Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only Start Doing

Advent 1 – Year B

I would like to begin by reading from a book of poems by Mary Oliver, called A Thousand Mornings. She writes about her life in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

This poem is entitled ‘Life Story’

When I lived under the black oaks
I felt I was made of leaves.
When I lived by Little Sister Pond,
I dreamed I was the feather of the blue heron
left on the shore;
I was the pond lily, my root delicate as an artery,
my face like a star,
my happiness brimming.
Later I was the footsteps that follow the sea.
I knew the tides, I knew the ingredients of the wrack.
I knew the eider, the red-throated loon
with his uplifted beak and his smart eye.
I felt I was the tip of the wave,
the pearl of water on the eider’s glossy back.
No, there’s no escaping, nor would I want to escape
this outgo, this foot-loosening, this solution
to gravity and a single shape.
Now I am here, later I will be there.
I will be that small cloud, staring down at the water,
the one that stalls, that lifts its white legs, that looks like a lamb

Oliver writes about life. She captures the movement from her beginning, she anticipates her ending with her artful expression. She gives us a glimpse of what is to come.

I came to this sermon with a need for a place to start. When I opened the Gospel for this Sunday – the
First Sunday in Advent – my initial reaction was one of mild shock. In those days, after that suffering the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angel and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

We have come to the end of the Gospel of Mark. He is reporting Jesus as predicting end times, the destruction of the world as we know it. It is a hard text to take on in our culture and time. We don’t talk often about the end of the world coming. We make jokes about men carrying signs predicting the end of life. We are suspicious of anyone who suggests that we should be preparing for the end of life.

Even when people in the science community suggest that we need to change our habits, that our use of carbon fuels will ultimately destroy life as we know it, we are more likely to read the news about lower gas prices. We don’t do ‘end times,’ we are oriented toward the optimistic.

Somehow bad times may come but we will find a solution. A way to solve the problem.

Well, after my first read of the text I went to my fall back commentator on the New Testament, William Barclay. He always has something good to say. A new way to see a difficult text. An unusual twist that will take the harshness from the word – will put me on the right path.

I opened Barclay to this chapter and verse and Barclay says “this is a hard text” – even the heavy duty guy is stumped.

So now what?

I could see a couple of choices, I could avoid the problem, pretend that I hadn’t heard this Gospel take off on Advent the New Year in the church. Christmas is coming. Make your new year’s resolution. Or I could dig down deeper to try to gain a perspective on what Jesus is saying.

At this end to Mark’s story I decided to go with the latter choice and sought out other authorities on the text. Barclay has been around for a long time. There are newer ideas, new discoveries that might give us insight on what Jesus was suggesting.
That proved to be helpful. The Gospel of Mark is thought to be the original Gospel written down some thirty years after Jesus was crucified. The community is beginning to realize that Jesus isn’t coming back to take over the world. The Messianic hope that continued to be held out. Somehow Jesus was going to come again. He was going to take back the world’s center, re-establish the People of God as the People of the world.

When this Gospel is finally recorded it comes at a time when it may have seemed that, in fact, the world was coming to an end. Jerusalem was under attack and would ultimately be destroyed. Along with its destruction would come the dismantling of the temple. Jesus, their leader had been killed. He was not coming back. Witnesses to his life were dying. They had been thrown out of the synagogue, the religious center of their lives. Their belief had shifted from hope for the Israelites to a more broad based inclusion of all people as people of God. Jesus had rocked the essence of the faith of the fathers.

What was ahead was certainly uncertain. It seems quite natural that as the writer of Mark comes to an end when he looks around and sees what is happening. It would seem appropriate that he would search his memory to look for some recollection. Something that Jesus may have said that would speak to those people who had survived and in fact to us who are also survivors.

We don’t often think in those terms. For the most part we are not faced with deadly consequences for living publicly out of a life of faith in Christianity. For Mark and for the people to whom he wrote their’s was a sense of life or death.

End times were real. There was evidence all around.

What Mark remembers were words of hope. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. Hard times may be coming but in the end Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away. No one knows the hour or the day. Since that is the case we should all stay alert. We should live as though it could happen any time. Jesus says “Stay awake,” don’t live in the past regretting what has been lost.

The Israelites had spent their lives there looking for a return to the Promised Land. Converting the love of God into the law of God. When Jesus had come into their midst, when he offered an alternative, a different idea of what Messiah could mean, they could not respond. Their past hope held them too tightly. They sought crucifixion rather than transformation. They put away the word rather than risk the change that seeing God as a loving force would mean in their lives.

Jesus says “Stay Awake” don’t live in the future. Live here, where you are. Each decision you make, each action you take will ultimately create your future.

It’s not just the big decisions in life that make up who we are. It is more the little steps. The choices we make today. The little steps we take in our relationships, in our stewardship of the earth, in our ethics of practice that ultimately determine who we become, what our future will include.
I struggled with today’s Gospel. Part of me wanted to just declare this section as an add on from the early church. Not something that is in the pattern I experience of Jesus, his life and preaching.

But, here it is. In the midst of thinking about this text, how to approach, it I began my morning meditation with Mary Oliver.

When I lived under the black oaks
I felt I was made of leaves.
When I lived by Little Sister Pond,
I dreamed I was the feather of the blue heron
left on the shore;
I was the pond lily, my root delicate as an artery,
my face like a star,
my happiness brimming.

Now I am here, later I will be there.
I will be that small cloud, staring down at the water,
the one that stalls, that lifts its white legs, that looks like a lamb

That is her Life Story living where she found herself.
May we live as though our faces shine like a star, as though our happiness is brimming.

Amen