I wonder what our expectations might be this advent as we begin our journey towards the celebration of the birth of Jesus once again this year? I suspect we will have rather conflicting expectations not least because of the ongoing pandemic, the last stand of the British Empire, aka Brexit. The rather sad image of a man clinging desperately on to power that has already slipped from his grasp and the economic doom being forecast as countless people loose jobs and income due to the failure of businesses built on consumerism that some thought would never end. Then there is the uncertainty over the latest COVID regulations designed to keep us safe but destined to confuse the vast majority at the same time. I misread the text of Mark where it says: ‘Beware, keep awake.’ I heard, ‘Beware, keep apart.’ How these messages filter into our minds. There is a marked difference between the healthy watchfulness that Mark commends and a mistrustful fear of the other. Our Gospel reading for this first Sunday in Advent begins, not at the beginning, but at the beginning of the end. We’ll return to the first chapter of Mark next week. As Advent starts though, we are reminded of the end game. “in those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” So what’s going on? It seems to me quite apt for the state we’re in and far from the cautiously expectant preparations we might all be engaged in as December comes quietly upon us. For every beginning there is an ending and so forth. It seems to me we are engaged in a struggle for the very soul of our nation, the world even. The apocalyptic nature of Mark 13 was meant to be dramatic, to call people to be ‘awake’, to take note of the lessons of nature, the trees must lose their leaves before the new are grown. Jesus’ words preparing those who wish to reconstruct the old order into the new will not fall away. New wine needs new wine skins. A new order needs a new model. Out of death comes new life. It makes sense as we struggle at the dark end of 2020 politically, socially, morally and economically. You can’t tweak capitalism into being ecological, or into caring for the poorest in society or into a truly representative democracy where the voices of all are listened to, and truly heard. Mark is alluding to nothing less than the highest structures of power in history coming to their knees. Expectations for Christmas stockings have just risen into the full burlesque. From [insert random easily forgotten present] to a complete transformation of everything. The dominant order of the day falls but the words of Jesus do not pass away! And we begin to ask a more urgent question like: How can I live? How can I live in this new world where everything I have known is now different, difficult or subject to regulation. How can I live? Is the right question for Advent, because there is on offer a bigger vision in the words of the bible the Kingdom of God, in the words of the liberation movements, true justice. In musical terms it’s the Cantus Firmus, the song of the earth, the fixed melody which undergirds all that lives and loves and breathes. We can choose to sing in harmony, or not. The Cantus Firmus was used by Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a metaphor of the love of God, that which gives the underlying rhythm to the very stuff of life and out of which a child is born, a son is given and he will be called wonderful, Emanuel God is with us and the government will be upon his shoulders et cetera. As we begin our adaptation, reconcilliation in the birth pains of all creation this Advent, the call is to sing the new song, to dream the new dream and to celebrate the gifts and promises for all in the light that is to come, the Christ Child, in the crafting of new beginnings.
I walked the middle way from Capel Curig to Dolwyddelan for no particular reason except to be out for the count. (of the US Election!) Paths cross and collide on that pathway a journey through a bland landscape not empty but bleak where the division between land and sky is the most prominent feature. The occasional fence or ancient dividing wall of the enclosures almost becomes an event. But my eyes are cast down not up, focusing on the pathway that is not altogether obvious as it meanders through. I’m standing drinking coffee at a marker post deciding which way to go. If you choose to go one way you choose not to go the other the other way – obvious, but often not so in life. No path we choose is wrong, just different, perhaps more difficult. We must choose the path we walk.
Standing apart whilst divisions grow and choices are made. What will we support? Is there a right way and a wrong way, a just way and an unjust way; a more caring loving accepting way of being? We leave marker posts for each other to follow in life, but interpretation is key to following the way. So I turn to a traditional interpretation of a bible reading which leaves me stuck in the midst of the mud. It sees God as master and a faithful disciple as one who obtains a good return on the master’s money, the ‘talents’. Or perhaps, God gives us abilities or skills and its up to us to repay that gift. The word Talent comes from the ancient greek meaning an amount of Gold, a sum of money. Perhaps we were unwilling to critique the unjust financial systems, or perhaps we were just lazy, talent was a useful dual meaning and the awkwardness of the parable drifts away as does the original meaning of the word. The unfaithful one, the one who washes his hands of his masters unjust dealings and buried his masters money in the ground. We are told that this master is one who is involved in aggressive and unjust business dealings and praises those who double the investment.
The parable offers us no easy ethic or simple path to tread. It is a source of agitation, a struggle. Can there be any other explanation? Perhaps there is another way. Jesus could be offering a critique. The master is not God, the master is one of the unjust elite who is looking for a return on the investment at all costs. Call the master Blackrock, or Goldman Sachs, or Royal Dutch Shell or HSBC, or perhaps even their shareholders. How close to home does it have to be before it becomes another painful truth. Those who take the money and return it with 100% interest are the slaves to the
system which says profit is king.
The one who buries the talent is the one who stands up to the unjust master, who critiques the system. This is Jesus, the talented shareholder, he has cast himself as the one who is condemned by the world for standing up to it and refusing to be complicit in the master’s exploitation of the other slaves. He even takes the ‘talent’, to prove it’s uselessness and plants it in the ground, then when the master returns he takes it out of the ground. See – it bares no fruit, unlike the wealth of the natural creation which bears much fruit. This parable becomes a critique on an economy in which the poor get poorer while the rich get richer. And they say the bible is not relevant to modern life. The servant who critiques the master is cast into outer darkness – Just as Jesus is cast out, crucified. The abundance of creation, rather than figures on a page mark the wealth of a nation. This is not complete without what follows, where Jesus speaks of gifts offered to strangers, of hospitality, and care for the sick. This is the beggar in disguise, the least of these who turns out to be the one in whose footsteps we attempt to tread walking a narrow path and dare to suggest that it is the Christ we follow. The Middle Way
Discarded leaf litter decays into nutrients feeding the trees that gave them life in a process so ancient, so simple, so interconnected. It ought to be held in higher esteem. Autumn comes and will go again. We are here for but a season. As we came together this past week to remember a good friend and to commend her into our hearts as a community and as we say it in the funeral prayers into the hands of God. Roots and leaves. She had an awful lot to be commended on. Her legacy rooted in deep faith, true friendship and vivacity for life. Those which have gone give new life to those who remain. So how do we become A Good Ancestor? The book by Roman Krznaric The Good Ancestor asks how we might want to be remembered and first suggests that in order to be a good ancestor for those who come after us it would be a good idea to look back and know our own better. This isn’t always a comfortable task. Call to mind your connection to your parents, and through them, as best you can, your grandparents, and the great-grandparents whose names you know or do not know. And so on. What do you know about your own ancestral heritage? What do you not know? . . .What parts [of this story] have been hidden, denied, buried, or left out? Examine what you know and do not know about these aspects of your place in the social world. James Rebanks new book English Pastoral delves into his past and recalls his grandfather’s relationship with his farm, with this knowledge he is able to rebuild for the future. Roman Krznaric suggests that in order to give forward to the generations to come we need to stand knowing our place. Knowing who we are from where we have come. Comfortable with who we are. Or at least understanding. What we can do, what we can’t do, knowing the difference and being honest about it. Knowing that we are one drop. Even one drop in a bucket will send ripples out that will reach the edges and back to the centre again. Today 18th October the feast of St. Luke the evangelist. One drop whose ripples continue to be felt. Often called the physician, so St Luke’s day has become synonymous with prayers for healing. Autumn begins nature’s healing process. So it is natural for us to think on these things at this time, especially with All saints and All souls around the corner followed closely by our annual remembrance. Winter and spring tidy up what autumn begins. Roots and leaves. It’s a messy process. It might seem strange to think of the beginning of death as part of the healing process, but taken in a global context standing at this one point and looking both back and forward we can see that it is necessary. When death comes do we greet her as an old friend or do we begin to use the language of warfare against our own bodies. In our community an evolving exhibition of community art, music poetry called begins Cyfnod Cof… (Remembrance Time) The project, including a reciprocal roofed structure to emphasise how much we need to lean on each other, is to help us to stand in our place and reflect this year on all the lives that have gone before and those that are yet to come. Another tool of the good ancestor is cathedral thinking. They were never built in one generation. Those who laid the foundations would not see the pinnacle of the spire. The kingdom of God is such a project and we commend to it what we can.