Advent 1 Year B: Bilbo Baggins, Bird-watching, and the Gift of Just Being
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
Back in my hometown of Toronto, there’s a place that has become a noted wildlife refuge right in the heart of city. Each year, the migrating Monarch butterflies bivouac there for a day or two before continuing their journey southward all the way to Mexico. There are some 316 species of birds. Coyotes, skunks, foxes, porcupines, Mississauga Rattlers… all in the shadow of that glorified antennae featuring terrible food at 1,150 ft.—the CN tower.
But the Leslie Street spit didn’t start out as a nature refuge. It began as a breakwater—more of an excuse to dump tons of unwanted concrete and steel into the lake. In the 50s, Toronto, like lots of other big cities was growing fast, and the problem of what to do with all the old building materials torn down to make room for the new loomed large. The breakwater seemed like a cheap, quick, and easy solution, and city dump trucks streamed to the site for close to five decades as the spit crept out to its current length—almost five kilometers into the lake. What began as an eyesore, however, soon became the site of an astonishing explosion of urban biodiversity. Today, the Leslie Street spit is designated as an Environmental Sensitive Area (ETA) and recognized as an Important Bird Area. Talk about a rags-to riches-story! Not bad for a humble post-war building boom landfill.
When I was in my first year of teaching, I found out about the Leslie Street Spit. At that time it was still being used as a landfill, but was open to the public to walk and explore if you were willing to dodge the public works trucks. Perhaps it was because I spent my days teaching Tolkein’s The Hobbit to fifth graders, and riding school buses to soccer matches that more resembled swarms of fire ants picking apart an unfortunate grasshopper than any recognizable form of sport, but I found great solace in the Spit’s desolate, brutalist, beauty. Mounds of concrete jutted up against the slate grey autumn sky pricked by almost calligraphic twists of rusted rebar. Scrub trees and brush woven through by trampled grass footpaths. Sauntering out with nowhere in particular to go, and nothing to do, I discovered an odd sense of peace. My footsteps found their rhythm with the crashing of the waves, and the dismal horrors of Bilbo Baggins and little league soccer faded from my consciousness. Slowly, through immersion in the silence and the solitude, I came to myself. I slipped, almost by accident, into the present moment and found there a respite from schoolboys who reminded me more of Lord of Flies than Canada’s future leaders.
It was at the Leslie Street Spit, too, that I discovered the art of bird-watching. Sitting on a log, completely still, I’d wait—open, receptive, alert—for a goldfinch or black-capped chickadee to emerge in my field of awareness. If my mind wandered—if I started thinking about my lesson plans for Monday morning, or if I started dwelling on the mayhem that broke loose during silent reading the previous week—I’d miss the moment. Thinking, brooding, churning things over in my mind had a startling effect—it actually blinded me to the gift of the moment as it unfolded in all its feathered glory—“they indeed may look and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand…” (Mark 4:12). I learned something surprising sitting there on a cold, wet log on a landfill jutting out into the cold autumn waters of Lake Ontario. I learned to pray. I learned that Jesus was already praying in me. All I had to do was open myself, and allow myself to slip into that stream of love.
Of course, I’d been taught how to “say my prayers.” We did that each morning in chapel, or what became known as “assembly” as the school became more “ecumenical” in spirit. But prayer is more than simply talking to God, and running down our list of requirements to be fulfilled before lunchtime—watch over my feeble-minded hamster, help me pass mathematics, show me where I left my oboe case before Mr. Meikel the music teacher places me in Saturday detention from now to eternity. I learned sitting on that log that prayer is really more about just being than anything else. In learning to just be—open awake, present, and alert, I recognized that I didn’t have to do anything to connect with God. God was and is always already present. It was me who was absent—lost in some virtual reality of the mind’s carousel phantasmagoria—day-dream, worry, fantasy, planning, stewing over old hurts and coming up with the perfect one-line zinger five years after the fact. Sitting on that log I learned that just being is the greatest gift any of us could ever imagine. Without having to play a role, do anything, justify ourselves in the eyes of others—we simply, and wondrously, are. With apologies to Shakespeare’s Edgar in Hamlet—not ripeness, but isness, is all.
When we learn to simply be, to accept the gift of our being, we discover something else. We discover that we are loved. Distraction—the great sin of our contemporary culture—blinds us to this fact. In the same way that I wouldn’t even see the wildlife that flitted about my head if I was lost in thought, distractions blind us to the startling reality of who we really are—a beloved child of God, created in God’s image and likeness, and made for union and communion with Him. In simply being, we open ourselves, gently and faithfully, to God’s presence that already dwells in the depths of our heart. In simply being, we open to God’s being in us—a light shines in the darkness, Christ is born is the manger of our hearts, and all that talk of abundance and fullness of life is suddenly, sometimes terrifyingly, real.
Advent, of course, is a season of watching and waiting. It is a call to punctuate our days leading up to the Nativity of Our Lord with moments of stillness, silence, and the joy of simply being. We are meant to enjoy God, whose life God is already living in our hearts. And yet we run around looking for the thing “out there” that we think will satisfy our desires. Another gadget, another car, another partner, another child, another accolade to add to our resumés. Our culture reinforces this illusion as well. Christmas as giving birth to love in our hearts, putting on the mind of Christ, seeing with the eyes of the heart enlightened, uttering our “yes” with Mary’s “yes” that we might be a place where God lives out God’s life in and through us… all that is replaced with an ethic of busyness, speed, getting and spending. By the time we get to Christmas morning, God being born in the manger of our hearts is about the last thing on our mind. We just want a cup (or two) of Uncle Eddy’s famous eggnog and to go to sleep.
When Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel to keep awake, he is warning against the power of distractions—whether in the culture or in our often-preoccupied hearts—to blind us to gift of our being. He is reminding us that remaining alert, open, receptive, and aware is the key to noticing how the Son of Man is showing up all the time in the midst of our daily lives without us even noticing. Summer is indeed near. The fig is leafing out and there is someone who looks a lot like Love standing at the gates of the heart. But we don’t see that. Jesus is always finding ways to slip through the door, past the watchman to sow seeds of himself in the soil of the heart. At evening, at midnight, at cockcrow, and dawn he is there if we but have eyes to see and ears to hear.
When we learn to simply be, when the season of Advent drops its anchor in our lives and we pause amidst all the shopping, the pageants, the parties, and, yes, amidst Uncle Eddy’s deliciously anaesthetizing eggnog, we see something remarkable. The man who goes away on a journey isn’t God. God, unlike Elvis Presley, hasn’t “left the building”. No, it’s us who has journeyed far, far away—like the Prodigal Son who goes to that far country to waste his life away on an endless parade of distractions. Eventually though, Advent happens to the Prodigal. He comes to himself. He comes to his senses. He wakes up from the dream and sees that everything he thinks he needs and has tried to find so desperately through wine, women, and song, he already possesses. The prodigal comes home to himself, and finds himself at a feast already in full-swing, invited to the banquet as a partaker of his Father’s joy. In the words of the Letter to the Colossians, he discovered himself rooted and built up in Christ Jesus. He discovered not lack, scarcity, and gnawing sense of never being enough, but the fullness, the completeness, of knowing himself in Christ.
In these weeks of Advent, take some time to simply be. If you can’t sit still, practice Thoreau’s fine art of sauntering—of learning to call no place home but to discover every place as home. Be careful of watching for the Son of Man appearing in power and great glory (at least how we commonly think of those terms.) He is just as likely to show up in the form of an Arcadian Flycatcher perched in a scruffy maple on a landfill at the edge of Lake Ontario. Keep awake. Drop your time tables, put away your schedules, scrap your best-laid plans, and open to the openness of not-knowing the time. It’s when we don’t know, when we take ourselves off center-stage, that we begin to see what’s been true all along. We dwell in Him as He dwells in us. He is home. We are home. And our journey is to a place we already are.