Be the Bottle

Matthew 24:36-44
© Stacey Steck

Once upon a time, the season of Advent was considered a penitential season, like the season of Lent, a time during which you confessed your sins to be ready for the coming of the Christ child into our midst. And so, it is in that spirit that I offer you my confession as we begin Advent once again. Yes, it’s true. I’ve been buying Powerball tickets. I’m not proud of this fact, and I only do so when the prize is more than 200 million dollars. And no, I didn’t win last night. Yes, I do with the lottery what many people do with great diligence and seriousness each day: they try to catch lightning in a bottle. Most of these people are gamblers and dreamers and vagabonds trying to get rich quick or without a lot of work, but a few of them are that breed of Christian who, despite Jesus’ admonition about the unpredictability of the “day of the Lord,” that end-of-the-age coming of Christ in glory, that day and hour that “no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father,” despite all that, they try to calculate exactly when that day will come. This breed of Christian has survived the religious ice ages -- the ages of Enlightenment and Aquarius -- and just when you thought it might go extinct, the millennium came along and revived the breed and it goes on in its quest of something more elusive even than the Holy Grail itself: the day and the hour of the Lord’s coming.

Trying to catch lightning in a bottle is a figure of speech, of course, about luck mostly, but also about the futility and foolishness of trying to do something one ought not to do, like try to trap something as huge, elusive, and potentially deadly as lightning in a container as easily broken as a bottle. In this morning’s lesson from Matthew, and even more so in the passages before and after it, we are offered a glimpse of a terrifying future, one from which you would think everyone would run: a future of never-ending war, famine and earthquake; torture, persecution, and betrayal; a time when false prophecy and lawlessness increase while love grows cold, when it will be terrible for the pregnant women and nursing mothers who must flee the coming doom. Indeed, Jesus even describes his coming by comparing it to lightning in verse 27: “For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” And yet, despite all that horror, and even though Jesus tells us that only God knows when it will happen, there are still faithful persons who are standing there with their little bottles trying to catch that unpredictable lightning, trying to predict when and where Jesus will return. I suppose their odds of being struck by lightning are as slim as catching it, so maybe they are not in too much danger, but I do wonder what they could do with all that time spent in the field vainly holding up their little bottles.

Each year on the first Sunday of Advent, the Gospel passages dwell on apocalyptic themes, placing us and the Gospel story as far from the Christmas Eve manger scene as we can possibly get. The caring, compassionate Jesus we tend to prefer will make his appearance soon enough in the account of his birth, but his story cannot be reduced to his characteristics meek and mild. Jesus is, after all, God, and our God has never been accused of being tame. We are invited then at the dawn of Advent each year to reflect on the wilder side of our Messiah, the cloud surfing, angel-commanding conqueror of the forces of evil, for he is what the babe will become even if we don’t live to see it in person, a fact for which we should probably be quite glad.
If there is a better metaphor for that wilder side of Jesus than lightning, I’m not sure what it is, and I love the fact that he describes himself that way. In our passage tonight, it is not lightning which takes one person standing in a field and leaves the other, and it is not lightning which leaves one woman to the grinding of her meal but takes the other, but it sure sounds like it. I once read a novel about survivors of lightning strikes and in that story, one man is killed by a lightning strike, his body vaporized, while standing next to another who survived. The coming of the Son of Man will be that quick, we are led to believe, as quick as perhaps the fastest thing on the planet. In that book I was reading, “The Ice Queen,” its author, Alice Hoffman, describes lightning like this:

“What’s the difference between lightning and magic? is a joke common among meteorologists. Magic makes sense. Lightning does not, even to the experts. Lightning is random, unpredictable. It can be as small as a bean or as large as a house. Noisy or silent, ashy or clear. It can be any color – red or white, blue or smoky black – and it seems to have a mind of its own. Lightning floats down chimneys and enters closed windows, slipping right through the molecules that make up glass. Lightning has its own agenda, most experts say; it can easily cause damage despite all safety efforts. Hide, but it may find you. Plan, but your plan may easily become undone.”

That sounds a lot like God to me, end times or not. And it also sounds a lot like grace. Jesus advocates the need for watchfulness in our passage tonight, a watchfulness based on the lightning-like unpredictability of God, but also on the uncertainty of our efforts at maintaining our righteousness. When he compares the future coming of the Son of Man to the coming of the flood in Noah’s time, he is reminding us of the need for our attentiveness not just to the blessings of God, but to the God who has given them. There is nothing wrong with eating, drinking, and marrying, gifts of God one and all, but there is something wrong with taking those things for granted, for such inattentiveness is the first step down the slippery slope to the kind of wickedness and evil which, we are told, provoked God to decide to “blot out from the earth the human beings I have created” in Noah’s time. The readiness for the coming of the Son of Man then, which Jesus urges us to have, is not about waking up just in time to sidestep a bolt of lightning, for none of us are that quick, but to live wisely and faithfully, like heeding the warnings to avoid playing golf in a thunderstorm. The watchfulness to which we are called is not the prediction of the day and the hour of the coming of the Son of Man, so that we can avoid being at the wrong place at the wrong time when the time comes, but rather the perseverance required to be in the right place all the time no matter when the time comes. Indeed, it was staying awake, rather than trying to wake up in the nick of time, that would have prevented the thief from breaking into the house in Jesus’ example. You see, both lightning and thieves have the element of surprise and they are quicker than we are.

All of this is not to say that God is about the business of striking us down when we misbehave, nor that the purpose of our faith is to avoid provoking God to send a lightning bolt our way, either now or at the end of time. Indeed, amidst the horror that is to precede and be a part of the second coming of Christ is the glory of God revealed like never before, and the establishment of the peace and justice illustrated so beautifully in the visions of the prophet Isaiah about a time when we shall practice war no more. This is what we want to stay awake for. This is what we want to be sure not to miss. This is what God will be fighting for throughout the lead up to the coming of the Son of Man. What we want to stay awake for is the heavenly banquet which follows when, because we practice war no more, we will sit at the table together in the kingdom of heaven and enjoy God the way we were made to do. That is why in the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper we say: “Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” We say it as a reminder of the promises and as a call to a faithfulness which will give us strength to persevere in showing the world a glimpse of that future banquet when we sit together at Christ’s table in the here and now.

I started out by describing that group of Christians who somehow find it spiritually rewarding to try to outguess God and predict the second coming, people trying to catch lightning in a bottle. For the reasons I just described, I can sort of understand the appeal. They want to capture that moment and hold onto it. The only problem is that their bottle is just too small, no matter how big it may be. You see, you can’t bottle grace. For as much as Jesus’ second coming is like lightning, God’s grace is like lightning, slipping into our world and our lives at unexpected times and in unpredictable ways, finding us even when we don’t want to be found, changing plans we really don’t want changed. Indeed, if we really want to be ready for Christ’s coming, we’ll put down our bottles and pick up a nice, heavy piece of a highly conductive metal and stand in the middle of a field in a thunderstorm. Metaphorically, people, metaphorically. If we want to be ready, really ready to experience all of what God has to offer us now and at the second coming, we need to “be the bottle,” the vessel into which the power of God’s grace is discharged. Like the survivors of real-life lightning strikes, we’ll experience some unusual sensations, and we’ll be able to do things we could never do before, and we’ll never be the same again.

Advent is a season to consider the nature of God’s unexpected grace, a grace discharged into the body of a teenaged girl to be revealed to the world nine months later. Mary, the future mother of Jesus, might not have been looking for the lightning-like grace of God, but she was clearly living her life in a way that made her ready for it. Mary caught lightning in a bottle because she was the bottle. May we be the bottle to experience fully the grace of God, once and forever. Amen.

In Life and In Death

Luke 20:20-27
© Stacey Steck

Those of you who have spent time in the more liturgical, or, as they say, “high” church traditions may have more experience than others with All Saints’ Day, the day the church pauses to celebrate the fullness of the body of Christ, past, present, and future. Technically, All Saints’ Day falls each year on November 1, the day after All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, but it is appropriate to celebrate it on the Sunday following and so we are today. Presbyterians, and other Protestant denominations have tended to ignore All Saints’ Day partly out of historical enmity with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, but also because we are generally afraid of anything connected with the word saint, as if we might be contaminated by Catholic cooties if we overhear the word. Of course, the word “saint” has a much longer history and a much wider usage than that connected with the church naming specific persons as saints in recognition of miraculous acts attributed to them. In the Biblical view, that is, the perspective of St. Paul, the word “saint” is merely a synonym for a believer, a Christian. You and I are as much saints as Francis, Bonaventure or one of my personal favorites, Gerard Majellan, the patron saint of pregnant women.

The other reason I believe Presbyterians do not often “do” All Saints’ Day is that it necessarily deals with death, since those we remember this day are those who have passed on into the more mysterious parts of the realm. The idea of death makes us uncomfortable, with good reason, and tends to remind us of our own mortality, something we would rather avoid. We are accustomed to thinking about our faith in categories like “abundant life” and joy and love, words we do not typically associate with the undeniable and inscrutable fact of death. In many churches on All Saints’ Day, the names of persons who have died are read aloud, as they will be here in a little while, and this can bring back the kind of raw emotions we’d prefer to leave privately at home, thank you very much.

But All Saints’ Day is an important part of the church year and ought not be overlooked because we have become squeamish about talking publically about death. Indeed, the very things we celebrate this day are those we celebrate every time we celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, for in case you haven’t noticed, the conclusion to every Great Prayer of Thanksgiving offered before the breaking of the bread recalls the communion of saints. Listen for it this morning. Today is simply a day to bring into sharper focus that which is already in view, that we are all part of the body of Christ whom God remembers and whom we are called to remember. A church without a well-developed theology of remembering is a church destined for spiritual poverty.

H.G. Wells’ book, The Time Machine, makes an interesting commentary on what might lie ahead for us without an adequate theology of remembering. If you recall that story, the protagonist builds a machine that can travel through time and decides to travel into the future to see what it will be like. He stops in a year far into the future but in exactly the same place since he has merely traveled through the fourth dimension. In that future, he encounters a people called the Eloi, none of whom seem to be over the age of thirty. It turns out that the reason for this is that as the members of this community reach a certain age, they become the slaves or food of the evil and underground dwelling Morlocks. The finality of this arrangement has so thoroughly saturated this people that even when one of their own falls into the river, no one lifts a hand to save him, and he is swept downstream to the horror of the story’s 19th century hero. These are people who do not mourn, nor remember, nor commemorate their dead. They are a people yet unknown in our own time, at least according to anthropologist Margaret Mead who observed, “I know of no people for whom the fact of death is not critical, and who leave no ritual by which to deal with it.” These Eloi have proven her wrong and seem to be at peace with it though they have paid a terrible, if unknown, price for having no grief: they have no life either, no joy, no art, no literature, no culture beyond waiting for the age of thirty to roll around so they can disappear without a trace. Denial is a great thief of life.

A different scenario awaits those who have overdeveloped their capacity for remembrance or who cannot control it. These are people whose lives are limited by remembering too much, living in the past, being unable to move on with one’s own life because of the grief created by the death or loss of someone we love. I have yet to see it myself but funeral directors tell stories of distraught family members literally throwing themselves on the casket as it is lowered into the grave. We all know of people who appear to have “died of a broken heart,” not long after a loved one has passed away and others who suffer years of depression following a loss. By no means am I trying to trivialize how we feel when faced with a loss, but simply to point out that for some, letting go is an extremely significant challenge with grave consequences for failing to do so. And of course our holding on to the past to our own detriment is not limited to grief. Guilt, shame, and anger are just a few of the emotions which we human beings are adept at gripping too tightly. Anyone who has held a grudge or been on the receiving end of one knows of what I speak.

And so it is that our ways of remembrance must lie somewhere between denial and death grip, balancing our emotions with our hope, our sanity with our sense of mystery. Christians have found this spiritual middle ground in the idea of the communion of saints, that strange phrase found near the end of the Apostle’s Creed that understands the community created by God in Jesus Christ to have no boundaries whatsoever, not by geography, language, time, or other arbitrary human construction. Our own denomination’s confession, “A Brief Statement of Faith,” offers a commentary on the doctrine when it begins by saying: “In life and in death we belong to God. Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve,” and when it concludes by recalling the words of St. Paul in Romans 8 that: “With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In the Gospel reading this morning, once you wade through all of the muck of the Sadducees’ question of Jesus, you get to the point, that our God is the God of the living. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob may be dead, but they are most certainly living. That they stopped breathing, and eating, and sleeping doesn’t mean very much to God, because what matters is not whether we are alive or dead, but whether God is alive or dead. Because as long as God is alive, there is hope for the dead. What matters is not such much that we remember those who have gone before us, but that God remembers them, because God is the one with the power of resurrection and life eternal and life abundant, the one who can take the death we experience even while we are alive and resurrect us again and again, maybe even seven times; because God is the one who helps us hold on to the memories of those with whom we have loved and worship and walked the fields. When we read the names of the saints on All Saints’ Day, we are celebrating the God who has given them to us, and the God that holds on to them, and us, until that mysterious moment when it finally all makes sense, and we understand fully all the promises we’ve believed God keeps.

But until that day when we’ll really understand the meaning of the faith we proclaim, we must keep on speaking aloud the names of our loved ones and the words of our creeds, remembering the people who belong to the God of the living, and the words of the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, that 16th century masterpiece which lays it all out there right in the beginning, and allows everything else to fall in place behind it. Let us stand and ask and answer that most wondrous question: “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?” “That we belong--body and soul, in life and in death--not to ourselves but to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all our sins and has completely freed us from the dominion of the devil; that he protects us so well that without the will of our Father in heaven not a hair can fall from our heads; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for our salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures us of eternal life, and makes us wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.” And all of God’s people said, “Amen.”