Days of Reckoning (Homily for Advent 1)

Sherman Hesselgrave, Homilist

Jeremiah 33:14-16     Psalm 25:1-10      1 Thessalonians 3:9-13     Luke 21:25-36

I went to see the documentary, Chasing Ice, by National Geographic photographer James Balog [BAY-log] this week.  Chasing Ice documents the melting of the earth’s glaciers using multi-year time-lapsed images.  I didn’t go because I am skeptical about the causes of global warming; I’m pretty sure the principal enemy is us.  The reason I carved time out of a busy week was because a blog I follow had a YouTube video of an interview with a woman whose position had changed 180 degrees after seeing the film.  She was a Fox News-watching Bill O’Reilly fan, and had literally chased anyone out of her home who didn’t believe global warming to be a hoax.  After seeing the film, she saw the light, and was filled with remorse for all the friends and acquaintances she had alienated with her ignorant views, and was determined to begin to make amends.  As James Balog himself asserts in the movie, the reason he made Chasing Ice was his recognition that as long as global warming was treated as scientifically inconclusive in the media with one theoretical he said-she said debate after another, people simply were not going to understand the urgency of what was happening to the planet.  When one sees the photographic and scientific evidence presented in the film, one has little choice but to become a believer.  When it comes to this earth, our island home, we are living in days of reckoning.
The season of Advent functions like a piece of velcro that joins the ends of a circle, where one end is the incarnation of Christ in the person of Jesus and the other end is a future coming again for a final reckoning of human history.  So, in the run-up to Christmas, our scripture readings take on a schizoid quality: we have John the Baptist preparing the way for the Messiah and Mary’s song of joy when she is told that she is pregnant with Jesus, as well as stories about the separation of sheep and goats and other parables of judgement.
I looked up the verb ‘to reckon,’ and discovered it has several meanings, among them, “to count or compute,” “to settle accounts,” and “to include,” as in “she is now reckoned with the angels.”  So the Advent season really is a season of reckoning, in that it points to the Great Inclusion of God becoming human and pitching a tent among us as well as the life for which we will be held accountable at the end of the journey.
If I may be permitted to digress for a moment, I can never face the Advent judgement readings without the question of HELL popping up on my screen.  Ever since I was a kid growing up in Africa, I have had a skeptical view of hell as it has so often been described to us: a place of damnation to eternal torment.  It seems to me that hell is a human construction, and one doesn’t have to wait until the afterlife to encounter it.  One can see hell throughout the pages of history; sometimes the church even creates it (I’m thinking of the historic persecution of Jews and the Inquisition); or the hell manifested in the killing fields of Cambodia; or the hell inflicted on the world by believers in Aryan racial purity; or the hell that Aboriginal people of North America have had to live through; or the hell that scars for life a child with an abusive parent.  There is more than enough hell in the here and now without manufacturing it in life to come.  We are just beginning to glimpse the hell the earth is facing as a result of global warming.  As the world’s glaciers melt, the sea level will eventually rise by three feet, and 150 million people—equal to half the current population of the United States—will be displaced.  If Minister Kenney thinks the refugee situation is bad now, imagine what it will be like in the future.

One of the hallmarks of the season of Advent is hearing the voices of the biblical prophets with their fierce pronouncements about what has to change if the people of God want a just future. (I was at a seminar this week, and one of the things we discussed was the difference between ‘anger’ and ‘fierceness.’  If anger is about injustice in the past, fierceness is a single-minded determination about a just future. [Rob Voyle’s definitions]) In today’s oracle from Jeremiah, the prophet fiercely proclaims that God is going to send someone who will incarnate God’s justice.  Christians believe that person is Jesus, who was continually exhorting his disciples to work with single-minded determination for a just future.  He called it the reign of God.
I wish you all could have been here the other night, when this space was throbbing with the fierceness of refugee lawyers and doctors and activists from a bunch of faith traditions, all warning of the hell that the new refugee legislation will bring about.  Is this the future a majority of Canadians want?  Most Canadians are here because someone in their family was an immigrant or a refugee, as even Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were, owing to Herod’s murderous purge two millennia ago.  It shouldn’t be a partisan issue; it’s a matter of basic human justice.
The other “reckoning” in Advent is about inclusion and the anticipation of  God’s being reckoned as one of us.  Emanuel, one of the names associated with Jesus, means God-With-Us.  “Love Came Down at Christmas,” the Christmas carol tells us, and love is the commandment Jesus gave his closest followers before he was put to death.  St Paul writes about love to a stressed community of Christians in Thessalóniki, where he had spent only three weeks instructing them in the faith before persecution forced him to leave.  Now he writes to encourage this struggling community that had turned away from worshipping idols—and probably became alienated from others in the community in doing so— to coach them from afar.  And what does he write to them?  “May the Lord fill you with love until it floods out over one another – and over everyone – just as our love floods out over you.”  The kind of love Paul refers to is ‘agape,’ the sacrificial love that puts others and the community ahead of oneself.  It’s about we, not me.  To be reckoned as one of the community of the faithful meant living a life transformed by the living presence of Christ in their midst, but what did that mean to these new converts?  What does it mean to us?  We have had much longer than three weeks to wrestle with the challenges to our faith.  How do we support one another in our fierceness—our single-minded determination about a just future?  Is it not by love for one another and for the world God has given us to exercise stewardship over?  As Chaucer quotes Virgil it in The Canterbury Tales: “Amor vincit omnia.”  (“Love conquers all.”)

The signs of the times mentioned in today’s gospel reading have an uncanny resonance with some of the things we have observed in our lifetime.  It is not an understatement to say that people have fainted “with terror and apprehension about what is coming on the world.”  Aquifers destroyed by fracking; whole nations living in fear of nuclear annihilation; deforestation that has ruined ecosystems; oceans that can no longer handle all the waste we have pumped into them; millions of people slaughtered in wars and civil strife; millions of others are being drawn into economic slavery by multinational superpowers; and yet we gather here around sacred words and bread and wine to proclaim that the reign of Christ is right on top of us.  We can reach out and touch it.  Because wherever love is, God is there. “Ubi caritas et amor, deus ibi est” we sometimes sing during communion to remind ourselves of this.

Days of reckoning remind us of our accountability, but also remind us that we are part of a fierce community of faith, the Communion of Saints that transcends time and space, and joins us as we gather to pray, to break bread, and to go forth sharing our gifts with a world that is longing for the good news of God’s love and for the empowerment of God’s Spirit.  Let us demonstrate how God, working through us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.