One of the cooler things about my grandmother was a unique skill she had. She could hold her fingers just so, making a perfect circle between her middle finger and thumb, place the circle in her mouth, and create a whistle so loud it could be heard across a large campus or a packed room, full of people. The sound was as loud as any instrument you could produce, and the tone was so distinct, you knew right away my grandmother trying to get your attention. I always thought the gift was super cool, longing to master the gift myself. But my dad, on the other hand, hated that sound. Having grown up with my grandmother, he associated the sound with being in trouble. And he was not alone. My grandmother’s whistle was so loud and so distinct, the entire neighborhood knew the sound – and also knew the Andrews kids must be in trouble. Other kids would tell my dad, “You better hurry!” My grandmother did not need to raise her voice, or call out for her children. One loud whistle, and the kids knew the whistle meant drop everything you were doing and come immediately.
Today’s gospel lesson has the same kind of impact. Matthew’s gospel talks of the second coming, a return so shocking people will be caught unawares, with neighbors, family, and friends suddenly disappearing, or swept away unexpectedly, like the people outside of Noah’s ark. The images are so vivid and alarming, whole book and film series have been created depicting what this dramatic second coming will be like. Countless street corner preachers have used these images to drive people to Jesus out of fear. Unfortunately for Jesus, these preachers, books, and films have been so dramatically fantastical, that Jesus’ words have lost their sense of realism. We hear these words now and either roll our eyes is disbelief, brush them off in discomfort, or walk away in disdain.
Now, I am not suggesting you start watching or reading the Left Behind series, and I acknowledge the two-thousand-year delay in this second coming can leave us a bit skeptical. But I do think there is an invitation today to step into the parts of the images that are disorienting or even unsettling. Most of the images Jesus uses today are of people doing their everyday activities: eating, drinking, working in the fields, preparing daily meals. These are the activities of life: reading the paper, driving the kids to school or practice, studying for a test, tending our gardens, preparing dinner. The space Jesus is talking about is the space in life that can become so routine we can almost do them without thinking. In fact, sometimes, the routine is so powerful we become absorbed in the routine – not just out of habit, but also because of desire. Burying our heads in the sand of the ordinary is one of the ways we cope with the world around us. When the world seems overwhelming or hard, we bury ourselves in routine, leaving little space in our minds, hearts, and spirits for much else.
The problem with burying our heads in the ordinary is that we start missing things. We pass by the children boarding a school bus from a local motel without thinking. We ignore how much desolation, deception, and destruction is all around us by avoiding the news. We stop noticing that elder in church whose health is starting to isolate them from the community. And we have every reason to bury ourselves – the chaos and need in the world can be thoroughly overwhelming at times. We all know there are much more unhealthy coping mechanisms, so burying our heads in the ordinary seems pretty tame in comparison. My family will be the first to tell you that when mommy starts randomly deep cleaning a part of the house, something big has gone awry.
But here’s the thing: Jesus is not telling us to avoid the ordinary. Jesus knows as much as anyone we need food to eat – everyday. What Jesus is asking us to do is keep a part of ourselves out of the ordinary. Jesus wants our ears to be attuned for his distinctive whistle – the whistle that can grab our attention whether we are in the middle of a conversation, are knee deep in a project, or are binge-watching the latest Netflix release. But the reasons Jesus wants us to have our ears attuned for his whistle may not be as nefarious as they seem. In turning to our other three lessons today, we begin to see the light. Isaiah tells in the days to come, the Lord will be doing some mighty things – beating swords into ploughshares, and spears into pruning-hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more. Isaiah’s message of peace is a message of joy and action. Isaiah whistles to us, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”[i]
The psalmist’s whistle is similar. “Let us go to the house of the Lord,” she says. Out of the ordinary, and into the house of God, we hear a new prayer for us. “May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers. For my brethren and companions’ sake, I pray for your prosperity. Because of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek to do you good.”[ii] Can you imagine missing such a beautiful blessing because we were working through our shopping list during mass or afraid of what we would find in the Lord’s house?
Paul whistles to us too. “Wake up,” Paul says in Romans. “The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day…”[iii] Paul’s call for attention is a call to goodness, an invitation into a community of light – in clothing ourselves with that light.
If Jesus’s images felt threatening or scary, enough to drive our heads into the ordinary, the rest of our lessons tell us why we should, in fact, pull our heads out, and keep watch this Advent. When we do, we hear some stunningly wonderful news – news of peace and harmony, news of blessing and soothing, news of light in a world of darkness. Perhaps Jesus’ whistle was a bit more like my grandmothers – the whistle that let you and everyone around know you were in trouble. But the rest of the lectionary today tells us the whistle is a gift – an invitation to turn into the light.
One of the things I loved about WMBGkind, the kindness movement happening in our community, was that the movement opened a real window into the light. After reading the Last Word in The Virginia Gazette for several years, I had begun to bury my own head – reading the whole paper and then stopping short on the last page so I did not have to read the vitriol in our community. But once I started paying attention to acts of kindness in our community, my perspective shifted. I skimmed the Last Word to find the thank you notes – the notes of thanks for big and tiny acts of kindness. I started to notice photos of countless churches, organizations, and businesses giving back to the community. I started noticing neighbors holding doors for one another, kids picking up litter, and strangers giving up their time to help someone else.
I have seen the same sense of light here at Hickory Neck too. As we talked about shining our light this year during Stewardship season, I saw parishioners trying out new ministries. I watched parishioners increase pledges and talk excitedly about what a difference we could make in our community. I have watched as longtimers offer lovingkindness to newcomers, as newcomers give of their time to welcome others, and as parishioners and clergy share laughter, love, and levity. When I listen to the whistle of scripture, I hear light, I hear promise, and I hear invitation.
As a mother of five children, I know we often teased my grandmother for her ominous whistle. My guess is her whistle was a necessary tool in her parenting toolbelt. But I found myself wondering this week what might have happened if she had used the same whistle to deliver other news: hugs and words of affirmation; a quiet whisper in their ear saying, “I just wanted you to know that I love you.” Instead of the whistle being an ominous sound, the whistle could have been a song of promise. That’s what today’s lessons offer to us: a song of promise. Sure, they may be jarring to the ear at first. But when we really listen, we hear their promise in the depths of our souls – in places we bury when we bury ourselves in the ordinary. Our invitation this Advent is to pay attention. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. Amen.
[i] Isaiah 2.5
[ii] Psalm 122.6-9
[iii] Romans 13.12-13a