Developing a Holy Squint

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

Prayer of the Day: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection waken us to the threatening dangers of our sins, and keep us blameless until the coming of your new day, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” Mark 13:33.

Rev. Kyle Childress, a pastor and teacher I greatly admire, grew up and ministered most of his life in the state of Texas. He tells a story about an old rancher whose face was permanently sunburned and lined from decades of living outside. He had developed a “perpetual squint,” so that, daylight or dark, indoors or out, he always looked like he was squinting, looking across some pasture for a stray cow in the face of glaring sun and blowing wind. Squinting, looking into the distance for so many years had shaped his face. Indeed, it had shaped the way he looked at everything.

Pastor Childress goes on to reflect on how we are shaped by where our gaze is fixed and how the course of our lives is determined by who and by what we love, hope for and expect. Seems to me that is a good thought with which to start the new church year. It is a great parable through which to view the season of Advent. Truth is, we are shaped by our longings and what we desire determines how we live and how we treat each other.

In our gospel lesson for this Sunday, Jesus encourages his disciples to keep their gaze, their perpetual squint, on his coming. That is easier said than done. There is plenty out there to distract us. There will be wars and rumors of war, says Jesus, earthquakes and famines. Mark 13:8. Of course, we don’t need Jesus to tell us that. But then Jesus goes on to tell us about things we have not yet experienced; things that are not simply part and parcel of human history. The sun will cease to give its light. The moon will turn dark. The stars will fall from the sky. All those things we thought where constant; all those things we imagined would never change suddenly do. And then, they will see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.

The Greek word “erchomi” that we translate as “coming” frequently means rather “to appear.” So we might better translate this verse “then they will see the Son of Man ‘appearing’ in the clouds.” That is an important distinction because it is not as though Jesus left us alone two millennia ago only to return at some point in the distant future. He is here now. He has always been here for eyes that can see him; for eyes that have been trained to search for signs of his appearing and the unfolding of God’s reign. For those whose perpetual squint is formed by Jesus and the reign of God he promises, those signs are everywhere.

On election day in Warren, Michigan a group of Donald Trump supporters and backers of Joe Biden started shouting slogans and insults at each other through bullhorns-a none too common occurrence. But then Matthew Woods, a 59-year-old Trump supporter and travelling musician, challenged the Biden supporters to a “sing off.” The opposing groups soon started singing together and even posed for photos. “We shook hands, hugged each other and apologized for saying bad words to one another,” Wood said. “’Let’s forget about politics. Let’s hug each other and be friends.’” Harmony: Opposing “Trump and Biden groups make music together,” CityNews, November 3, 2020.

Like the tender shoots of the fig tree, this fragile moment, during which two groups of bitterly opposed people were able to see through the hateful rhetoric, stereotypical thinking and rigid ideology dividing them to their common humanity, gives us a glimpse, however fleeting, into what God desires and promises for all people. Disciples understand that moments of compassion and reconciliation like these are not just islands of tenderness in an ocean of hatred and indifference. They are God’s future pressing in upon our present. They remind us that the grip of evil is not unbreakable. They are a foretaste of God’s salvation poised to break over all creation like a cosmic tsunami.

Nevertheless, disciples of Jesus also understand that the reign of God does not come without struggle, suffering and loss. The cross is the shape of God’s reign as it takes hold of a world in bondage to sin. Thus, Jesus warns us not to be led astray by promises that the end is at hand when, in fact, there remains much work to do. Mark 13:5-7. Discipleship requires that we recognize the evils of systemic racism, economic injustice and entrenched patriarchy and know that baptism into Christ Jesus is a call to struggle against these and all other powers of sin, death and the devil. We would be naïve to expect this struggle to be short lived. We would be foolish to believe God’s reign will come without suffering, sacrifice and loss. But Jesus would have us know that, even in this, we are witnessing not merely the death throws of the old creation, but the birth pangs of the new.

It is not in vain that Jesus taught us to pray first and foremost that God’s name be hallowed, that God’s kingdom come and that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. Praying these petitions, meditating on them and allowing them to shape the contours of our souls transforms us just as surely as gazing into the rugged outdoor elements transformed the expression of that old rancher’s face. So keep awake. Keep your eye peeled for signs of the kingdom. Keep your squint focused on Jesus and on what he is doing, so that when he is revealed to all the world and God’s gentle reign of peace breaks in, your eyes will have been trained to recognize it, your heart will have been shaped to love it and you will have formed the habits required for living in it joyfully, thankfully and obediently.

The above story from Warren, Michigan illustrates how music can both be and affect signs of the advent of God’s reign. Here is a poem by Francis Ellen Watkins Harper making a similar observation.

Songs for the People

Let me make the songs for the people,
   Songs for the old and young;
Songs to stir like a battle-cry
   Wherever they are sung.
Not for the clashing of sabres,
   For carnage nor for strife;
But songs to thrill the hearts of men
   With more abundant life.
Let me make the songs for the weary,
   Amid life’s fever and fret,
Till hearts shall relax their tension,
   And careworn brows forget.
Let me sing for little children,
   Before their footsteps stray,
Sweet anthems of love and duty,
   To float o’er life’s highway.
I would sing for the poor and aged,
   When shadows dim their sight;
Of the bright and restful mansions,
   Where there shall be no night.
Our world, so worn and weary,
   Needs music, pure and strong,
To hush the jangle and discords
   Of sorrow, pain, and wrong.
Music to soothe all its sorrow,
   Till war and crime shall cease;
And the hearts of men grown tender

   Girdle the world with peace.

Source: A Brighter Day Coming, (c. 1990 by Francis Smith Foster, pub. Feminist Press by City University of New York) p. 371. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825 – 1911) was an abolitionist, suffragist, poet, teacher and writer born in Baltimore, Maryland. She was also one of the first African American women to be published in the United States. Watkins Harper had a long and productive career, publishing her first book of poetry at the age of 20.  As a young woman, she taught sewing at Union Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, a school affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church. During that time,  Watkins Harper also worked with the Pennsylvania Abolition Society helping refugee slaves make their way along the Underground Railroad to Canada. She helped found the National Association of Colored Women in  1894 and served as its vice president. Harper died in 1911, just nine years before women gained the right to vote. You can read more about Francis Ellen Watkins Harper and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

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