The irrelevant season

RCL Year A, 1 Advent

Today we begin the season of Advent, the beginning of the church year, the time of waiting and preparation. In church we light a single candle more each week on our wreath as we count down the weeks till Christmas; we sing rich Advent hymns and reflect in silence together as we prepare for the coming of Christ’s light into the world. We are waiting and watching. Waiting and preparing for the feast of Christmas, certainly. But we are also waiting and watching for Christ to come again at the end of all things, preparing our hearts and souls to meet him as one day each of us will at our death.

But in the malls and stores around us Christmas tunes have already been playing for several weeks. Decorations are up. Santa has arrived. The frenzy of consumer shopping is already at its peak. There’s very little waiting going on around us.

Every year the church keeps Advent; every year the world does not. It makes me think of the philosophical puzzle about the tree falling in the forest. If the church keeps Advent and the world doesn’t know it, is Advent really being kept at all? This is perhaps the most irrelevant of the church seasons. Even trying to persuade you all to wait to put up your Christmas trees is difficult.

No, I’m not embarking on that rant again, don’t worry. The truth is, Advent is irrelevant, to most people in our culture. For that matter, church is irrelevant. Whatever status church once had in American culture, it hardly has it now. Just look at us today. Some 70 people on a Sunday morning, all white, mostly gray-haired, hardly any families. In an area – Almaden Valley – of about 43,000 people with a median age of 36, nearly half that population families with kids, nearly half non-white. Most of those people are not in church right now. Most of them are not planning to go to church on Christmas Eve either. Most of them see no reason why they would ever turn up to this strangely shaped building, or any other church building. Even though many of you have tried to invite them. You have chatted up that nice new family that moved in down the block, you have encouraged your grown kids to join you in worship just this once, you have worked to make the Sunday School attractive. But those people you’ve been inviting, and all their neighbors, aren’t here today – they’re at a mall, shopping and listening to bad Christmas music.

The amazing Pope Francis released what’s called an apostolic exhortation on Tuesday, his first lengthy teaching of what he thinks about the church. It is not favorable to the status quo. In the document, he challenges the church to “abandon the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way,’” to find novel, “bold and creative” ways to speak to the world and to make the church more meaningful. He writes, “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

It is high time for those words. But actually, the Catholic Church isn’t in bad shape, numerically speaking. Globally its numbers have remained stable, half of all Christians identifying as Catholic, a constant throughout the last century. The church has diminished in some countries, true, but it has grown in others; in this country, its numbers remain stable because of immigrants from more Catholic countries. But the complexion of the church is changing from the inside, and the power structure needs to adapt to fit.

But Pope Francis’ words ring true for us – though we have a different problem. In the Episcopal Church, as in many churches, numbers are declining. The median age of the Episcopal Church nationwide is 57, which means that over the next 18 years, half of the population of the Episcopal Church will die. And another half is not coming in to replace it. It’s not just the mainline denominations – even the large evangelical churches are beginning to decline. This is not because people aren’t inviting their friends to church. It’s because folks outside the church don’t see why they should go to church. Because the church doesn’t matter – not to the world as it is now.

But you all, you 70 people here today, do seem to think it matters. It matters to you to come together in a community and practice loving God and each other. It even matters to you that we keep Advent and the rhythms of the year, a way of opening our eyes to how God is active among us. And I would add that it matters not just for us who choose to come. It matters that we make the gospel real for others, that we incarnate Jesus’ good news of love and redemption for the world. The world would be a horrible place without that.

The good news is Jesus’ love and redemption doesn’t all depend on us. In the readings we heard today, Isaiah tells us that in the days to come, people will come from all tribes and nations to be part of the people of God. They’ll set aside their divisions and all people will gather together to worship and to follow God. Jesus tells us to keep awake, to look for God, God who is coming and active in unexpected ways. God is indeed alive and at work in the world around us. God is always at work, with or without us. But we do have a choice, us in the church. We can be part of God’s work – or we can hinder it.

One of the messages of this season of Advent is to prepare the way. We think of this as preparing the way for God to come into the world, but really, God’s the one who does that work in people’s hearts, not us. We do have preparing of our own to do, however. We can prepare the way for others to see God, to share with others the same riches we have found. We’re talking about this in our house meetings, as we start to figure out what we can do and how we can serve in our community. Church is no good as a secret club – we want to use it to help others know how deeply God loves them too. Which will probably mean, as the Pope says, doing things very differently than how we’ve always done them.

But Advent also means preparing ourselves for the unexpected. If God is already out there and active in Almaden, then we might be quite surprised to see what God is up to. God might just meet us in the guise of one of our neighbors, whether they go to church or not. When we step outside of our comfortable enclave, we might just see God out there doing something entirely new and wonderful that we’d never thought of. We might learn something that we really need to learn.

So in this Advent and on into the new year, in these next few Sundays and beyond, we will prepare ourselves to meet the face of love – here in this world, in this valley, in this congregation. As we move into this season of anticipation, let’s use this time of waiting to sharpen our skills. Here with one another, in our families and homes, in our workplaces and schools, let this be a time to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to reach out to those in need and to those who feel far away from God. A place like ECA offers a place for living, a place to practice choosing the way of love and life more often than the way of security and fear. It is a good place for keeping awake and keeping watch, learning to recognize the footsteps of God in this world. And it is a good place to start doing things differently, as we follow where God is leading, and already at work.