Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, Nov. 28, 2010
"Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming ... The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."
It’s the first Sunday of Advent. And Advent has sort of a double paradox to it.
First, we’re told we're supposed to be waiting expectantly. But we’re supposed to be waiting expectantly for something that has already happened. That’s kinda weird.
Second, we're told in this morning’s Gospel that "we don't know the day or the hour" when clearly we do. You can even by these countdown Christmas ornaments that tell you how many days, hours, minutes and seconds until the hour comes. And in fact here, we schedule a brass quintet to come help us celebrate it! Again, kinda strange.
The way we talk about Advent is strange. And it makes me think that maybe there is something more to it, something that has to do with this cryptic Gospel reading that so many people have used to scare people with books like the Left Behind series. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because in the past few weeks this Gospel reading has taken on a new and profound meaning for me.
Most of you know that I’ve had a health scare recently, that I found out a couple weeks ago that I have a dissection or a tear in my left carotid artery, and that I’m on blood thinners and blood pressure medicine. And I’m doing really, really well. But there’s a bit of a story of how I got to that diagnosis, and I want to share it with you not because I believe either I or my experience is unique and special but precisely because I believe it is not.
It all started at that great cathedral birthday party we had in Schuyler Hall. I began to have trouble speaking, started tripping over my tongue. At first I thought it was allergic reaction, maybe to some Thai food I’d had. But then the next day came and it was still there and it was still there on Sunday.
One of the many great things about being here at the Cathedral is we have a canon who is also a doctor in John Kilgore. So on Sunday morning, I asked him to take a look at it (you doctors get that all the time, don’t you … hey doc, take a look at this!). And John got a worried look on his face and said, “you should really get that checked out.” That got me a little concerned. But I really got concerned the next morning, when John called me at 8:15 am and said, “you’re going to get that checked out, right? I’ve called your doctor and he’s expecting you!”
So then I was really nervous. So I did the natural thing in situations like that. I came into work, got on the computer and Googled “tongue paralysis” and a whole bunch of mean, nasty, ugly things came up. So I went to the doctor. My usual doc was out sick so I saw someone else. And he looked at my tongue. Did a couple other very basic tests just sitting there and then looks at me and says:
“Well, it’s either a tumor, a growth, or something weird.”
And I said, “What’s something weird?”
“Oh, MS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, something like that.”
And so I said, “Is there any chance that it’s something minor?”
And he shook his head and said, “Nah.” And then he sent me out to be scheduled for a brain MRI the first thing the next morning and then sent me home.
Let me hit pause here and say to any doctors in the congregation … never do this. This was not helpful. Don’t just leave someone like that! Because in the space of one sentence my life had changed. In the space of one sentence everything I had just assumed – that I would live a normal life, watch my kids grow up – all of that was now up for grabs and frankly, wasn’t looking too good. I stumbled out of that office in a daze. What had just happened? It didn’t seem real.
Robin was home that day so I went home and talked with her. We said, “I guess this is what ‘in sickness and in health’ means.” I emailed my amazing colleague group because I knew I needed their support. I came down here and talked with Amy, who prayed with me and was just amazing. I talked with the Bishop. I needed to let them know what had happened and what the doctor had said. I got great advice from a friend to try to tell my kids as much as I could because they were going to know something was up, but also to try to find that line where I was giving them enough information to feel powerful but not so much a sense of what might be that they would be terrified.
I didn’t sleep a lot that night. I kept thinking of a guy Robin and I knew named Rick Dodd, who was my age with a bunch of kids. One day he’d woken up with numbness in his left foot, and in less than a year and a half he was dead of a tumor on his brain stem. And I realized that where I was was at the foot of the cross. And I kept hearing my own words, words I have said over and over in the year and a half we have been together. About how when we come together up here we lay our lives on this table. About the experience I talked about in my stewardship letter of realizing that my life was not my own. I absolutely meant those words every time I had said them. They were never just words, but they took on a whole new depth of meaning now. The rubber had hit the road. The son of man had come at an unexpected hour.
Now I don’t want you to think for a second that I was facing this stoically and with a brave face. I may be half British, but there was no stiff upper lip thing going on. This was the biggest roller coaster I had ever been on. I would be in tears or fighting them back. And then I would just be terrified. And then I would just be numb. And then this incredible peace would just come over me. Sometimes all in the space of a minute. And I found myself praying for something that we pray for every Sunday .. the peace that passes all understanding. And it would come, but then just as quickly it would go again. And that’s the way it went.
For the 30 hours from when that doctor had said those words to me and when I got the MRI results back, I found myself at the foot of the cross. And it was not a fun place to be. It was a terrifying place to be. It was a dark place to be. But in the middle of that fear. In the middle of that darkness, I found something amazing. I found that Jesus was there. And he was begging me to trust him. He was begging me to believe in the words I had said so many times. To believe that my life was not my own and that was nothing to fear. To believe that all would be well. To believe in him. To let go.
It was an extraordinary experience. The kind of experience we generally try to protect ourselves from even thinking about. You see, we live with an illusion of control. One of the things i have learned as I have traveled to places like Ghana and Sudan and Rwanda is that generally the more wealth we have the greater we are able to reinforce that illusion of control – which means we Americans are REALLY good at it. And the more also that we are afraid of losing control and the more unprepared we are for that inevitable moment when the illusion of control is shattered and we are standing naked and alone at the foot of the cross. And make no mistake. That moment or moments are inevitable. And they are the most amazing Christmas gifts in the most terrible and terrifying wrapping, if we are able to accept them. I call them Christmas gifts because they are the gift of Christmas ... The gift of Christ staring us right in the face, giving himself for us ... And offering us the chance to do the same.
And so Monday night turned into Tuesday morning. And John met me at St. Mary’s and prayed with me before I went in for the MRI. And then they stuck me in one of those long tubes that sounds like people are pounding on it with hammers. And then came one of the longest days of my life. Robin had instituted a new rule. I think she figured that she was going to make sure I was going to take care of myself, so the rule was if I don’t sleep the night before, I don’t go to work the next day. So the idea was I would stay home and sleep. Only of course I didn’t. I dozed a little bit but mostly I just waited for the phone to ring with the test results.
The darkest hour of that day came around 3 pm, right before my kids were to come home from school. And I didn’t want to be a mess and fall apart with them because that would just be terrifying for them. And I realized who I needed to talk to. And so I picked up the phone and called a friend from seminary, Dahn Gandell. Dahn’s mother died of cancer when we were in seminary and she had just had a malignant melanoma removed from her leg last year. Dahn is one of what I call my nuclear powered pray-ers. And I knew I needed her.
As I said, I had already talked with Amy and the bishop the day before. It was important if the really bad stuff was going to come down that we work together as a team to make sure we found a way to use this for the good for this congregation. But at that moment I was thinking about my family. And in that moment, I realized the hardest thing for me wasnt to give my life to Christ, it was to give them to Christ. To trust that they would be OK.
And so I asked Dahn, I said, “This may sound a little morbid, but I need to ask you that and I need you to give me an honest answer.” She said “OK.” I said, if the worst happens, will you be there at the end holding my hand and holding Robin’s hand. And she said, “Duh! Of course!” And then I’m not going to say I was OK, but there was a way it was OK. In that moment, she was Christ for me, that physical incarnation of God’s presence. At that moment, even though I was still on that roller coaster, I had been given a gift … that peace that passes all understanding. And I realized something about that peace. It doesn’t mean that you’re not afraid. It doesn’t mean that you’re not sad. It means that it’s OK to be those things and that in addition to my life, and my family’s life, I could give those things to Christ as well … and that even though it didn’t make them go away, that I wasn’t carrying them by myself.
The rest of the story is pretty straightforward. I got a call that afternoon from the doc that said my MRI was clean (or as Robin liked to say, my brain MRI came back negative!). That took a lot of really bad stuff off the table, but still left some nasty stuff on there. I went to an ear, nose and throat guy who got me a CT scan of my neck and on Friday afternoon, my doc calls. He says the good news is there’s no tumor, but you’ve got a dissected artery with a clot that was impinging on the nerve to the tongue. Come on in, I want to talk with you about it.
The rest most of you know. My left carotid artery has a tear in it with a clot that has formed. I’m on blood thinners to keep the clot from growing while my body does its normal job of dissipating the clot. I’m on medication to keep my blood pressure down, which is just as important. The dissection is in a tricky place and they really don’t want to do surgery, but they’re also pretty confident that with the treatment I’m getting there’s a really good chance it will heal itself. And if it doesn’t, well, we’ll figure that out if it comes to it.
And so I’m living in this amazing place right now. When I was in the hospital, the doctors kept telling me two things almost in the same breath that sounded really strange together ... what you have is very, very serious ... And we think you're going to be ok. But here’s the thing I’m dealing with now really much more than anything medical…
I feel fine right now. So it is easy for that illusion of control to slip back and for me to lose the profound sense of being in the hand of God. And so I’m wrestling with how not to do that. How to grasp the opportunity not just for me but for all of us to cultivate for ourselves and each other the sense that we every day are at the foot of the cross, thanking God for the gift of this life but remembering that it is not our own. And whether it lasts 5 more seconds or 50 more years it is a gift.
So why am I sharing this story? Well, to steal a line from Alice’s Restaurant, I'm telling you this because you may know someone in a similar situation. Or you may be in a similar situation. And frankly, if you haven’t yet, you will be. The phone will ring. The doctor will say words you never thoiught you would hear. The illusion of control will be shattered. We know it because we have lived it.
We know it from last Christmas Day when the phone rang and we learned Dennis Englehard had been killed.
We know if from this fall when we said goodbye to Don Kay at the parish picnic and then he was hit by a car and killed later that afternoon.
We know it from finding the pink slip we never saw coming on our workstation.
From the phone call that lets us know that it finally is time to look at assisted living for our parents or watching our parents or spouse slowing slip away to Alzheimers.
We know it from the children we had hoped for and loved whose lives ended in miscarriage. From the phone call in the middle of the night that said, “Mom, I’m in jail.” From the car crash. From the terrifying moment in front of the mirror when we say “Oh my God, what is that lump?”
We know it from all the things we see all the time on the news or other peoples facebook statuses but until that moment, we somehow never think will happen to us. I’m here to tell you, as if you don’t already know, that we do not know the day or the hour but we do know it will happen. But here's the good news. When it does it will not be the coming of a Christ who is just crashing the party as it ends, it will be the revealing of a Christ who has been with us a along, and who in those times we are given the gift of seeing him face to face.
You see, there really is no paradox of advent. Because we're not preparing for something that has already happened. We’re not preparing for the birth of Christ. Advent is allowing ourselves to realize that Christ is with us all along. Advent is allowing ourselves to realize that an sense of control we have over our lives is just an illusion, but it is an illusion we can try and try and try to let go of without fear because on that night in Bethlehem more than two thousand years ago, God bent down and kissed the earth and promised that when life happens and the unexpected hour comes and that phone rings or that doctor says those words that just produce a dull ringing in our ears because they are so incredibly unreal, we will not be alone but God in Christ will be there. And as members of Christ’s body we will be there for each other, the embrace and gaze and tears and touch of Christ for each other.
There is a truth that it is at those times when life seems most threatened, when we live the deepest, when we become most aware of how precious life is. And at that moment when we are so aware of how precious every minute is, we are invited to place that precious life - ours and those whose lives we would trade ours for in a second ... in the arms of Christ.
And as hard as it is in that moment to do that, in many ways that’s the easier time to do it. In those moments of crisis we are so aware of how incredibly important the truly important things are and how incredibly unimportant all the rest of it is. There is a perspective that comes with the unexpected arrival of the Son of Man that slips away so quickly when life returns to normal and the illusion of control returns.
And so I think maybe the invitation of Advent is not to prepare for the birthday we know is coming, but to, just for a season, help each other live more consciously of how little we know, how little control we have and how much we all live in the hand of God. To be a little less afraid of meeting Christ at the foot of that cross. To be a little less afraid of asking for a sister or brother’s hand while we’re there. To be a little more aware of the gift of each breath, the gift of each other, the gift of a God who doesn’t promise it will be easy but who always delivers on the promise that we’ll never have to go it alone.