelling story, that;
makes us feel for the retailers,
want to help by shopping,
by patronizing their stores.

It’s also a bunch of marketing hype;
like I said, the Philly cops coined the term;
this is just an easier story to swallow.

The whole weekend, though,
and the rest of this coming month,
for that matter,
are all geared to get us to shop,
to prepare for Christmas by purchasing gifts,
to help the retail sector end the year on a strong note
by spending, and spending, and spending.

And it has nothing to do with Jesus.
It has everything to do with the powers that be,
and the kingdom of humanity,
not the kingdom of God.

Jesus is warning us about just that in today’s Gospel from Mark. Keep watch, he cries!
Stay awake!

And it’s hard to stay awake,
when the world wants us to sleep.

The Principalities and Powers
would love nothing more than for al of us to fall asleep,
because we’re easy to cajole that way,
we’re easy to flatter and lull
into doing what the Principalities and Powers want.

The best example I can come up with
is the time I spent working in prisons in Massachusetts.

The thing people rarely think about when they think of prison
is how incredibly, deeply, crushingly boring it is.

And it’s completely intentional.
Correctional institutions operate on routine
and boredom,
and they depend on both
for the safety of everyone in the system,
and to help control the inmates.

If your life is a series of routines,
you have less to think about;
you become accustomed to what is expected of you,
and you learn to do it,
because each day is like the last,
and each tomorrow is going to be like today.

But yet, in moments,
there are bursts of light and sound that cut through;
cut through the monotony,
cut through the routine,
cut through the boredom,
and sparkle, even if just for a second.

Take the film The Shawshank Redemption;
the moment when Andy Dufrense,
the central character in the film,
plays a duet from the opera “The Marriage of Figaro”
by Mozart over the prison’s loudspeakers,
and everyone in the entire prison stops what they’re doing
to stare at the speakers and listen to the gorgeous music;
it’s a moment when something smashes into the boredom,
and overtakes the monotony of the moment,
when the schedule and the agenda of the world
stops for a minute,
and beauty bursts through to capture the moment.

That’s what Jesus is begging us to be ready for:
for those moments when beauty,
or love, or truth, or Jesus’ own self,
breaks through the fog to capture our hearts,
and radically reorient our lives.

It’s a spectacular thing when it happens,
both the scene in the movie,
and the actual inbreaking of God into our lives.

Now when Mark was writing this story down,
and the first Christians to read it
were laying eyes on it for the first time,
they all remembered the recent sacking of Jerusalem,
and the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD,
which had just happened;
this story wasn’t about their future,
it was about their past.

Mark’s first readers had already seen the moment in which
“the sun would be darkened
and the moon not give up its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken…”
they were in the middle of living that time;

And when Jesus says
“this generation will not pass away
until all these things have taken place,”
those first readers had already seen it;
they saw the temple torn down,
they saw Jerusalem sacked,
they saw everything they loved turned to dust.

This story isn’t so much about a particular time,
a particular moment in the future
when these events will take place;
rather, this Gospel from Jesus
is about the many times,
over and over again,
when we, as Christians,
find ourselves confronting darkness,
and are looking for Christ’s light to break through,
a shard of hope piercing the glowering despair;
and Christ says keep awake,
that hope is coming,
it always comes;
Christ is on the way.

And this is a message that we desperately need to hear.

The powers that be are always trying to lull us to sleep
by convincing us that they have our best interests in mind,
that they are looking out for us,
and that we can stop paying attention;
but as Christians, we can’t stop paying attention;
we are called to keep awake, to watch.

We are called to pay attention to the privileges
we are afforded by the powers that be,
trying to coax us into complacency;
and I’ll use my own privileges to illustrate the point:
I’m called to look at the privilege of my affluence,
that I can afford not to leave my family at Thanksgiving
either because I have to work because my employer
has decided to be open on Thanksgiving Day,
or because my family income is so insecure that I have to shop the sales, or risk having nothing for my kids.

I’m called to look a the privilege I have as a religious leader,
the ways in which the world responds to me differently
because I’m a priest,
and what they think that means about me,
especially in a part of the world
which increasingly doesn’t care about Jesus,
or religion at all,
but still defers to the clergy collar.

I’m called to look at the privilege I have as a white person:
I am racially profiled all the time,
by every cop who sees me,
and they never give me a second thought,
because I’m white;
there has never been a time when I couldn’t get away
with mouthing off to a cop,
no matter how bad an idea that may be;
there has never been a time
when I was followed at a department store,
or asked to state my business in an office building,
or had guns drawn on me by police
simply because I was black,
which happens to African Americans all the time,
as they keep telling us lately,
in so many different ways.

We’re all, as Christians, called to look at our privileges,
because these privileges are part of how
evil insinuates itself in the world.

If we are comfortable in our privileges,
then evil can work in the world around us
against those who don’t have those same privileges.

If we are content in our privileges,
then the powers that be can take advantage of those
who don’t have any privileges.

If we are comfortable in our privileges,
then we can be lulled to sleep,
and we won’t be awake when
the master of the house will come.

And it has happened often enough in living memory
that we should have learned by now:
the entire second World War
is a case study in complacency allowing evil to flourish;
the world convinced itself
that Germany couldn’t really be exterminating Jews.

And Germany’s Final Solution isn’t even the most recent example:
Croatia, the Congo, Nigeria,
Lybia, Laos, Cambodia, Rwanda;
it keeps happening, over and over.

But here’s the hope:
We believe in a crucified Christ,
who has died for all sins, the world over,
and we hear in today’s Gospel
of that same Christ returning,
the shard of hope in the glowering despair,
and we believe Christ has the power to heal all wounds,
and we believe Christ’s love is enough for the whole world,
and we believe that Christ’s love can transform
the brokenness of our society, of our world,
and make it better for everyone.

That’s why we’re here today:
to drink from the cup of Christ,
to be energized for going back into a world
that is tragically broken,
a world that evil has more than enough room
to insinuate itself in,
and to go into that world with Christ’s love in our hearts
and to let that love heal the world’s brokenness,
because that love is the only thing strong enough
to transform our hurting into joy.

Christ is calling us to pay attention to what’s happening,
and to stay awake,
today and every day.

We’ll be talking about this more in the coming weeks,
as we look to Christ’s return,
and to Christ’s nativity;
that’s what Advent is about: looking ahead.

And there’s hope and love and joy ahead,
when Christ is what we’re looking ahead to.

I look forward to continuing the conversation with you
as we journey through Advent together.