Management banned him for life. He was never, under any circumstances, ever to step foot in the hotel again. The offender is Nick Burchill, and when he stayed at the Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia, 17 years ago, he was a young salesman trying to make his mark on the world.
He checked into the elegant hotel on a cool April day and unpacked his bags. NY Times story here. In his suitcase, he had brought with him precious cargo: Chris Brothers’ TNT Salami, a local delicacy from his hometown, as a gift for friends in the area. Since he wasn’t going to visit those friends for a few days, he wondered how he would keep the meat fresh.
There was no mini-fridge in his room, but he recalled that it was a cool day. Why not just place the salami, he wondered, on the desk, open the window up and let in the cool air? With everything now unpacked, he decided to go out for a walk.
A few hours later, he returned. When he opened the door of his hotel room, he saw that a flock of seagulls had invaded, drawn in by the scent of the Chris Brothers’ TNT Salami, underline TNT. The room was completely covered in feathers, seagull saliva and . . . let’s just say that the salami was explosively spicy.
When we face situations like this in life, we have choices. We can run and get help. We can walk away from it and pretend like it never happened. Or, we can do what we usually do: we can try to fix it ourselves.
Mr. Burchill charged into the room, waving the seagulls out the window. He was successful in getting most of the gulls of his room. But one stubborn bird wouldn’t let go of what was left of the salami, and so he threw his shoe at it, and both the bird and shoe went sailing out the window, perilously close to the people below who were enjoying the hotel’s High Tea at an outdoor café.
It gets better. He retrieved his shoe, brought it back inside, and washed it off. Then he stuck a hairdryer into it. The hair dryer vibrated and made the shoe fall into a sink full of water, knocking out power for several floors of the hotel. That’s when he decided to call housekeeping.
Interviewed on the radio after the incident, Mr. Burchill confessed: “To tell you the truth, I thought I could handle it.” At home, in school, at work, in church, we have all said: “To tell you the truth, I thought I could handle it.”
We make this statement as individuals and as a society and it’s now literally putting our lives in danger.
I can’t be the only one troubled by the recent report issued by scientists on climate change. Many of the threats—sea level rise and flooding, super storms, destructive algae blooms—will devastate Florida disproportionately.
Climate change will lead also to increased human migration, as the world’s poorest people will flee not just fallen states, but fields that can no longer produce crops and rivers drained dry. The caravans that we witness in Central America and Mexico will seem like small compared to what is to come.
In our society and throughout the world, we’ve seen an epidemic of the abuse of power, particularly against women and children. The Center for Disease Control’s data on child abuse in our country is staggering. Many experts think that the official estimates are far too low, as so many incidents go unreported.
And to all of these heartbreaking problems, we so often respond: “We’ve got this under control. We’re good. With enough know-how, research, technology, money, public policy and hard work, we can manage the situation.”
Advent, brothers and sisters, is when we come clean. We stand before God and admit that we can’t solve our problems on our own. We confess that when we try to manage the situation, we’re left with what amounts to a hotel room turned upside down.
We see reminders of this in the Bible over and over, especially in the books by prophets like Jeremiah. Biblical prophets remind us of our best traditions and better angels: care of God’s creation, binding the wounds of the broken, serving the poor, administering justice, honoring the dignity of every human person.
Prophets warn and console people. Today, Jeremiah is in consolation mode because God’s people have made a mess of it. Israel divided itself into North and South, and within those geographic areas, tribalism further divided society. The Babylonians took advantage of the weakened and divided Israel and invaded—surely this is a cautionary tale for us today.
The Temple in Jerusalem, the meeting place between heaven and earth, the site of God’s presence among the people, was destroyed by the invaders. God’s people were exiled and scattered over the face of the earth. And time and time again, the response of the people is to say: “Don’t worry. We’ve got this. We’re going to charge into the hotel room and clean up this mess. We can handle it.”
Except they couldn’t. Not on their own. They needed to open themselves fully to the saving love and mercy of God. That’s Jeremiah’s message today. He consoles the people and tells them that even though they have made a complete mess of it, God hasn’t given up on them.
The prophet declares on God’s behalf: “I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”
In Jeremiah’s words, we meet a God who loves us tenderly, who yearns to be in relationship with every human being, who goes out and brings all the exiles of the world into God’s own arms.
I’m reminded of a story told by Dale Cooper, a college chaplain. After spending some time away from his family overseas, Cooper was on his way home. He missed his family desperately, and they missed him. During a layover at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, he called his wife to update her on his journey and their four-year-old son reached for the phone.
As Cooper relates, “His only words to me—a sigh, really: ‘Daddy, when am I going to be where you are?’”In the four-year-old’s question, we grasp everything we need to know about this season of Advent, during which we stand squarely between God’s “already” and “not yet.”
The “already” is that we have, like that four-year-old, been created in love in God’s own image. We have been drawn into the arms of God through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, an event marked by our baptisms and remembered every Sunday during the Eucharist. Everything that threatens creation’s flourishing on earth has been defeated by God once and for all.
But there is a part of us that knows that we are slipping from God’s arms. We continue to exploit God’s creation and live unsustainably. We respond to human migration by launching tear gas unto civilians. We persist in misusing power and perpetuating systems and communities in which women and children are routinely abused.
That’s why Jesus uses such apocalyptic language in our Gospel today. He’s saying: Wake up. Look around you. The world is falling part, and I have come to put it back together. Be alert and look for all of those “not yets.” When I come again at the end of the ages, when I open the hotel room door and see you sitting on the bed with your face in your hands, I’m not coming to ban you for life. I’ve come to bring you back from exile. To heal and forgive. You can join me in my work of bringing “already” and “not yet” closer together.
“Stand up and raise your heads,” Jesus says to us as we begin this season of Advent, “because your redemption is drawing near.”
Our Savior, who is the branch mentioned in our first reading, a descendant of David, will come on Christmas Day and will return at the right time, which may be tomorrow, or it may be 17 years from now, which brings us back to our friend Nick Burchill.
That seagull episode weighed heavy on his conscience through the years. He could have kicked himself for not asking for help right away and making a bad situation worse. 17 years later, he decided to write a letter to the hotel asking for forgiveness. He wondered if they would ever see clear to welcoming him back to the hotel?
In his own way, he was asking the four-year-old’s question: “When am I going to be where you are?” When will already and not yet come together? When will I be reconciled with God and my neighbors?
Management responded with good news: the ban was over. He was welcome to come back to the hotel. When he visited for the second time, he brought with him a peace offering: Chris Brothers TNT Salami, which the staff immediately secured in a refrigerator.
“Stand up and raise your heads,” Jesus assures us. “Your redemption is drawing near.”
A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL, on December 2, 2018.