Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sermon: Prepare to be Unprepared

Greetings in the name of Jesus!
Today is the first day of the season of Advent, which also means it is the first day of a new year on the Christian calendar.
And so I would like to begin by greeting you, brothers and sisters, with the words, Happy New Year!

Celebrating the New Year in November seems awkward,
it seems out of step with the order of the secular world.
That’s the point.
While commercial America has been preparing for Christmas sales since the day after Halloween
it is in these four short Sundays before Christmas that we prepare to commemorate the coming Christ Child.
Additionally we prepare our hearts and minds for Christ’s coming again.
For the next three Wednesday’s we will, along with Holy Nativity Episcopal, be meeting at 6 o’clock to prepare ourselves for Christmas through a common meal, a bible study, a discussion, and worship.
Advent is a time of preparation.
Yet, I hear in today’s scriptures,
and in the collective wisdom of God’s faithful people from this and every age,
the words, “Prepare to be unprepared.”
Let us pray.
Lord God, prepare the lips of the preacher, prepare the hearts of the hearers, that the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts may be acceptable in your sight.
“Prepare to be unprepared.”
I must admit when I read about God’s interactions with people in scripture I sometimes say to myself, “I could do better than that.”
If I’d been Monoah, Samson’s father, I would have known I was entertaining an angel in my midst.
If I was Zecheriah I would have known enough not to talk back to Gabriel.
I look at Judges chapter 13 and know that throughout scripture encounters with men of God often become encounters with the Angel of the Lord, which in turn become encounters with God.
So when Monoah’s wife describes the man of God she met as, “like an angel of God.”
When the man’s first words to Monoah are the same as God’s first words to Moses, “I am,”
when the man of God says his name is “too wonderful”
I am truly baffled as to why he wasn’t prepared to encounter God.
Yet, in response to my smug self-assurance I can hear Monoah’s voice being cast across centuries and millennia. I can hear him saying, “Prepare to be unprepared.”
I look at the opening of the Gospel of Luke and am annoyed at a priest who is surprised
No more than that! terrified! when the LORD acts in the LORD’s sanctuary.
I am dismayed at his doubt directed toward Gabriel’s words.
Has he not read of Sarah and Abraham bearing Isaac,
Hannah and Elkanah bearing Samuel,
and Monoah and his wife bearing Samson?
How could he not have been prepared for God’s action
Yet, I can hear an answer to this too.
I can hear Zecheriah’s voice transcending the barriers of space and time. I can hear him saying, “Prepare to be unprepared.”

Prepare to be unprepared because human reality is contingent and human nature is not inclined to prepare.

Human reality is contingent. We are not masters of our own destiny and we cannot know our future.
Other than in the present—in this very moment—we are blind.
Take for example Rom Houben.
In 1986 he fell into a comma and only recently re-awakened.
Imagine all the things he could not have known,
all the contingencies he could not have expected. There was no way he could know history would turn out the way it has.
In 1986 Afghanistan was occupied by the Soviet Union,
now America occupies Afghanistan and the USSR no longer exists.
In 1986 the Mir was launched,
now it’s a charred piece of charcoal in the bottom of the South Pacific.
In 1986 Desmond Tutu became the first black Bishop in the Anglican Church of South Africa,
now he’s an archbishop and one of the most respected clergymen in the world.
In 1986 the Oriels played in Memorial Stadium, the Baltimore Sun wasn’t the only newspaper in the city, and 100,000 more people lived in Baltimore than do today.
Or lets hit a bit closer to home.
Since it is our New Year let’s think of all those things we were unprepared for over this last liturgical year.
A year ago the son of a former president and a descendent of the 14th president of the United States was still in the White House.
Now the son of a Kenyan economist and an American anthropologist holds the office of president. Prepare to be unprepared.
Who would have thought there would be an attempted student led revolution against Iran’s government?

Who would have thought North Korea would be declared “a full fledged nuclear power?”
Who had even heard of H1N1 a year ago?
And who would have thought Michael Jackson would be dead?

A year ago we didn’t know how the ELCA would vote on the sexuality study.
We didn’t know Bishop Knocke was going to retire.
For that matter about a year ago I sent a friend to sneak a look at the worship services of a Lutheran church I applied to do internship at.
She said St. John’s looked like the perfect place for me and couldn’t wait for me to come.
That was St. John’s Lutheran Church in Seattle Washington. Prepare to be unprepared.
But even if we knew what to prepare for we wouldn’t.
No, its not in our nature. Humans are ambiguous, confusing, dizzying, creatures—even as we are declared daughters and sons of the living God.
We are like a child who knows his homework is due in the morning, but assumes there will be a snow day,
even though its only November.
We know it is right to prepare, but would just as soon tell the teacher that the dog ate our homework.
Its like we have a civil war going on inside us.
It is this conflict within us that Martin Luther King Junior called the “schizophrenia of man.”
It is this conflict that author William Falkner says, “alone makes good writing, because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”
It is this conflict that Jungian psychologists call the “realization of the shadow self” and Freudians discuss as the interaction between the Id and Superego.
Robert Lewis Stevenson personifies this conflict in his book The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Reformer Martin Luther said of this conflict that we are Simul Justus et pecator, simultaneously justified and sinner.
The Apostle Paul writes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” In the beginning—at the start of Genesis humanity is made from dirt enlivened with God’s breath. We are a mess of mud and spirit.

And where does that leave us?
If we aren’t able to prepare because we don’t know what to prepare for, and we don’t want to prepare anyway?
We’re in the same place Monoah and Zecheriah were. We have to prepare to be unprepared.
We turn to God. We let go and let God.
Like Monoah we will entertain angels unaware. We will run into situations where our burnt offerings become vehicles for messengers of God to kiss the face of heaven.
Like Zechariah we will have lots cast for us that will lead us to the Holy of Holies and God will be there. We will at times be silenced by the strength of the promise of God.
Don’t mishear me now.
I’m not saying we don’t prepare in this time of preparation—this advent of the Christ.

I’m saying in our preparation we need to be ready for God to do whatever God’s going to do.
In this time of Advent prepare for Christ by entering his word, by reading his scriptures.
But know its scripture because it speaks of God’s faithful actions and God’s faithfulness.
In this time of Advent prepare for Christ by partaking in communion, by eating the bread of heaven and drinking the cup of salvation, and by hearing the most melodious words a pastor can say, “for you.”
But know its God’s promise that makes this meal marvelous.
In this time of Advent prepare for Christ by vigorously remembering your Baptism.
But know its God’s declaration “this is my beloved child” that makes it so.
In this time of Advent prepare for Christ by acting with justice and mercy—as Christ’s body in the world.
But know that as we act God is saying to us, “I was hungry and you fed me.”
In this time of Advent prepare for Christ by loving one another and bearing one another’s burdens.
But know always hear the words of Christ, “where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there.”
In this time of Advent prepare for Christ by sharing the good news.
But know whose news it is.

Yet, on this Advent, even these things, scripture, sacraments, solidarity, and evangelism,
even the birth of Samson and John in barren wombs cannot prepare us for what is to come.
In this barren world, shackled by sin, death, and the devil, we await the birth of God’s son even as we await his return.
Prepare to be unprepared!

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