A meditation on Luke 24:36-44, for the St. David of Wales community; First Sunday of Advent.
“But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not have let his house be broken into.” ––Matthew 24:43
One night when I was seven, I woke up in my bunk bed to hear a burglar in my house. My father worked late shifts patrolling the streets of Los Angeles as a deputy sheriff, and my mother usually stayed up very late to wait for him. But that night when I woke up, all the lights were off and I knew my mom was asleep and I knew my dad wasn't home, and I knew we were in the realm of the witching hour––that time between midnight and dawn when bad things happened that I had been warned about. I laid in bed frozen, heart pounding wildly, afraid to make a sound as I heard the burglar open the refrigerator. The burglar was stealing our food! Then I heard rattling in the kitchen cabinets. The burglar was stealing our dishes! Later I heard a sink run and a toilet flush. The burglar was in our bathroom, just down the hall from our bedrooms! My eyes were firmly shut so that the burglar would think I was asleep when he came into my room to steal my books and toys. I strained to hear more noises, but none came, and eventually sleep overcame my vigil.
The next morning with the sun streaming in the windows, I tiptoed into my parents’ room, tapped my father on the shoulder and told him what had happened. He father burst out laughing. The subdivision we lived in was built in World War Two and our houses were only set back five feet from the side lot lines. What I had heard through my open louvered windows that summer night was my neighbor, who worked as a stock clerk at a grocery store, coming home late from work, getting a snack, brushing his teeth, flushing the toilet, and going to sleep. Just doing all the ordinary things we do.
I wish I could say that my father’s explanation allayed my fears, but it didn’t. I was already an insomniac and nights filled me with constant anxiety, knowing that my father was on the streets far away arresting burglars and bad guys leaving my mother, little sister, and me vulnerable without him home to protect us.
And so, after the break-in that wasn’t, I made-up a prayer that I said every night for the next 15 years as I struggled to fall asleep. It went like this: “Dear God, please don't let anybody break in or try to break in; steal anything or try to steal anything. Bless and protect everyone in the whole wide world and keep them safe and warm and protected. Amen.”
When I was in 8th grade and studying civics and had memorized the Preamble to the Constitution with the words that we are all entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, I amended the end of my prayer to this: “Bless and protect everyone in the whole wide world and keep them safe and warm and protected and happy. Amen.” Now I had all the bases covered.
You might think that devising my own prayer was a sign of a faithful young believer, a young believer who had heard or read today’s gospel about keeping watch in the night and keeping the house safe. But I wasn’t a churchgoer, and I wasn’t a believer. My anxiety was my own invention and my prayer, though addressed to God, didn’t bring me peace or comfort. My prayer was an incantation, a magic spell meant to counteract the effects of the witching hour. And the only reason I chose to pray was the example set for me when we had meals with my mother's parents. We would join hands around the table and my grandfather would pray a blessing that began with the words, “Our Precious Heavenly Father,” included a petition for our safe travel, and ended with thanksgiving for the meal, and the words, “Bless it to our bodies. Amen.” We always arrived safely at home, and my grandmother’s cooking was always delicious, so I decided my grandfather might be onto something, and mimicked his prayer, only without the loving address to God, who was a stranger to me.
I have spoken before about God coming to me in the form of love while I was showering. And it may sound ridiculous, but probably no more ridiculous than a girl in her bunk bed making up prayers to save her from her own anxiety. With God coming into my life so firmly in the form of love in my twenties, one might think that would have been the end of my fears, but it wasn't. Shortly before I became a believer, I began to read the Bible for the first time, and I read it on my own without the benefit of context or anyone who could point the way to a meaning other than literal. So, when I first encountered scriptures like today’s gospel, my anxiety seemed completely justified.
Jesus said, “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the son, but only the father.” –Matthew 24:36
When I was a new believer, I was terrified that Jesus would come and I would miss him. I was terrified that my new faith, based on something so strange that I was afraid to talk about it, lest people think I was crazy, was too flimsy to stand in the real world. I was terrified that Jesus would come and would be standing right in front of me, and I would not be able to recognize him. And I would be damned.
But even my terror didn’t feel right. That response didn’t fit with the feeling I had listening to my grandfather’s prayer, or the feeling that I was beloved by a God who sought me out when I was searching. The love God showered on me didn’t square with the words I heard from Bible-thumping Christians who shouted on my college campus quad. They said I was damned unless I followed a very strict set of rules; rules that were so obscure that I did not know what they were or where to find them out.
Thankfully I soon joined a church and began teaching Sunday school to first and second graders, and the theology of God's love that I presented to them Sunday after Sunday began to sink in. Years would pass before I would join a Bible study and learn about the role of prophets and the role of apocalyptic literature and the ways in which they were meant to be messages of hope to those who were struggling and oppressed by empire. They were not meant to be words that cast terror into the hearts of those who wanted to believe. They were not meant to dissuade those who wanted to follow Jesus, who wanted to say yes to God, and to the love that God extends.
In today's gospel Jesus says that even he does not know the hour in which he will return, and God’s promises will be fulfilled. He says that life goes on and that we will do the ordinary things we do every day while God's work continues around us, and through us, and within us.
“Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” ––Matthew 24:44
According to the commentaries I read on this passage, contrary to the “Left Behind” books and the idea of “the Rapture” zapping believers into a new realm, in scripture the reality is that those who are left behind are those who are chosen by God to continue God's work. And those who are swept away are the ones who face God's judgment, not the other way around. Think of Noah and the Flood. That should be a comfort for we who appear to have been left behind for centuries awaiting a final reconciliation. In fact, one commentator whom I’ve read for years has a blog titled “Left Behind and Loving It.” I never understand what he meant by that until I read commentaries on today's reading. It is a grace to be here, being God’s people.
Many of you know that my husband had triple bypass surgery a month ago, and I think I understand a little bit more now about what Jesus meant in terms of being ready for the end, even in the midst of our daily activities. My husband had gone in for an angiogram after some mild chest pain, thinking he might need a stent; and if he hadn't been taking a lot of supplements that thinned his blood, he would have been admitted to the hospital for surgery the next morning. But as it was, the surgeon wanted my husband to discontinue his supplements and wait two weeks for his blood to thicken and avoid unnecessary bleeding during his surgery.
And so, instead of emergency surgery and a crisis, we had two weeks to prepare our family and our small business to have my husband unable to work for three months, and unable to lift anything over 10 pounds for at least six weeks. We had our crew move furniture around to make our house more accessible post-surgery, and our oldest daughter arranged to stay with us for three weeks. My husband updated his advanced directive and healthcare proxies, and I did, too. I don't know that we ought to live every day as if we might be having bypass surgery the next but, we were able to approach surgery with some peace of mind instead of fear, knowing we had prepared as much as we were able.
And this is how we begin Advent every liturgical year: With a warning to prepare. With an invitation to prepare. It comes after we're stuffed with turkey and stuffing, when we're hauling out Christmas decorations and setting up our trees, when the radio is playing Christmas music 24/7, when Black Friday emails clutter our inboxes. When it is so easy to get distracted by our own desires, were called to remember that a new beginning might be near. And who's to say that new beginning doesn't begin today or didn't begin yesterday? What would our lives look like if we lived as if God's realm and rule were going to be our reality at any moment rather than at some far-off time?
Two of us are going to be in our gardens. One of us is going to be turning compost, thinking about the soil and the water and the air, and our responsibility to keep creation healthy; and someone else is be overwhelmed at the weeds that have taken over, and is going inside to watch TV. Two of us are going to be in the kitchen and one of us is going to baking bread for a community that gathers on Sunday mornings, and someone else is going to try her hand with whole wheat flour and with no one to teach her, is going bake a brick and give up.
We need the one beside us, because the one beside us might be the one to show us how to stay and pay attention, and how to do what might seem impossible. They might be the one to show us how to live with intention and how to align ourselves with our Creator and our Redeemer. They might show us what it means to be faithful in all circumstances simply by living their lives. And the one beside us might be the one who is struggling and hurting and lost and looking for something more, and we might be able to offer a glimpse of what our faith has done in our own lives, illuminating what a different path can look like.
I give thanks that I have found spiritual leaders others than those yelling at me to repent. I am inspired by those who write books, songs, and prayers, those who deliver sermons in packed cathedrals, and those close at hand who turn on the lights and hand us a bulletin, who offer us a nod or a word of encouragement on Sunday mornings. May we listen to those who call us to continually remember the inclusiveness of God's invitation and our responsibility to the whole of God's people and the whole of God's creation that extends far beyond our own small spheres. May we see in their lives of those around us what it means to live boldly by preparing for God's arrival.
How different it might be for a child of seven to wake up in the night and upon hearing rattles and flushes, to be comforted knowing that nearby is their neighbor. A friend is awake in the night, just a few feet away, doing all the ordinary things we do while waiting, living life without fear.
I began blogging about "This or Something Better" in 2011 when my husband and I were discerning what came next in our lives, which turned out to be relocating to Puget Sound from our Native California. My older posts can be found here.