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Advent is traditionally a time of expectant waiting and preparation for God to come in the Christ Child of Christmas.
I invite you to play with this idea of hope and expectation. I tweeked our sentence and collect today to help focus us on the idea that there is a tension between a focus on living in hope and living in the present moment.
30 years ago I lived in the Anglican Vicarage and worked in St Pauls Symonds St – the church on the next hill. We were Anglican, Anglo Catholic and Charismatic. Thirty years ago we were wrestling with what that meant when we were also committed peace activists, actively protesting against the Springbok tour, starting to wrestle with racism here in NZ, discovering feminism and some of us coming out as lesbian or gay. It was an exciting time, but scary too, as the certainties that had long sustained us were no longer the firm ground on which we could stand.
Towards the end of my time at St Pauls I preached two sermons. In the first I asked whether we had to be all called brothers, and perhaps - whether – maybe - God was not male. As the one who chose the music for the services, and led the choir, I organised us to finish the service singing To be a pilgrim, in which the choir valiantly sung ‘she’ instead of ‘he’. This was well received by some, and not by others, as you can imagine. I was told I better watch it when I preached again.
It was a time of great turmoil for many of us as we sought to walk with God into a future where the certainty of the God we had known had all but disappeared. At the time many of us read a book by Harry Williams called Some Day I Will Find You. Continuing to work as a fellow of Trinity College Cambridge and Dean of Chapel there, he had lost all certainty and faith. He wrestled in therapy with what it meant to be gay and to steadily watch as his faith in God eroded - he felt he was killing God.
It was only after 17 years in therapy that he discovered that in fact he had killed an idol, and he had found God in a new way. Wow – it was a powerful image that has remained with me ever since. I was reminded of the saying: “If you find the Buddha on the way - kill him” If we think we have found the answer, that we have found God, that we have found the truth - we are wrong.
Don Cowan, the Anglican City Missioner at that time, preached at St Pauls and I have never forgot the sermon – (To be honest, there are not many I have remembered – but this was one). Don stood up and said: “Faith is Not Knowing”. This rang so many bells for me – as it was such a contradiction to what I had been taught as a young Sydney evangelical – where faith was definitely not about doubt, but about knowing and certainty. Don quoted Thomas Merton "Thoughts in Solitude"
MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. … I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Along with the writings of some contemplatives like Thomas Merton, another resource that started to give us some ground to stand on at that time was the writings of Matthew Fox. Creation spirituality offered us a new way of seeing ourselves – not as sinners in constant need of redemption, but as people made in God’s image – blessed by God and invited to be partners with God in building a world of peace and love and justice.
With some trepidation I prepared what was my second (and to be my last) sermon at St Pauls. It focused around this idea of Original Blessing - We had not found the answer or the truth, but it seemed we had found a pathway. We were not born into original sin, but into original blessing. We were not miserable sinners, we were God’s friends, fallible at times, but rich in blessing and potential.
After the service someone came up to me and said “I have been waiting for years to hear that in a church”. Others were appalled to have the doctrine of Original Sin challenged in that way. Unfortunately the latter was what ruled, and it was the last sermon I was asked to preach there, and the start of a journey out of St Pauls for me, and many others. Here I am 25 years later preaching on the other hill.
Although I loved the Anglican Liturgy and had come to love our rich and colourful High Mass at St Pauls, I wrestled with traditional Liturgy – the place where so much of our Anglican theology is worked out. It did not seem to recognise us as anything other than miserable sinners. We came into a Church building which seemed to scream at us that we were insignificant, and God was great. We stood up and said the Gloria – how great God was, then knelt down to say sorry – how pathetic we were, and it did not get much better than that. We celebrated and heard of the deeds of God, and prayed for God’s blessing on those in need, and sought sustenance in the communion to keep us going. It seemed that nowhere did we recount the stories of our triumphs, our dreams, our struggles and disappointments.
I was part of a group called Spiral which met here at St Matthews in the nineties, and in that we tried to work through the language of our faith as we prepared liturgies and rituals that reflected what we were discovering of ourselves and of God. I remember in one of the early services in the choir stalls, the first thing we did was gather the stories of our week – what we had been doing. It seemed a great way to begin a liturgy – to gather up some of the journeys we had been on it the past weeks.
One of the reasons I come to St Matthews is that much of the careful planning for liturgy here is based on this premise that we are partners with God in building a new world of peace, justice and love.
We could possibly do even better at this. I once wrote a story about the church being a fire on the hill. A place where some people made the commitment to keep that fire alive. And others were welcome to gather around it as they journeyed. It would be a place where we could connect our stories with the stories of other pilgrims, and with the great stories of the past. Where we could celebrate and get some sustenance for the journey.
This is one of the reasons I would like St Matthews and other churches to focus more on occasional (monthly?) festival services, rather than weekly services. Weekly services would be there for those who wanted them, but festivals would enable us to provide a welcoming place for people to gather for whom church is not home, but is a place to rekindle passion, make connections and commit ourselves to work for the world for which we long.
Back to the tension between waiting in hope and living in the present.
If we are miserable sinners, then all we can do is wait for redemption - there is “no good in us” as the prayer book used to say.
If we are blessed by God, if we are friends of God – the future is what we create together – we too are creators, not simply passive observers.
Yes this Advent we wait in expectation
for love, peace and justice to be fully present in our world.
But we do not wait passively,
We work alone and with each other,
To bring about the future of which we dream.
May we hold the tension of living in hope and living in the present moment,
Knowing that the future will be defined by what we do now. Amen.