Scrambled Signals, Advent Ground: Advent 4, 2021
Updated: Jul 31, 2022
Advent IV, November 28, 2021
The Rev. Cameron Partridge
Good Morning, St. Aidan’s. Happy conclusion to Thanksgiving weekend. And speaking of thanks, thank you for the restful time away you made possible for my birthday last weekend. I know you were in excellent hands last Sunday with all who make our worship happen, particularly Margaret and Amy co-officiating Morning Prayer, and I appreciate being in a community where we lift one another up and give one another rest in this way.
With many of us having been in a space of rest and nourishment for several days now, notwithstanding the work of preparing for Thanksgiving meals and gatherings, our gospel passage this morning is strikingly stark. Neither restful nor celebratory, but distinctly Advent. We have been in this season for several weeks now, observing as we have for the fourth year in a row, a seven-week version of the season. This longer practice is a tradition with some precedent in the early church, taking more time to reflect and be formed by a practice of anticipation, waiting for the arrival—as adventus means – the coming of Christ. Whether observed in four weeks or seven, Advent always weaves together the two Advents described by the gospels. The first one is the initial arrival of the Messiah in our world, the birth of the baby Jesus we will celebrate in less than a month. The second is the Christ’s return, the arrival of the Son of Humanity to lead all things to their newly creative completion, their transformation in the fully realized presence of the reign or kingdom of God. This theme picks up on that of last week when we celebrated Christ the King, or the Reign of Christ Sunday, as Margaret shared in her sermon. And now this week, though our season does not change, we officially turn with the rest of the church to a new Church Year, shifting from the Gospel of Mark to the Gospel of Luke. We are invited to observe with increased intentionality the momentous in-breaking of God’s reign, in God’s time.
Luke describes in-coming cosmic events, “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,” calling us to greater attentiveness (Lk 21:25). With parallels in the gospels of Mark and Matthew, Luke is referencing one of the ways people of the ancient world told time. They used sun dials. They carefully watched the seasonal shifting of constellations. They noted the positions, the waxing and waning of the moon. A shift or disruption in the well-known patterns of any of these “heavenly bodies” was read as an important sign, a call to be on alert, in a state of expectation. Jesus is teaching his disciples how to read the moment, how to in a sense tell cosmic time. He shifts to an organic metaphor (again, with parallels in the other gospels). "Look at the fig tree and all the trees,” he says. “As soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place” – “these things” being the unusual activity of the sun, moon, and stars – “you know that the kingdom of God is near” (Lk 21:29-31). Jesus is equipping his disciples. He is giving them tools to read what is happening around them, not simply to be at their mercy, but to interpret their world. He does this because he knows that when the patterns of the world around them change, people tend to react negatively. They freak out. They fight one another. They freeze. They get befuddled. Or some combination thereof. They get “weighed down,” as Jesus puts it a few lines later, by the “worries of this life,” or they find ways to avoid the demands of this world, rendering themselves unable to observe, imagine, and respond to the advent of God’s reign (Lk 21:34).
I love Jesus’ equipping of the disciples in this moment, and even the descriptions of the people’s stupefied reactions to the moment, because it reminds me of some of my own experiences. I have had a number of moments since we moved here five years ago to come be with you, where I have had to stop myself and say, now what month are we in? What time of year is it? And then I think, how can I be this confused? I grew up here! I know the seasonal pattern here. Yet the twenty or so years we lived on the east coast habituated me to certain signs in the weather—a certain pattern of tree leaves turning, of temperature ranges, and I’ve come to realized especially snow. I unconsciously would locate myself in time and season by proximity to my most recent experience of snow. And so I’ve occasionally found myself standing in the kitchen, looking out the window at the side of San Bruno Mountain, and practicing this Q & A: is the grass green? Yes? Closer to winter. Brown? Closer to summer. Except that drought can disrupt that pattern recognition. And then you add in the pandemic, which churchy types started calling COVIDtide months ago, and temporal location is scrambled all the more. Yet through all this, what I have found is consistently able to locate me in time is the church year. The seasons we mark together week by week locate me, anchor me, anchor us, weaving us together in God’s time, a time that forms us as a community for the call to participate in God’s in-breaking reign.
Jesus warns his disciples in our reading that the scrambling of their cosmic, temporal markers will unmoor people. It may well unmoor the disciples too, in fact. We’re allowed. But listen to me, Jesus is saying: don’t become trapped in that reactive state, dissipating your creative energy, foreclosing the capacity of your imagination to join the in-breaking kingdom. The reign of God is arriving. It is near. It is here. It is breaking into our world anew, inviting us into its completion. So don’t keep your eyes averted, he’s saying. Keep your head. Keep your head up and look around. Stand up in confidence and expectation, raise your heads together.
Over the weekend my family and I watched a movie called the Mitchells Versus the Machines. It came out last year and we’re a bit late to the party (as we so often are…) watching it now. It features a loving, chaotic, dysfunctional family whose daughter and father are mired in an intractable conflict as the daughter prepares to leave home for film school. Her father is resolutely anti-technology, while she is quite the opposite, wedded to her phone and highly talented at creating viral videos. In some ways the dad reminds me of my grandfather who hated “computers” (a stand-in term for anything future/technology related). After he died, I found in one of his coat pockets a laminated news story about how computers lost data, otherwise failed, and basically ruined the world. Laminated. In his coat pocket. Easily available for authoritative conversational reference, God love him. The movie dad worries the daughter’s film school plans will not prepare her to economically sustain herself. The daughter feels undermined and disrespected. But when a robot apocalypse arrives and the rest of the world is captured and all seems lost, the family joins everyone else in freaking out and yet somehow, hilariously comes together with their distinctive gifts – I don’t think it too much of a spoiler to say— in very creative collaborations to save the day. Crucial to their success is their ability to cross their divides with their deep, underlying care. It is not always pretty. Their dog even plays a key role in the action – I’ll leave it at that.
As Margaret described in her sermon last week, we are in a time in which at one moment things can feel like they’re getting better only in the next moment to find they take a turn for the worse. I know I was relieved by the recent verdicts in the Ahmaud Arbury case, especially after the verdict in Minnesota a few days earlier—even as this country’s systemic racism goes much deeper than these two cases. And then I read about the Omicron variant. We continue not to know how the various pandemics of our world, entwined as they are in systemic patterns of injustice, are going to unfold. Signs of their trends are continually scrambled. I am grateful for the early rain here, giving small relief from our climate catastrophes, even as I also worry about when we will get more. In the midst of this moment, we continue to be located in, in between, in the midst of the already and the not yet of God’s reign. The ground of Advent can help us name the cataclysms of our world and also sustain us, give us perspective, renew our vision and our call to join in the in-breaking of God’s reign. This reign is one of justice, far beyond our ability fully to comprehend. Yet it asks us to manifest the qualities of justice that Jesus demonstrated: to stand with those at the margins, to clothe those who are unclothed, to visit the sick and imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to mend the broken places of our world, and most importantly to be transformed in the process into true neighbors, members of a common family who uphold one another, laugh together, cry together, and offer a new perspectives when our vision is limited.
I have to say, I experienced these qualities with you on Thanksgiving. Though we would have loved to be indoors freely enjoying Martinelli’s, turkey, potatoes, stuffing and pie from Small Potatoes catering, once again we found another way. Inspired by the pivot of our Diamond Diners monthly luncheon, Nicole Miller again organized a take-out style Thanksgiving meal for our neighborhood. This year our effort grew. We had no leftovers, as it turned out. And most importantly, it seems to me, we still found a way to gather. We hung out in the courtyard at the bottom of our driveway, outside our doors. We chatted, we reconnected, we met neighbors and collaborators. This gathering of community to me was a sign of God’s reign, even as our time together this morning is. In such gathering, we are not simply brought together, we are formed, we are changed, we are equipped by God through relationship for imaginatively joining God’s reign as it is being offered to us in this very moment. Even as the signs of our world are scrambled and we have many reasons to worry. Together our heads are lifted up, our eyes outward looking. Together we can live in anticipation not with fear but with hope. With imagination. With courage. May God’s reign come, and may we join God in manifesting its deeply good news, together.
 Frederick W. Schmidt, Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Luke (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2009), 95-96.  The trailer is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ak5dFt8Ar0  https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/24/us/ahmaud-arbery-verdict-reaction.html  https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/26/health/omicron-variant-vaccines.html