“’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
’Twill be in the valley of love and delight.”
Simple Gifts, Shaker Song 1848, Elder Joseph Brackett
Scripture: Isaiah 2: 1-5
I heard a short story about a man, who was wandering around the town square looking around at everything like it was brand new, when before he had been rushing through with his head down. A younger man observes him and after a couple days approaches the man and says, “what are you doing here?/Why are you here?” And the man turns to him and says, “Can I pay you $10 to ask me that everyday?” Why are you here.
Writer Elizabeth Gilbert reports that when she learned her best friend Rayya was terminally ill, in the airport on the way to see her, Gilbert realized she wanted to spend every waking moment of the rest of her friend’s life beside her, and so, she did the most radical thing many of us can imagine: she deleted all the emails in her inbox in one push of the button, as her life came into focus.
My prayer for us this Advent season, is that the gift of simplicity will decorate our hearts. Simplicity as in getting to the core of what matters in our lives. Consumerism especially this time of year, is designed to leave us in a constant state of wanting and anxiety. We can cut through that together, with our scriptures, our lighting of candles, our ritually waiting for Love to come into the world again with the birth of Jesus. With the gift of simplicity, we connect instead to the humble beginnings of child born among animals, close to the earth, bringing the world a new way to love.
My prayer for us this Advent season is that we really get in touch with the warmth and comfort of this season, getting in touch with what really matters in our own lives, as we nurture an ancient tradition which shows us unequivocally: God is with us, Emmanuel. Comfort, comfort, keep awake for the real, the true; slice through the schemes of capitalism, the cultural tropes of right or wrong, fueled by political warring, and hold in our hearts the radical story of love born in a manger.
When I was on sabbatical in the mountains of Vermont, my days were quite simple. In between writing and hiking, I had the simple practice of watching one tree change leaves: I watched one tree turn from green, gradually to the most bright red almost magenta, and then lose most of it’s leaves in a storm, and even become a winter tree over the two months. I watched one tree become so beautiful, then let it all go. The tree helped me begin to let go of my constant striving to prove my worth by doing, and just be in the moment, in the simplicity of the now- where my past hurts and future hopes fall away, and what is left is the simple gift of presence.
I walked around my hermitage every morning with a cup of tea, connecting to the earth, the birds, the wind and somehow a few times even disappearing myself into it all, allowing the fullness of the moment to wash my spirit anew. So deeply engrained is this exchange of doing something and receiving our value, on the last days of my time, I asked my friends and witnesses: “was I productive at relaxing?” Sort of a joke- but I need this theme of simplicity this year too- to hold on to the truth of the moment. You can only talk to the birds for so long, so I am really grateful to be back here with you.
Henry David Thoreau has a refrain in Walden: “simplify, simplify!” He believes we make life more complicated than it needs to be, “I do believe in simplicity.” He says, “It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit. When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, they first free the equation of all incumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run.”
Probe the earth to see where your main roots run. Get to the point of your life. Let the rest fall away.
The two texts we heard this morning are traditional Advent texts of waiting and anticipating a new world, showing our human longing for a new way.
The first from Isaiah, a prophecy about the peaceable realm, a vision for Jerusalem of peace and hope, this wonderful line brought to life by a statue in the north garden of the United Nations, the image of us turning our instruments of war into instruments of agriculture; “they shall beat their swords into plough-shares and their spears into pruning-hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. Oh house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” Whoa, yes. We long for this new world of peace to come.
The second text is in the category of apocalyptic literature, the most famous being the in the book of Revelation, becoming popularized by shows like Left Behind or the fringe religious groups that believe in the rapture, and can somehow predict the date and time it will take place. I remember people in New York City when I lived there for seminary, coming into the street with signs, notifying people of the exact date and time of the rapture, you know, out of courtesy. Those days came and went. Anytime we are inclined to hold up signs that we believe, based on the Bible, are true for anyone, let us remember the guy who spent all his child’s colleges savings because he knew for sure, the exact date and time of the end. Whoops.
Apocalypse means in Greek, unveiling: as if a certain truth is revealed or unveiled. This is more like what climate scientists are doing: unveiling truths, and it isn’t about knowing the exact moment it will all happen; that isn’t the point, it is about how we live in response to a new world on the way: it is the spiritual practice of getting real, pairing down to what is important, probing the earth to see where our main roots run.
The poet of Matthew’s gospel writes in the voice of Jesus, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know what day your Lord is coming.” It is scary if we take it literally, which we rarely should with the Bible, as it says, “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” When I was meditating on the text this week, I kept having the image of myself as both of the women grinding meal, then all the sudden one of me disappears, a version of myself not serving me any longer, a version of myself not connected to the highest good, just snaps away, and a truer version of myself came into focus. Both texts, the utopian and apocalyptic texts tell of a new world coming, and truly many of us know about this, or are in the midst of welcoming a new world- though the death of someone we love or through an illness, it is as if everything changes.
This happens in tragedy often: things sharpen into focus. But Advent is anything but a tragedy, it is an opportunity for us to remember our hope for the world, our love for each other, our centering on God- on what really matters.
Any moment in our lives, everything could change. How do we want to have lived? Annie Dillard reminds us, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Keeping awake does not mean being over-caffeinated and burned out, but instead an intentional focus on the work of God, on the work of love. Simplicity means getting rid of what is distracting you, and awakening to your purpose, to God’s presence, to the choice of love among us.
Advent comes from the Latin phrase Adventus, for the Greek Parousia- meaning the Second Coming of Jesus, the presence, arrival, visit. Early Christians believed this could happen any time, and we know it will happen again on Christmas.
A new world is near, what do we want to set aside? An end to the ways of being together that no longer serve us, is on it’s way: what would parts us snap into attention, what things come into focus?
Advent offers to us a spiritual pruning; pairing off the parts of our lives that don’t serve the main point- Advent offers to us to get all the parts of our lives in the main narrative. The one where love of God & self, love of each other, are central.
What if this advent we simply tried to love the world this year, as an Advent practice. You all know how much I love justice, but what if the way we approached all that we wanted to change, was through love? What if instead of trying to change each other, we loved each other? What if instead of trying to change ourselves, we loved ourselves? What if instead of trying to change the world, we tried loved the world? Amen