Read/Watch: “What are you waiting for?” with Rebecca Gant
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It’s December second, the first Sunday in Advent. The Christmas decorations have been up around the city for a while, the marathons of movies like Elf, Christmas Vacation, and A Christmas Story have begun. All of which means it’s almost time for one of my favorite Advent rituals—which is working in the kitchen while blasting Handel’s Messiah at top volume through the house. The music has to be loud because I belt it out along with the singers – and even though I know every word, I can’t actually hit all the notes.
This ritual connects me to my mom who died nine years ago. She was a singer and an enthusiastic creator of community wherever she went.
When I was a child, we lived in Medicine Lodge, Kansas. My mom’s musical outlet for most of the year was the small choir at the Methodist church. But when November rolled around, she and whoever she could talk into it would get in the car every Monday afternoon and drive the 90 minutes into Wichita to rehearse the Messiah with a choral society there. They would talk about their lives all the way there and all the way home, and while in Wichita, bask in the experience of creating something beautiful with other talented chorus members.
During those months of rehearsal, she would also play our record of the Messiah in the house while she worked, and when performance time came, my family and I would be in the audience, scores in hand, following along.
When I grew up and moved out, there was not a question that I would take some time every November or December to listen and sing along to the soaring soprano solos (soprano sings “Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice greatly”) and window rattling bass singer (Bass sings “Why Do the Nations?”). My children and my husband didn’t understand my connection to the music at first- I don’t usually listen to classical music- but by the time my oldest was about 17, she knew that when the pastoral symphony began, that I was in the kitchen – as she said- hanging out with Grandma.
The theology behind that piece of music doesn’t work for me anymore without a lot of translation, but the music itself, the memories it conjures, and the connection it reestablishes are precious to me.
Listening to that work of art while “hanging out with Grandma” in the kitchen is a ritual that inspires me to keep my connections strong, to pursue art that nurtures me, and to create community wherever I can.
This is a healthy ritual this time of year- but for me, and probably for many of you, our most common shared ritual at Advent is constant stress. We are trying to do more than we can comfortably do while simultaneously feeling like we are failing. How many more shopping days? Can I afford this? Do I really have to send Christmas cards? Will I get everything done? — not to mention the stress of hosting parties or spending time in family groups that are unhealthy. Many of us spend Advent racing from task to task with a stomach ache and getting through to the December 25th finish line as our only goal.
Liturgically, however, Advent is not intended as a time of activity- it’s a time of waiting—and not just waiting for the month to be over. We Unitarian Universalists have a variety of views about what we might be waiting for during Advent.
Our protestant neighbors are clearer about what they are waiting for—they are anticipating celebrating of the birth of Jesus, and anticipating the time when the Kingdom of God will come again. Many of my Protestant colleagues will be using a reading this month from the New Testament book of Luke in worship as they prepare their hearts and their minds. I think it dovetails nicely with the readings you heard earlier.
The passage says that the words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah are fulfilled in the person of John the Baptist. That he is (tenor sings) “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness. Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a byway.”
John was the leader of a messianic movement of the time, preaching and exhorting the Jewish people- who were also waiting- to be prepared for the coming of the messiah. As they waited, they continued to participate in the rituals of their faith, including purification rituals involving water.
In the passage in Luke, people have come to hear John preach and to be baptized by him so that they will be ready to receive the messiah when he comes. I picture John, standing in the Jordan river, wild-eyed with tangled hair and bits of locust and honey in his beard.
When the people come, John first scolds them, accusing them of trying to get some cheap grace by being baptized without changing their way of living. He calls them a brood of vipers. He tells them that their lives should be vital and growing- not dead wood to be thrown on the fire. And he says – well, I’ll paraphrase– “Don’t even start with the ‘we are sons of Abraham’ business. I don’t care who your daddy is.” He calls on those who have gathered to repent.
Here’s a short detour: That word – Repent- is one of those old-fashioned religious words. It was once more commonly used in our Unitarian and Universalist congregations. With my Methodist upbringing, hearing the word “repent,” brings up unpleasant associations with sin and a vengeful God. That vengeful God no longer works with my theology. However, I think the concept of repentance is a useful one, assuming we can look at the word in a new way.
Another meaning, which you heard earlier in the reading from Anne Lamott, is the idea of repentance as “changing direction.” I spent some time looking at the etymology of the Greek word that is translated as “repentance,” and that meaning –repentance as changing direction– is supported by the opinions of many scholars. The word itself does not include guilt or shame or the threat of damnation that we might associate with it.
So back to the story of John and the people who have come to be baptized. After John scolds them for wanting to clean up their outsides without actually changing anything about their insides and exhorts them to repent, the people gathered are confused- they thought that baptism – an outward show of piety- would be sufficient. They ask “What, then, shall we do?”
He has suggestions for them, and none of the suggestions for how to repent involve self-flagellation or self-hatred. He advises: if you have two coats, give one away. Repent! Change your direction from one of hanging on to more than you need and instead share your abundance.
The tax collectors ask “What, then, shall we do?” If you are a tax collector, he says, stop your extortion- don’t take more money than the law says you are due. Turn away from thievery and follow the law.
The soldiers ask “What, then, shall we do?” If you are a soldier, no more blackmail or shakedowns of the people and be content with your rations. Turn away from violence and the abuse of power. Be humble.
He says in effect that to make this new kind of world come about that would welcome a messiah, they will have to do more than a superficial act – they will need to change direction- to turn away from their past behavior and behave more generously, honestly, and peacefully.
I think that even those of us who don’t believe in the narrative of a coming messiah can take something from John’s words. If we want to make ourselves a part of the return of the light and hope that the messiah symbolized for the Jewish people, for the return of the Beloved Community or Kingdom of God that Christians wait for, for the creation of the just and compassionate society we at All Souls say every week that we would like to help create—we also need to do more than just lip service.
Knowing that repentance means looking at the direction we are going and choosing a different direction, we see that repentance is not just a turning away, but also a turning toward. In the reading you heard earlier, Anne Lamott writes that repentance is a blessing. She offers an alternative to people pleasing and perfectionism— which is a big, juicy, creative life.
For those who asked John for guidance for how to repent, we see how repentance is a blessing. Through repentance, people with two coats were now sharing their abundance instead of hoarding it, tax collectors were turning from extortion and soldiers were stopping their violent abuses.
How does this apply to us? And how can we use this Advent time to prepare ourselves to bring into being the world we dream of? Helping to create a just and compassionate society is hard work. We are going to need all of us to be in top condition to get it done. So, I’m going to suggest an Advent practice of examining our lives repentance- just in time to find some resolutions for the new year.
For example, how is your self care? I’m not talking about bubble baths and pedicures. How are you tending to yourself so that you can grow into your potential? How are you insulating yourself from the parts of life that can drag you down? Are there self-limiting habits you could repent of or turn away from?
How are your relationships? Are you connecting with people the way you’d like? Do you have habits that interfere with making connections? Is there a ritual of connection you’d like to create?
How are you feeling about the holidays? Is there something you’d like to do differently this year to increase what gives you life and decrease what drains you? How can you bless yourself with your approach to the holidays?
These small acts of repentance- turning toward practices and attitudes and habits that strengthen us— are ways of preparing ourselves to welcome love as a guest in our lives. As the choir sang in the introit this morning:
(choir sings) People, look east. The time is near of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able, trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today: Love the Guest, is on the way.
These small acts of choosing what gives life are seeds of love that may lie dormant for a time, but when the time is right, they will grow and blossom. The second verse says:
Furrows, be glad.
Though earth is bare, one more seed is planted there.
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
that in course a flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today: Love, the Rose, is on the way.
Small acts of tending our relationships can renew us and give us reason for hope. They can help us to see the light of love in the dark winter sky.
From the third verse:
Stars, keep the watch.
When night is dim, one more light the bowl shall brim,
shining beyond the frosty weather, bright as sun and moon
People, look east and sing today: Love, the Star, is on the way.
May this season of Advent be a rich one for you. May you find ways to repent and turn your attention to what helps you create your big, juicy, creative life—for we know that that kind of life does not just nurture the one living it, but all that they touch.
May it be so.