Leave Your Umbrellas at Home

Leave Your Umbrellas at Home: An Advent Shouting Match and the Faithfulness of God
Austin Crenshaw Shelley

A sermon on Isaiah 64:1-9, Isaiah 40:1-11, and Luke 1:46b-55
For a meeting of the Pittsburgh Presbytery, Advent Year B, December 7, 2023

I recently visited the studios of WQED Pittsburgh— just down Fifth Avenue from Shadyside Presbyterian Church. I kid you not when I say that entering into that space was a religious experience for me. Right away, as I entered the lobby, I noticed a photo of Fred Rogers with his puppet—the tender Daniel Tiger. Next, my eyes lit on the little red Trolley that made its way each weekday afternoon on the television set in my grandparents’ home to the Neighborhood of Make Believe.

I was already teary, wishing I’d moved to Pittsburgh before Mister Rogers’ death, when I was ushered through another set of doors, only then to discover the castle of King Friday the 13th, Queen Sarah, and Prince Tuesday. Across the way and nearer to Studio B, was X the Owl and Henrietta Pussycat’s Tree. I was delighted to find it very much imperfect. Beneath the tree, and still fighting back tears, I realized when I looked up that what had seemed so pristine and magical when framed by my television screen was made of chickenwire and paint and low-quality fabric.

The memories flooded back of afternoons after school, when I’d bring my siblings inside after we all filed off the school bus and set them down on the floor in the living room in front of the end of Sesame Street. And then, I’d take the bulk of Mister Rogers’ neighborhood to put dinner on the stove for my grandmother or to get my own homework out of the way.

But by the time Mister Rogers would sing, “The feeling you know…that I’ll be back, when the day is new, (sing it with me if you know it) and I’ll have more ideas for you, and you’ll have things you’ll want to talk about. I…will…too.”[1] By the time he sang that song and bid all of us television neighbors farewell, if my grandfather, a trucker, was on the road, and if my grandmother who worked 10-hour days at a textile mill wasn’t yet home, I’d begin to get anxious. I could keep the peace amongst my siblings for only so long once the calming voice of Fred Rogers had retreated into TV land for the day. In a time before cell phones, all I could do as I waited was try to get everyone going on their homework and pray our adults would move heaven and earth to get home soon. And until they did, we waited.

Just as I wanted to move time along until my grandparents returned home, I think we all, deep down, want to move Advent along, to surpass its brooding hymns and brooding vipers and trade up for “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace to those whom God favors.” Admit it: even the most liturgically curmudgeonly among us is humming along to the Christmas music of Chatham Baroque or, dare I say, Mariah Carey, Nat King Cole, Aretha Franklin, or Dolly Parton in the car. And I don’t think that’s necessarily all bad. We are made to long for Christ’s coming, and for the promise that the world in which we see and experience so much deep suffering might be set right. And in that longing, we are not alone.

Perhaps some of the staying power of the Christmas story we await in this season is due to the fact that the tearing open of the heavens called for by the prophet Isaiah mirrors the tearing of flesh in childbirth, not in war. Instead of a Savior of Might who enters Jerusalem on a war horse to stick it to the Roman occupiers, we receive alongside a peasant carpenter, Joseph, and his betrothed, Mary, who are traveling to Bethlehem on a beast of burden, a helpless infant Savior, born in the cold of night, wrapped in bands of cloth, surrounded by livestock and eventually, shepherds working the third shift.

And yet, even in this unexpected way, the heavens are, nonetheless, torn open, such that the co-creator of all those shepherds and sheep, of Mary and Joseph, of stars and angels and Bethlehem of Judea and all the world, splits open the divide between Creator and Creation, even as he descends the birth canal of a teenaged mother.

It’s no wonder that we want to skip to that story, to the good news for all people as it is recorded for our saving and savoring in the gospel according to Luke. The exiled Israelites in the time of the prophet Isaiah wanted to fast forward to it, too.

“Tear open the heavens and come down!” They demanded of the God they felt had abandoned them. I hope we can hear the desperation in that prayer. Though the once-exiled Israelites have by this time returned to Jerusalem, what they have found there are ruins—Solomon’s temple destroyed, generations passed away, not so much as stone upon stone of the lives they knew before their exile to Babylon.

Though we are not the Israelites, none of us taken from home and forcefully enslaved by warring neighbors, none of us shamed and stricken by the desecration of our holy sanctuaries, I think we can imagine at least a fraction of the languishing evident in their desperate prayer.

The presbytery, I mean, uh, the temple’s not what it used to be, we think. And there are fewer people to do the same amount of work. Volunteer support seems to be waning. And after a pandemic exile of our own, we are tired of striving for peace in a world hellbent on war. And so the shouting match begins and the prayer of our ancestors in the faith becomes ours:

“Tear open the heavens and come down!” Is the prayer we pray, is it not, when we have reached the limits of what we as humans can fix or accomplish. When the diagnosis or the unbearable treatment for the diagnosis leaves us bereft of the slightest energy or in unfathomable pain, we call upon God to break in and fix what humans cannot. When the church roof gives way every time it rains and the best we can do is patch it up, we pray for God to show us a better way than using trash cans to collect the water. When the new General Minister isn’t here yet, we call upon God to speed things along. When the relationship we’ve held together by our own tight grip still slips through our grasp, we pray for God’s intervention. When viruses we cannot see push our world to a grinding halt and still, three years and nine months past, force us into isolation, we pray for God to put a stop to such hostile takeover. When Hamas brutally murders Israelis, using children and the elderly as weapons, and the Israeli government retaliates in epic disproportion—both slaughters of the innocents in our time on the very patch of ground where Jesus was born—we call upon God, as Jesus’ own ancestors once did, to tear open the heavens and come down. To stop God’s children’s warring madness, to beat swords into ploughshares, to do something, for crying out loud—because nothing we can do seems to be working. Get home, now, God, because we aren’t sure we can keep the peace much longer. And though Jesus has promised to return, much like Fred Rogers sang, “when the day is new,” well, we’re still waiting.

We want to fast forward to Christmas, but instead, here we are in Advent. In minor-key hymns that reference not Jesus’ first coming but his second one. If Christmas is the world for one moment as it could be, Advent is a square and often frightening look into the eyes of the world as it is.

But it is exactly this world that God tore open the heavens to break into and heal the first time. And here in Advent, I believe that we are called into a shouting match with God that rivals the one God maintained with our ancestors in the faith in the time of the prophets Isaiah. They give us permission to see the world as it is and to call upon our God to get down here and make things right.

Even as we desperately pray for Jesus to come this Advent, I think it also behooves us to imagine what our response might be to his answer to our prayer.

“Tear open the heavens and come down!” we plead. When the General Minister Nominating Committee was discussing the shape of this worship service and these texts from Isaiah, The Rev. Gavin Walton noted that we sometimes pray for God to tear open the heavens. And then instead of receiving the rain that will help us to grow, we put up our umbrellas.”

Now, to my knowledge, Gavin didn’t offer to preach today, but friends, that is the sermon right there. What if, this Advent, instead of putting up our umbrellas, we agree to soak in the immense gifts God is already pouring out into this presbytery, into our churches, into our seminary, into our clinical settings, into our validated ministries, into our communities. What if we open ourselves so that God tears open not only the heavens but also our hearts for the sake of the gospel. For the sake of good news and abundant life for all people.

It’s almost as if the Lord shouts back to us, even as we pray for God to hurry up, “Comfort, comfort ye my people.” Wait, and while you wait, soak in the blessings of God. Remember God’s faithfulness which has brought us thus far by faith and hasn’t abandoned us yet. Pittsburgh Presbytery, wait, and while you wait, take a moment to see clearly that the God who has been with us until now is the God who is with us still, the Immanuel, the Word made flesh and the flesh torn open and poured out, that we, too, might become, through the power of the Holy Spirit, torn open to comfort, comfort ye God’s people. Wait, and while you wait, sing with Mary of overturning systems of power and privilege with the weapons of vulnerability and love, one for another, not just out there in the bigger, broader world, or among the seats of power where the injury to humankind is more egregious, but also right here in this presbytery, in this community to which our God has called us.

We have some demons of our own to confront in these hastening days, and I believe that with God’s help and a hefty dose of shared humility, we will emerge the better for seeing both ourselves and God’s faithfulness more clearly.

This willingness to be torn open and to more clearly see, to forgive and to ask forgiveness, and to go forth together in love, well, this is revolutionary. It is radical. It is neither low energy nor low satisfaction. It is downright apocalyptic and, if we are honest, praying that God’s Word will take on flesh again in us, the Body of Christ, in a way that will bring about equity and peace is more than a little bit terrifying. It’s will take more than tweaking what has worked for some but not for everyone in the past. But as the great theologian Art Garfunkel once said, “Everything worth doing starts by being scared.”[2]

Good thing we have a God who goes with us and begins almost every conversation with humans with “Do not be afraid,” —not because we aren’t supposed to be afraid and God is chastising us, but rather because God knows us so well that God knows we are afraid and that it’s a good idea to meet humans where they are. It’s a good thing that we have a God who says not only, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” but moreover, “I have torn open the heavens, and I will do it again and again and again to be your neighbor.

Here is good news, dear colleagues and brothers and sisters and siblings in this faith of ours: we are already in the practice of being drenched by the goodness of God. It’s called baptism. So leave your umbrellas at home! There’s no surer way to call down the outpouring of the love and faithfulness of a God who shouts back, of a God who refuses to give up on us no matter how many Advents it takes for the Prince of Peace to be born, of a God whose own heart is torn open and poured out for you, for the ones you love, and for the ones we have failed to love whom only God loves.

Now I know that Fred Rogers wasn’t Jesus. We can all agree he was close, right? And I believe that’s because God tore open Mister Rogers’ heart so that he could both receive and pour out God’s abundant blessings. So perhaps this Advent, through the words of Fred Rogers, we might hear God saying to us of Jesus’ promised coming, “I’ll be back…when the day is new…and I’ll have more ideas for you…and you’ll have things you’ll want to talk about. I…will…too.”

May the tension and mystery of this Advent season be yours, and may the name of the Triune God be praised. Amen.



[1] Music and Lyrics by Fred M. Rogers. © McFeely-Rogers Foundation. All Rights Reserved. https://misterrogers.org/videos/good-feeling/

[2] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/184742

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