Home for Christmas: Upward longing
112821 Luke 21:25-36 Home for Christmas: Upward longing
A few summers ago I traveled with our daughter, Anna, to visit the McDonald Observatory in West Texas. It was around midnight, and a group of us were gathered outside of a small room that housed a huge telescope.
A few of us at a time would enter the room, and the astronomer, Shannon, would show us one star or cluster after another, letting us peer through the powerful lens as he identified what we were marveling at. Meanwhile everyone else waited outside, taking in a night sky full of stars that seemed close enough to stir with a stick.
About halfway through the session, Shannon stuck his head out the door. It’s rattlesnake season, he said, with not a hint of humor. They like to come out at night to warm themselves on the asphalt. We’ve already spotted a few the last several days. So just be careful where you step. Then he called the next few viewers in and closed the door behind them. The rest of us looked at each other, knowing what everyone else was thinking. First, Now he tells us! And second, What do we do now? Look up? Or look down?
There we were, torn between studying the sky for stars and studying the ground for snakes. That seems to me a pretty good description of one of life’s chief dilemmas: choosing between wonder and worry; between aspiration and apprehension. Between giving our energy either to what we dream or to what we dread. Am I going to savor this moment or am I going to think instead about everything about it that’s not perfect?
It’s descriptive of our lives, and certainly of our lives during the season of Advent. There are so many ways during this season for us to put our heads down and burrow through. Either busy with plans and preparations and purchases; or maybe nursing a cynicism that keeps us so busy critiquing everything, suspecting everything there’s no time left to enjoy, to wonder, to delight. Or maybe we burrow through the season with a genuine sense of discouragement over the challenges we face in our lives and families, or in society, or globally. There are a lot of ways to miss the stars for fear of the snakes.
Today’s text from Luke gives us what is known as an apocalyptic message, one that forecasts future events, often in cryptic and cosmic terms. We find such writings in Daniel, and in Revelation, of course. And also here. There’s a particularly interesting feature in Jesus’ message here. Twice he makes reference to our visual orientation: Stand to your full height, he says; and then, Lift your heads. The poet Sylvia Plath once put it this way: Haul my eyelids up and grant a brief respite from fear of total neutrality.
There’s more to Jesus’ words in this passage than a cosmic prediction about the future. This is also a message about now, about here, about this, about us. How we are to live in the light of an anticipated future in which Christ will mysteriously come into the world in glory? If we were to suggest a meaning it might be this: Don’t trade the breathtaking stars for the possible snakes.
When I said a moment ago that one of the ways we burrow through this season with heads bent over is with busyness, I was including myself there during what we call in our line of work our busy season. You have yours, too, I’m sure.
As we all know, in a busy season it is quite possible to take the planning, the tasks, the deadlines so seriously that we miss the delight, the joy, the wonder. I remember years ago paying a quick visit to my parents’ home in mid-December during the thick of all things Advent.
I happened to glance at a festive-looking book on their coffee table that I am quite sure my mother didn’t put there as a message to me; but she certainly could have. Written by one of our bishops, Melvin Wheatley, it was titled Christmas Is for Celebrating. The title was all I needed to remind me to rise to my full height, to lift my head, to pay more heed during the busy season to the swirling stars than to rumors of snakes.
Another meaning is suggested here by Jesus’ admonition to rise to our full height and lift our head. Besides enjoying the stars, we are to navigate by their light.
The world waits to know peace, reconciliation, safety, healing, hope. To raise our heads on behalf of those who are weighed down, those Jesus called the least of these, is also part of the work of preparing for his advent among us.
I was introduced to Bishop Wheatley from my parents’ wonderful little coffee table book. Only later did I learn that as a pastor and bishop he was an early advocate for inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church; that he challenged the Japanese internment camps during WWII; that as a pastor he welcomed Jewish congregations to use his church facility in West LA while they were building their synagogues; that he worked tirelessly toward cross-cultural and cross-racial understanding and equity.
To celebrate is also to advocate. To celebrate is also to serve. To celebrate is to enjoy the stars, and then to employ them for charting a path toward a better world. Every epiphany after all is part wonder and part vocation.
Don Quixote de la Mancha, in Cervantes’ brilliant masterpiece of fiction, is a valiant but delusional knight that jousts with windmills, rescues those who aren’t in need of rescuing, sees a barber’s shaving bowl as a golden helmet, and otherwise demonstrates starry notions of the knight’s noble quest. From this story comes our word “quixotic,” which means idealistic, dreamy, even naïve. When challenged by his detractors, who call him deranged, deluded, positively mad, Don Quixote replies, “Perhaps the maddest thing of all is to see the world as it is and not as it ought to be.”
Friends, Rise to your full heights, lift your heads, and see the world as it ought to be. Let your upward longing be for all creation, cautious not to advance the fiction that everything is just fine; but also cautious not to advance the fiction that nothing is. This we call the already/not yet tension of the Christian faith, and of Advent hope, what Niebuhr called hopeful realism. Christ is yearned for, longed for, hoped for, even as Christ is also already among us in wonder, love, and joy.
112 years ago today, on Sunday, November 28th, 1909, the First Sunday of Advent, Laurel Heights Methodist Church was born. A few dozen dreamers met in the newly rented parsonage on 314 W Magnolia Avenue for their very first Sunday gathering, and on that hope-filled day formed the congregation that was to become . . . us. On the dedication page of the history book that records that milestone Sunday are the words of the poet Edward Everett Hale. They could have been drawn from Luke chapter 21: Look up and not down . . . look forward and not back, and lend a hand.
Placed where they are on that opening page of our history, those words are meant to describe the spirit of a brand new church, something of its character and DNA both in that inaugural season, and ever after. In other words, they describe who we are, too, and who we aspire to be.
People of Laurel Heights, rise to your full height. Lift your heads. Look up and not down; forward and not back, and lend a hand. Celebrate and advocate. Celebrate and serve. Take in the stars, and in the season that awaits us, one star in particular. See where it will lead us to bend our knee in honor of the Christ child, and go there.