Christmas is coming, and this is good news for the church, since Christmas may be the last great Christian story that has the power to capture nearly everyone’s imagination. Even in a world that seems to give up on religion, and certainly gives up on the specifics of the Christian faith more and more each year, Christmas has something to say to people, as long as we keep it simple, tell the story, look for peace, remember that it’s love we are looking for.
So it’s frustrating that Advent is so complicated. Yes, Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas. But Advent is supposed to be more than that. The beginning of the church year gets off to a start that’s meant to remind us that marking time in the church is never only about looking back: the seasons, celebrations, feasts and fasts of the year that recall days gone by, only ever do so in order to turn our eyes to the future, to an expectation of something more, something new, something better, something holy. Advent accentuates the forward gaze of the Christian year in acute ways, insisting that we not only remember that long ago John the Baptist foretold the coming of Christ, but also that we attend to Jesus’ own promise that he will come again. But to do so has become more and more awkward for the church, since Christ has been so long in returning, maybe even longer than he expected. And so, many people have stopped believing that he will come again; or at least they have stopped caring.
And for those whose Advent calendars function primarily as a way to keep track of the number of shopping days left till Christmas, or as a delivery system for treats, the idea that anyone is waiting for the Second Coming of Jesus, is quaint, and more or less entirely beside the point. A tree, a manger, some carols, the Grinch, and a family dinner will be quite enough. Why ruin it with so much religion? To show up on Advent Sunday in this frame of mind and to be confronted with the teaching we heard from Jesus in Luke’s Gospel must be disappointing. It’s like going to see “The Nutcracker,” and discovering that it has been replaced with a performance of “Waiting for Godot.”
“People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world,” Jesus says, “for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Which means nothing much to anyone, as warnings go. And as promises go, what comes next can seem equally beside the point, and beyond interest: “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” Can’t we just cut to the innkeeper, the shepherds, and the wise men? Wouldn’t it be nice to hear some cattle lowing?
Sometimes, though, you hear a story that makes the promise that we will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud seem possible again.
Just last week I happened to attend a conference that was led by a wonderful priest some of you may have heard of. Her name is Becca Stevens, and she is the founder of a ministry called Thistle Farms, in Nashville, Tennessee. Thistle Farms is a two-year residential recovery program for women who have survived trafficking, prostitution, and addiction. What Thistle Farms provides, their promotional material tells me, is “a safe and supportive place to live,” “a meaningful job,” and “a lifelong sisterhood of support” for the women in the program.
In fact, I have visited Thistle Farms once, because I’d heard so many glowing things about it. The ministry goes hand in hand with a social enterprise that helps fund it, and which sells bath, body, and home products that are made by the women. And I can tell you that the gifts I am giving friends and family this Christmas include a lot of hand and body lotion, essential oils, candles, shaving cream, and bath salts.
I was fortunate, when I visited Thistle Farms, to arrive in time for the morning circle, at which a candle is lighted every morning. Becca (she would faint if you called her “Mother Stevens”) once explained in an article, “We start every day in a circle and we light the candle and say, ‘We light this candle for the next woman coming in off the streets.’ …we’re all doing it, so another woman can come in here. She cannot be raped anymore. She cannot be jailed anymore. She cannot be beaten anymore. She can be here and she can be economically independent. She can be in a loving community. She can choose a relationship that’s healthy.” (Parade Magazine, Nov 1, 2017)
When I visited Thistle Farms three years ago, I got to see a bit of the production of the candles and hand lotion, I visited the café they run, and I got to meet with one of the women in the program, who told me she’d come there from Texas because she was desperate and out of hope. But it’s not her story that I want to share with you. Because I’m still really wanting to make a point about Advent. I haven’t forgotten about Advent, but I think (I hope) the little detour to Thistle Farms will help to bring some meaning to the possibility that it still matters to the world that Jesus promised that we will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
At the conference last week, Becca told us that she usually travels with one or two or the graduates of Thistle Farms who, after graduation, have stayed on to work with the organization. It was Becca’s first time traveling with this particular graduate, and they were going to Nebraska, if I have the story right. Becca told us that she was feeling drained and un-inspired, and the thought of being in Nebraska wasn’t doing anything to improve her spirits, as she looked out the window and realized that at that time of year (it was Advent, early December) the grey clouds in the sky would cast a flat grey pall over the flat grey landscape of the plains, and everything would be flat and grey. I guess she was looking forward to it about as much as you’d look forward to a holiday production of “Waiting for Godot.”
And she told us that she realized that she’d made a mistake with this particular traveling companion, by not giving up the window seat and allowing her to sit there. Because her colleague was excitedly, energetically, and unapologetically invading Becca’s personal space in order to gaze wide-eyed out the window at the expanse of flat, grey clouds. As Becca put it, this woman had seen the wrong side of the streets, the worst side of people, the back side of men’s hands, the other side of rehab, the underside of bridges, and the inside of prison walls, “but she had never seen the top side of a cloud.”
And that’s a good line. That’s the kind of line I’d steal for a sermon. So I wrote it down. At least the last part, the part about the top-side of a cloud. I kind of ad-libbed the first part, more or less. I know I captured the essence of what Becca was saying; the kind of contrast she was trying to make. And I told her I was going to steal it, anyway.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. There was one more thing she wanted to tell us. Becca wanted us to know what her traveling companion - this woman, whose name I stupidly forgot to write down, and who had successfully completed the program of recovery, and who has a story, as everyone in that program does, of addiction, of abuse, of sickness, of failure, of bloodshed, of tears, and of pain, and despair - what she had to say, when she had ended her invasion of Becca’s personal space and eased back into her own seat, and had a moment to reflect on what she’d seen out the window of the airplane.
She said, “I swear, I did not know there was a sky above the clouds.”
Now, you understand that this is a statement of disposition, not knowledge. You understand that this is poetry.
As a piece of poetry, it’s a statement that I suspect could also say something about the prevailing Christian outlook, especially at Advent. I swear, sometimes I think we do not know there is a sky above the clouds. And have we given up hoping that we have a Savior, who is not just a fairy-tale figure of a nostalgic Christmas long ago, but who is coming to us again with power and great glory, and with healing in his wings?
It is true that this Advent we will prepare to look back, and remember that first Christmas long, long ago. But Jesus didn’t come to us to keep us looking backward. For he promised that he would come again in a cloud with power and with great glory. And no, we are not waiting for Godot. Jesus promised to come again because although his kingdom had come near, as it is near to us even now, his reign had not yet been established, and still it is not.
And there are many whose lives are stories of addiction, or abuse, or sickness, or failure, or bloodshed, or tears, or pain, or despair. Maybe you know some of these realities in your own life. Which is to say that there are many who have never seen the top side of a cloud or least for whom it is a distant memory. And many of us, who are the inheritors of the promise that we will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud, have virtually forgotten that there is a sky above the clouds; that there is a Savior who will come to us. This is not so much a statement of knowledge, as it is one of disposition. But so many have forgotten it.
We need a story to remind us. And I’ll take a story about a woman who’s been battered, and bought, and sold, and strung out, and who found a place of extravagant love (run by an episcopal priest of all things), and, who, after what can only have been a hard but blessed road to recovery, finds herself on the top side of the clouds, and in a moment of poetic clarity declares, “I swear I did not know there was a sky above the clouds.”
I’ll take that story to point my eyes and yours to the clouds once more and remember there’s a sky up there. And there’s a God who loves us; and who sent his Son once. And that Son will come again from the clouds in power and great glory because his work is not yet done, but he will finish it.
Yes, my friends, Christmas is coming. But that is only one part of the story. The Good News is that there is a sky above the clouds; and that Jesus is coming in a cloud, with power and with great glory, to bring peace, and healing, and to establish at last his wondrous kingdom of love.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Advent Sunday 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia