Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Still waiting? Six reasons why Advent is important
Matthew 21:12-22
“MY house shall be called a house of prayer”; ‘but you are making it a den of robbers’

(2) Advent reminds us that religious sentiment can sometimes be exploited.

Advent reminds us that religious sentiment can be exploited. The folk at the Temple were not evil people. They were offering services for those coming to make sacrifices, to meet their obligations. Certainly they might have been more judicious but in a church such as you have here in the middle of Harvard yard we understand the nuances involved in making books and compact discs available to those who pass in and out of the doors. It might be different if we had a plethora of other offerings including a booth where you could exchange your euros for dollars at a discounted rate, but we do not.

It is not needed in this community to remind us that at Christmas we all are a bit vulnerable to manipulation. Otherwise reasonable people for the best of reasons spring for purchases far beyond what they can reasonably afford. I have some first hand experience. The other day Jan and I left Morning Prayers to purchase our Christmas Tree; I said as we began walking into the field that this was the year to be more modest in our aspirations. And we walked by several modest expressions of Balsam Fir-ness and when we arrived back at our truck the professional at the gate said: “My, that is a big tree.” Reasonable people do foolish things at Christmas. We took a foot off the top so it could fit in the room and it took the neighbor to help hold it in place.

As we venture toward the Temple of Christmas, our escape is to seek meaning and scale in what we give. Recently the Chief Rabbi of London, Jonathan Sacks, was my guest at MIT and he pointed me to a story told by Loren Eisely, the anthropologist and son of Nebraska who told of a young man on the beach observed by another. He was throwing starfish back into the sea. When asked why, the young man patiently explained that if left on the beach the starfish would die. The observer being of a practical bent, made the point that there were miles of beach and thousands of starfish. “What difference would one make?” The young man replied that the observation was true, but that it made a difference to the starfish he held in his hand and he went back to making a difference one starfish at a time.

Rather than another sweater for Dad, you may want to make a gift to relief in Darfur. Looking at the landscape of need out there, many of us are paralyzed. It is easier to bear the groans of children who once again have received something they do not need, or did not want, than it is to find some place where our gifts are met by need. Let me suggest to each of you that this year you find a concern in the world that matters to you and on your Christmas list a corresponding individual for whom you will make a contribution in their name. Give locally to those who are homeless and served here in Harvard Square by the shelter at University Lutheran Church; give regionally to environmental causes such as Friends of the Reservation-the Fells, Alewife, Breakheart—are all organizations locally that could use your support. Or you might reach out to Darfur, the West Bank, to our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Use the occasion to become knowledgeable about what you are doing. Turn exploitation into education and make a difference one starfish at a time.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Thoughts for Advent

December 3, 2007

Matt. 21:1-11

Still Waiting? Six Reasons why Advent is Important


A funny thing happened on the way to advent this year, the texts chosen to be read during the weeks leading up to Christmas take us on the road to the crucifixion. Today we begin with the text usually associated with Palm Sunday. Donkeys, tree branches and blankets get in our way as we try to think about the Christ child. I might have made an executive decision to shift the texts, but I thought better of it.

I did so because the texts help us move beyond the feel good Christmas story of a babe in the manger no crib for his bed. From the beginning this story is going to end badly and that it begins badly would not be a surprise had we not been fed on memories of “old fashioned Christmases” to deflect our attention. So the first reason Advent is important is that it reminds us that being a follower of Christ is serious, sometimes tragic business. Over the stable there is a cross. We do ourselves no favor when we forget that truth.

Jesus, the heir of David comes to his moment of glory on a donkey. “Look your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey.” Humility is not a seasonal virtue but for many Americans it is a learned virtue. Many of you may have noticed that the virtue of humility seems to be a hallmark of the New England Patriot football team. And it makes people very uncomfortable to be told that the prerequisites for playing for this team are than you be smart and that you be humble. Defeated or undefeated, their coach reminds them to be smart and to be humble giving them recently tee shirts extolling the virtues of “Humble Pie”. The message is simple: do not take your accomplishments too seriously, you are only as good as your last game and another one is coming up.

Many in New England are basking in the reflected glory of successful sports teams; some are ready to declare New York road kill in our on going tussle with the Evil Empire. But our text reminds us of weightier matters. It is not the old Puritan mind set that majored in the dour and self-effacing that warns us not to be deceived. This is not a call for more bah humbug at Christmas, but simply a reminder that at the heart of our Christian affirmation is the notion that it all began in a stable—not a king’s palace or the locale of the power brokers—and that it ended so it seemed on a cross.

Advent is important because it reminds us of these realities. I grew up just a road trip away from a segregated South. Everyone I knew had come from somewhere else—Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee. That was a long time ago but the perspective the experience gave me has stayed with me and came home when we recently caught up with the film Babel. Consciously citing the story of the Tower of Babel and the decision to scatter human kind less they become like Gods, the story however disjointed tells parallel tales of folk scattered and yet connected by a weapon and a foolish act. All of us share the lonliness of loss, the alienation from those we love, the economics that foster and feed conflict. The film offers a rough challenge to embrace our common humanity and care about the other.

At Advent we hear a similar appeal, we hear of a love for us so great that is has been clothed in flesh; it is a love that has made our world its home. When we receive great gifts it is behooves us not to proclaim how rich we are but rather to in gratitude and in humility to celebrate how blessed we are.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute