Eliza Marth is a Micah Fellow serving at St. Paul's parish in Brookline. Here is the sermon she preached on the first Sunday of Advent.
This first Sunday of Advent begins with a Gospel reading from the 21st chapter of Luke. As we move through the next few Sundays of Advent, we will work our way back towards the beginning of Luke. We begin Advent at the end of Luke, and end Advent at the beginning of Luke.
So why the upside down story telling? Why begin with Jesus’ second coming, and end with Jesus’ birth? Why begin at the end and end at the beginning?
And what about the Armageddon-esk nature of today’s Gospel? The sign in the sun, moon, stars? Distress among nations? Jesus coming in a cloud? Don’t be caught off guard?
I’d like to consider this a story of God breaking into the history of the world.
In particular, I read this “Armageddon” passage as the end of the Kingdom of the World and the beginning of the Kingdom of God.
Here, we begin Advent with a promise. It is a promise that there will be an end of times, an end to the cold, hard Kingdom of the World. A promise that Justice and Righteousness shall be executed in the land and all will live in safety. A promise that the Kingdom of God will come.
My first year out of college, I worked as a Job Counselor in Washington, DC. At a job placement non-profit in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, I had a rotating caseload of 30 applicants per month who I supported in their search for employment.
Day in and day out, I heard stories of people who were desperate to find a job. Story after story of people whose living-wage factory job moved overseas, story after story of people desperate to find employment under a serious threat of homelessness, story after story of self-frustration and self-loathing stemming from rejection and “confirmed” unworthiness I supported several of my applicants in a transition from “unemployed” to “unemployed and homeless.” I watched their focus turn from finding a job to finding a safe place to lay their head to sleep.
While I was never consciously aware that I believed that I was going to save the world when I graduated from college, I think there was not-so-small piece of me that believed that when I arrived in Washington, DC, I was going solve the structural unemployment crisis.
As the months went by, I began to burn out. Eight months of heartbreak leading until March 2013, when I totally burned out. For the next three months I would struggle to eat solid food as the stress took its toll on my digestive system. It became clear that I was not going to solve the unemployment crisis in DC and I was no longer going to be able to protect my heart.
I find my heart to be protected by a large concrete slab, not unlike the cold hard concrete of a sidewalk. My culture, my socialization, and my personality have worked together to layer fresh sheets of dead concrete. perfectionism, productivity, intellectualism, fear, efficiency, competency, credentials, be happy, fit in, don’t take risks so you don’t fail… the way of the Kingdom of the World.
Like a sidewalk that covers the ground, this template for worthiness and goodness keeps me looking nice to the outside world, fitting the square, smooth, predictable, and presumably lovable piece of a path. Little concrete boxes that all look just the same.
But just as this cold, hard concrete slab prevents my heart from feeling pain, it also prevents me from feeling joy, knowing true relationship, and from being touched by God’s love.
My experience as a Job Counselor is one of the biggest cracks in my sidewalk. And oh Lawd, this crack hurt me so! There were days that I tried to pave over that crack, to fill it in with my voice of blame. “They need to try harder, they have a bad attitude, they should have worked harder in school, they don’t ‘really’ want a job, they don’t deserve it as much as this other person…”
But thanks be to God, she kept forcing this crack open wider and wider. I think this was God’s cracking, breaking into my world, breaking into my history. She broke into the hard slab of perfectionism, intellectualism, achievement — she broke through the Kingdom of the World -- so that she could cast her seeds into the place where her Kingdom — the Kingdom of God — is already growing inside of me. Fertile soil where seeds of life and love able to germinate and take root: deep in the secret and hidden place of my heart.
So what cracks our sidewalk? I think sorrow, pain, and loss crack our sidewalk… but I also think Joy. I’ve been to several weddings in the past year that have deeply touched my heart, the celebration of a newborn child, sharing a Thanksgiving meal in the warm company of family and friends.
It is in these sidewalk cracks that dandelions break forth, a sign of the life that thrives below the surface. A sign that the God’s promised Kingdom, Jesus’ coming, is growing in our lives and in our world.
I also think that if we are to engage in the work of Justice and Liberation, we must come from our brokenness, from our own stories of imperfection and marginalization. For if we try to come to Justice and Liberation work from a place of perfection, from a place of saving or helping, we are orienting ourselves from a “savior complex” and are destined for burn out. If we want to be God’s Kingdom Builders, we must build from our brokenness.
This Advent, I invite you to find the cracks. Try to nestle into the cracks, befriend them, maybe try to wedge in there and push them a little wider so the sunshine and rain can touch the seeds of love that have already been sewn because it is here, in the cracks, where the Kingdom of God has already been realized. It is where Jesus has already come again. It is in our hearts where we will increase and abound in love for one another and for all. It is where we are inspired to live more loving lives as we navigate our life in the cold Kingdom of the World.
Our heart is the land where God’s justice and righteousness rule,
it is in these cracks that we will be saved,
where there is a world where all will live in safety,
where none are put to shame,
where we are able to escape the worries of the World’s Kingdom and turn our attention to cultivating God’s Kingdom in our hearts and in our world.
In our brokenness, we will be made whole,
whereby dying, we live;
where the last shall be first,
and where the end is actually the beginning.
Walking on an unbroken sidewalk is nice. It’s easier to walk, we know what to expect, we don’t have to worry about getting our shoes dirty or stumbling and falling. Simple, straightforward, and dead.
The broken sidewalk may be covered in crabgrass, violets and dandelions. I may be there are no plants, but cracks that are creating the possibility of life. It may be more difficult to navigate and more difficult to walk on. It may git my shoes dirty and may even cause me to fall down and skin my knee.
I think these sidewalks cracked and kissed by God’s creation, are more alive and infinitely more beautiful.
Where the hearty dandelion is not a weed,
but a sign of the times,
a sign that God’s promised kingdom is growing out of our hearts and into our world.