What Everything Is For
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
Good morning! Welcome to the jazzy week of Advent! It’s not identified as such on the official liturgical calendar, but St. Paul’s has reimagined more than a few rubrics in our day.
For those of us who are not …regulars, Advent is the season when Christians wait for the coming of God. We do not know how or when God will come, but we wait nonetheless with faith and with hope.
And so today we celebrate this second Sunday in Advent with the official music of faith and hope: Jazz.
It’s not an outrageous proposition, and in fact I’m surprised that we seem to be the only Christians (the official religion of faith and hope) who have thought of celebrating Advent with a Jazz Blest. Because jazz and Advent have quite a lot in common. In fact they are a natural fit. Not like the lion lying down with the lamb, appearances to the contrary not withstanding.
It’s built into the timing, the tempo, the rhythm of …..well, we could call today a Jazzventure.
As I explained last week, Advent, is from the Latin word adventus. And adventus in Latin is a very particular verb form. It is a perfect passive participle. We don’t have this form in English. But in Latin, the perfect passive participle has a somewhat contradictory meaning in and of itself. The perfect passive part denotes something which has already happened. And is over and done. But the participle part is something that is happening as we speak, and continues to happen into the future.
So, Advent, from the perfect passive participle adventus, is: something that is happening now, is ongoing into the future, and yet has already happened. It’s almost like science fiction, if it were not so….well, theological.
Advent is about the blending of the here and now with the promise of something significant yet to come. It is a time of anticipation. It is a time of transition. Especially this year. It’s a time out of time.
And the core of jazz fits that description to a tee. Jazz has to do with time out of time. Improvisation, syncopation, spontaneity, and the freedom to respond to the need of the moment.
Jazz is just the way that John the Baptist instructs us to prepare for God in this morning’s Gospel. Well, not JUST the way, but one….interpretation of the way. John quotes from Isaiah:
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord….’”
Can you hear the jazz? Although if we heard the full passage that John quotes from Isaiah, we would likely hear the music more vividly.
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her… (hear the choir begin to swoon)
3 A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness (can you hear the sax?)
Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (there’s the trumpet)
4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; (can you hear the bass riff?)
the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. (here the piano takes the lead)
5 Then the glory of our God shall be revealed, (definitely a drum solo!)
and all people shall see it together (the full throated congregation scats),
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ (The full ensemble lands on the last discordant note!)
Advent is the season for jazz. Because…….
*Jazz, like Advent, is located in the wilderness. In the wide open space where anything can happen and there are no guideposts.
*Jazz, like Advent, is grounded in improvisation. An improvisation that requires our intense attention. That demands that we be fully awake and prepared to move in one direction or the other at a moment’s notice.
*Jazz, like Advent, requires that we listen with eager anticipation to what is happening around us.
*Jazz, like Advent, is a dance between dark and light, high notes and low notes, major and minor keys.
*Jazz, like Advent, is spontaneous. No matter how much we crave control, it is out of our hands. And then out of the blue, the creation of something incredible, something we might never have expected or imagined. Something that is both fully human and fully divine.
*Jazz, like Advent, hinges on the almighty YES. The willingness to carry the music, the unmitigated consent to bear God’s gift to the world.
*And finally. jazz, like Advent, is the perfect season in which to celebrate transitions.
The transition that we celebrate today is the divergence of our two roads in this wilderness of ministry and mission that we have shared for almost twelve years. A transition that rides on a raft of memories and accomplishments and holy pathways that we have forged together. A bittersweet moment of celebration.
And as many of you know, my main coping mechanism for difficult transitions is the Top Ten list. When we have said good-bye to beloved musicians like James and Giorgi, or beloved interns like Ed and Amanda, or beloved friends like Archie Doodle Dog. Or in other difficult transitional moments like the election of our current president. When I am almost too veklempt to know what to say, the Top Ten list has always helped me to arrange my thoughts.
So here it is, my last Top Ten list from this pulpit. A sort of lessons and carol of the thoughts and prayers that I hope have been planted here during our spirit-filled time together. Here we go.
- Be extravagant in your giving!
It’s not an accident that this insatiable gift-giving holiday coincides with the birth of Jesus. And not because of the example set by the gifts offered by the magi to the child in the manger, but because of the gift offered by the child in the manger to the world.
Jesus sets the bar for our giving. And he sets the bar out of this world. God came in the flesh to show us how to give ourselves to each other. Without holding anything back. And how to do it as though our lives depended upon it. If we do it right, if we follow the lead of that homeless itinerant preacher, if we honor the image of God that is etched on each of our hearts, our giving will not just be generous, it will be extravagant!
The original meaning of the adjective extravagant (extravagantem) dates back to the late 14th century and has its root in, of all things, Roman Catholic Canon Law. It is from the Latin and literally means to wander outside and beyond the boundaries.
But in the 17 century the word extravagant began to be used with its current negative connotation. Today, when we hear the word “extravagant” we think of something that is wastefully excessive. Lavish. Exorbinant. Unrestrained. Indulgent. Luxurious. Unnecessary. Maybe even immoral. Like the old adage: “Enough is enough. And too much is plenty.”
But if we understand extravagant as crossing boundaries that keep us apart, like its original meaning, then I think extravagant is the perfect word to describe the sort of giving that we celebrate in this season of the Incarnation. The sort of giving in which we want to engage.
Giving that is beyond the bounds. Giving that is sacrificial. Extravagant like the oil used by Mary to anoint Jesus’s head and feet in all four of our Gospels. The expensive oil that, according to the disciples, should have been saved for the poor. I have always wondered why we do not read this story in Advent. Because extravagance is the key descriptor of the way I think we are called to meet each other in this season, this season of ubiquitous, but often perfunctory, gift giving.
Without extravagance, our gift giving falls short of the real and radical meaning of this season. So let us go forth and give with everything, and I mean everything, we’ve got. 2.
2. The mission is not to grow the church. The mission is to love the world.
In my humble and maybe slightly off-road opinion, growing the church has never been the point. In fact the church is the only established institution whose own survival is not any part of its mission statement. The work of the church is not about growing itself, or even sustaining itself, but about living a life of loving God and God’s world with utter integrity. The church is the vehicle for that work, the mechanism for that work. Not its purpose. Long live the church….at least long, and only as long, as it serves pure love.
3. Ask for and offer up forgiveness. Constantly.
Because acting with the courage of our convictions often requires stepping on some toes. It’s that old adage that every omelet requires breaking a few eggs. And so God of all hopefulness, forgive us our brokenness, our blindness, our persistence and our stubborn resolve. Open our hearts to go forth with genuine humility and an unwavering commitment to the dignity of all of Your creation. Let us ask for forgiveness. Let us offer forgiveness. And let us put all of our eggs, fragile as they may be, in the basket labeled mercy.
4. Never offer unconditional love.
Ever. We say we want unconditional love…..but that, I think, is a bold faced lie! We do not want to be loved because we exist, we want to be loved for who we are…..particularly…..subjectively….very, very personally. Unconditional love does not lift us above the things that keep us from God. Love that does not see our shame, our guilt, our weakness and our insufficiency is not love.
Only love that is grounded in compassion for the whole of each being, grounded in our shared suffering, grounded in the recognition and embrace of every wart of our perceived unworthiness
is love worth giving or receiving….unless, of course, you are a golden retriever. And then by all means, love all ways! And on a related note…..
5. Let us spend the rest of our lives spreading the Good News that Jesus is a four letter word!
Of course the word is: Love. Although I bet I could make a bit of a case for: Jazz.
6. Money is not the root of all evil. Privilege is.
Unearned privilege could very well be at the heart of every systemic evil that plagues our common life. The notion that some of us just deserve more than others. The notion that there are hierarchical levels of deservingmay be at the heart of our panoply of social dis-eases: Racism. Poverty. War. The destruction of creation. Our national immigration policy. This is all a delusion of our deserving.
The delusion of our privilege, of course, is no delusion at all. Privilege is quite real. But it hangs on the coattails of the notion that we deserve what we have. And so I think it is well worth asking the question: what exactly do we deserve? Is what I deserve different from what you deserve? Is it grounded injustice or in my own human concept of fairness? Do we deserve only what we earn? What if what we earn is a function of what we inherit? Do we deserve what we inherit? And what if our earning power is derailed or impeded by no fault of our own? Does what we deserve change? Is that fair?
And so calibrating what we deserve can be very complicated.
Can we quantify, or even know, much less articulate, what we deserve? I think the truth about what we deserve is buried in the semantics of the word itself: de-serve. When we think we deserve something, we are actuallyde-serving it. That is, we are not serving it. When we think we deserve more credit for our work, or more appreciation for our effort, or a gold star for our obedience we are de-serving what we seek….we are diminishing it. When we grumble that we are not being properly served by others, we are actively de-serving everything that we value…..or say that we value…..as Christians.
Because de-serving is the opposite of what Jesus came to do. Jesus came to serve, not to be served, not to de-serve. In fact, if we believe Jesus, we don’t deserve a thing. Everything of value that we have and that we are is freely given to us by God, none of it is in any way deserved.
So let us shift our attention from what we think we deserve to how we can better serve each other. And act accordingly.
7. Discomfort is the agent of growth.
Good news! Times of stress are times of growth. (This one is for the wardens!) Admittedly, it’s a paradox. Para, meaning beside. Dox, meaning appearance. Paradox. An appearance beside itself. A blessing in disguise. When things get tough, we can use the adversity as a wake-up call to find the ground on which we truly stand. To get to the bottom of what we truly value. To locate the kernel of our purpose so that we might let everything else go.
And that is not the only good news about adversity. But be assured that God never wastes anything. Every rotten break, every difficult situation, every deep ditch in which we might find ourselves or our community will be used to facilitate some offering of grace down the road. The light at the end of the dark, dark thruway would never even be seen without the tunnel
8. Be careful what you wish for.
We all know this warning well. We know from Goethe’s Faust, and Brendan Frazier’s Bedazzled, that nothing good ever comes when we are not clear about what we value. Whenever we are tempted to forfeit something that serves love for something that serves fear we can be sure that we are about to be….fffffausted. Or at the very least up a bedazzled creek without a paddle.
Whenever we think we are called to serve things like quantity over quality, equity over mercy, progress over hope, unity over kindness, or any other false value over the celebration and affirmation of dignity.…….that temptation is a sure fire trap and we are making a deal with the devil….whoever that may be. Because we will either find out that the trade was not worth it, or that what we wanted comes in a form that we don’t want after all…..or both. Beware of best-laid wishes.
9. Number nine.
There were two brothers. And they loved baseball. All of their lives. And as they aged, they promised each other that the first one to die would come back and let the other one know if there is baseball in heaven. One day Joe had a massive heart attack and died. About a month later John was mowing the lawn and there was Joe. Standing right in front of him. Oh Joe, exclaimed John, you kept your word! Tell me, is there baseball in heaven? And Joe said: well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is, yes! There is baseball in heaven.
The bad news is, you’re pitching on Sunday.
This too shall pass. It is among the central messages of Advent, if not all mainline religions. That the world as we know it is on the way out. And again, it’s a paradox. Good News and Bad News all at the same time. That we are free to live with integrity, free to let go of all of the stumbling blocks to our authenticity, and assured that despite the depth and breadth of the pain we are suffering, nothing lasts forever….well almost nothing. As the New Testament says: Our life with God is everlasting. And as the Talmud says: The sun will rise without you. As I said, Good News and Bad News. And, not unlike jazz.
10. Remember what everything is for.
At the end of Fiddler on the Roof, Hodel and Perchik are talking about their new life ahead. And Perchik says: I will send for you as soon as I can. But it will be a hard life, Hodel. And she replies: But it will be less hard if we are together. And Perchik says, actually sings: Besides having everything, now I know what everything is for.
My dear friends, in the scheme of things, we in this beloved and extended community have everything. We have voices. We have choices. We have power. We have stability. We have relative economic and social security. And most of all, we have each other. And even though we will shortly be planted in different gardens, we have been so transformed by each other that nothing will ever separate us from each other or the love of God. We are inseparably connected.
I came to this parish almost 12 years ago, hot off the ordination press. This was and is and will always be my first parish as a priest. Everything I am as a parish priest has been informed by you. And although I arrived here with everything, almost everything a parish priest might need. I had everything to learn. And we gave each other everything we had. And now I too know what everything is for.
I love you dearly. I will miss you deeply. And I thank you from my toe bottoms.
In the words of St. Benedict: Always we begin again.