Today the rain falls softly.  Much needed.  As a young boy, I remember looking out my parent’s bedroom window which opened to the front yard.  Watching the rain fall and hoping that it would fill most of the street.  That meant school would be canceled.  That meant I could delight in a gentle day of reading, building something with my plastic blocks and listening to the classical records my dad had bought me when the store below his office had gone out of business.  A favorite was “Cappriccio Italien” by Tchaikovsky.  From time to time I would go back to the window to make sure the street was full.  Yes, school will be canceled again tomorrow.  This was a most cherished time.

As the rain falls softly, I write.  No anticipatory Christmas madness.  In this time of Advent preparation, I wonder if we are ready to put aside distraction and enmity.  Might we be ready to hear the words from the prophet Isaiah?  “…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

Are we ready for the Prince of Peace?  Are we ready for a world turned upside down?  That’s what Fred Rodgers did to children’s TV.   Yesterday Jai and I went to see the film, “Mr. Rogers” starring Tom Hanks.  At first, I was somewhat skeptical that Tom Hanks could pull it off.  But, only a little bit into the picture, I was captured.  From Mr. Rogers putting on his sweater and changing into sneakers, all of us would be invited into a special time.  Everything slows down and we wait with anticipation for Mr. Rogers’ regulars: King Friday XIII, Mr. McFeely, Daniel Tiger or Lady Aberlin.  Advent is always a special time.  Like watching from my parent’s bedroom window at the soft rain falling on a gray, quiet day when I was a boy.

That is what I wish for every Advent.  That soft, gentle time of preparation.  Time alone with my own thoughts.  Time alone with a message of Hope.

There are endings and beginnings.  Yesterday, I learned that my friend in West Virginia huddled with a few friends in a hospital room as her husband was read his last rites.  In the days to come there will be sadness and loneliness.  There will be friends to comfort and hold her.  Family will gather.  There will be a service of solemnity in her church.  There will be the comfort of ritual and familiar words.  A time of loss.  A time filled with the mystery of grief.  Advent time.  Silence.  Endings and inchoate beginnings  –preparation for a new life to unfold for my friend.

We in the church, like Tom Hanks, need to learn to slow it down if we are going to enter the wonder of this season.  Just like Tom Hanks had to slow way down to be Mr. Rogers.  Listen to some good music.  Read a good book.  Go for a walk.  Be in silence.  Be open for an opportunity for making the world a better place.

As I left the supermarket the other day, I heard a faint bell tinkling.  High pitched as it grabbed the attention of shoppers to that familiar Salvation Army kettle.  It’s that time of the year, a time for giving.

The boys are grown, no need to stock up on toys.  You know the line, “some assembly needed.”  Yeah, that and an advanced degree in engineering.  Oh, yes, patience, too.  I’m glad those days are over.  Now Heffer International will, in my name, bring a goat or some chickens to a family in rural Tanzania or Kenya, Columbia or some other far-away place.  That will be the boys’ present.  Though it’s small, it brings a minor measure of joy to my heart as I send off my order.

As I prepare to head out to West Virginia to meet with prospective donors to House of Hope – and with several right here in Southern California — I pray for generous hearts and open billfolds.  The tragedy of overdose does not skip Christmas preparations.  This, too, is part of my Advent preparation this year.  I give thanks that I remain of sound enough body and mind to make the trip and contribute to someone’s recovery.  I give thanks for those who have joined in this effort.

Yes, there will be Advent cooking.  A bag of Granny Smith apples awaits transformation into homemade apple sauce.  Persimmon pudding – Jai’s specialty – it’s to die for.  Covered with hot lemon sauce.  We anticipate Christopher’s arrival this year with Alexis.  In preparation for the twenty-fifth, family and any guests will spend the coming days cooking up a storm.  I can still see in my mind’s eye a young Jonathan scrapping the cooked onions into the trash.  “Jonathan, what are you doing?” I demand with dismay.  “Dad, no one likes onjins,” came the reply.

As I anticipate the opening hymn for this Sunday, “O Come, O Come, Emanuel,” my mind goes to the gift of the awaited Christ Child.  As my Christmas coffee cup says, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” 

And what is this godly Christmas gift, so long awaited?  Yes, “O Come, O Come, Emanuel.”  God with us.

Today, it’s still raining, coming down in buckets.  Is this the beginning of the great flood of which Matthew speaks?  Is this a time of impending disaster we ignore to our peril?  As in the days of Noah?  When people went about their business oblivious to the darkening clouds and pelting drops?  Do not be caught unawares like them.

It looks like we are far into denial.  Elizabeth Rush in her book, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, depicts in starkest terms the waters that all around us are rising.  If ever there was a planetary Advent warning![1]

Right out of the Bob Dylan song book:

And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone[2]

Yet we continue as if nothing were amiss, just as those in Noah’s day.  Elizabeth tells the story of one science teacher trying to convey the seriousness of the situation to a classroom of teenagers in South Florida.

Harold Wanless, or Hal, lectures to about sixty students in his geology classroom at the University of Miami on sea level rise.

“Only seven percent of the heat being trapped by greenhouse gasses is stored in the atmosphere,” Hal begins.  “Do you know where the other ninety-three percent lives?”  One teenager rubs sleep from her eyes while the student behind her roots around in his briefcase for a granola bar.  No one raises a hand.  “In the ocean,” Hal continues.  That heat is expanding the ocean, which is contributing to sea level rise…” [3]

Hal, who is in his seventies, says “the same damn thing” five days a week.  No one seems overly concerned that the warmer water is seeping under the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, causing them to melt faster than anyone had predicted.  Causing ocean rise to speed up ever more.

Like a thief in the night,

Christ with us in stories of today’s Wise Men and Wise Women    still seeking divine inspiration and offering peculiar gifts in his honor.  With us, in angelic joy sung from any old mountain top.  With us, in wonderful stories full of grace and hope — a story of a waiting father’s welcome back for a wastrel son who’s lost it all in addiction and bad choices.  With us, in a story of the joy of a lost coin found, a story of a miraculous cure at a pool in Bethsaida in a far-away land.  And Jesus’ only question being, “Do you want to be healed?”  The only question asked of each one of us.  O Lord, this year especially, we so need to be healed.

This is the gift we wait to open this Advent with the anticipation of the hungriest hearts.  The Advent message to each is, in the very same words of Mr. Rogers, “I like you just the way you are.”  Jesus’ message to the entire planet.  To all.  No exceptions.

The power of those very words, the power of God’s gift this Advent – power of the entire message and life of Jesus – it’s enough to turn the world upside down.  Power is what love looks like in the public square.  Power grown out of solidarity for the common good.  That, too, is the shape of Advent hope.

Tonight, at our holiday party, the Democratic Club of Claremont will recognize the work of Gene Boutilier.  Gene is steeped in Isaiah’s teaching.  He is the embodiment of the Peaceable Kingdom.  His whole ministry has been one of turning spears to pruning hooks, shields into plow shears.  More accurately, greed into worker security.  Gene offers a Master Class in turning the world upside down.

Gene was an original troublemaker, beginning with the sixties.  He worked in the fields and in the offices of the United Farm Workers Union.  He was organizing in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley during the time Jai and I had grape strike workers from Delano living with us in L.A.  Later, Gene worked in Los Angeles to solve the problems of homelessness.  He was staff for the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C.  In his spare moments he served several congregations of the United Church of Christ.  Gene is the incarnate word of hope, of possibility.  For Gene, every day is the day of Christ’s arrival.  Hope arriving as alluring as fresh baked bread just out of the oven.  Si se puede.  Yes, you can!

When St. Paul writes, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.”  It is that divine love we await this Advent season.  But more than await, we work for it.  As Gene has done all his life.  We work for that love with all our being.

My favorite hymn in this season is Bach’s tune to “Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying; the Watchmen on the heights are crying, Awake…”  Yes, Christ comes fresh every day, like the beckoning smell of morning coffee, not like a thief to break in and destroy, but as Love incarnate to refresh and renew.  Wake up!  It’s a happening. Now, in 3D and in living color.  No commercial interruptions.

Sometimes Christ looks like a union organizer and now and then, Christ comes to the side of a hospital bed in the form of a surgeon. A surgeon who has done everything possible to save his patient, and yet watches her slowly sink into a coma.  At his wits end, in desperation, this doctor took hold of his patient, Helen’s hand.  In the words of Dr. Youn:

I pulled a chair next to her bed and, purely by instinct, grabbed her hand … I did the only thing I could think to do. I prayed to God to please help Helen. I didn’t know if God or anyone was listening, but I didn’t know what else to do.[4]

After ten days, Helen was off the ventilator and sitting up in her bed when he dropped by.

This Advent, might we prepare daily with all our being to receive the Holy in our midst, the Christ Child seeking to be born again to expectant hearts – to sanctify our journeys ahead.  Born again also to expectant hands and feet, and wallets and credit cards.

Whether it’s on a union picket line or in a hospital ICU room, Jesus again approaches on little cat’s feet.  Silently, gently.  To turn the world upside down.

And yes, Helen’s Christmas present?  How did that work out for her?  At eighty, she now has, hopefully, a good number of years remaining to pay Dr. Youn’s loving care forward.

Helen gestured for me to come closer. “I want to tell you something, Dr. Youn,” she said.

“What’s that?”

“I knew.”

I must have looked confused because Helen pushed herself forward a little and said with quiet urgency, “I knew that you came in every day and held my hand. That made a big difference. I looked forward to seeing you every day. I just want to say, thank you.”

“I was just doing my job,” I said.[5]

That could be said as well of our coming Lord.  “I was just doing my job.”  And so, might we all reply this Advent, “Just doing my job.”  Si se puede.  Amen

[1] Elizabeth Rush, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Milkweed Editions, 2018).

[2] Bob Dylan, “The Times They are A-Changing,” Warner Bros., 1963.

[3] Rush, op. cit., p. 73.

[4] Anthony Youn, M.D., “I’m A Surgeon. Here’s What Happened When I Held My Patient’s Hand and Prayed For Her,” Huffpost, November 30, 2019.

[5] Ibid.

Preached at St. Francis Episcopal Mission Outreach, San Bernardino

Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 24:36-44

First Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2019

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

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