Thursday, December 3, 2009

Awkward Advent

(A sermon on the First Sunday of Advent, Year C, preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church 11/29/2009)

I am fascinated by popular culture. I think that it’s essential to be as aware and in tune to it as one can be.

There are lots of definitions and in-depth studies of what accounts as popular culture, but I prefer a simple one found in the online dictionary, Wiktionary:

Popular Culture: The prevailing vernacular (or everyday) culture in any given society, including art, cooking, clothing, entertainment, films, mass media, music, sports and style.

(note that Wiktionary is the lexical companion to Wikipedia, which has a greatly expanded entry on "popular culture" that I highly recommend reading)

I like this definition a lot, I think, because of the ambiguous words “culture in any given society.” Through most of the last 30 years, “pop culture” usually refers only to American trends, so one could argue that finding what is the popular culture is a search to find what is prevalent in America as a whole. The Wiktionary definition not only allows for views beyond America, but in the many sub-cultures as well. For example: popular culture for those who live in America as a whole may be different than considering only people of New Hampshire, which is CERTAINLY different than what is popular for people in the North Country. Sure, there may be commonalities and overlap, but what is the popular culture in, say, winter mountain sports may even differ slightly by the means: skier or snowboarder, or even the location (Bretton Woods or Cannon Mountain.) Factor age, gender, race, economics, or a host of other things into the equation, and what is the popular culture may change yet again.Popular culture is an intriguing study not just for its complexity. The more we know about popular culture as a whole, the more we can transcend barriers and find places for discussion that reach beyond our differences. When something reaches beyond a particular segment of the population, we have the opportunity to explore things in common. That’s why the Harry Potter books and movies, for example, have been such a wonderful place of exploration. Beyond the good storytelling are a wealth of ethical questions that can bring different generations into dialogue with common language and subject matter.So, as a whole, I’m very much for recognizing the prevailing wave of culture, and using it as a place of intersection and dialogue.Advent, however, is problematic. For four weeks, we are to hold off the coming of Christmas, sticking to “preparing.” It’s hard enough in today’s world to hold off the Christmas season until after Thanksgiving: I witnessed my first Christmas commercial this year on Wednesday October 28th during the World Series broadcast

(actually, someone posted on Twitter that they saw one, leading to my Tweeted response: "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!")

. After Thanksgiving, it’s pretty much a lost cause. Christmas talk and preparation is the dominant prevailing way. The season of Advent is not only forgotten by most, but is awkward in its content. It would be one thing if Advent consisted only of setting the stage: the time and climate of 1st century Judah that Jesus was born into. That sort of happens with the Jeremiah passage, our opening text of Year C in our lectionary:
14The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” (Jeremiah 33:14-16)

The Jeremiah passage is used to point to Jesus as God’s righteous Branch. What we then get, however, is not the opening of the Gospel of Luke, but the 21st chapter, and Jesus saying:“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (The whole excerpt is Luke 21:25-26)It’s clear that the message of Advent is more than preparing for the birth narrative. The coming of God’s vision for the world, then and now, is Advent’s dominant theme.That message is REALLY counter to the popular culture.We have to be careful, at this point. Counter-culture is different from oppressed status. It is very easy to attempt to slip into a minority viewpoint of ourselves as Christians, and attempt to shun all that is not in line with our way. This can have disastrous consequences that isolate and put down instead of unite and build up. For example, consider this statement: “We’re living in a broken world, we are to be faithful while the world spirals out of control, and then we’ll be justified by God at the end.”This statement would resonate with those for whom Jeremiah and Luke were written. We must remember, however, that the Book of Jeremiah speaks to the time of Babylonian exile and captivity. The Gospel of Luke speaks not only to a group of Jews viciously persecuted under Roman occupation, but a group of people who were a despised minority among their own people. That’s a far cry from our realities as Episcopalians (and for most of us in the United States).The brokenness of the world is real today, but not necessarily just as it was then. Perhaps the best way to understand is the idea that we currently live in the midst of the fulfillment of the promise of God. This leads us into the question of how can we keep Advent.

Wesley White, a United Methodist minister asks, “What would it meant to live in the midst of a promise being fulfilled?” He quotes the theologian Stanley Hauerwas: “Advent means being Patient...God has made us a people of promise in a world of impatience." Hauerwas suggests that we have, as a whole, failed to live the way Jesus taught us: specifically, non-violent in a violent world. (This all comes from a video on the website The Work of the People: Visual Media for Mission and Worship called "Recapturing Advent"

The whole 4 minute video is very thought provoking.) White concludes: "Nonviolence is not to be a strategy to rid the world of war, but as a living within a larger promise. We are to find righteousness by continuing to live as though the promise were already true."Advent points to God’s vision. The kingdom has come near, and will continue to do so. We are to be active participants in this vision, loving God and neighbor as ourselves, striving for peace and justice, and seeking to help reconcile one another and ourselves with God. Amen.

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