Posts

4th Sunday of Advent
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

As I sit here the little light next to the built-in camera on my laptop is shining green. I can see many of you, although not all of you, on a large external monitor. I have on my clergy shirt. I’m wearing my blue stole for the Advent season. I’ve lighted all four candles on my Advent wreath. So, I have the feeling, I can be pretty sure, today is Sunday.

Some mornings, I admit, I’m a bit confused. Compost gets picked up on Wednesdays. Trash goes on Thursdays. Worship is on Sunday. Otherwise, the days seem pretty much the same. Pandemic days blur together.

Biblical scholar Karoline Lewis, writing for the Living Lutheran magazine comments, “The time in which we find ourselves—as individuals, communities, a nation, a world and a church—is much more than unprecedented. It’s unnerving, unsettling. Upending and upheaving—suspended in that in-between space caused by pandemic and protest, by disbelief and dystopia, by resistance and revolution. But as Christians, we know this time well—the time between the already and the not yet of the kingdom of heaven. The time between God so loved the world and waiting for it to come true. The kind of time that Mary understood. The kind of time coiled with the tension between “How can this be?” and “Nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:34, 37). (Karoline M. Lewis, Living in Mary’s Time, The Living Lutheran, 12/11/20).

After all, the life of a young peasant girl living in poverty in a backwater town of ancient Palestine was likely even more monotonous and people-starved than our own. Mary’s question “How can this be?” resonates within our own weariness. Could there yet be some magic of grace hidden behind the four walls of our quarantine, or the unending sameness of our days?

Or perhaps, Mary was simply incredulous at being pregnant. “How can I possibly be carrying a child when I am a virgin?” Or perhaps, Gabriel’s message had filled her mind with a swarm of questions: “What am I supposed to tell my family?” Or “Who is going to be there during labor?” Or “How will I protect myself from the rocks and stones my friends and neighbors will throw?” Or “How am I supposed to raise a baby by myself?” Or “Who am I for God to choose me?” (Karoline Lewis)
The angel Gabriel anticipates her layered fear: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:30-33). To which Mary replied, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (vs. 38). Mary shows us how to live with the tension between ‘How can this be?’ and “Let it be.”

The careful listener will notice, Gabriel called Mary the ‘favored one.’ Yet it is a strange blessing. Is this the special honor God bestows upon his “favored ones?” Obviously, divine favor does not equate with wealth, health, comfort, or ease. Mary’s favored status meant losing out on the blessings of normal family life to be marked with the stain of scandal, danger, and the trauma of her son’s crucifixion. God’s call was profoundly countercultural, and not the sort of thing a young girl typically dreams of. It required a steadfast commitment to God’s vision that flew in the face of everything her community expected of her. No wonder Mary fled to the safety and security of her cousin Elizabeth. How did she know Elizabeth and Zechariah would welcome her?

That moment on cousin Elizabeth’s doorstep inspired Mary’s song—the Magnificat. This gorgeous song of God’s justice is the longest set of words spoken by a woman in the entire New Testament. Notice too that Mary sang while Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah, the “official” priest and spokesperson of God, endured his divine silencing. Mary’s song echoed the words and stories of long-suffering faithful women–Miriam, Hannah, Judith, and Deborah. The Magnificat is one of the Church’s oldest Advent hymns. It has inspired countless composers to set it to music. Yet it is a song so subversive that it was officially banned from being sung during British rule in India, and during the so-called ‘dirty war’ in Argentina.

In a sermon on today’s gospel, Martin Luther noticed something in Mary’s response to the Angel that is instructive about faith. Faith isn’t about knowing the facts, he said. Faith is the willingness to stake “goods, life and honor” upon the promise of God’s love and the hope that springs from it. Faith always involves at least some risk and vulnerability. (Did you write that on your list this Christmas this year?) Mary shows us faith must follow the way of the cross as we journey from belief into action, as we step across the threshold of Advent, moving from ‘How can this be?’, to ‘let it be.’

This is what’s so lovely and so terrifying about the incarnation. Faced with Mary’s choice to be God-bearers or home makers of successful, enviable Christian homes—we often choose the way of looking good rather than the way of the cross. Yet, when we make a home for grace like Mary did, or like Elizabeth did, we become wholemakers, uniting what is scattered, creating a deeper unity in love. “Christian life is a commitment to love, to give birth to God in one’s own life and to become midwives of divinity in this evolving cosmos. We are to be wholemakers of love in a world of change.” [Ilia Delio, “Love at the Heart of the Universe,” “The Perennial Tradition,” Oneing, vol. 1, no. 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), 22.]

Can we do that? In this bleak midwinter of pandemic, unrest, and upheaval can God breathe new life into being in us and fill our hearts once again with joy? How can this be? Mary gently instructs us. Say the words. Ponder them. Let them rekindle the flame of hope in your heart. “Nothing will be impossible with God.” Like Mary, our mind is filled with questions. Yet this gift of grace has power to fill our humble days with beauty and meaning. See we are standing once again upon the threshold of God’s Advent—a new birth of freedom, of justice, and of sustainability. Cast off your pandemic doldrums. What a tremendous opportunity there is within our grasp. Let it be.

Advent 2B-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Comfort O Comfort my people, says the Lord. Speak tenderly to them (Isaiah 40:1&2). Comfort is hard to come by this holiday season. It’s time to celebrate small victories. Did I tell you? We sat on the back porch for Thanksgiving this year. Kari’s parents came down from Milwaukee. We ate at separate tables wrapped in electric blankets. It worked! What’s more, the day before Thanksgiving, we went out and bought a tree. It must be the earliest day ever for us.

Celebrate small victories. Give thanks for creature comforts. You don’t have to keep it all together after everything has already fallen apart. So, this Friday, December 11th, 2020 at 6:00 PM, I hereby declare, according to the authority entrusted to me as your pastor, theologian in residence, and official keeper of the keys, special dispensation to join us on Zoom to sing Christmas carols despite it still being Advent –and it not truly being caroling for neighbors in nursing homes or shut-ins. I only wish it could be so. You have my blessing to set up your tree, or to wear a silly sweater, to bake cookies and eat them all, and/or to do whatever it is that helps you through these pandemic days with a smile and with grace.

But listen! Incline your ear and hear again to tales from of old of God’s grace and of the voice crying out in the wilderness. This year when our holidays are all messed up, our days tinged with grief, and we shake our heads in frustration and longing, there is an opportunity in it to draw closer to hearing the still-speaking God in this season of Advent.

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1). These words resonate today despite being more than 2,500 years old. They are from a time, the Psalmist sings (Psalm 137), when the people lived in exile and could not sing. “By the waters of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept. Our tormentors asked us to sing songs of Zion. How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:1 & 4)

Their homes had been destroyed and their families ripped apart. They lived in slavery for 49 years –fully two generations. These words we quote from Isaiah are the tale of a second Exodus. They were like water raining down upon a dry land. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his pathway straight” (Isaiah 40:3). A royal highway would lead them home.

It was the beginning of the good news for the ancient Israelites. For us today, the beginning of the good news of our own exodus into freedom is announced by John the Baptist. It is a gift wrapped in camel’s hair, mixed with locusts and wild honey for when everything has already fallen apart. Because, truly, for most of us it is only after there is no way that we stand ready and open to God’s way. Then, as we sang today, ‘Steadfast love and faithfulness shall meet together; and righteousness and peace shall kiss’ (Psalm 85:10).

“Advent is defined by in-between-ness—the gap between the now and the not-yet-now… It’s the muddled middle between the Annunciation and the “angels we have heard on high”… Or the manger and the cross… This gap is a “liminal” space, from the Latin word “limens,” which means “threshold.””
Standing in the doorway between what is familiar and what we only dare to hope could be a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading us. It is when you have left the tried and true but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you, your ego and the inertia of the familiar are finally out of the way. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer that is Advent. If you are not prepared to sit with anxiety, to live with ambiguity, to entrust and to wait, you will run. Normally we would do anything to flee from what has been called this terrible cloud of unknowing. (adapted from Richard Rohr)

This terrible Advent cloud of unknowing” is pregnant with possibility. Sadly, we seldom grow and mature without uncertainty and pain. This Advent, more than others in recent memory, is collectively our moment in the middle. “There is that moment in the middle…The middle between the old thing and the new thing…The good thing and the better thing…The hard thing and the harder thing… The old you and the new you… And we call that moment in the middle…Fear, Excitement, Dread, Determination, Dependence, Risk, Faith. But it’s true name is…Transformation.” (Transformation and the Muddled Middle of Advent, by Rick Lawrence, Executive Director, Vibrant Faith)

So, we celebrate small victories. Give thanks for creature comforts. Do what you can to get through these pandemic days. Yes. But in the true spirit of Advent stand ready and open to receive the gift of Christ’s return wrapped in camel’s hair, without hype or glitz, to make more perfect your particular version of imperfection.

It is not enough that we survive this pandemic but that we follow the spirit’s prompting to push beyond the boundaries of what we thought possible for our culture, our society, and for our church to forge a more just, more equitable, more sustainable future together.
It is time to return to our roots. Remember, “[Christianity] began as a revolutionary nonviolent movement promoting a new kind of aliveness on the margins of society. . . . It claimed that everyone, not just an elite few, had God-given gifts to use for the common good. It exposed a system based on domination, privilege, and violence and proclaimed in its place a vision of mutual service, mutual responsibility, and peaceable neighborliness. It put people above profit, and made the audacious claim that the Earth belonged not to rich tycoons or powerful politicians, but to the Creator who loves every sparrow in the trees and every wildflower in the field. It was a peace movement, a love movement, a joy movement, a justice movement, an integrity movement, an aliveness movement.” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation (Jericho Books: 2015), xvii–xix.)

Comfort O Comfort my people, says the Lord. Prepare the way. Lift every valley. Make the crooked places straight. God who became flesh in Jesus is the hidden God of whom the prophets speak, and the psalmists sing. He shows himself by way of those who are the absent, anonymous people of history. He is revealed in the margins. He has called us out of our houses to stand upon the threshold. We stand there now this Advent. It is the beginning of the transformation. Christ our healer comes. “All earth is hopeful, the savior comes at last!” (ELW #266).