Sunday, December 6, 2009

2nd Sunday of Advent

In our first reading, from the prophet Baruch,
we are presented with a vision of the return of the Israelites to the promised land
from their exile in Babylon.
We know from the book of Ezra that the return of the exiles
was not that of triumphant victors,
but of a divided and dispirited people,
plagued by economic woes and threatened by hostile neighbors.
And yet Baruch presents this return as a glorious one.
Indeed, in today’s reading the word “glory” is used six times.
God is glorious, shining forth in mercy and justice,
but the Israelites too are glorious:
indeed, Jerusalem is called to share in God’s glory,
which is like a cloak that she is to wrap around herself,
having put off her garments of mourning.

So who is right, Baruch or Ezra?
Was the return from exile a glorious one,
or was it really a disheveled band of displaced people straggling home,
beset by troubles and bickering among themselves
and otherwise acting in all-too recognizably human ways?

I am not sure we need to choose.
I suspect Ezra is more or less accurate
in his depiction of the disarray of the returning exiles,
but Baruch the prophet offers us a different sort of vision,
the kind of vision that only a prophet can have,
the kind of vision that can discern the glory of God in the most unlikely of events,
the kind of vision that sees God’s glory
even in the stumbling and all-too recognizably human return of these exiles.
Because Baruch knows that in this event
the most unlikely of things has happened:
God has made a way home for his people.
The prophetic eye can see glory
in the all-too recognizably human struggle of the returning exiles
because it sees that God is present.

What would it mean to look with the same prophetic eye
at our own community here at Corpus Christi?
Like the returning exiles, we too are all-too recognizably human;
even when we are on our best and most self-consciously “churchy” behavior –
when we gather to celebrate the liturgy –
our human limitations seem at times more manifest than God’s glory.
As any liturgical minister will tell you, during the liturgy, stuff happens –
stuff that you hadn't planned on.
You read the wrong reading as a lector,
or mangle the name of some Bronze Age potentate from Assyria.
You drop the host when you are a minister of the Eucharist,
or realize half-way through communion that you've been administering the chalice
with the words, "the body of Christ."
You are leading the the prayer of the faithful and realize in the middle of it
that the carefully thought-out and theologically profound response
you had so carefully prepared
is in fact too long and too quirky for the congregation to remember.
These examples spring to mind because they are all things that I have done.
For me, a particularly memorable moment came last Easter when,
after the gifts of bread and wine has been brought forward
and I had filled the first chalice,
I discovered that the wine was full of ants.
Often such mistakes go unnoticed by the congregation,
though they seem momentous to the minister.
But as anyone who has had a role in serving the liturgy will tell you,
that’s just how liturgical ministry is:
we prepare, we do our best, but sometimes things go wrong,
so we accept our all-too recognizably human imperfections,
and perhaps long for the heavenly liturgy,
where every voice will be in tune,
every word spoken eloquently,
every movement executed gracefully.

Of course, the all-too recognizably human imperfections of our worship
are not limited to liturgical faux pas.
The true imperfection of our worship
is our falling short in faith, hope and, especially, love.
The true imperfection of our worship
is not the mispronounced name,
but the unkindly spoken word;
not the inadvertently dropped the host,
but willfully ignored neighbor;
not the ill-chosen prayer response,
but the hardness of heart that turns us away from prayer altogether.
In short, our worship is imperfect
because we fail to be a people who, in the words of the prophet Micah,
do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before God.
This is why we begin our worship by acknowledging our sins
and asking for God’s grace and mercy.

Yet despite all this,
we believe it is in our limited, imperfect, error-prone liturgical celebrations
that God comes to meet us,
that the glory of Jesus Christ shines forth in our midst,
and we catch a glimpse of that perfect heavenly liturgy.
It is through hands that all too often fail to do God’s will
and voices that all too often fail to speak God’s good news
that we sinners worship the God of grace and mercy.
And this is possible not because of what we do,
but because of what Christ does.
Last week Fr. Rich spoke of the confidence that we can have that,
despite the turmoil in our world and within ourselves,
Christ is with us.
In the liturgy, Christ becomes flesh and dwells among us.
When we gather as Christians for worship and proclaim the mystery of faith
in words both ancient and new,
when we move beyond words and enact that same mystery
through the language of ritual,
we can have confidence that Christ is present,
speaking and acting with us,
speaking and acting for us.
It is this presence that takes from us our cloak of mourning
and wraps us in the cloak of God’s glory.

Julian of Norwich said that
“As the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin,
and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the chest,
so are we, soul and body,
clad in the goodness of God and enclosed in it” (A Revelation of Love, ch. 6).
We – a poor, disheveled and all-too recognizably human band of pilgrims –
gather weekly in this place
and speak our imperfect words of prayer
and make our imperfect gestures of peace and. . .
wonder of wonders,
Jesus Christ stands with us in our midst
and clothes us in the robe of his own glory
and, perhaps for just a moment,
we feel the weight of that glory resting on our shoulders,
and we know in that moment
that we truly are clad and enclosed in the goodness of God.