[Sermon preached on Sunday, December 3, 2017 (Advent 1, Year B) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, Minnesota]
Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.
Mark 13:33 (NRSV)
If you are anything like me, the past several weeks have felt incredibly exhausting. The world around us seems to be fraying at the edges and coming unglued at the seams and, if you pay too much attention to news or social media, it can feel as though the very sky above our heads is falling.
The recent spate of accusations of sexual harassment and assault at the hands of cultural heroes and political leaders, people that we thought we could trust, but now it doesn’t seem so sure…
continued geopolitical turmoil and upheaval where nations are pointing increasingly deadly weapons at one another in a show of force that threatens to annihilate us all…
political divisiveness that leaves many in our country feeling as though they have no say in government…
There is so much going on around us and, in the words of William Yeats, if feels as though “the center cannot hold.”
This feeling of an incredibly unsteady and fragile world is nothing new. The ancients believed that the world we live in is essentially a bubble of peace in a sea of chaos created and sustained by the word of God. We find evidence of this fragility throughout human history, but we can also find traces of it in popular children’s literature.
The popular children’s book Henny Penny is a story about a hen named “Henny Penny” who interprets the feeling of an acorn falling on her has as a sign that the sky is falling. “They sky is falling,” she exclaims. “I must go tell the King.”
On her way to see the King, Henny Penny encounters other interestingly named avians – Goosey Loosey, Turkey Lurkey, Cocky Locky, and Ducky Lucky – and she convinces them that the sky is falling. Their shared sense of anxiety further persuades each of them that they must also go and tell the King. As luck would have it, on the way to the King’s Palace, they run into Foxy Loxy, a sly fox who, upon hearing of their fear and anxiety, offers to show them a shortcut to the King’s Palace. Consumed by anxiety, Henny Penny, Goosey Loosey, Turkey Lurkey, Cocky Locky, and Ducky Lucky “went along, and they went along, and they went along” until Foxy Loxy led them right into his den. “And don’t you know that Henny Penny, Goosey Loosey, Turkey Lurkey, Cocky Locky, and Ducky Lucky were never heard from again, and the King has never been told that the sky is falling.”
It is no secret that we are living in a time of dramatic transformation and uncertainty. Things, people, ideas, ways of being in the world that were once as certain as death and taxes are now no longer as sure. It can be tempting to look around at all that is quickly shifting in front of us and to believe that the world as we know it is coming to an end – to believe that the sky is falling.
I often wonder if what we are witnessing in front of us is not the destruction of our world, but the further work of God’s creation. I wonder when we feel the pain of cultural heroes who appear to fall from grace, or when our assumptions about the way the world works no longer hold true, or when the norms and mores that once governed the society and named our place within it begin to crumble, or when all around feels like shifting sand, if this is not what it means to live in a world that is constantly being renewed by God. This might not mitigate the anxiety we feel in the moment, but I wonder if reframing how we experience the changes going on around us will help us bravely engage the new world unfolding in front of our eyes.
The Gospel of Mark (which we will be reading through throughout the coming 12 months) warns us about taking on too much anxiety during times of distress and great change. The Evangelist makes clear that for the followers of Jesus Christ, it is the voice of God that we must listen to and obey, not the sensationalizing voices that seek to exploit times of distress and anxiety for their own gain. Like Foxy Loxy, there are many around us who seize upon our anxieties and fears – real or imagined – and use them to lure us away from our true home in compassion, mercy, justice, grace, and love. These other voices are seductive. They promise assurance and stability, but they produce the opposite. “What I say to you, I say to all,” says Jesus. “Keep awake!”
It can seem counterintuitive, but the plethora of these other voices can lull us to sleep. We can be so caught up in paying attention to the sensationalizing voices around us that we miss the voice of God. In exploiting our fears and raising the volume of our anxieties, these voices deaden our senses and muddy our ability to hear of compassion and grace when we need to hear it most. In the face of such challenge, we need to cultivate the inner voice – the voice of God that beckons each of us to wholeness and grace.
Now, contrary to what my vocation as priest my invite you to assume, I struggle with cultivating the inner voice as much as any other person. There is so much that can get in the way of the silence and space that we need to hear the voice of God – busyness, anxiety, apathy, and pride. But if we want to avoid being pulled away from the wholeness that is our birthright, we must do all we can to hear the voice of God. We must pray.
Prayer isn’t only something we do when we come here – once a week (once a month) – but it is something we are commanded to always go. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells his followers that they are to “pray always and not to lose heart.” The life of prayer isn’t a suggestion or a recommendation – it is part and parcel to what it means to follow the way of Jesus.
Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, suggests that prayer is ultimately about letting Jesus pray in us. That’s the power of praying “Our Father” – in these words we join Jesus in his relationship to the Father. Williams says that prayer “is not us trying to persuade God to be nice to us or get God interested in us. It is opening our minds and hearts and saying to the Father, ‘Here is your Son, praying in me through the Holy Spirit. Please listen to him, because I want him to be working, acting, and loving in me.”
Perhaps the prayer we need is the kind of prayer that opens us up to Jesus in ways that invite his assurance, his faith, his hope, his joy, his love for our neighbor, and his peace deeper into our lives when we find our supply sorely lacking. Perhaps the antidote to our own individual and wider societal anxiety is the “peace of Christ which passes all understanding.” Perhaps the way to avoid the seductive voices of sensationalism is to saturate ourselves with the songs and prayers of scripture, which root us in the assurance of the solid rock that is Jesus Christ.
My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
all other ground is sinking sand.
If we are to truly steel ourselves for the work ahead of fashioning this world more and more after the image of the compassionate, grace-filled, and justice-oriented reign of God, we must first be a people whose lives revolve around the solid foundation of Jesus.
Because if we are not careful we may find ourselves like Henny Penny, Goosey Loosey, Turkey Lurkey, Cocky Locky, and Ducky Lucky, seduced away from safety and compassion and towards danger. If don’t pray (P-R-A-Y), we may find ourselves prey (P-R-E-Y) to voices who would exploit us to their gain and our misfortune.
Keep awake, beloved in Christ.
And while you’re at it, and for the love of God, keep praying.
 Luke 18:1
 Rowan Williams. Being Christian, p. 80.