The Gift of Life

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on Advent Sunday, December 1, 2019.

Lately I’ve been reading books about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake – and I’m about ready to move back to Connecticut! I’m doing the reading as background for a biography of John Shelley, who was mayor of San Francisco from 1964–1968 and who was born in 1905, the year before the earthquake. He was seven months old when the earthquake hit. The family home was destroyed and they lived in a tent for some months. Shelley’s father was a stevedore and the family lived near the docks on reclaimed land and that was where the worst destruction happened.

Jesus told a parable about the wisdom of building on rock versus building on sand, but the people who created San Francisco weren’t paying attention. There were some 465 measurable earthquakes between 1849 and 1906, but a good deal of the city was built on sand just the same and when the earthquake hit, it did, in fact, collapse. But it wasn’t, of course, just the collapse; worse was the fire that followed as the city burned for three days and nights and the panicked authorities authorized volunteers to shoot vandals on sight and often no one stopped to ask whether the shadowy figure carrying things out of a ruined store was a vandal looking for loot or the owner of the store trying to rescue his possessions. The city descended into chaos. The final death toll from all causes was in the thousands and when the fire was finally out, it began to rain. I picture the Shelley family, young father and mother with their seven month old first child, somehow surviving in one of the tents hastily put up, and finally moving into a new house further back from the bay and on less shaky soil.

The books I’m reading all make the same point toward the end: and that is that another Big One will come sooner or later: maybe tomorrow; maybe today. The San Andreas fault continues to move an average inch and a half every year and sooner or later the growing pressure will need to be released and it will happen again. Many of you remember 1989 – but that wasn’t the big one still being predicted for some time in the next hundred or two hundred years. Nor does that concern rank as high anymore for most Californians as fire, which moves many if not most Californians to keep their valuables and necessities packed and ready for instant flight because, as the Gospel this morning reminds us, “about that day and hour no one knows.” There has been some speculation that we could control the San Andreas fault by well placed atomic explosions to relieve the pressure, but they haven’t quite worked out yet exactly how that would go.

The good part of all this from a preacher’s point of view – always a bright side to catastrophe! – is that today’s gospel warnings about imminent disaster come with a lot more force in San Francisco than they used to do when I was preaching in Connecticut. Of course, even in Connecticut, and even if fire and earthquake weren’t imminent, we all did get older, and we should have been aware that no human life is forever – not, at least, on this earth.

So Happy Advent Sunday! This is the time when the readings remind us every year of what the burial service calls “the shortness and uncertainty of human life” and the need to have a contingency plan. The earthquake, fire, and flood may come soon and may not, but human life in this world is not forever and the consciousness of that fact is one of the most distinctive characteristics of human life. We will die, and we know it. Knowing that death awaits is, in fact, one of the benefits of being human – one of the gifts of the evolution of self-consciousness.

We don’t know for sure whether Neanderthal beings, buried their dead or put offerings in the graves, but our immediate ancestors, homo sapiens, did, beginning some 40,000 years ago. There is probably nothing more distinctive of human life than that evidence of the awareness of death and the refusal to believe that that self-awareness can simply expire at the end of three-score years and ten or even five score years and a few. Homo sapiens – that’s us – knows we will die.

I think there are – there have always been – two ways of dealing with that. The Bible lays out the alternatives: “to eat, drink, and be merry” as so many of us did last Thursday, or to order our lives, to orient our lives, toward what the Prayer Books calls “the sure and certain hope of everlasting life.” Here we are at the start of a new year, and the readings ask us to give that some thought. “You also must be ready,” the Gospel tells us, “for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” This life is not for ever. This earth may last a few billion years more, but it also is not forever – and however long it lasts it may not be inhabitable much longer. Sooner or later, we will not be around and the question to ask is how much thought have we given to shaping our lives with eternity in mind. Have we shaped our lives with any thought for what the Prayer Book calls “The sure and certain hope of everlasting life”? Have we given as much thought to eternity as we have to the present and passing moment?

The Prayer Book calls eternal life “a reasonable, religious, and holy hope” – or it used to. Let me digress for a minute: I like that phrase: “a reasonable, religious, and holy hope” and I think of it as being particularly Anglican. You don’t find other churches talking about “a reasonable faith.” And it shows. But here’s something to worry about: that phrase, “a reasonable hope” goes back to the very first Anglican Prayer Books centuries ago. But the new 1979 Prayer Book (I still think of it as new after forty years) provides, as you probably know, Rite One and Rite Two. Rite One uses the traditional Elizabethan language, but Rite Two is modern and up-to-date – sort of – but Rite One retains the word “reasonable” and Rite Two leaves it out. (Pages 489 and 504 – you can look it up – later!)

And what does that tell us? I’m talking about shaping our lives, about giving them order and direction. I’m talking about giving them a reasonable shape in the light of eternity. I’m suggesting that this is a time to ask whether we mean it and can be honest with ourselves about the need to order our lives here in the light of eternity. It took three or four billion years to get from the first single living cell in the primeval ocean to the first signs of human self-awareness and the burial of human remains with grave goods. It took three or four billion years, and isn’t it interesting that that distinctively human custom – the practice of burying provisions for life hereafter, that began with homo sapiens – ceased with the spread of Christianity? Thinking of a future beyond death seems to have begun a mere forty or fifty thousand years ago at the most, a blink of the eye in cosmological terms. It began with the burying of provisions for a hoped for future life and here’s something even more interesting: it ended with Christian faith. It ended with Christian faith in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

That change is founded on what the Prayer Book calls “The sure and certain hope of everlasting life.” That’s what transforms our lives as Christians: the sure and certain hope of everlasting life and therefore the vital importance of living this life now in the light of the life to come. There’s no need for burial goods, but there is a deeper need to prepare ourselves for what’s to come. There’s no need to try to take this life with us, but there is a greater need to transform this life now in the light of eternity. Where Christianity has come grave goods are no longer needed, but where Christian faith has come schools and hospitals have been built and societies have been transformed by the vision of a still better world to come. The Christian goal is not to take this world’s goods to the next but to bring that world’s life here.

All of that comes into view with Advent Sunday: the opportunity to begin again, to re-imagine our lives in the image of Christ and to make his life present here. I’m talking about a way of life, not a spare time activity, not a hobby, but a way of life, a commitment to transformation. I’m talking about something that shapes us, that changes us, that remakes us, that defines us, and ideally changes the world around us as well.

Some of you know that I spent a month this year and last in a monastery. Now that’s obviously a commitment when you’re up at 3:30 to pray and spend five or six hours in prayer every day, Yes, that’s a commitment, but that’s easy because you have a community that’s equally committed to support you and nothing much to distract you. I’m talking about something harder and I’m saying that you and I are called to make that kind of more difficult commitment to live as Christians “in the world,” as the saying goes, in the midst of things, in the midst of distractions of every kind and assumptions – assumptions – that what we do here on Sunday morning is not some kind of esoteric affectation that our friends and others around us don’t quite understand. Others may not understand why we need to be here every week and find time for prayer every day, but we do, because we know something about life that changes us, and it changes our world. We do it because we believe, because we are making a commitment: a commitment totally unlike our other involvements. Whatever else we may do or be, this is different; this is a commitment to being reshaped, remade, reborn into life, new life, real life, eternal life a life that gives meaning and purpose to the cosmos itself.

If we mean it, it changes us and we find a need for a pattern of daily prayer to keep us centered and a pattern of giving that is more than loose change, and a disciplined use of our time that includes those in need whether working in the parish soup kitchen or supporting it in some way or supporting similar ministries in a world where too many or homeless and hungry. We’re here to change things. St John said it best and so simply: “If God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.” (I John 4:11)

The first small cell in the first primeval ocean billions of years ago was made for this: so that finally you and I would come into being and begin to live the life that is real life, eternal life, Christ’s life: the life that we received in baptism and renew at the altar rail. Let the Big One come when it may, our challenge is now: to let Christ come in us now, and accept and receive and share his life, eternal life, not for ourselves alone but for the sake of a desperately needy world.

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