Practice Makes Ready

How do we get ready for the inevitable, but unexpected? Practice, practice, practice.

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FIRST SUNDAY IN ADVENT

Matthew 24:36-44

In the third and final act of Thornton Wilder’s play, “Our Town,” a young woman named Emily dies at the age of 26. She asks the stage manager narrating the play if she can return for a brief visit with her family. The other inhabitants of the town cemetery advise her against this, but one woman tells her to choose the least important day in her life – which “will be important enough,” she says. So, Emily does not choose a day after her baby is born or even a day after she is married. She chooses to return on her 12th birthday. To her dismay, she finds her father obsessed with his business and her mother preoccupied with kitchen duties.

Emily exclaims, “Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I’m dead!”

Unable to rouse her parents, Emily breaks down sobbing. At last she turns to the stage manager and says, “I can’t go. I can’t go on. We don’t have time to look at one another…I didn’t realize all that was going on and we never noticed….Goodbye, world!… Goodbye, Mama and Papa. Goodbye to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee, and new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you!”

And then she says to the stage manager, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it – every, every minute?”

To which the answer, of course, is, “No.” Or if there are any people who realize life every minute, they are rare indeed. Because for most of us, life goes on…and on and on. One day runs into another and another and another. One task demands our attention and then another and another. The cares of this life fill our days and weeks and months and years. It is rare enough that we take time to appreciate the preciousness of this moment, of this task we are engaged in right now, of this person we are with. Sometimes with great effort, we can set our daily cares aside. But often it takes a calamitous event of some kind to shake us up, to wake us up to our life as it is right now.

Jesus tells his disciples of a calamitous event to come. When they emerge from the temple at the beginning of chapter 24, Jesus tells them that as great as these buildings are, the day will come when they will be nothing but a heap of rubble. In their fear, the disciples ask, “When will this be, and how will we know?”

Jesus then launches into a long discussion about signs. He talks about would-be messiahs and false prophets. He talks about wars and rumors of wars. He talks about the “desolating sacrilege” in the temple. Finally, he talks of the fig tree which first sends forth buds and then leaves and then we know that summer is near at hand. So, when you see all these things, you will know that the Son of Man is near.

Then Jesus addresses more directly this question of “When?” If he was vague on the question of signs, he is even more elusive on the issue of timing. You can ask in your most polite voices, he seems to say, but I’m not going to tell you, even if I wanted to because I can’t tell you. I don’t know. No one knows, he says, not the angels, not even the Son, but only the Father.

Jesus does not, in fact, he cannot answer the question, “When?” The only thing he can say is, “Since you don’t know, you must be ready at all times.” Then he tells the parable of the faithful and the wicked slave. A master departs and leaves his slaves in charge. The faithful one remains at work, but the wicked one does not work. He forces the other slaves to work while he goes drinking and carousing and abusing his fellow slaves.

How is it then that we prepare? How can we be ready, not knowing the day or hour when the master shall return?

There is a story that, at a certain university, there was a piano teacher who was simply and affectionately known as “Herman.” One night, at a university concert, a distinguished pianist was performing. In the midst of performing a very difficult work, he suddenly became ill and had to retire from the stage. No sooner than he had departed, Herman rose from his seat in the audience, walked on stage and sat down at the piano. With great mastery, he completed the performance.

Later that evening, at a party, one of the students asked Herman how he was able to perform such a demanding piece with no notice and with no rehearsal.

He replied, “In 1939, when I was a budding concert pianist, I was arrested and placed in a Nazi concentration camp. Putting it mildly, the future looked bleak. But I knew that in order to keep the flicker of hope alive that I might someday play again, I needed to practice everyday.

“I began by fingering a piece on my bare bed board late one night. The next night I added a second piece. Soon I was running through my entire repertoire. I did this every night for five years. It so happens that the piece that was being played tonight was part of that repertoire.

“The constant practice is what kept my hope alive. Everyday I renewed my hope that one day I would be able to play music again on a real piano, and in freedom.”

You, too, can renew your hope and prepare for the moment when our Lord returns. You can practice. You may not be a pianist, but there are other things that you can practice. You can practice kindness. You can practice compassion. You can practice love.

Perhaps there is a cause that is close to your heart. Each day during this Advent, you could set a small amount of money – 25 cents, a dollar, ten dollars – to contribute to that cause to help others in need.

Or perhaps you could practice compassion closer to home – at work or at school or on your street. Maybe there is someone you have ignored. Maybe there is someone who has been mistreated. Maybe you could seek each day to show them some kindness – a fellow worker or another student or a neighbor.

Or perhaps you could practice still closer to home, even in your own home. Perhaps, as Emily pled with her parents, you could set aside your day-to-day concerns, your worries about your work or your preoccupation with your house. Perhaps you could set everything aside and focus on someone you love, really look at them

We cannot know when the end will come, but we can prepare. We can be ready. We can practice compassion. It is this practice that will give us hope. For the One who is to come has already come in compassion. He has already come in forgiveness. He has already come in love.

And his name is Jesus.