An Advent Sermon on Compassion for All of Humanity
AGAINST SPIRITUAL AND POLITICAL SLEEPWALKING (A powerful sermon of compassion for all of humanity) Preached by the Rev. J. Edwin Bacon, Jr. All Saints Church, Pasadena, California First Sunday of Advent – December 2, 2012
In a great southern Episcopal cathedral, an elderly southern gentleman walked up the aisle and knelt at the communion rail to receive the bread and wine made holy. Over the course of his life, he had inherited without criticism his culture’s religious and political script about the way the world works. Those people with white skin have privilege. Black people are appropriately in the back of the proverbial bus. That particular Sunday morning, African-Americans had come to his cathedral, the multi-generational “whites only” place of worship for this man’s family. The Dean and Vestry had instructed the ushers that this morning, they were to admit any people who wanted to worship. As the southern gentleman walked down the aisle to receive communion, so did a young African American woman. As only the Holy Spirit can choreograph these moments in life, the two knelt together, side by side, to receive at the same rail from the same piece of bread and the same common cup. As the southern gentleman received the bread, he looked up into the eyes of the priest, tears beginning to roll down his cheeks. He whispered to the priest, “I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.” Seeing, waking up is essential to life. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, marking the four weeks until Christmas. The Advent Wreath becomes our focal symbol, with four candles, one lighted each week. There are a variety of values and dynamics that those candles can represent: faith, hope, joy, peace. But the overarching value and dynamic represented by the increasing number of candles burning more brightly each week? That dynamic is enlightenment. Light. The ability to see what is really going on in our lives. The value of alertness, of watchfulness, of consciousness, of awareness. The physician, Naomi Remen Stone, told Bill Moyers, when he interviewed her about healing and the mind in the early 90s, that all spiritual paths have four steps: show up, pay attention, tell the truth and don’t be attached to the results. Show up. Pay attention. Tell the truth. And don’t be attached to the results. (See: Moyers, Bill, Healing and the Mind, p. 351) Jesus and all the other founders of the world’s religions emphasized how important it is for you and me not to sleepwalk through our lives, to wake up and see what is going on around us. Every time someone becomes aware that they are living out of a narrative that they inherited and that narrative is toxic, suffocating, unsustainable for the health of the individual or for the larger human family, that is a moment of enlightenment, of awareness, of consciousness, of waking up to real life, to a generative life, to being fully alive. The word “Buddha” is often misunderstood as the name of a historical figure from India, but this is not the deepest understanding. “Buddha” is a principle, not a person. “Buddha” actually means “awake.” When asked “Are you a god,” Gautama, the person who became a Buddha replied, “No.” “Then what are you?” the man asked again. Gautama’s answer was, “I am awake.” And so the collect or the prayer that we just read that collects or focuses our reflections on this first Sunday of Advent deals with our personal and collective struggle to cast off the toxic narratives of darkness so that we may live in the light, what that prayer calls the “armor of light.” Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. We definitely need to use light as armor at times in life, but more about that later. The casting off of darkness, as did the white southern gentleman kneeling together at the altar rail with the black young student, always means the end of the world as you knew it. That is why Jesus mentions in this morning’s gospel that the end of one old world and the beginning of the new world, which happens to you and me many times throughout our life if we commit to staying awake, will seem as if the whole universe is falling apart. Many will suffer from breakdowns and fears they cannot control, and in all this confusion, Jesus says the “Complete Person” will emerge, like someone appearing out of the mists. The sight will be powerful and dazzling.
“You’ll get your confidence back,” Jesus says, “and see the new life you’ve been longing for actually becoming a reality.” “Then,” Jesus says, “just think about the trees, a fig tree, for example. When their leaves start to sprout, you can see that summer is on the way. So, when you see the things I’ve described happening, like the universe falling apart as you’ve known it, you know that God’s new world is on the way,” says Jesus. “Believe me, the world as you know it won’t disappear until all of these things have happened and one world will give way to another, but My words will last forever. So in times like this, you must keep your wits about you. Watch out for those things that sap your energy and drag you down, indulgences, drunkenness and worldly cares. Don’t miss the wonder of the great things happening all over the world. Keep your eyes open,” Jesus says. “Ask God to give you the strength to get through these difficult times so that you’ll be ready for the appearance of the Complete Person.” (See: Luke 21:25-36 John Henson’s translation)
I’ve thought about this passage about the end of the world as we know it and others like it on election night. After the presidential election had been called, I turned over to Fox News, where I heard our brother Bill O’Reilly, who works on Fox News, say the following:
“Ours is a changing country. The demographics are changing. We don’t live in a traditional America anymore. Twenty years ago, President Obama would have been roundly defeated by an establishment candidate like Mitt Romney, but the white establishment is now the minority.”
In my imagination I heard R.E.M. singing in the background,
“It’s the end of the world as we know it, it’s the end of the world as we know it, it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”
I love the fact that my brother Bill O’Reilly was waking up, at least to some small degree, to what I believe is God’s new world, which is on the way. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached one of his most radical sermons entitled, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” He recalled that Washington Irving had written the famous story about Rip Van Winkle. Dr. King pointed out that the one thing that we usually remember about the story is that Rip Van Winkle slept for 20 years, but Dr. King said there’s another point in that little story that is almost completely overlooked, and that detail is the sign that appeared on the village inn from which Rip went up in the mountain for his long sleep.
“When Rip Van Winkle went up into the mountain, the sign had a picture of King George III of England. [But] when [Rip] came down twenty years later the sign had a picture of George Washington, the first president of the United States. When Rip Van Winkle looked up at the picture of George Washington, [in] looking at the picture he was amazed . . . [Rip] was completely lost—he knew not who he was. And this reveals to us,” Dr. King said, “that the most striking thing about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not merely that Rip slept twenty years, but . . . he slept through a revolution. While he was peacefully snoring up in the mountain a revolution was taking place that at points would change the course of history—and Rip knew nothing about it: he was asleep. Yes, he slept through a revolution. And one of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses—that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution. ” (See: King, Martin Luther, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., p. 268-269)
My friends, this morning I have no doubt about the fact that God’s new world is on its way. God’s revolution is continuing. It is the revolution of compassion overcoming sacrifice. It is the end of the toxic narrative that too many of our religions have promulgated. That toxic narrative is that in order to become a part of my religion, you have to hate someone else in another religion or you have to hate somebody else in another category. You see, every time we become more conscious or aware or awake, we discover that we have a soul which is our deepest self, and the discovery of our soul gives us access to a larger knowing beyond ourselves, and if we obey the voice of our soul, if we obey our consciousness, our awareness will become a very wise teacher of soul-wisdom and will teach us deep within ourselves. Some people call it the “inner witness” and this witness is what Christians have called the “Holy Spirit.” (See: Rohr, Richard, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, p. 86-87) Consciousness. Awareness. Soul. The Holy Spirit. It’s astounding to think about the following: that 14 billion years ago, the Holy Spirit hovered over the Big Bang and that is the first moment that God began to materialize. God had always been, but now God took on matter. And then 2,000 years ago, that very same Spirit, Holy Energy, that was present 14 billion years ago at the Big Bang came and spoke to a 14-year-old Jewish girl and told her that she was pregnant with God’s new world. And now this Advent morning in 2012, that same Spirit that was present 14 billion years ago and two thousand years ago, is coming to you, and saying to you and to me,
“You’re pregnant. You’re pregnant with the new world. The new world is on its way and the old world is passing away.”
It is saying to you and me,
“Jesus is not [the] exclusive Son of God.” Jesus is “the inclusive Son of God, revealing what is always true everywhere and all the time”
– that God’s compassion includes everyone. Christianity is not the exclusive religion. Christianity is the inclusive religion that embraces everyone with compassion. (See: cf. Rohr, Richard, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, p. 87) Every time you and I wake up to the fact that the world is a moral universe, where every human being is interconnected, and that we live in a universe that has a moral arc and that it is long but it always bends toward justice, whenever we awake to the fact that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and that the way that the universe actually works, its inner system of humming and buzzing and moving forward, is through compassion and grace and love. Whenever we awaken to that, we have awakened to the Holy Spirit that lives and dwells within each one of us, as well as being outside and beyond us. Don’t sleepwalk through that reality. Now friends, I’m not talking about some abstract theory. I’m talking about something that is real and that can change the way that you act, think, and feel. Let me give you an example. This past Wednesday was the culmination of a long conversation that a couple of us here on the staff had been having with a rabbi and a couple who have been attending All Saints Church for quite awhile. The conversation was about the fact that the parents were of different religions, one Christian and one Jewish. The children have begun to put down spiritual roots here and it was time to take note of that, to mark that liturgically as a life transition. However, we didn’t want — we, this community of prayerful discernment — didn’t want to baptize the kids, to turn that into some kind of exclusive thing. We wanted something that was inclusive. We devised the following unprecedented liturgy. We took the baptismal font that we use here and put it out under the big oak tree. We blessed the water, made it holy water by recalling the important transformational moments in Jewish history and Christian history in which water had been redemptive. And then because the rabbi had suggested that we incorporate the blessing of the children from the Sabbath meal that Jews, observant Jews, use, the parents blessed their children both in Hebrew and English and then both children walked amongst all of us and each of us whispered a blessing while we touched each child. Then, we took evergreen branches and, dipping them into the holy water we sprinkled the water on top of the children. Then to recognize that the children themselves are ministers, we gave them a little bowl of the holy water and gave them their own evergreen branch and they went around and dropped holy water on the heads of each one of us. We concluded by having everybody express their appreciations for what had happened. One of the grandfathers who is crippled with ALS talked about how he had come to the service for his grandchildren, but that the service had helped him. Everybody said these wonderful appreciations of compassion. I realized at the conclusion of the service that my heart had been stretched. My chest had expanded. My soul had gotten twice as large just so that it could have the capacity to have all of that God, compassion, and love in it. And it took me a full day for my lungs and my heart and my soul and my chest to kind of come back down, but it didn’t come back down to the size it had been before. I was forever changed and made a little more able to hold God’s love. That’s being awake, for you to make room in your life for the Holy Spirit to cross all the stupid, toxic, unsustainable destructive barriers that divide the human family. My soul was so expanded that I felt like maybe it was as big as Mary’s, who said,
“My soul is big enough to proclaim the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”
Now, I mentioned that this light, this awareness, this alertness sometimes needs to be used as an armor to protect our souls. Two weeks from yesterday, an historic moment is going to take place in America. For the first time that I know of, a major Muslim body is going to have its convention in a Christian church. All Saints Church is going to host the Muslim Public Affairs [Council] Convention and all of us are invited to participate in it. Come, please, but make sure you come ready for the Holy Spirit to stretch your soul so that you have more compassion and inter-connectivity with other human beings across boundaries than you’ve ever had before. And also know that that’s going to be armor of light because we’ve begun to receive some of the most vile, vituperative, ugly, mean-spirited email correspondence I’ve ever read in all of my life, talking about All Saints participating in terrorism by being hospitable to Muslims. But this open-hearted, soul-expanded awareness and awake-ness is our calling. If you and I practice this stuff, this soul-expanding waking up, I guarantee you all that by Christmas, our souls will be so expanded that they will be ready to receive the mystery of God made flesh because we will have understood God inside our flesh. God made flesh not only in a baby, but in our very lives in our history and in our journey of casting off the narratives of darkness and exclusion and putting on the armor and narratives and new stories of God’s light and love and new world. Amen. — The Reverend J. Edwin Bacon, Jr. is the rector of All Saints Church in Pasadena, California – a 4,000 member multi-ethnic urban Episcopal parish, with a reputation for energetic worship, a radically inclusive spirit, and a progressive peace and justice agenda. Ed’s energies focus on leadership in anxious times, peacemaking, interfaith relations, integrating family, faith and work systems; and articulating the Christian faith in non-bigoted ways. He is a passionate advocate for peace and justice in the community, the nation, and the world. He has received several honors for his peace and interfaith work. He is a founder of Beyond Inclusion and Claiming the Blessing (working for justice for the LGBT community) and a co-founder of the Abrahamic Faiths Peacemaking Initiative. He serves on Human Rights Watch California Committee South and on other national and community boards. Ed has been a guest on Oprah’s Soul Series on XM’s Oprah & Friends Radio, as well as The Oprah Winfrey Show, which led to a regular role as guest host on Oprah’s Soul Series and contributor on Oprah.com. His first book, 8 Habits of Love: Open Your Heart, Open Your Mind, was published in September 2012. Prior to coming to All Saints, Bacon served as Dean of the Cathedral of Saint Andrew in Jackson, Mississippi; Rector of St Mark’s in Dalton, Georgia; and Dean of Students and Campus Ministry at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He graduated from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 1979, and in 1983 was ordained as an Episcopal priest. He holds honorary Doctorates by Church Divinity School of the Pacific and Mercer University. He and his wife, Hope Hendricks-Bacon, have two adult children and two grandchildren.