Nearer To Us Than When We First Believed
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2013
Well, I did it. For the first time in years I went to the mall on Black Friday. And there I was, submerged in the tide of shoppers rolling past the salesman flying a remote helicopter at a central display, smelling the thick scent of sweet, hot pretzels being baked, blinking at the neon orange and white interior of the AT&T store.
And as I queued up to see what exactly upgrading my blackberry entailed, I looked around the store – there on the edge of the mandarin, backless couch sat a woman nervously plucking at her IPhone, jaw clenched, periodically pausing to stare vacantly out at everything and nothing. She had been waiting a long time. At first she was clearly anxious, shifting from hip to hip, crossing and uncrossing her legs, glaring at every salesperson that marched by without stopping. At some point she became resigned, and hunched over her phone. Then the phone was in her lap and she was wiping a tear from her eye. What had she lost? Photos? Who had she lost? A loved one? Someone or something precious to her was at stake.
And there, over there by the IPhone case display was a little one-year old girl, giggling and batting the hanging cases and darting back to her father, who endeavored to balance several coats, two bags, a galaxy phone, an animal hat. The little girl spun around, fell down, dad stretched to pick her up, coats slipping, silkily to the floor, head craning around for who…his partner? Another child? A salesperson? The little girl laughed and snapped her neck backwards in that way that seems to defy the human skeleton, that rubbery way that small children do. Her universe defined by the distance between her father’s kaki-ed leg and the phone case display.
On the edge of the store was an older man; taupe coat zipped all the way up to his neck. He seemed to be staring at the store’s threshold. His face was grey – and he looked tired, so, so tired, years of tired. Was he sick? Was he caring for someone who was sick? Was he coming in? Was he coming out? He seemed to be waiting, but without reference to anyone in the store. It was almost as if he were a ghost, haunting, solemn, waiting, wanting.
Paul our salesperson swept to and fro, wielding his iPad like waiter-magician who might conjure up anything you desired. He spoke quickly, periodically inspecting my phone with a grimace. He’d look past us anxiously from time to time – were we taking too long to decide? Was he on commission? Was it a per capita thing? Was he ADHD? Noelle put him through the paces, grilling him on service, haggling for increased data rates for no additional charge, insisting he, and his manager, sign a contract she drew up on the back of his business card so that if he left for Nevada tomorrow we’d still have the deal. I watched him capitulate wondering, who is this young man? Was he a computer science major – if that major even still exists today? Does he earn enough to have his own apartment? Was family nearby?
Salvation is nearer to us than when we first believed, writes Paul in Romans. What could that possibly mean? Well Paul could mean simply that he expected Jesus to return quickly and gather up his followers. And so he urges us to be on our best behavior: Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.
But there is another possibility. If we look at the behaviors Paul urges us to quell, we see that each of these behaviors corrodes human relationships, diminishes our respect for each other, insists that our individual pleasures or personal judgments shall triumph over relationships of dignity and true conversations. Paul urges us to think about how we treat one another – to really consider how what we say and do impacts others we love, with whom we work, with whom we worship.
For no one individual is ever saved alone, we are always saved as part of a faithful community. Listen to how the prophet Isaiah describes salvation
Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”
Could it be that our salvation is as near to us as the person sitting next to us in the pew, leaning toward us from across the conference table, sleeping next to us in our bed?
Our salvation is nearer to us now, than when we first believed writes Paul. Be attentive, therefore to live gently with one another, to be mindful of our capacity to harm and heal with our words. Don’t pick fights – look instead for what you can build in common. Don’t be jealous – think instead about what you and others each have to offer. Think about your actions. Don’t get drunk and party, using and abusing other people for your own sexual gratification. Don’t get drunk and lose your ability to make informed choices. Don’t get drunk and unleash your rage or depression in every direction. Think of others. Then think again of yourself. Think of how who you are, indeed your very salvation, is tied up in your relationships with others.
This is a cold season, a time when this part of the world approaches the longest night of the year. The shadows stretch not only across the landscape of the earth, but across the landscape of our souls. This past week we lost Sandra after a long struggle against cancer. We are grieving and remembering others whom we love who have died. Let us be gentle with one another. Let us be gentle with one another. This past month we concluded our stewardship campaign and now the time of budgeting begins. How can we increase trust in one another and God as we plan? How can we breathe and move with the new things God is doing among us even as we celebrate continuing ministries? Let strive to lay aside quarreling and jealousy as we seek God’s good purpose together. And during this holiday season many of us will be among family, and for some of us that is exquisitely painful. And we will be tempted to comfort ourselves in sex or drink or anything that can numb us up or take us away. What would it mean for us not to do that? What kinds of support might we ask for from members of this congregation and other friends, as we guard our well-being and seek to love in these intimate, often difficult situations?
Our salvation is nearer to us than when we first believed, writes Paul. When we are saved, we are put back into good relationship with one another. That doesn’t mean everything is “fixed” but it means that we know first, that God has intended us for each other. That following the Torah, the law, or seeking to be faithful to the Bible is not an end in itself, but rather a way to help us find again, our connectedness to each other and to treat one another with love. It also means then that because we see ourselves as fundamentally related, that we begin to practice, to practice, love. And by practice love I mean practice both in the sense of act lovingly, but also practice as in keep believing God helps us get better at love– like practicing the piano. We have such good news this morning, friends! Our salvation is nearer to us than when we first believed. And this ever-unfolding journey will only and ever bring us closer to one another and closer to God.
In the verses before our reading from Romans, Paul writes
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
What a relief those words are! What a balm! When we love our neighbor we fulfill what God longs for us to do.
I wonder about that older man in the taupe coat. What does it mean to truly love this man, a neighbor who I do not know? And to the little girl, and the father juggling so much, and the distraught woman, and the efficient salesman, what glance in love, what word in love, what gesture of love might I offer? And what gift of love might I receive in return?
How often we look at one another and do not see, do not ask; we don’t dare. Not only in the mall, but right here in this church, or in our families or schools or workplaces?
But this Advent, let us trust that our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. Let us dare to reach out in love to one another and to the people of this city. Let us imagine with the prophet Isaiah, a world when all barriers to Love’s full reign in our world will cease; a time when the world will embody the just-peace God has always and ever intended; a time when our world will be ordered by love. Let us live now, with anticipation toward that new world. Come! Let us live in the light!