God our Holy Thief: Staying Awake, Telling the Truth, and Letting Go - Reservoir Church
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Advent 2021

God our Holy Thief: Staying Awake, Telling the Truth, and Letting Go

Steve Watson

Nov 28, 2021

For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”

Hello Friends. I hope you’ve been having a good weekend, maybe a long weekend with some extra time to eat and rest, or to cook, maybe to shop. I know some of you have been working this weekend – if you work in retail, it’s busy. Or if you own a small business or care for young children, sometimes the work never stops. I know a few folks in our community who’ve been working or on call to work in our local hospitals this weekend too. We are very grateful for them. 

I hope your Thanksgiving weekend has been good. Mine had a lot of good, a lot of highs. And then there were some lows too. Life just seems complicated these days, like the holiday itself. 

Thursday morning, I ran the Franklin Park 5K with one of my sons. That was awesome. I love Franklin Park. I love running. I love my son. It was pretty great to be running about as fast as this middle-aged body will go and to see my son waaay ahead of me, and then so far ahead I couldn’t see him at all. Yeah, that was a really good feeling.

And then on the way home, John turns to me and says – Happy National Day of Mourning, Dad.

And I kind of skipped a beat for a second, because I didn’t understand him at first. But he said, yeah, isn’t that what they’re calling this day now, because of genocide – national mourning day.

And then we had a conversation about what Thanksgiving represents to us all. A day of family and friends and food and gratitude? Or a day of remembering the worst of our history? A day of loss and grief? Or can it be both?

Friends, family, food, gratitude. Disappointment, loss, grief. 

Life is complicated these days. It’s hard and hopeful. And it can feel like it’s marching ahead, unstoppable, uninterruptible, just pushing forward in whatever mix of good and bad the fates have given us in these days of colder days and darkening nights. And our faith, I know, can feel much the same. Maybe our hearts are full, our prayers are rich, and we head toward Christmas full of faith, hope, and love abounding. Or maybe – and I know this is true of many of us – maybe it’s been a time of what our friend Cate calls a season of doubt and distance, of not sure where God is to be found, or if God is to be found at all. 

Into all this comes this interruption of Advent. Advent, the weeks before Christmas, is a chance to remember the surprising interruption of God moving in the world at times and in places and through ways we could never have imagined. And Advent, which means arrival, emergence, appearance, is an opportunity to long for the reappearance of God with us, maybe where we haven’t been looking. Advent, these weeks before Christmas, is an invitation to interruption, to look for the new emergence of God in our consciousness. To see if God can stir faith, hope, and love in us. 

Let me pray for us.

The scriptures that ask God to show up again, or ask for help to see God where God already is, are weird. It’s like they have a hard time making up their minds whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Because as much as anything else, Spirit of God seems to be disruptive. God’s presence always shifts and rearranges things. God provokes seeing differently, listening differently, … being differently.

Take this one for instance, from the old prophet Malachi.

Malachi 3:1-2 (Common English Bible)

1 Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me;

 suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple.

The messenger of the covenant in whom you take delight is coming,

says the Lord of heavenly forces.

2 Who can endure the day of his coming?

Who can withstand his appearance?

He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap.

These lines have captured people’s imaginations over the years. Maybe it’s because Malachi three is kind of a hopeful chapter – it’s about the end of exile, a time of homecoming and return to God and return to hope. Maybe it’s because in Chrisitan Bibles, it’s the last chapter of the last book of the Old Testament, and these lines point forward – the way for the next appearance of God with us. 

There are songs inspired by these verses. They can’t really make up their mind on tone, though. They can be kind of gentle and hopeful, like the Jesus movement one of this church’s past:

Purify my heart, let me be as gold and precious silver… Refiner’s fire…

Campy, but sweet…

Or they can be like the version you hear sung this time of year from Handel’s Messiah.

For he is like a refiner’s fire… and who shall stand when he appeareth…

It’s the classical music equivalent of heavy metal… fast, loud, kind of fearsome. 

Fire as metaphor for God is a good one.

We don’t live without fire, not long at least, or not around here. Fire warms and heats and cooks. Fire in industry makes things, cleans things, illuminates and purifies things. 

But fire burns too. It moves and dances. It’s good but it’s wild. 

I think what we get here is a longing for God. We don’t live without God, the source of life. And life is colder, bleaker without the goodness and possibility of God. But God, though safe, isn’t just tame or mild. God moves. God changes things. 

The scriptures sometimes have a hard time making up their mind whether or not the arrival of God, the fire of God is a good thing or not. 

It’s like this piece of artwork for our Advent art gallery this year. You submitted artwork – poetry, paintings, photos, drawings – for this year’s Advent art gallery, and we’re going to highlight one submission each week.

This week’s is by Jude Nardella, age 7. 

It’s inspired by this book, If you Want to See a Whale, and the words

“If you want to see a whale, keep both eyes on the sea, keep both eyes on the sea, and wait… and wait . . . and wait . . .”

I love it, Jude.

When something big that we don’t know or can’t expect is happening underneath or around us, is it a good thing or a bad thing? If someone texts you and says to call them because they have some big news, do you first expect it’s going to be good or bad? It could be either.

Advent is kind of like this – waiting for God, but not just waiting. It’s looking and looking, keeping both eyes open for where we can see God. 

Jesus picks up this theme, when he talks – several times in the gospel – about keeping an eye out for God and about God showing up when we least expect God and where we least expect God. 

Like here, in the good news of Luke:

Luke 12:35-40 (Common English Bible)

35 “Be dressed for service and keep your lamps lit.

36 Be like people waiting for their master to come home from a wedding celebration, who can immediately open the door for him when he arrives and knocks on the door.

37 Happy are those servants whom the master finds waiting up when he arrives. I assure you that, when he arrives, he will dress himself to serve, seat them at the table as honored guests, and wait on them.

38 Happy are those whom he finds alert, even if he comes at midnight or just before dawn.

39 But know this, if the homeowner had known what time the thief was coming, he wouldn’t have allowed his home to be broken into.

40 You also must be ready, because the Human One is coming at a time when you don’t expect him.”

So Jesus moves from one ambivalent metaphor – fire – to another, the late night intruder. You hear noises at your door in the middle of the night? What do you feel? How do you react? 

Depends what you’re expecting, right? If you’re waiting for your partner or your child to come home, you run to the door. You’re excited. If not, well, you’re probably terrified. 

The details of this passage are maybe distracting to us. We don’t much like master and servant language, for good reasons, but Jesus was just using the experience of a wealthy household that his mostly working class audience would have heard about and imagined… their lifestyles of the rich and famous fantasy.

Or maybe some of them had been servants, working in the household of Herod the king in Jerusalem when they were younger, or recruited to serve in some Roman general’s household. They might have known what it was like to have to stay up late on the job, waiting for the whims of their boss, hoping the boss would come home from the banquet tired drunk or happy drunk, not angry drunk. 

Jesus, like he usually does, works with this familiar story material, but he subverts our expectations. Because that’s what Jesus does, he’s in the business of turning so much of the world upside down.

On the whole good news/bad news question, Jesus has a real side here. It’s good news. But it’s good news we can miss.

Watch out, he says, be ready for God, like you would be for the most important person you have been hired to serve.

Because God too is a most important person, who shows up unexpectedly. But this is what God’s like – God is going to show up unexpectedly and people who thought they’d get a raw deal, or people who thought they’d just have to serve are going to sit you down at the table while God cooks them dinner and serves their every need. You are not going to want to miss that. That is what God is like. 

Like out at sea, watching, watching for a big whale, and you see it moving upward, right beneath you, bigger and bigger and bigger, only to have it surface, roll over on its back, and wait for you to rub its belly.

I think even the language of the thief is subversive here.

Jesus is saying that important things happen when you least expect them, so be ready.

It’s true of God. The Human One, which is Jesus’ nickname for himself, often translated “Son of Man” shows up when you least expect him. God, in all the forms and ways God comes to us, can be missed. 

I’ve been thinking, though, about this image of the thief, weirdly resonating with it. Because who wants to be robbed, right? Nobody.

Nobody waits up at night, hoping a thief will show up at their door.

Except in the ways we kind of are.

I was talking with friends this week who spent part of their holiday week sorting through all their stuff, and finding things to give away and throw away. They’re older, and when their parents passed, it was a terrible burden to sort through all their parents’ things, a burden they don’t want their children to have. 

My mom was talking this way on Thanksgiving, like why does she have the stuff she has… the stuff she has collected, the stuff her parents collected. She was sort of wishing someone would come and unburden her of these things.

I had another good friend who, when his mother passed, had to go through all her possessions, and realized some really sad and heavy things about his mother as he did this. This all became so heavy for him that at one point, he took this ring that had been his mother’s and ceremonially threw it into a deep river. And as he threw that ring, he was letting go. It was a way of unburdening himself of parts of his mother’s legacy that he didn’t want to carry any more.

Having that be taken from him. 

Which gives me a weird question for us all as we begin the Advent season. As we’re looking for God, waiting for God to deepen our faith, hope, and love, in what ways do we need God to be our holy thief?

What burdens are we carrying around that we would love for Jesus to take from us? 

What blocks in our life could we use God’s help unblocking, removing? 

What habits, what mindsets could we use Spirit of God’s help in cleansing of us, burning away? 

How could we use the presence and power of God to rob us of the fears and burdens and head trash we’re carrying?

What patterns in the world do we long to see God help disrupt?

One more story before we end with these questions again.

Last Sunday, in our worship services, Ivy and Cate and Matt led us through what felt to me like a beautiful kind of funeral. How many of you were there?

For a while now, starting in Advent several years ago, we’ve had these occasional participatory liturgies, where we drop the sermon, and change the way we use time and space in our worship service to invite us all to participate in new and deeper ways. Ivy has usually played the lead role in creating these, and they’ve been great.

Last week’s service was a kind of funeral. With bells and silence and more, we were invited to name our losses and griefs and have those shape the table over which Jesus meets with us. 

And let me tell you what happened for me.

I was sitting by myself in the back of the room, wondering what loss I would name. And while my eyes were closed, I pictured a giant stone, one of those immovable boulders you might see while hiking. And I felt like I was behind that stone somehow and couldn’t get through it. 

In that moment, the stone represented to me a couple of places where my hopes are very low, where my outlook in life is pretty dim. And I sat there, sensing Jesus with me, and asking God if God could help move that stone. 

Interestingly, nothing much happened. I didn’t see the stone move, but it felt good to know that God knew about it and that God was with me.

But then, while I stuck with that image of the stone, I knew in my instincts that it stood for something else too.

Prayer is weird like this, by the way. If we can practice sitting still, closing our eyes if it helps, believing God is with us, and just seeing where that goes, we sometimes find our imagination going interesting places, and sometimes it seems like God is with us in that, communicating with us. This was one of those times.

I’m sitting in our sanctuary in the in-person service, in our funeral, and I’m aware that stone’s blocking the path of a friend of mine. I have a friend, a person very important to me, whose anxiety and depression have been getting worse this year. And they’re doing the things they should do in terms of getting professional help and all, but it’s just not changing yet. This is something that I talk with my friend about and that I pray about a lot – it’s the deep sadness of their life, and it’s become one of my sadnesses too.

So I’m sitting there, and the stone is my friend’s immovable depression and anxiety, the way it’s crushing them, choking out freedom and life for them these days. And in my prayer, the stone starts to move. And it’s like that huge stone that was said to be in front of the tomb where Jesus was buried, the stone that Spirit of God worked to move aside.

And I’m cheering God on in my prayer now, like you can do it, God, and I feel like Spirit of God and my friend are together moving that big, big stone. And I know this is just happening in my prayerful imagination, but it feels so good and hopeful that I’m tearing it up, and rooting for others to push on that rock, wanting to reach out and push the stone some more myself, so my friend can see the light and be moving forward again in life, toward the next possibilities for their awesome self. 

And that was it. The service moved on to the next moment, or maybe I opened my eyes and wanted to ring one of the bells, or help a latecomer find their seat or something. I don’t remember. 

But that moment has stayed with me because it felt so real and it felt like hope, for Jesus to be unburdening my friend in the middle of the night. I’ve been in touch with my friend this week, it’s not clear that a miracle is moving yet, but I’m hopeful. I hope my prayers and this image I saw is hopeful to them too. 

Friends, what burdens do you need God’s help unburdening? What stones do you need Spirit of God to help you roll away? 

The Pendant family lit our first Advent candles this week, reading and praying the words of the liturgy that Pastor Lydia has adapted for us this year, from the resource Black Liturgies, a great resource of African-American culture and spirituality infused into words and prayers for Christian worship.

This week’s words remind us that dark spaces, night spaces, can be generative. They can be where the work of God with us is born.

Jesus tells us today that when we don’t see God, keep a watch. Stay awake, because God is coming.

Jude’s art about the whale reminds us to keep both eyes on the sea and wait for it, wait for it, wait to see what lies beneath. 

Advent is an invitation to tell the truth about our lives and world – to tell the truth to ourselves about where we need God – to tell the truth about our unfinished stories and our pains and needs and burdens – and to ask God to help us see God in them and cooperate in the liberative work of God with us. 

Advent is an invitation to look at our clenched fists and see what stones we’re holding and to start to let go. Spirit of God, Spirit of Jesus, our holy thief doesn’t take anything from us that we don’t want to give. There is no violence in God. God only takes what we freely yield. 

So friends, as we begin the season of Advent this week, with the image of God as a refiner’s fire, and a holy thief, present where we’ve given up on God to unburden us, to free us from what we don’t want or need in our lives, let me ask you again:

What would you like Jesus to take from you?

What burden, what bitterness, what block, would you like God’s help in burning away? 

Consider writing it on a piece of paper and burning it later. (If you’re with us in person, you’ll have the opportunity to do that at the end of the service as you go outside.)

What do we willingly, gladly, wish Spirit of God’s help in burning away? What stones are keeping us from Gods’ life moving forward in us? 

God’s eager to be with us in this, assuring us God is with us, partnering with us in our personal and collective moves toward liberation.

Let’s pray.