I had a bad-attitude day on Friday. I say a “bad-attitude day” and not a “bad day” because objectively, by every measure, Friday was a very good day. I got to work from home. It was a beautiful, sunny spring day. I played board games online with dear friends I haven’t seen in person in over a year. And I came to church in the quiet and the evening light to pray. But despite everything objectively seeming quite lovely, I was in a snit pretty much from the word go. I felt resentful and put-upon. I felt smothered by obligations when all I wanted was for the world to leave me alone. And round about the time I was dragging myself resentfully downstairs to the car to come to church for Evening Prayer, I started to lecture myself. You have no earthly reason to feel this way, I sensibly pointed out. You chose this work and these relationships. And there can be no argument that by any objective measure, your life is not only “not that bad,” it’s pretty damn privileged. So what are you whining about?
A period of forty days is significant in scripture, and is repeated over and over:
We heard in the Penitential Rite on Ash Wednesday that the forty days of Lent are the Church’s preparation for the great feast at Easter, and that that preparation takes the form of “self-examination and repentance, prayer, fasting and self-denial, and reading and meditation on God’s holy Word” (BCP pp. 611-612).
Genesis 7 – in the great flood, rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.
Exodus 24 – Moses was on the mountain with God forty days and forty nights.
Numbers 13 – the Hebrew spies were in in the land of Canaan forty days.
1 Samuel 17 – the giant Goliath tormented the Israelite army for forty days before David killed him.
1 Kings 19 – when Elijah was on the run from Jezebel, an angel fed him a meal of bread and water, and on the strength of it he walked forty days from Beer-Sheba to Mount Horeb.
Jonah 3 – Jonah’s prophecy to Nineveh was that they had forty days to repent.
And Mark tells us in his Gospel that after Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River, he went into the wilderness for forty days and was tempted by Satan.
If you follow the schedule for the Psalter as it is laid out in the Book of Common Prayer, you would have read Psalm 106 last Thursday evening. It’s a long psalm – 48 verses. The purpose of the song was to remind Israel of their history, of who they were as a people. Beginning at the Red Sea, it moves through the history of the nation, reminding the listener of events they had been learning about all their lives, as they were set down in the Pentateuch.
Here are some of the highlights of Jewish history as recounted by Psalm 106:
Thirty or so years ago, my aunt and uncle were pastors of a little church in Calgary, and for a while they did this show on one of the local public access tv stations. I don’t remember very much about it. I think they played music and sang and preached. They probably had guests on. It was 100 Huntley Street without the production value. But I do have one clear memory about their show. When their oldest grandchild was born, my aunt did a segment where she held him in her arms while she read scriptures and talked about the hope and promise that he represented to her. That baby, firstborn of her firstborn, held for her in his tiny being at that moment all the promises of God for the future of her family.
As a nine-year-old I found all this vaguely embarrassing. My aunt on tv talking like she’d invented being a grandparent. And sure, baby Jordan was cute and all, but he was just a baby. There were already a bunch of us kids running around. No one else talked about how the future of the world rested on our shoulders. Still, this particular memory has stayed vivid for me. I carry that image of her holding Jordan and looking into the camera, her belief in God’s promises for her future shining out of her. She is what I always imagine when I read this story of Simeon and Anna.
We spend a great deal of our lives waiting. Waiting for it to be lunchtime. Waiting in line. Waiting for our vacation to start. Waiting to grow up. And now, waiting for a vaccine. For we creatures who exist in time, “now” is always fleeting, and it is easier to live in our minds either in the past or the future.
I envy the writers of stories. They have the option of simply skimming over in a few sentences the time their characters spend waiting for something to happen. At the stroke of a key, they can make days, weeks, or months go by for their people. They only have to linger when something’s going on. But real life often seems the exact reverse of that, isn’t it?
In Advent, we are called to practice waiting well. Advent is about practicing real presence in this uncomfortable, in-between time where we hold in tension the first coming of Jesus, fleshed and vulnerable as any human, and the second coming of Jesus, the Word that establishes the world, in all his glory and majesty. The question Advent prompts for Christians is: what does it mean to wait well?
I was listening to the Mockingbird podcast this week, and the host quoted from an online newsletter called “The Unfurling,” written by a woman called Mo Perry. In this article, Perry talks about the strange times we are living in, and how it has affected us. She says: “Everyone is doing their own calculus when making their choices about how to live these days. Some have concluded — by evaluating their personal risk factors and interpreting the news headlines and local public health stats — that they don’t want to go into shops or walk outdoors in crowded areas. They want to get their groceries and other essentials delivered, stay in, and minimize contact with others.
Others have looked at their own constellation of factors and needs, and come to different conclusions. There’s a huge spectrum of ways people feel about the right balance between sensible precautions and what they need to do for their own economic, mental, physical, and relational wellbeing.
It seems to me that the vast majority of us are trying to navigate our individual circumstances as responsibly as possible, even if one person’s idea of what that looks like for them is different from another’s.
The virus is one thing that can hurt us, but there are others. Fear, shame, loneliness, anxiety, depression, poverty, isolation…I posed this question on Facebook and Twitter: “Do you feel like you have to hide (or are less inclined to share) pleasurable or fun activities you do outside your home?” The answers were striking. The folks who said no all explained that they’re not doing anything risky, so they have nothing to hide.
A lot of other folks said yes. And the reasons they gave were only partially about [being] risk-sham[ed]; they also mentioned wanting to be seen as appropriately somber in these dark times.
All this seems to add up to a new relationship we’ve communally developed with social media. It’s a place we go to demonstrate our goodness, display our adherence to the rules, and show our fealty to the approved positions on social issues.
Our real lives — the parts that are messy, fun, joyful, playful, morally ambiguous, less than perfectly ethically vetted — stay in the shadows.”
We are approaching the end of Ordinary Time. We have been working our way through Matthew’s Gospel, and now we find ourselves near the end of the Gospel and the end of Jesus’ ministry. Here in Matthew 21, Jesus has returned triumphantly to Jerusalem. He has been to the Temple already, and driven out the money changers and the people selling animals for offerings. In these last days of his ministry, he will be confronted multiple times by the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the chief priests and elders of the people. They will try to trip him up, to make him say something they can arrest him for. We read about the first in this set of challenges this morning.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. Yet it is the law of all progress that is made by passing through some stages of instability and that may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you. Your ideas mature gradually. Let them grow. Let them shape themselves without undue haste. Do not try to force them on as though you could be today what time — that is to say, grace — and circumstances — acting on your own good will — will make you tomorrow. Only God could say what this new Spirit gradually forming in you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete. Above all, trust in the slow work of God, our loving vine-dresser. Amen.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 1881-1955
I imagine many of you are feeling, as I am this week, that the work of God in your life is going very slowly indeed. We are tired. We are stressed. Many of our usual sources of stability are decidedly unstable right now. But God is still God. As the poet says, “Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you.” Our times of worship in Morning and Evening Prayer at St. Mary’s are an oasis for those weary of the chaos outside. You are most welcome.
There is a video on YouTube I like to watch from time to time called “Cosmic Eye”. It begins with an image of a smiling woman lying on the grass. From there it pulls out, straight up into the air, and continues out, encompassing the park and city she lies in, then the continent, the planet, the solar system, and right out of the Milky Way, past our galaxy and its nearest neighbors, to what we can only guess is what the universe looks like, because it is too far away for us to ever see or get to. The video then zooms back down to the smiling woman again, then carries on into her, through her laughing eye and into her body, carrying on down through her cells and into her DNA, and on down to the quarks we also have to imagine exist, because we can’t see them either!
Well, we find ourselves well into summer today by the Earth’s-trip-around-the-sun calendar, and well into Trinity season by the church calendar. Trinity season encompasses all the long, lovely days of summer and fall in which we slow down from our mad rush from feast day to feast day that takes up December to May, and begin our slow and systematic journey through one of the four Gospels, Matthew this year. We move carefully through the chapters, examining the ministry of Jesus, the miracles, the sermons, and the parables. Trinity is the season where we dig deep into what Jesus taught his followers, and through the Gospel writers, teaches us, about what it means to be Christ-followers, and to participate in God’s Kingdom.