December 8, 2013

The Whole Story in One Sentence


To read the lessons appointed for this day, click here.

Text: Romans 13:12: “Let us then cast off the works of darkness,
and put on the armor of light...”

By now, if you’ve been to this church on more than a few occasions, you will know that the usual preacher tends to preach to a text from the Scriptures appointed for the day, and more specifically to a specific section of those Scriptures. It is a very old-fashioned way of preaching, one that I will admit is basically a crutch; it gives my wandering mind a kind of discipline and focus.

Now, today is not just any day, and not just any Sunday; it is the first Sunday of the church year, indeed the very first day of a new church year. So you might think I would take up a New Year’s Resolution to jettison my willing captivity to the preaching text and find a new freedom in my expressions from here.

Well, you might think. I am a little like a young bicycle rider afraid of seeing the training wheels finally come off, and so I have kept with my usual form in having a preaching text today.

But today it will serve the principal purpose of being a footnote, because there is a different sentence I want to speak to as we begin this new year of grace. Ever since I began planning this season of preaching back in October—I had a lot of time to kill between hospital stays in October—I’ve been sort of stopped in my tracks by this sentence, because it seems to me to be a near-perfect summary of the whole of what we’re about.

•  •  •

In the past couple of days I have put in your mailboxes and on a banner out in the front yard what I think is the central question the season of Advent sets before us—and not just us, but everyone. It is simply this: What are you waiting for?

The conceit of that question is the idea that everyone is waiting for something. There is not something uniquely Christian about this idea: it is a human universal. Said in other terms, to be human is to live in expectation of something.

We have had to admit that we are not the only animals that can make tools to accomplish simple tasks. And we are not even the only animals that can reason our way out of a puzzle. But seeing beyond the horizon of the moment, lifting our eyes and our hearts beyond what we can see to hope for something yet to come—that does seem to be something that only we do. And in some essential way, when we stop doing it, when we cease to see any reason to look to the future in hope, we stop being human.

So we are all waiting for something. The question is, what are you waiting for? We might even make the theological assertion that the thing you are waiting for is in some way the focus of your faith.

The sentence, the single sentence that to me is the single most elegant answer to this question is the one-sentence-long prayer we  heard at the beginning of the service—the collect of the day for the First Sunday of Advent. In case you missed it, here it is again:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This little prayer was written by Thomas Cranmer, and it was written for Cranmer’s first prayer book, the Book of Common prayer of 1549. For many of his prayers Bishop Cranmer rendered translations in English of prayers that originally appeared in Latin; but here, Cranmer begins the church year with a prayer of his own composition, a beautifully condensed statement of the whole point of the Christian faith.

The first thing to notice is that Bishop Cranmer never strayed far from what the Scriptures had to offer, even when he was writing a once-sentence prayer. So it is that my text this morning was Cranmer’s anchor, not just for this collect, but for the whole of the faith: casting away the works of darkness and putting on the armor of light. Those words are drawn undiluted from the Epistle of Paul to the church in Rome; they are, for Cranmer, the means of grace that give us the hope of glory.

So here is our answer, or at least the answer we are meant to have, to the Advent question. What are we waiting for? We are looking for the coming of God, not just the Christ who came to visit us in great humility as the Jesus of mortal flesh; but the king who is coming to judge both the living and the dead. And we are looking for that moment because we have faith that the Christ who came to save us is the king who is coming.

So we are waiting for both things: The baby in the manger of long ago, yes, but the benevolent and righteous judge who is coming, and for whom all of our work is meant to be a preparation. The story is not yet over. Advent reminds us that we are not yet at the end; we are only at the end of the beginning.

These few weeks of Advent give us the chance once again to calibrate our compass so that we are pointed toward the right horizon, waiting for the right thing. We spend so much of our lives waiting in patient, time-wasting hope for things that mean so little in the great scheme of things, in God’s scheme of things. Once again this year we were given stories on the news of people who could not bear to wait—for the stores to open at midnight on Thursday. Extra police were laid on at the Wentworth Outlets, and at some of the larger WalMarts around, if you believe the Boston Globe.

Imagine just how different the world would be if we waited with anything like that kind of eager, hungry anticipation for the promises of our faith?

•  •  •

Black Friday in our household was spent doing something that added practically nothing to anyone’s bottom line. We were confronted with that rarest of all moments, a day that both of us had off from work; and so we hopped in the car and drove ourselves to The Cloisters, the museum of medieval art that is part of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

We went for a particular reason. It turns out that in the largest space of that amazing museum, the reconstituted Fuentideña Chapel, there’s currently an exhibit that I cannot do justice in describing. The artist Janet Cardiff recorded the choir of Salisbury Cathedral singing a motet written in the sixteenth century by Thomas Tallis, a single piece of forty individual parts for forty voices in eight choirs of five people.

Cardif recorded the Salisbury choir by placing a small microphone around the neck of each one of the choristers, and then recording them singing the piece on a forty-track recording. So when you walk into the Fuentideña Chapel, what you see is not a forty-voice choir; it’s forty exactly identical loudspeakers, placed on stands around the room in eight groups of five—replicating the quintets in the recording.

Now, we were there on the Friday after Thanksgiving, so believe me when I tell you that the place was absolutely thronged with people. I’m not sure what it means that you can fill a museum of medieval art with thousands of people on the day after Thanksgiving, but I can testify that it’s exactly what happened two days ago in New York.

The space in which this exhibit is set up can fit about three hundred people or so, and folks would come into the space out of sheer curiosity about the speakers standing there on black stands. Many of them had probably read about the exhibit in the New York Times, but they didn’t quite know what to expect. They would talk to the folks they had come with—Is this it? What’s going to happen? Is it on now?

Three hundred people in a solid stone chapel with a solid stone floor make quite a lot of noise even when they’re doing the museum whisper, and as they wandered around wondering there was quite a din in the place.

And then the first notes of the recording would sound, and then the first choir, and then the second, in the cascading arrangement Tallis wrote. And the entire room, three hundred people of every conceivable background, age, ethnicity, belief, and race, fell absolutely and completely silent. And we all stood there, in what I can only call reverent silence, for all nine and a half minutes of the piece.

You can walk around, if you can find room, and hear each individual voice of that forty-voice choir coming out of each different speaker; or you can do what we did, stand right in the middle of the room and be surrounded by the voices coming at you from all around the room. But what was so moving about the thing was the simple idea that all of these people came, not quite knowing what they were waiting for, but believing, led by some sort of faith, that it would be worth the wait.

Whether they knew it or not, whether they believed it or not, those people were modeling for us what Advent is supposed to be all about. When the music ended the silence kept on, for quite a while; no one wanted to break the spell, which is another way of saying everyone was changed, in some way, by what they had been waiting for.

I have never put my hope in any other
but in You, O God of Israel
who can show both anger and graciousness,
and who absolves all the sins
of suffering man.
Lord God,
Creator of Heaven and Earth
be mindful of our lowliness.

In all the thousands of people who have heard that recording while the exhibit has been there, you could probably count on the fingers of both hands the people who knew what the Latin meant. But those are the words they were responding to, in the music of those voices. What are we waiting for? The God in whom we are meant to put our whole hope, the creator of heaven and earth, the reconciler of our sins who has loved us and comes to live with us despite our stumbles. No hope more worth waiting for, no greater promise to claim our hearts and our energies. Amen.