The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Advent 1, Year C
December 2, 2018
The Heart of the Matter
Last week, we went to visit family in Arkansas. I really do love having time to catch up with some of our family. We went from house to house nibbling here and there. On several occasions, I found it difficult to really share a conversation with some people—a situation I am sure was common to many during that Thanksgiving week.
While some conversations were difficult and best left behind, others have remained with me. While at my Aunt Marilyn’s I had the chance to visit with Tracy, my cousin David’s wife. I have always admired her, not only for her intelligence but for her sense of humor and ability to weave herself into the family with joy and grace. Tracy currently serves as the superintendent of schools where I grew up, and we found ourselves sitting on the couch catching up.
I asked her how school was going, given the decline in population and the ongoing struggles in rural areas. She asked me how things were going here at the Church, and I shared a little of my excitement and gratitude for the post I am privileged to hold. She smiled and turned to me and said, “What is it that you do? I mean, I know you are a pastor, but what do you do, on any given day?”
My eyebrows went up. I sat there and looked up like I do when I’m searching for words. “I mean, do you work on budgets and staff and programs?” she asked me.
“Well,” I told her, “there are definite parts of that, yes. And there are many pastoral visits and phone calls, and community meetings. And writing and teaching. And administrative details.” There are times when we I make decisions on cutting out trees, and there are times when a water heater floods a section of the vesting room. And I hesitated, and looked at her and said, “But that’s not really what I would say I do.”
She had a quizzical look on her face.
“I know this may sound odd,” I told her, “but if I had to describe the core of what I ‘do,’ I would say that I try to be present in whatever situation presents itself to me in any given moment.” And immediately as the words came out of my mouth, I had two simultaneous thoughts: that is the weirdest answer I could have given her, and that feels absolutely true.
That is how I would describe “what I do” on any given day. And, I recognize it may be difficult to explain.
The truth is I think that is more than a “job description.” It is the best “life description” that any of us could have. How do we struggle to be present to whatever presents itself to us on any given day? How do we wrestle with distraction? Do we cringe at any moment of silence and grab our little “light boxes” as Barbara Taylor calls them and immediately find something to look at, something to occupy our time? Do we avoid silence, stillness, and solitude like the plague?
I have had these questions in my heart as we drew near to this day, this First Sunday of Advent, because this day and the entire season is completely focused on paying attention, on looking and listening deeply, on being aware of God’s work in the world—in the midst of the turmoil that seems to surround us at every turn.
The Gospel lesson today seems about as far from “Away in a Manger” as one could get. Keep in mind, it’s not Christmas yet. We have a bit more preparation to do before we get there. We’re not ready.
Rather than the fun “jingle bells” and such, today we find ourselves with Jesus saying “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will fait from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
That seems about right to me.
The text is fascinating—and challenging—because it calls us, in the face of this turmoil and chaos, to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” No distractions here. We are called to be present to what is presenting itself to us, because in that challenging space we may just come to understand how God is entering into our lives. At the intersection of turmoil and our awareness, we come to see how our salvation is being “worked out” as the saying goes.
Pay attention. Stand up and raise your heads.
I despise the news right now. We haven’t had cable for ten years I think, but each time I check the news, I feel like I am in a haunted house. I feel like I did as a child when I would walk down the dark hallways and someone would jump out and grab my leg or yell at me. I have never thought that was fun, if I am honest.
How do we pay attention in times like these? How do we tune the frequency of our souls to listen for God’s voice in the tumult of the times? This is the question I am left with. How do we stand up and raise our heads, in order that we can discern God’s presence coming into the chaos of our lives?
The images we have today are remarkable. Twice in this text, we are called to recognize the importance of our hearts, of heart-centeredness, being grounded in our hearts.
When it says, “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world,” that phrase “faint” literally means something akin to heart-exhaustion. In the noble old King James Version, we read it as one’s heart being “over-charged.” The engine has run too hot. This is very important for us to consider: how are our hearts becoming exhausted?
And later we hear an echo of this caution when we read “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.” Be on guard for heavy-heartedness.
We are told to “be alert at all times,” yet we are cautioned to guard against heart-exhaustion, against our hearts being crushed by the weight of the turmoil. We are called to be present to what is presenting itself to us, “to stand up and raise our heads,” yet we must guard against our hearts being “over-charged.”
Ah, Advent, this Season that finds us gathered in anticipation of God entering into our world—in three ways or three spheres, mind you: the Coming of Christ at the end of the age, the nativity of Christ in the person of Jesus, and the birth of Christ in each of our hearts, every day of our lives. Behold who you are, the Body of Christ; may we become what we receive.
This is why we are called to be present within the swirl and chaos of life, because it is in that swirl that God enters, God finds us, God breathes life into us and redeems us. Makes us whole.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.
To understand Advent fully, we have to get to the heart of the matter. And, the heart of the matter is the condition of our own heart-groundedness, our spiritual heart. We must spend more time examining our own hearts, guarding our hearts, preparing our hearts, so that, as we will hear in our prayers three weeks from now, “your Son Jesus will find in us a mansion prepared for himself.”
Here is what I am holding close as I step into this Advent time: what will we focus on, the persistent turmoil of the world around us, or the persistent call of Christ to ground ourselves, to center our hearts in God’s compassionate presence? It is not that we ignore the pain of the world. To quote St. Paul, “that’s nuts.” It is, however, that we must care for our own hearts, to ground them, open them to God’s indwelling love, so that we are able to respond out of compassion rather than react out of fear. That, friends, is our deep, spiritual work.
It is the heart of what we do as a community—pun intended.
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul
My God, I put my trust in you.
We hear this in the psalm for today.
To you, Creator of all existence, I lift up, I raise up, the essence of my own being. I turn to align myself with the frequency of your heartbeat, underneath the pain and frustration of the world around me—so that I may embody your compassion in that pain and in the suffering world.
Come, Lord Jesus.