The Big Unknown

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Mark 13:24-37

Jesus said,
“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 angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

“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. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

The Big Unknown

A Gospel Reflection for Advent 1, Year B
Faith from the Margins to the Web Authors:  Steven and Davis

“This says a lot to me,”  began Steven after reading through the Gospel lesson,  “there’s a lot in here especially about God’s grace and being aware that he is coming back to earth. And, that he will be with those who are suffering. And, that we should be aware of this coming because a lot of people don’t believe that God is coming back to this earth but he is coming back, by this reading from Mark. I know it speaks a lot in here about grace. And, I don’t think a lot of people know the true meaning of what grace really means.”

Davis was intrigued, “What does it mean to you? What does grace mean to you?”

Steven responded thoughtfully: “God’s unforgiving love for the faults and things we have done in our life that is not right.  He grants us this grace, His grace.”

Davis pushed these thoughts a little further, “It’s interesting you use the word grants.”

“Well,” said Steven, “I shouldn’t say grant…we don’t earn it. We’re really not worthy of God’s grace, not ourselves. But God, you know, willingly gives it to us because of His love for us. It also speaks about humility.”

Davis was being drawn in by these words flowing from his bible study companion.  Steven, a very humble and quiet man, finds shelter and community at church-sponsored lunches where he sits with a quiet smile for all who pass by, knitting sweaters and scarves from the big bag of yarn he carries wherever he goes.  Davis asked, “What is humility? How does that speak to you?”

Steven answered, “It’s showing love and kindness for those who are around you and those that are suffering, and giving a helping hand to those when you see they are in need.”

Davis echoed this, “Yes, that’s a good way to put it. And then, there’s that strong message about being alert, you never know when the father is coming. Keep alert, do not know the name or the time. Is that frightening, that we don’t know?”

Steven nodded vigorously, “To me, it’s very frightening that we don’t know the day or the hour that he is coming back. That’s something that tells me we should stay firm in faith and pray every day. You know so, that we will be prepared when he comes back, our souls will be right.”

Davis agreed, “If you know something, you can kind of prepare. If you don’t know it, like this, then you have to be prepared all the time.”

Steven noticed, “It says here, neither the angels in heaven or the Son will know. That’s something because the angels are in Heaven with God.”  Davis jumped on that, “…and even they don’t know!”

Steven continued, “Yeah, they’re up there with the Lord and they don’t even know…it’s the big unknown.  And then it says the generation will not pass away until these things take place. So, that’s talking about us.   It says heaven and earth will pass away but his word will not pass away. But, I’m a little confused because why would heaven pass away?

Davis was equally puzzled, wrestling with this, “I know, I know.”

Steven continued to dig deeper and wrestle with the lesson, “I could see earth…earth could pass away…but, it says heaven and earth.”

Davis stepped deeper into this wrestling, too, “Maybe…I don’t know, I’m just thinking Steven…but maybe it means that this earth as we know it will be different in some way. Maybe it will be something different. Maybe it will be something new. To me, God’s grace is infinite and what he has created seems to me will somehow continue on at some point.”

Davis continued to ponder this, “I guess I have to believe is that our souls, our lives go on in some form…in some way, that maybe we can’t understand.”

Steven responded, “In some form, maybe a heavenly form.”

Davis kept reading and paraphrasing the lesson, “If we pass this earth, which we will, we go to some other place which we don’t know. Heaven and earth will pass away…but my words will not pass away.”

Steven found the emphasis for him: “Will not pass away.  His Word will not pass away.  To me, it’s spiritual and enlightening because it’s telling me, you know, all this is coming so you need to pray every day, and just be aware of what’s going on in the world. Trying to read the newspaper, your bible, and being aware of what’s going on in the world.  The Word of God will not pass away.”

“Do you pray regularly?” asked Davis.

Steven replied, “Yeah, every morning.  I read the bible also but I usually pray every morning when I get up. Sometimes, even before I go to sleep at night.  I think this whole verse means that we should pray. We should watch as well as pray. I think that’s what it means. That we should watch as well as pray. And stay spiritually within his Word and his teachings.”

Davis paused, pondering another question he wanted to ask: “Earlier, Steven, you used the word humility. You used it as looking out for others. I thought that was interesting that you used the word humility. To show humility and look out for others. It seems like it gives our life direction, an action…looking out for others, showing humility, showing concerns for others.”

Steven nodded, “I think a lot of that humility is when you pray, you see there is a need and you know you can help.”

“Right” said Davis, clearly turning this over in his mind. “It’s interesting when you see it that way…seeing that there is a need is another way of being alert, and that is what we’ve been reading. Looking out, being alert, being aware, keeping watch. Keeping watch seems like it allows you to see things. Needs, opportunities…God works through us in these things, when we keep awake.”

Steven echoed that, “I hear people use the expression all the time, that God works in mysterious ways.  And even if we don’t understand it all, God can keep working through us.”

Davis smiled, “Yeah, even in ways that we don’t understand often.  Thank you for this conversation, Steven.”

Steven echoed this: “I’ve enjoyed this, it’s been wonderful today.”

As Stephen and Davis prayed with each other again to close their time together, the mystery of Advent seemed to enfold them.  Being awake, living in humility, opening our hearts through prayer are ways in which we move from this temporal and finite world toward the infinite, immortal, unknowable coming of the Word made flesh. At moments such as this, we catch a glimpse of the Big Unknown into which we are invited to participate.

The Word became flesh and lived among us…

On the Friday before Christmas last year, I stood in front of the Red Door congregation gathered for the weekly service of Healing Prayer which we hold before serving a hot lunch to anyone who is hungry and in need of a good, home-cooked meal along with conversation, music, and safe space from what can often be a harsh world.

No one has to come to the service before they eat, but every week there are around 30 people who do choose to gather in the name of God in the sanctuary space of the urban parish who offer up this ministry of hospitality.  Every week, we pray: silently and out loud, individually and as a community.  We recite the psalms together, and we read the text from the upcoming Sunday’s Gospel, offering a short reflection.

On this particular Friday, it so happened that Sunday’s Gospel was for the upcoming Christmas Day.  As a seminarian, I don’t often get to practice preaching for such a major feast day.  As I had read and studied the text of John 1:1-14 in preparation for that reflection, I kept thinking about the Word made flesh, the Word who dwells with us, the Word who became incarnate in this world in the most humble and unhoused of ways, the Word who was and is and is always becoming known in the midst of those who gather from street corners, parks, parking lots and parishes alike.

There are more times than I can recall when I have experienced the Word made flesh in this space, with these faithful ministers of the streets.  Some people are there ever week, offering me their reflections.  Others straggle in for a break from the winter’s cold or the summer’s heat.  We are people who are yearning, seeking solace, recovering, struggling, doubting, believing, praying.  That day was no exception.  When I stood to speak, the first thing I said was: “Merry Christmas!  This is the first time this season, in this space, that anyone gets to say that and you are the first people who hear those words.”  I noticed, at that moment, that John had tears in his eyes.  I felt what he was feeling.  The Word made flesh was, indeed, with us.

After the service, still teary, he came up to me: “Pastor Sarah [as he liked to call me], I just started crying.  I couldn’t help it.  It’s just that we are never first…we never are.  And then, today, there we were and it was us…we were the first!  We had the first Christmas!”

I had no words, so I just nodded, and hugged him.  I had tears in my eyes, too.  Something stirred in me, and stirred in us.  There is a presence of Christ in the lives of those on the margins which is palpable and present and transformative.  That was the gift of that moment.

John didn’t know then…nor did any of us…that it would also be his last Christmas here on this earth.  A few short weeks later, the Friday healing service would be a memorial for John’s life.  He lived unhoused, under a bridge but worked washing dishes or volunteered somewhere every day.  He saved the lives of several people from near drug overdose, but he died from an overdose himself.  He was and is one of many people whose complex and faithful lives on the margins touched and changed my own life.   But, in between that Red Door Christmas and his untimely death, the idea for this project had already been birthed.  That idea was floated during my January seminary intersession, put to paper and submitted as a grant on which I had sought John’s input, and even in grieving his loss, the restless spirit of something new coming to life was taking shape.

Although it has been several months in the making, Faith from the Margins to the Web is now a reality that will begin with regularity on the first Sunday of Advent, Year B and will grow week by week over this next liturgical year and (hopefully) beyond.  Behind the scenes, people are being trained and interviews are being scheduled.  Evangelism is happening and will soon be brought into being as words to the web.  These stories and weekly blog commentaries are indeed life giving, because they come from the spaces where God meets us, and we are changed.

I hope you will join in this project to help nurture its growth week by week.  Let us know how the stories are shaping your faith, too.  We welcome your comments, your prayers, and your reflections.

Peace,

Sarah