Preparing Mansions (A Sermon for Advent 4A)

I’ll be preaching a version of this at my mother’s church this Sunday, but I was able to try it out first at Union last week as a final project for a guided reading. All statistics regarding homelessness come from this article, which I could not recommend more urgently.

Advent 4 / December 22, 2013 / Year A

Isaiah 7:10-16, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

Preached: December 11, 2013, Lampman Chapel, Union Theological Seminary

In some lectionary churches, including my own, we start the service with a collect. It’s a prayer that calls us into worship, focusing our thoughts–preaching and worship professors at Union might call this stating our “intention.” In the Episcopal church, many of these collects were written by Thomas Cranmer, who wrote much of The Book of Common Prayer, but some of them come from older, ancient liturgies. The collect for this lectionary, which is not this Sunday but next Sunday, December 22, the fourth Sunday in Advent is this:

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Collects always follow that same format: a request, an intention, an invocation of a triune God. On this particular Sunday, I will be preaching at my Mom’s church in Westfield, MA. She’s the rector of an Episcopal church there, and so it will be she who reads this collect as we begin worshiping together. And then I will have the daunting task of preaching to her congregation. (And you all have the particular privilege of hearing my first attempt.)

*

The petition in this collect is a bit of a doozy. We are basically saying, “God, clean us out so that when Jesus comes he will “find in us a mansion prepared for himself.”” It’s reading week here at Union, I still have about 40 pages left to write, and I’m not sure exactly how I’m going to get it all done. Christmas is coming, kind of like a Mack truck and I don’t know about you, but I feel a bit like a deer in the headlights. I honestly cannot remember, for example, the last time I did any laundry.

So I’m sorry, God, but there are no mansions available. No mansions in this body. 

And anyway, what are we even talking about? What is a mansion in this context?

When I was in elementary school, we used to play this game called MASH. You would write those four letters at the top of the page, Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House. And you would write down other choices too like how many children you were going to have, and what boy you were going to marry, and what kind of car you would have: porsche, BMW, toilet-on-wheels. And then you’d do some complicated math and cross things out until one answer remained in each category. I’m going to marry Jimmy and drive a Ford Taurus and have 7 kids and live in a mansion.

Even though I knew the validity of these games was suspect, there was something inside of me that thought these future circumstances were not entirely impossible. I might not have 7 kids, but surely a mansion will at least be an option. I mean, Jimmy might prefer an apartment, but where would we park our Ford Taurus?

But now I’m 28 and I’ve basically been shuttling the same 20 boxes of books between tiny dorm rooms and New York City apartment shares for 10 years. And this year, I got to share some of that space with a particularly persistent group of bugs who shall not be named.

(Please don’t leave, I promise I don’t have any here with me.)

The point is, at this very moment, if Jesus knocked on my door, or if anyone knocked on my door–one of my brothers, a friend from out of town–I would say, no mansion space available. No room at the inn, if you will.

It’s this time of year, every year, that I feel like I have to put on my blinders and forge ahead. Emails go unanswered, texts unread, laundry undone, and so on. Christmas shopping is joyless, I think things like: I got my brother a flannel shirt last year, he liked it, I’ll get him a different color this year. I’m Amazon one-click buying all this stuff just to get it done and checked off a list. And then I show up at my parents’ house so exhausted I sleep for a whole day and barely say hello.

And I think the lectionary doesn’t always help us get out of these patterns. So many of us are so familiar with these advent stories, and we do them again and again each year–always with the same result–that we know what’s coming. We aren’t surprised by any of it.

*

In the Gospel lesson, Matthew quotes Isaiah, “the young woman will conceive and will give birth to a son and they will give him the name Immanuel which means God is with us.” We have heard it again and again. But what about what comes before? In Isaiah, God speaks to Ahaz, imploring him, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God.”

Now, this is unexpected. Why would God ask for a test? And Ahaz refuses; it’s not exam time for him, but he has other things on his mind. He’s busy, he’s anxious. There are these two kings coming from the north; his land, the land of Judah is in danger. And any kind of disruption–he does not have time or energy for.

But God, of course, is undeterred by Ahaz’s unwillingness to play along, and God sends a sign anyway. A pregnant woman, an imminent birth, new life instead of destruction.

For Christians, Jesus is new life, also brought forth by a pregnant woman. Christmas is the time to celebrate God’s incarnation through Mary and her newborn child. And on this Sunday right before Christmas–the last, frantic moments of advent–we get a glimpse of the story from Joseph’s perspective.

Like Ahaz, Joseph is ready to keep his head down, keep his blinders on. Mary seems to have messed everything up by getting pregnant before they were married, and so Joseph is going to go along with the status quo, he is going to “dismiss her” (but quietly, because he’s not a total jerk). And then God shows up. More disruption.

“Come on, Joseph. You can do this. Marry her. Raise this child,” God says.

Surely this was not how Joseph had pictured his life turning out. This was not an option on Joseph’s MASH board, marrying a pregnant woman and raising the Son of God. And let us not forget where it happened. He had no place to help Mary deliver her baby, perching in a place where animals lived, not humans. Not a mansion.

*

I have a very clear image of this manger scene, and it is a major part of that advent feeling for me, because my mother collects nativity sets. Every advent, they pop up all over the house, in every windowsill, on every surface. One, a Fontanini set, has well over 100 figures, all coming to see the tiny baby. My brothers have been known to include Star Wars action figures, too. So there are a lot of people represented coming to see the baby. And many of these nativity scenes have empty mangers with removable babies, so that you can wait to set Jesus in the manger, so that we can expect his arrival during the advent season.

But this advent I’m thinking about those empty mangers, and how they are grooved to hold the tiny Jesuses who nest perfectly in their painted straw. I’m thinking about the little dents, resting spots for his head and swaddling clothes. There is no surprise about what goes in there. These nativity scenes are all about expectation, but there is nothing unexpected about what is coming.

*

At the high school in Westfield, MA, where my parents live, there are about 30 students at any given time who have identified themselves as homeless. This is one of three high schools in a town of 40,000 people, and this only accounts for the students who go to school and who have made themselves known. So there are many homeless teens in this small town.

There is an organization called Domus, Inc which has bought a building to make apartments for 10 teens, to house and clothe and chaperone them, but the project will take at least a year, and will only make a dent. So in the meantime, a social worker named Cathy Tansey has taken up a collection of goods for the teens she works with.

My mother’s church has a tradition of filling a manger with gifts on Christmas Eve and this year the gifts will go to these homeless teenagers. In her letter of appeal to the congregation, Cathy Tansey invoked a different image of Jesus than we might expect during advent, not the baby, but the teenager. She wrote:

When Jesus was a teenager, we know that he sought some independence from his mother and father, especially sitting with other learned people in the temple and showing a little angst with his parents when they were looking for him. During those independent days, teens don’t always plan…they often need to carry food with them (breakfast bars, peanut butter and crackers, cereal bars, dried fruit with granola)….Showering is sort of a pain when you are travelling and don’t have a home base. “Right, Jesus!” So deodorant is a must…You can always tie a hoodie around your waist for the coldest night, praying in the Garden. Talking about the cold: a change of underwear is a welcome relief after a quick shower when you can get one! Gift cards for food are a great idea for those independent teens like Jesus—for anywhere where it only takes a few minutes to pick up a sandwich. A water bottle is a great gift. Our kids are in the beginning stages of independence, but they are very much in the image and likeness of You Know Who. We tell them all the time and they demonstrate it constantly.

The grooves in the manger are not shaped for granola bars and gift cards, but on Christmas Eve, the people at the Church of the Atonement in Westfield, MA will make it so. They are open to those unexpected ways in which God shows up.

*

On the subway yesterday, a woman walked through my car with her two children, asking for money. The boys looked to be about 7 and 12, which I noticed, because I had just come from babysitting a 7 year old and a 12 year old in Park Slope. The girls and I had made hot chocolate after shoveling their front steps, the heat in their house pumping, my snow boots were thumping around in the dryer, wafting sounds of warmth and security through the whole house. Now my girls were eating dinner, and these two boys were holding their hands out to me for money. I looked into their eyes and tried to say hello, but they were too quickly gone from sight, on to the next car. I hope they found some food, I hope someone in another car took their blinders off in time to give them something.

I know I’m not the only one of us who has seen people like this on the subway, on the street, and wonders, What do we do about it? How can we acknowledge the bursting in to our bubble of personal space without crumbling in despair? It’s a question many students at Union are troubled with, as we see homeless people on the cold streets of our immediate neighborhood. If we really face how terrible the income disparity is in our city, we might never stop weeping.

*

The New York Times published an article this month profiling a homeless teenager named Dasani. It’s an interactive profile, beautifully presented and poetically written and researched, and I navigated its videos and interactive maps with my mouth agape. There was the public pool where I spent so many days this summer, and there’s the street I walk down every day on my way to pick up the girls from school, and there’s the Pinkberry where we go for a pretty frequent treat. And there is Dasani, in all those pictures, and I have never seen her. How perfectly apt that the article is titled Invisible Child. How true it is that she has been invisible to me.

The article reports that one in five American children is now living in poverty, giving the United States the highest child poverty rate of any developed nation except for Romania. New York City is now reporting the highest number of homeless children since the Great Depression. 22,000 children are homeless in this city. That is more than half the number of people who live in my parents’ town.

Last year, Dasani took a class trip with her school to Gracie Mansion. She was very excited to catch a glimpse of Mayor Bloomberg, to glean certain things about him by getting to be in his home. She found the opulence of the house quite glamorous and she was especially taken by how clean it was, dust free. At the time she had been living in a shelter with her seven brothers and sisters, her mother and step-father, in one room, for three years. They shared torn, stained mattresses, and the sink leaked all night long. Hungry mice scurried from corner to corner.

By the end of the tour, Dasani realizes that the mayor does not actually live in this house. She is baffled–who could have a mansion and not live in it? she asks.

“Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.”

Who could have a mansion and not live in it? Me, for one. And probably you, too. It doesn’t always feel like it. It can feel like there’s no room in me for any intrusion, nothing unexpected. But it’s just not true.

Where are the mansions you are too busy to sweep out? What resources do you have that you’ve forgotten about, trapped under stress and to-do lists and preoccupation with your own upset expectations?

Most of us do not have a mansion like the one we imagined when we were children. But those of us who are students here at Union have a mansion for scholarship, and those of us who live in New York City have a mansion on the subway, in a museum, in a park–we have spaces where we need to be prepared to meet God in unexpected ways. If we aren’t doing that, we are guilty of hoarding mansions.

We retell these advent stories every year, over and over, and the retelling of them patterns our hearts, minds, and bodies like the grooves in an empty manger. We think we know what we are expecting. But in this final stretch of advent, as we prepare for the manger to be filled, let us be ready for surprise, for God’s coming to us not just as a little baby, but in miraculous shapes and sizes and genders–teenage Jesus, Dasani and her family, a faithful and risk-taking Joseph, an unmarried pregnant woman–that we may make ready mansions we did not know that we had.

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