Sunday, December 2, 2012

"How's it going? You REALLY want to know how it's going?" -- A sermon for Advent I

A sermon preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, December 2, 2012

Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Let me ask you a question.

How’s it going?

Seriously, I’m asking you … how’s it going?

OK, so how many of you when you answered that question said some version of good, great or fine.

Yeah, that’s what I heard, too.

Now if you were to ask me the same question … and some of you have asked me the same question today, I’m going to give you the same answer. How’s it going, Mike? GREAT.OUTSTANDING. Good.

Except, do you know what we did just there?

We just lied. Well, maybe not lied. Lied is probably too strong. But we certainly weren’t completely honest with each other and maybe even with ourselves. If we were to be completely honest, our answer to that question would be way more than one or two words.

Because, really, “how it is going” and “how we are doing” is never simple.

Yes, there are pieces of our life that are good, great, fine … even outstanding. But there are also pieces … big pieces … pieces of our individual lives, of our family life, of our work or school life, of our civic life, of our national life that are nowhere close to outstanding, great or even good. There are pieces of our life that are painful, confusing, agonizing, terrifying and depressing. There are pieces of our lives that just plain suck.

And yet every time we get asked that question. How’s it going? We say.

Good. Great. Or even at worst “OK”

Now, I know what you’re thinking right now, and you are absolutely right. If someone were to ask me “how’s it going?” and I were to give a real, honest answer, the one thing I could guarantee is they would never ask me that question again … and they probably would never talk to me again!

Because “how’s it going?” or “how are you?” is a greeting, it’s a nicety. Most of the time when we ask it, we really don’t want to know how it’s going. What we want to do is express care about someone – and invite them to express care about us – on a level that essentially says “I care about you. You care about me. But, don’t worry, there’s no obligation to really get into it.”

That’s why the unspoken contract of etiquette we have with each other is that when someone asks us “how’s it going?” 99% of the time we’re going to say “good” or “fine” or “great.” And that’s just how we function as a society. It’s one of our rituals.

But there is a cost to this ritual as we perform it over and over and over again. The “how’s it going? … Great.” ritual.

First, it makes us believe that the answer really should be simple. That everyone else really is just fine. That everyone else’s lives are great. Outstanding. That when we have these pieces of our lives that aren’t great, that are hard and painful and depressing … that maybe we’re the exception rather than the rule. That maybe we’re different or defective somehow.

Second, it can make us stop believing that other people truly do care about how we’re doing. And so now in addition to feeling weirdly different that our lives aren’t just fine and great and outstanding, we feel even more isolated in that weirdness.

So more and more we inhabit a world where we’re encouraged to suffer in silence and isolation. Where we pretend that things are just great because it feels like they are for everyone else, and we don’t want to add to our worries somehow feeling like we’re a burden to others or feeling more different from others than we already feel.

And maybe the greatest irony is that there is no time during the year that we do this more than leading up to Christmas. Because we are told from every side that this is the hap-happiest time of the year, and if and when we don’t happen to feel that way, the temptation is to feel even stranger and bury it even deeper.

Now let me pause right now and say to you that I am not a member of the Advent police. I do not believe that the baby Jesus cries if we put up a tree or sing a carol or wish someone a Merry Christmas before December 25th. But I do believe that Advent is really important. That Christmas invites us to have Christ touch us and be with us and transform our lives in new ways, and that in Advent we spend some time getting ready for that.

And if we look at the four weeks of Advent and the Gospel readings we have for them, each week offers us a different step in that process of preparing. Each one of these steps is counter-cultural and jarring. Each one of those steps invites us to live together in Christian community in ways that are challenging and incredibly different than the ways we’re told to live out there.

And it starts today with what we hear from Jesus. It starts with Jesus saying:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

It starts with us answering the question “how’s it going?” not with “Good.” “Great.” “Outstanding.” or even “Fine.” But with a real answer. With naming the stuff that’s not great. That’s not outstanding or fine or even OK. With saying, “You want to know how it’s going? OK. Here is how it’s going. Distress among the nations. Fear and foreboding. The powers of the heavens themselves shaking.”

Now I’m not arguing that we should start spilling our guts to everyone who walks up to us and says “How’s it going?” But I am saying that in here, in this place, in this community, we get to be real with each other. In here, in this place, in this community, we get to tell the truth about where things are tough. We get to share the pieces of our lives that feel like they are falling apart or spinning out of control. In here, in this place, in this community, we get to NOT pretend that everything is OK. To acknowledge that it’s not. To acknowledge that even though there are some pretty great things about our lives, that there is some pretty rotten stuff, too. And that we can be honest with each other and with God about it.

So that’s what we’re going to do today. In your service leaflet is a 3x5 card. There are ushers with pencils if you need them and I’ve got them, too. And I want you to just name, just write down one thing in your life that isn’t fine. That isn’t OK. One thing that is scary or hurts or depressing. One piece of your life that is you’re not mentioning when someone asks how it’s going and you say “Great.”

It can be anything. It can be something that’s really personal about you like “I can’t find a job” or “I need a place to live” or “I don’t know how to talk to my dad” or “I have cancer” or “I’m worried my partner doesn’t love me anymore.” to something that is more about the world around us like how deeply divided we are by race and class or how the rich seem to keep getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Whatever is real for you about life that isn’t OK. Put it down. I’m not asking you to sign your name. I am asking you to write it down and then we’re going to collect them … and I promise we won’t do any handwriting analysis to see who wrote what!

People wrote on the cards and then they were collected in the baskets.

OK, what are we going to do with all these? Well let’s look at what Jesus says. Jesus says

“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Here are some of the things we have named:

II hurt because my children pay very little attention to me and I have no one with whom to share these feelings -- except God.

I'm in debt!

I can't quit smoking

Concern for a family member struggling with substance abuse and close to losing custody of her children.

Dealing with the fallout from taking care of a dying loved one for several weeks.

My relationship with my father.

Now Jesus doesn’t tell us to wallow in this stuff. But Jesus also tells us not to be afraid of this stuff. Jesus invites us to name these things … to look them dead in the face, and then stand up and fearlessly raise our heads and believe that our redemption is coming near.

So that’s what we’re going to do. We are going to take all these things, all these pieces of our lives and our life that aren’t great and good or even OK. We’re going to look them square in the eye and not be afraid to name them. Not be afraid to say, yeah, all of this is part of our life, too. This is reality.

And then we’re going to take them and put them right here. (the baskets are taken to the altar and dumped out onto it) We’re going to put them right here on this table. As we begin Advent, this season where we remember that God loves us so much that God couldn’t bear to be separated from us, we’re going to offer all of this stuff right here on this table and do what we do when we put our lives on this table … say God, you want to know us, well this is part of us.

My son's health ...  God, this is how it’s going.

I'm becoming an old man and don't like it. Everything is starting to sag.... God, this is how it’s going.

Work products I owe are not done! Worry about it means they don't get done and I lose even more time with my family... God, this is how it’s going.

I worry that I am slipping into complete aloneness .. God, this is how it’s going.

When we lay these things on this table, we are standing up and lifting up our heads and saying, “God, this is how it’s going. This is what is real for us. And God, we are giving all of this to you for you to enter into it and transform it and create something new.”

What does that transformation look like? How will that new creation happen? Well, we’re not going to worry about that now. Come back next week, and we’ll hear a voice crying in the wilderness and we’ll tell the next step in the story.

But for now, for this week, for today we are just going to let ourselves be in this moment of holy, fearless honesty with God. Where we will literally lay all our cards on the table. Where we stand up and lift up our heads and say, “God, this is how it’s going.”

And in this moment of holy, fearless honesty together we will trust that we do not stand alone. Together we will trust that we stand with one another.

In this moment of holy, fearless honesty together we will trust that God really does want to know how it’s going.

And that God is listening.

And that God loves us.

And that God is right here.


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