Advent and the Paradox of Time

Advent Sunday 2019 The commemoration of Nicholas Ferrar, Deacon 1637

On a bleak, grey, winter’s afternoon in 1936 the poet T.S. Eliot visited St John’s church in the hamlet of Little Gidding, lying in the heart of the Huntingdonshire countryside, about 30 miles northeast of Cambridge. This visit became the foundational inspiration for his poem of the same name, published in 1942 as the final quartet of his collection known as the Four Quartets.

The poem’s publication had been delayed by a year due to the disruption of the London Blitz – the Luftwaffe’s nightly blanket bombing of London between September 7th, 1940 and May 11th, 1941. There are two convergences of time and place as Eliot juxtaposes the fire of the Holy Spirit with the firary air-raids on London. He also connects the memory of Nicholas Ferrar and the 17th-century experiment in spiritual community at Little Gidding with the experience in the England of 1941.

In 1625, after the loss of much of their fortune with the collapse of the Virginia Company the Ferrar family retreated to their estate at Little Gidding. In 1626, Nicholas Ferrar was ordained deacon by Bishop Laud. As Archbishop of Canterbury, Laud led the suppression of the Puritans and it was by the skin of his teeth that one Roger Williams managed to embark for Massachusetts with Laud’s commissioners hot on his heels.

Under Nicholas’s leadership, the extended Ferrar – Woodnoth family formed a brave experiment in spiritual community. Although not in any formal sense a monastic community, the family led a disciplined life of prayer, work, and pastoral care modeled on High Church (ancient catholic) principles and the daily offices of the Book of Common Prayer. King Charles 1st visited the community three times and on his last visit sought refuge there after the defeat of the Royal Army at battle of Naseby in 1645.

Although Nicholas died in 1637 the community continued under the leadership of his brother, John, and their sister, Susana Collet, until their deaths in 1657.

It’s Eliot’s reflections on the multidirectional interplay of time that is of particular interest for us on this Advent Sunday, which falls by happy coincidence in 2019 on the same day the church commemorates Nicholas Ferrar and the Little Gidding experiment.

Eliot, himself a High Churchman and staunch member of the Society of King Charles the Martyr, strongly identified with Nicholas Ferrar and the Little Gidding experiment. A major theme running through the poem is that of humanity’s suffering, which can only be overcome by recognizing the lessons of the past and focusing on the unity of past, present, and future — a unity that Eliot asserts is necessary for salvation. 

While we cast our minds into futures yet to arrive we act in the present as if they are already here.

Eliot reminds us that the way we normally think of time as a chronological sequence in which time flows only in one direction – from the past towards the future through the present is not the only way we actually experience time. In memory and in imagination time flows back and forth. Present-time actions can mitigate the outcome of the past. While we cast our minds into futures yet to arrive we act in the present as if they are already here.

It’s this notion that the present can be reshaped by the echo of the past -something Eliot was very conscious of as he worked to find language that expressed his sense of the multidirectional flow of time between his English present – London during the saturation bombing in 1940-41  and a very present past -the brave spiritual community of Little Gidding between 1630 and 1660.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

T.S. Eliot in Little Gidding

In Advent the whole purpose and meaning of our Christian journey is encompassed in one sweeping overview bringing past and future together in the actions of the present.

Poignant is a wonderful word. It means deeply evocative of feeling. Advent is the most poignant of the Church’s seasons. It’s a panoramic season in the sense that the whole purpose and meaning of our Christian journey is encompassed in one sweeping overview bringing past and future together in the actions of the present.

Our minds and language are so conditioned by the notion of chronological time that it’s impossible to escape arranging things sequentially. Yet, Advent challenges this whole approach for at the same time as we recall the Incarnation through the birth of Jesus, we also simultaneously contemplate his ultimate return. As Eliot would put it, you can’t make a beginning without arriving simultaneously at the ending. Incarnation (first coming) and Parousia (second coming) – both pulsate continually shaping our experience of the present-time life of the resurrection.

Although we structure time as a single directional flow from past through the present into the future hope emerges from our actual experience of time’s multi directional flow.

Advent is synonymous with hope. But is this hope merely the faint echo of a once upon a time –an echo of and in those days? Or is it simply a wishful longing for something that has yet to arrive – an exercise in risking disappointment.

Can despair be preferable to disappointment. The truth is, many of us willingly choose despair over the risk of of facing the possibility of disappointment – which is the price of hope. Afterall, as my grandmother used to say: you can’t miss what you’ve never had. The root of this sentiment is – don’t hope for things you might not get.

Chronologically speaking, between the birth of Jesus and his final return lies in the present time the life of the resurrection. Advent invites us into something more than a mere chronological sequence – A precedes B which is followed by C. Advent invites us to risk the courage to hope as Paul Tillich titled his little book. Because:

If we wait in hope and patience, the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. Those who wait in an ultimate sense are not that far from that for which they wait. .

Or an another of my 20th-century heroes – the great psychoanalyst Alice Miller, stated:

We are who we have been waiting for.

But for me T.S. Eliot must have the last word. In the second of his Four Quartets which Eliot titled East Coker after his ancestral village, which together with Little Gidding he also visited in the earlier part of 1937. In the third section of East Coker Eliot brings out the paradox at the heart of the Christian virtues of hope, love, and faith. He asserts a distinction between the action and the supposed object of the action. Listen:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope – For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love – For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith – But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

T.S.Eliot in East Coker

Advent reminds us that expectation depends on the patience born of waiting. But waiting is not idleness. That for which we wait compels us to turn away from our hard-hearted complicity with injustice, and forge new pathways for the kingdom’s coming, one step and one breath at a time.

Service, Reconciliation, and Resistance

Christ the King, the last Sunday of the liturgical year presents us with two images of Christ as leader. Christ the King robed in the trappings of political culture. The paramount operative in the zero-sum-game of dominion as domination sits in an uneasy tension with Christ reigning not from a throne but nailed to a tree.

One is an image of power, the other an image of vulnerability. We are more comfortable with displays of power, with images of strength, while we easily mistake displays of vulnerability with helplessness and weakness.

The age-old Jewish expectation of the messiah as the one who would come with power – God’s super shepherd – to set the world right-side up took a sharp left turn in the imaginations of the followers of Jesus. By bringing two familiar O.T. images together they forged a new vision for messianic leadership. The messiah was not only to be the great shepherd about whom Jeremiah speaks in the O.T. lesson for Christ the King. For his first followers Jesus was the one who will gather a scattered people and put the world to rights through following the path of suffering about which the prophet Isaiah had much to say.

Drawing on images of both shepherd and suffering servant the first Christians forged a revolutionary understanding of the messiah’s role inspiring in them a new vision that changed the world.

The crucifixion of Jesus is an example of leadership in right action. But is it a story of failure or success?

Throughout the centuries the Christian Church has worked hard to portray the crucifixion of Jesus as the ultimate exercise of kingly power.  But in order to flesh out such a vision, the Church borrowed the paraphernalia of earthly trappings of power. The dying man becomes the triumphant hero vanquishing the anti-God forces through the in-breaking of God’s reign of justice. Christ Pantocrator, sitting atop the world with scepter and orb in hand and crown on head – the superhero of the Byzantine age emerges in the middle of the 20th Century as the triumphal Christ the King, leading the Christian legions against the evils of Communism.

Luke is an amazing storyteller. Mark’s storytelling is spare and sparse – communicating an urgency of living in the moment in which there is no time to lose. Matthews storytelling elevates Jesus above the hubbub as he recasts the story of Jesus in the light of the age-old Jewish hope for a new Moses. But it’s Luke who offers us a Jesus storyline that connects with our intimate experience of the world as it is.

When they came; the they being the political and religious movers and shakers. When they came to a place whose name was synonymous with violence – the place of the skull – otherwise known as cranium hill – they scrabbled about like vultures for the poor man’s clothing, eventually casting lots among them. They mocked him, twisting his words and throwing them back at him – huh, he saved others why can’t he save himself if he is who he says he is?

The political and religious operatives unleashed their foot soldiers of political street violence – to further the false narrative of mockery – accusing him of pretensions of kingship by emphasizing the absurdity of such a claim. False and misleading stereotypes are always easy to demolish. And they place the man Jesus between two common criminals as if to drive home the inference of guilt by association.

And Luke tells us that all this time, in the background, the people stand by, watching while their leaders scoff. And Luke gives no indication that the people share their leaders’ attitudes.

Luke conveys a wealth of inference in a few words: and the people stood by.

Luke refers to the people as the laos; a term that refers specifically to the community of the faithful, the holy assembly – the laos -from which we derive the term- the laity. We can’t miss Luke’s inference here – these are not some rabble crowd of prurient onlookers but God’s people, standing-by to silently bear witness to the event unfolding before their very eyes that signals the crash and burn of their dream of a great shepherd who would free them and put the world to rights.

The powers of this world will have their way. Luke’s laos – the people of God -witness the destruction of their expectations of Jesus as the great shepherd – the messiah of Jeremiah’s prophecy. It will take time for them to discover Jesus as God’s suffering servant. And only some of them will do so.

At the heart of this scene Luke portrays the most important conversation taking place between the three figures standing at the center of this drama; Jesus and his criminal companions. Here we find the tussle between refusal and acceptance of responsibility for deeds done. One thief blames Jesus for his inability to miraculously rescue him. While his companion accepts his responsibility –for we indeed have been condemned justly. This admission of guilt is a first statement of repentance. The second thief is an archetype of the believer, he alone truly recognises who Jesus really is, and it draws from Jesus the promise of saving inclusion.

At the heart of the drama of the cross we find not the image of the great shepherd as triumphal worldly messiah. Instead we find the portrayal of love in action. Love demonstrated not from a position of power, but through the acceptance of suffering.

It’s no longer 1925 – the year when Pius XI proclaimed the feast of Christ the King as the final Sunday of the Christian year. I have traced this history in a previous post and you can find this here. We now live in an age when the Church has lost its capacity to compete with rivaling political systems in the contest for authoritarian power. Consequently, two great temptations befall us.

The first is the temptation to hitch our wagon to the secular political train. We witness sections of the Evangelical world falling prey to the temptation to Christianize the politics of the right for self-serving advantage. The second temptation is to withdraw into silence, accepting the thesis of the secular left -that there is no place in the civic marketplace for a Christian voice.

When viewed in conventional terms is the cross a failure or success? It’s hard to see death on a cross as successful leadership. But what if it’s through apparent failure that the way to success opens up?  Confronted by the failure of Jeremiah’s vision of the messiah as king and super shepherd, the first followers of Jesus encountered the victory of the cross in the unexpected image of Isaiah’s suffering servant.

Viewed in purely worldly terms, the Jesus project ended in the failure. However, we must not be misled as to the nature of the real failure here. The cross is not a failure of Jesus or of God’s to deliver of the divine plan. What fails here is the death on the cross of our own earthly ambition – ambition projected onto God’s purposes.

The cross stood tall because it was wedged into the ground and held in place by three great stones bearing the inscriptions: service, reconciliation, and resistance. 

For the first followers of Jesus the vision that emerged from their initial experience of their failure of expectations at the cross – achieved more than any successful earthly demonstration of power could ever do. The vision that emerged was a vision that changed the world. 

An anonymous Franciscan blessing goes:

God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships so that we may live deep within our hearts …. May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world so that we can do what others claim cannot be done. Amen

Mountain Climbing

Pentecost 23 Year C Proper 28    Isaiah 65: 17-25  Luke 21:5-19    

A sermon from Linda Mackie Griggs     



Often when I read a book I kind of temporarily obsess over it. I’ll see connections with it in news stories and in conversations, and this keeps up for awhile until I pick up the next book on my stack and find a new obsession. So it shouldn’t surprise those of you who I’ve been chatting with lately that David Brooks’ book, The Second Mountain has been part of my pre-sermon pondering.

In a nutshell Brooks suggests that many of us lead a two-phased life; the first phase is like a mountain, which we climb when we are younger and establishing our unique identities and accomplishments. We strive for the right career, the house, the family, the nest egg, the dog… Summiting that first mountain is a big accomplishment. Later, we may find ourselves questioning those ego-driven priorities of first mountain achievement, acquisition and individual self-fulfillment.

Whether brought on by life transition, financial or health crisis, loss of a loved one or relationship, the journey toward the second mountain involves existential questions like “Why am I here?” “Is this all there is?” “What now?” Confronting these questions, says Brooks, takes us downward into a valley of humility, vulnerability, and often pain that, if we let it, eventually leads us to the new heights of the second mountain, governed not by the ego, but by heart and soul—a new life of generosity, creativity, joy, and renewed relationships.

Spoiler alert: Brooks is telling us that our world is desperately in need of an army of Second Mountaineers. We can possibly intuit this. But lest we need persuading, the facts that he lays out are stunning and stark. 

I only heard the term “deaths of despair” recently, and didn’t know that it’s actually a medical phrase that includes three behavior-related medical conditions; drug overdose, suicide, and alcoholic liver disease, all of which are connected to social isolation. Loneliness. Brooks says that we’ve done too good a job of empowering our individuality—we’ve gotten so hyper-individualistic that we’ve come to think we don’t need anyone—and now, to borrow the title of Robert Putnam’s book, we literally and figuratively bowl alone—emblematic of a serious decline in community and civic engagement. And it’s taking a toll. Here are some numbers: Overall the suicide rate in this country has gone up 30 percent since 1999. Between 2006 and 2016 the suicide rates for those between ages 10 and 17 rose by 70 percent.

Please let that sink in. Ten-year-olds are included in suicide statistics.

Life expectancy in this country has declined for the third year in a row. The last time that happened was early in the last century, and it was influenced by a world war and a global flu pandemic.

I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime…

These words of hope are offered to a people intimately acquainted with despair. The beautiful yearning passage that we’ve heard today was written for the  people of Israel, who had been traumatized by the destruction of their home and a generation spent in exile. The Temple—the center of their faith and icon of everything they trusted, had been thrown down; not one stone left upon another. And now Isaiah writes for a people returned from Babylon, and he is excited.

“…be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”

Isaiah expresses a vision of complete renewal of Israel; the erasure of traumatic memories and the creation of a world that is safe and just. God will be ever present and responsive: “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.” A world at peace. Beautiful. Achingly beautiful for anyone who has felt that their world was falling apart.

I learned a couple of interesting things when I consulted our wise neighbor Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman about this reading. First, and most important, he confirmed the sense of immediacy in the passage. While it is common to read through a Christian lens and assume that Isaiah is referring to some kind of a heavenly vision of what the world will look like after it ends, this would be wrong. As Rabbi Howard says, “We’re not about heaven.” The Christian idea of heaven is not the “new heavens” that Isaiah is writing about.

What he’s writing about is a world that is to be co-created by God and God’s people together. This passage is a joyful reminder that God’s people, inspired by their Creator, are the builders of the wondrous, just, fair and peaceful world that Isaiah envisions. And then, when that world is created, God will bestow the gift of long life: “for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be…”

The prophetic call is for now. Now, when the world seems to be crumbling around us. Now, when social isolation is killing us. Now, as society retreats into the echo chambers of our tribal fears. Now, as Luke says, among wars and insurrections, famines, plagues, and persecutions. Now, when we are sunk in the valley, is when we are called to look in hope toward the Second Mountain.

David Brooks writes of Second Mountain people as the ones who–neighbor by neighbor, conversation by conversation, potluck by potluck, community action meeting by community action meeting– the ones who are re-weaving the fabric of American society by establishing and re-establishing relationships.

Brooks writes of the importance of “thick” institutions, communities and societies, which are defined by people who are keenly aware of their interdependence and the importance of meaningful relationships. Thick organizations and institutions are centered around a physical location where people meet regularly. They have collective rituals, shared tasks, a creed of some kind, and watch over and care for one another. Brooks continues,

They often tell and retell a sacred origin story about themselves. Many experienced a moment when they nearly failed, and they celebrate the heroes who pulled them from the brink…They point to an ideal that is far in the distance and can’t be achieved in a single lifetime.

Sound familiar? He’s talking about Church! Of course he’s not just talking about church, but if he’s going to posit the need of thick institutions to help reweave the fabric of society, who can possibly be better positioned to do that than the Body of Christ?

If he’s going to talk about the importance of relationship and interdependence as an antidote to fear-based tribalism, who better than those whose life of faith centers on a Trinitarian God who defines the very concept of relationality and interdependence? Who better? We’re already here; we don’t need to be invented. We only need, with the grace of God and the guidance of the Spirit, to be renewed and transformed to meet the challenges that confront us.

We just need to believe it of ourselves. The task is bigger than a single lifetime, but that simply means there’s no time to waste.

Luke’s vision of a world in its last days is not the only thing that confronts us in today’s Gospel. The world is ending for someone, somewhere, every day; the numbers don’t lie. One more number: sixteen. The perpetrator of the latest school shooting in California on Thursday—it was his sixteenth birthday.

We can’t keep losing our children.

We are called—today, now—to testify to the hope that is in us—the hope that is our foundation as the Body of Christ. We are called to testify in word and action to the love of God who sustains us; to hold on to hope; to proclaim it, and most important, to become it.

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox…they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

Church and Church: what’s in a name?


Tonight, we gather to honor Martin, our patron. Martin was a man whose life expressed his deep concern for others. Martin believed that violence was against Christ’s call but also understood faithfulness to duty. After a period of military conscription, he devoted the rest of his life to the pursuit of holiness, at first in pursuit of his own spiritual quest but eventually in a wider service of the community. Let us pray for his spirit to infuse us- so that like Martin we may not be found wanting in witnessing to Christ in our own day through lives of holiness in action.

Tonight, we have an opportunity to celebrate the completion of a major restoration of our beautiful church. As we move into the first years of a new century in our parish life, the lot has fallen to us to meet some serious restoration challenges in order to secure the integrity of our church building for the next 100 years. Some might say it’s a piece of bad luck that the need to meet this challenge fell to us on our watch. But God raises up the right people for the task at the right time through the quality of leadership from John Bracken and David Brookhart as Church Wardens, and the professional expertise of Peter Lofgren as supervising architect.

There is a growing realization in the community that without the impetus of a big challenge, would we be able to move beyond our comfortable expectations to forge the foundations of a renewed vision for our future?

What’s in a word?

I have been thinking about church as a word. Is it not odd that we use the same word to speak about the building as well as the community? It’s important to remember that the church (ecclesia) first described the community and only later came to refer to the building in which the church met.

Over the last year we have come to speak of the restoration of the church when referring to the renovation of the physical structure. The greater challenge, however, is to remember that when we speak about the restoration of the church we are also speaking about the renewal of the community. For we have a church, yes. Yet more importantly, we are the church.

Is restoration an expression of our love for God or is it a significant distraction from our primary purpose?

The expenditure of considerable financial resources on the building begs important questions about our priorities. Is it an expression of our love for God or is it a significant distraction from our primary purpose? There is room for disagreement here. However, none of us believe that God’s primary concern is for our building. Nevertheless, we do intuit that our building articulates an ages-old human aspiration to be associated with something greater than ourselves and the utilitarian priorities of our age.

Having a church is only important when it is one of the ways we identify ourselves as being the church.

As history shows, a church as a building can easily overshadow our awareness of the church as a community. While the two go hand-in-hand, they also sit in an uneasy and often confusing tension. The only insight I have to offer here is that we must hold this tension between having a church and being the church. Because, having a church is only important when it is one of the ways we identify ourselves as being the church.

A lesson from history

In 587, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, taking those who lived within the Jerusalem Beltway of Jewish society into captivity in Babylon. In 539, the Persians invaded Babylon and Cyrus I decreed that the Jews could return home and rebuild their city and temple. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of this return and the struggles and successes encountered in the great national restoration project.

In the OT lesson for tonight we heard about the laying of the foundation stone for the new temple. We heard that the older Priests and Levites wept when they saw this while the rest of the people shouted for joy. The fact that priestly weeping seems juxtaposed with popular joy suggests that the priest wept not for joy but because they remembered the glory of Solomon’s temple and perhaps were dismayed by the reduced scale of the envisaged new project.

We are coming to the end of a discernment process that is attempting to map the community priorities emerging from our restoration project as it moves to the next phase in capital campaign preparation. An initial perusal of the notes taken by dedicated scribes at the cottage gatherings reveals a range of both complementary and clashing priorities.

Tonight’s lesson from the book of Ezra is a salutary reminder that restoration projects trigger an inevitable clash between nostalgia for the past and the framing of a vision fit to meet the changing circumstance demanded by the future. The easy part is to restore the building. Much harder is the task of renewing the community with a vision to carry us forward into a future that will bear very little resemblance to our past.

Through a monumental material and human expenditure by the returning exiles a new temple arose from the ruins of the old. Nehemiah the governor had a dual focus. On the one hand he was responsible for ensuring enough supplies of both materials and labor while protecting the building works from the constant attacks from the neighboring peoples. But what interest me more is his request that Ezra, the Scribe of the Lord, read from the Book of the Law before all the people gathered before the Water Gate.

Nehemiah 8 records the moving depiction of Ezra standing on a wooden podium built for the purpose – a kind of pulpit I suppose, reading from the Book of the Law before all the people. As Ezra read the unfamiliar words of the Law, for it had mostly been forgotten by the people at this point, 12 Levites engaged in a kind of simultaneous interpretation of his words so that the people would understand what was being read to them. In this moving scene we hear all too clearly the echo of our own tension between having a church and being the church; the movement from the restoration of stones to the renewal of spirits, hearts, and minds?

It seems it’s never one or the other – church as building or church as community. Both exist in an oscillating tension – a balancing movement, back and forth between the two.

In the tonight’s NT lesson from his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul weaves a wordplay between the material and the spiritual by using an analogy to a physical building to speak about the life of the Spirit within and between us.

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? …. for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.

1 Cor 3:10

I would propose the litmus test for us is when church as building ceases to be an inspiration for and expression of church as community – only then will it be the time to abandon our buildings to decay.

Church as a building – is for Paul really the metaphor for Church as the community. Remember the word first applied to the community and only later to the building where the community met. I would propose the litmus test for us is when church as building ceases to be an inspiration for and expression of church as community – only then will it be the time to abandon our buildings to decay.

There are three key resources that sustain our community life. The commitment and vision of our members, the dedication and skill of our staff, and the quality and serviceability of our buildings. These three key resources are infused by the Holy Spirit – who is always present among us. The Holy Spirit makes her presence known to us when we gather for worship, when in small ministry groups we embed the Bible to continually reshape our vision, and when we reach out to others in acts of solidarity.

Tonight, we gather to honor Martin, our patron. Martin was a man whose natural bent was to care for others. Only reluctantly did he take on the burdens of community leadership. But he fulfilled the responsibilities of pastor and bishop as dual aspects of his response to God’s call. Let us pray for his spirit to infuse us- so that like Martin we may not be found wanting in witnessing to Christ in our own day through lives of holiness in action.

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