Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
First Sunday of Advent, 2018
We are living through a time in the church’s season of Advent. And Advent is known primarily as the season of waiting. The reason why we observe Advent is to kind of cultivated kind of discipline of waiting. And over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about what it means to wait for God, and what does it mean to wait during Advent? And I began to think about the different kinds of waiting I do.
And one form of waiting happened this summer. I began to pass in the luxury food section of the supermarket, this certain apple pie that was advertised to be better than life itself. It was this incredible famous apple pie, I won’t name the name. And now that I am over 50 by a bit, I’ve learned that you just can’t eat after 50. And so I decided that I would wait to eat that apple pie, that store bought apple pie on Thanksgiving. And so every time I would see that pie, I’d give a little salute with my eye, saying, “Your day is coming.”
And so then Thanksgiving came, and I realized, as we were going up to Thanksgiving, that I was being a little bit selfish because my daughter Phoebe was making this beautiful apple crisp from scratch. And she looked at me as I walked into the kitchen with this store bought apple pie, double crust. And she looked at me for a bit, and she said, “Really?” And I said, “I’ve been waiting for this. I need to have it.” And so I put it in the back refrigerator, so that it didn’t quite have to be seen by the other things we had, and on Thanksgiving day, I took out the apple pie, and I cut myself a large slice, and I was, frankly, a little disappointed. There was enough corn syrup in that apple pie, that had it been converted to ethanol, it could power a small village for several days. And the crust was particularly disappointing. It didn’t quite have the moistness that I’d want in my crust. And for me, the crust is everything about a pie.
And so I had this moment of deflation on Thanksgiving. But I was not willing to give up. So on Black Friday, after spending a day, like an anthropologist at the mall watching the frenzy, I came home, and I decided to focus only on that apple pie. And we had been doing a fair number of dishes, so I took the pie out, and pulled it out of its beautiful container, and I decided we don’t need a plate for this pie today. And we don’t need even a fork because that would just dirty up things. I’ve done enough dishes.
And so I cut the pie, and I picked it up a little bit like you would pick up a piece of pizza, and I started to eat the tip of it just like you would eat a piece of pizza. And as I was eating, it started to break apart in my hands a little bit, and so I moved over to be over the sink, and then as it broke apart, and the filling got on my hands, and some of the crust got on my chest, I began to eat a little quicker because I was trying to get the pie in, chewing it like two or three times before you do that kind of “Wahh,” kind gulp that you do. And after like the second “Wahh,” I looked over and I see my daughter looking at me, and she said, “What’s the rush? It’s going to be there.”
And I had at that moment, a bit of a revelation about waiting. You see the problem with waiting, as you and I normally experience it, we normally experience waiting as the ability to accept delayed gratification. That is the way we tend to think about our entire lives as a culture. And maturity is often defined as the ability to experience delayed gratification. But that’s really what is the mark of maturity. That’s what it means to make your way in the society around us.
You want that bicycle, you’ve got to learn to work for it. You want that pie, you better go to Spin class. You want to have this opportunity, you’d better be willing to work for it. If you want to be a doctor, you’d better be willing to go to medical school. Everything in our culture functions around delayed gratification. And that is, in and of itself, maybe a good thing. My war is not with that. But I worry that we lose the sense of waiting in Advent by seeing it largely in terms of delayed gratification.
And I worry has two points to it. The first is that whenever we achieve those things, whenever we get the things that we can hold in our hands, whenever we have a moment in which we can actually finally fit the clothing that we purchased, those things tend to turn like cream and to go sour. Whenever we’re waiting for something we could count, for something we can measure, for something we can hold on to with our hands, for something we can experience just for ourselves, our waiting tends to turn on us, and we tend to become frustrated.
And the second reason why I am troubled by this is because waiting in Advent is something very different than merely accepting the conditions of delayed gratification. To wait in Advent is to become aware of what separates us from God. It’s to become aware of all the ways that you and I have stepped away from God, and we have become imprisoned by our sin and our own willfulness to not be in right relationship with God. And Advent is a time in which we remember that God is coming again much like God came the first time.
So just as God comes to us in Christ at Christmas through a babe in Bethlehem, and surprises us utterly and disarms us, and calls us to a new relationship of judgment and forgiveness, so Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. And Christ will come again as an utter surprise at a moment in which we least suspect it, and will judge and reconcile all things.
Advent says that the world we live in is not going to get better on the basis of its own steam. Rather Advent says that God has to come again to change things, and make them new. And waiting in Advent is the discipline to confront all the things that separate us from the love of God, so that we can better become the person that God has called us and created us to be. Advent is a time of repentance. And waiting in Advent is the acknowledgement of our own spiritual poverty, our own need for grace. Our own inability to find our way to God, Advent is a kind of waiting prayer that God would become real in our lives in a more powerful way than God is now.
So when Jesus tells His disciples to keep watch, or to stay awake because they do not know the time in which God is coming, Jesus tell his disciples to do that because Advent and waiting is actually a time of self-examination, of transformation, of recognizing, acknowledging the sins that have trapped us for years, and letting them go finally, so that God can be God in our lives.
And this is a difficult thing to do in the Christmas season. And my concern today is not to have you turn into a little Christmas warrior, to be angry about the fact that Starbucks started selling Christmas blend at the end of September. Or to be upset that CVS put out Christmas decorations at the end of October. Or to be concerned whether or not there’d be a crèche on the town square. Those battles are immaterial. But the struggle of Advent, the work of Advent is eternal. It has nothing to do with the externals you and I have to be called to change. And you and I need to acknowledge our need for change. That is what it means to wait.
And sometimes that waiting is painful. Sometimes that waiting takes the form of waiting as you are enduring the sickness, which is greater than you can ever imagine, and that you cannot control. And sometimes that waiting takes the form of recognizing that there’s a relationship that you have broken, that you have had a role a role in the breaking of it, and that there is too much wreckage that you yourself can travel, and you have to wait for God to somehow change things. And sometimes that waiting takes the form of simply acknowledging that you are a sinner of God’s redeeming. And hope that somehow God would give you the strength to make the amends you need to make. This is what it means to wait in Advent.
I have two pieces for you today to help maybe your own process of waiting. The first is a painting by Andy Warhol, which is a silk screen that he models off of Leonardo Da Vinci’s, The Annunciation. This is a painting that Da Vinci did in 1473, and I placed a copy of that painting on the cover of your bulletins for those of you who like Renaissance art.
Now people say that Warhol’s rendition of The Annunciation comes at a time in his life when he decided to truly sell out, and become a commercial artist fully, and to basically commodify everything. But I disagree. I think actually this is one of the more powerful pieces that Warhol did, and in part is because I happen to know one of his patrons from way back when. And she told me that one of the lesser-known things about Andy Warhol, which others have confirmed, is that he was a practicing Catholic. He went to mass regularly. And often, he would volunteer in soup kitchens in New York City. All he had to do was take off the silver wig, and no one recognized him.
So Warhol in this silk screen, condenses Da Vinci’s picture to just the moment between which the angel, Gabriel, brings the blessing of God on the Virgin Mary. And he focuses on their gestures of their hands, and on the right to have Mary’s hand, which is in the midst of prayer. She’s got her hand on a breviary, or a psalm, Book of Psalms, or maybe even the Bible, and she is in the midst of reading. And this is a common trope in Renaissance art, and this is meant to suggest that Mary is in the midst of self-examination. She’s in the midst of prayer. And the blessing of God comes to her as she is waiting for the word of God, you see.
And at that moment, in the painting, the blessing has been extended, and we are waiting for that moment, in which Mary turns and accepts the message that God is giving her through Gabriel. So God is waiting in this painting. So it’s not just the fact that Mary is waiting for God, but that God is waiting for Mary. And there is a community of waiting in the picture.
And this brings me to underscore an important point about the waiting in Advent. We tend to think that Advent is a time for our waiting for God. But in fact, Advent is a time in which God is waiting for us. Because behind every act in acknowledgement of our powerlessness, every act in acknowledgement of the sinful things we have done, behind every confession we can make, God is waiting to create us into the person that God has created us to be. God is waiting for us in Advent. And God has time, God has eternity, but we don’t. So Advent is a time in which we join God in waiting.
The second thing I have for you today is a prayer I wrote as a poem. And I don’t usually share these things because it makes me feel incredibly vulnerable because I haven’t been trained as a poet, but I started to write these prayers as part of a discipline that I’m doing this year. And over the past couple of weeks, I have been confronting what does it mean for me to be a beloved sinner of God? So oftentimes, I begin my sermons by saying I speak to you as a sinner to sinners, and as God’s beloved to the beloved of God. And what I’d been working on this week, and this couple of weeks is what does it mean for me to be God’s beloved sinner? What is sin for me? How can I confess it? And this is what I wrote.
The God Who Waits. When I made you into something I could hold in My hands, you refused to be held. Slipping my grasp, you held me with Your mercy. When I tried to earn your acceptance, you left Me with silence. Ignoring my ambition, You asked only for my heart. When I walked the labyrinth of my desires, You led me in endless circles waiting for my restlessness to end in surrender. When I filled myself with knowledge, You covered yourself in mystery waiting to fill my emptiness with Your love. When I ran into the darkness, Your light shined on my back waiting for me to show You my face. When I sacrificed My life on countless altars, you received no offering, waiting until I had nothing left to give, but Myself. You are a God who waits, so that lost, I might find You. Exhausted, I might rest in You. Empty, I might be filled by You. Reconciled, I might learn compassion. Broken, I might be made new.
This Advent, may these words be more than words for you as we wait together.