Advent 4 (of 7), December 3, 2017
Yesterday afternoon I attended an ordination at Grace Cathedral. It was a beautiful service in what is always a stunning context. I especially love the reading of Isaiah’s calling amid a vision of the divine seated in splendor, the hem of God’s robes filling the temple, and the seraphim calling “holy, holy, holy” back and forth to one another (Isaiah 6:1-3). The first time I can ever remember hearing that reading, in fact, was at another ordination in Grace Cathedral over twenty-five years ago. Yesterday the hem of the divine robe was evoked in a new way for me by the presence of AIDS Quilt panels that currently flank the length of the cathedral. It is as if God is clothed with these beautiful people whose lives were cut horribly short, enrobed too by the love and care, the memory and the craft of those who came together to make these squares, as I know St. Aidan’s also did several years ago. After the service I encountered again that message of being enfolded by God in the Interfaith AIDS Chapel that was newly refurbished in time for Friday’s commemoration of World AIDS Day. At its heart stands a triptych altarpiece by the artist Keith Haring, his only religious themed work and his last before dying of AIDS related complications in 1990. The altarpiece is full of those jubilant, almost stick-like figures that are so characteristic of Haring’s work. Exuberant angels flank the two side panels. But at the heart of the center panel is One who calmly bends over, cradling a resting figure. This cradling God has multiple arms – at least four complete sets (plus, perhaps, at least one extra arm?). Two arm sets extend out in steady, protective lines, one extends with an excitable wavy gesture, and another cradles the resting figure that could be a baby or an adult. Like the divine robe filling the temple, like the AIDS Quilt, that altar triptych conveys a sense of being both awed and enfolded by God’s pulsing, compassionate heart, gathering us all in our weariness, in our sorrow and pain, in our anger and energy.
As different in tone as our gospel passage is this morning, it too describes an all-encompassing in-gathering, paired with an urgent call to keep awake. This passage from the gospel of Mark continues the theme of the end of all things, of creation’s turbulent completion, on which the readings assigned for this time of year always center. And although we here at St. Aidan’s observe today as the fourth Sunday in Advent, since we have been participating in the seven-week/forty-day Advent Project, the majority of the church now joins us in this season, marking today as the beginning of a new year in the church calendar as well as a new season of preparation for the arrival of Christ. Together, Christians around the world are beginning to listen afresh to Mark’s witness, the earliest canonical gospel we have, a gospel on which the other synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke, are based in important ways. Mark characteristically gives us much less detail, focusing (sometimes rather abruptly) on the essentials. Again, he says, keep watch. Keep awake even as we cannot fully know or anticipate the precise timing and context of the Son of Humanity’s arrival. The latter portion of today’s gospel gives us Mark’s version of the parable of the talents—much abbreviated in comparison with what we heard from Matthew two weeks ago. For Mark its message is straightforward: keep awake. Pay attention to what is happening in the world around you, and know that God’s arrival cannot be plotted in advance. But prepare as well, he says, to be joined, gathered. God sends the divine emissaries to gather us from every corner of our world, “from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (Mk 13:27). The divine in-breaking that Mark alerts us to asks us to watch the world, to observe its brokenness, its failing. And at the same time, amid that disturbing observance, Mark also calls us to listen for God’s call to us, determined to gather us from all places and contexts, to join us to one another and to God’s self.
This has been a week in which to keep awake. The end of the week in particular was devastating, with a tax vote being pushed through at the last minute in ways that have centered not the least, not those on the margins, but people and corporations who are the most wealthy. I can’t claim to know the full repercussions of this vote—none of us fully knows at this point. But what analysis has been possible suggests a dire long-term impact on those who rely on the Affordable Care Act – up to 13 million people might ultimately lose their health insurance because of changes made by this bill. How will they stay healthy or avoid economic ruin when they get billed for emergency care? What will the impact be on the next generations by the huge increase in the deficit? But most fundamentally, how will we collectively care for one another? How will we invest in one another as a body of many members? How will we care for one another across the margins, the borders that too often separate us from one another within this country and between our country and others? Next week as well the Supreme Court will hear the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The justices will hear from a business, from people, who do not want to have to offer their product to a particular demographic—specifically to same sex couples. In addition to the anti-LGB bias clearly at stake in this case – horrifyingly, in the name of the Christian faith we profess – is a larger refusal of collective connection, a resistance to our participation in one another’s lives. We must refuse to let this dehumanizing theology be proclaimed in our name. We must stay awake and alive to this trajectory of disconnection. And amid our watchfulness, we must also look for the in-breaking of the God compassion. We must seek to join in the fulfilling of the divine dream.
That dream is one of being gathered together by God from every corner of creation, centering those whom our wider world has rendered least, last, and lost. God calls us to watch not only for the injustices that are rampant in our world, but also to respond to them, to find our own small ways to be repairers of the breach. God calls us to recognize the holy in this world, to respect and hallow the dignity of all people and all creation, to create spaces of nurturing and sustenance, empowerment and creativity, to honor our connections with one another, not to drive wedges between one another. And as I and others in this space have preached before, one of the ways we do this is through what we might call practices of sanctuary. We began a season of discernment about the possibility of becoming a sanctuary parish earlier this fall, exploring what that could mean for us as a community. We started exploring a variety of spaces and practices of naming and safeguarding the holy in the lives of those who are marginalized by racism and xenophobia as well as by other forms of oppression-- classism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia. I invited us all to begin this period of discernment by considering how we ourselves have been offered sanctuary over the years, ways that we have been upheld as holy—not suggesting any of us are flawless, but that we are unique human beings created in the divine image. Today after our service, we will continue that conversation, share ideas and consider some proposals in our quarterly parish meeting. In that context, I invite us to call back to mind ways that we have been respected and cared for, ways that our lives have been brought into holy spaces. I invite us to be alive to the possibilities for sharing those experiences of sanctuary.
In a few minutes, after the Prayers of the People and the Confession, we will also bring forward our Jesse Tree and the children will be invited to decorate them with ornaments that we have made together, children and adults, over this last week. In the tradition of Jesse Trees, almost like a visual version of the Easter Vigil, our ornaments depict stories of salvation history from the Creation and Flood to the Burning Bush to the Manger in Bethlehem. As we place these on the tree and invoke God’s blessing, I invite you to think as well of your stories of sanctuary—how you have experienced it, how you have shared it, how you have heard of sanctuary practiced in the lives of people you know. Imagine of all these stories, seen and unseen, decorating that tree. Let that tree evoke for you the Tree of Life itself, rooted and growing through the hallowing of all creation, the recognition of God’s creative breath flowing through all things, redeeming the broken, engrafting us into newness of life and love.
And from that Tree, I invite you to return once more that hem of the divine robe enfolding us, gathering us “from the four winds, from the ends of earth to the ends of heaven.” Rooted, wrapped round, with open hearts may we hear the call to wake up, to see anew the failings, the broken places of our world. In the midst of all this pain and fragmentation, look for signs of God’s reign, its unpredictable in-breaking. In the spirit of Keith Haring’s altar piece, may we become aware of God who in Christ has nurtured us with multiple limbs, who gathers creation back into God’s very heart. May we take up God’s invitation to be participants in that caring in a world that does not expect it, a world that today more than ever needs to feel and see the divine heart alive and beating with unfathomable compassion.
 For more about Grace Cathedral’s Interfaith Memorial AIDS Chapel, see https://www.gracecathedral.org/aids-interfaith-memorial-chapel/