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Advent 1C-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

And so, the story begins. Notice, the Church starts the new year on this first Sunday of Advent as the days grow shorter. In place of swaddling clothes, twinkly stars, and fleecy lambs — each year we begin the story of God looking fiercely and honestly at the world as it is, not as it should be: gorgeous, fragile, and falling apart.
Frodo Baggins, the halfling hero of J.R.R. Tolkien’s, The Lord of the Rings, famously said, “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.” The wise wizard Gandalf replies, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” We must learn to kindle and keep our hope.

Advent is not a season for the faint of heart. Perhaps that’s why we used to rush through this season. Advent didn’t even have its own color, blue, until the 1990’s. We didn’t give it a second thought in our hurry toward Christmas. Yet without a proper Advent, Christian hope becomes shallow, as if the Christmas star were nothing but another store-bought light, colorful, but not enough to hold off the crippling power of fear and shadow.

Fearful thinking and living is the enemy Advent emboldens us to confront. “Be on guard,” Jesus warns his disciples. “Be alert.” “Stand up and raise your heads.” Look. We cannot escape our troubles and calamities. God has no mass exit plan from this world to the next. Your personal end will come soon enough and in its own time. Yet this does not mean we are along. God is in, with, under, and beside us.

“People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Luke 21:26). In prophetic language that sounds distressingly contemporary, Jesus points to a world reeling in pain. “When you see these things,” Jesus says, don’t turn away. Don’t hide. Why? Because it’s when we face reality — when we acknowledge and welcome the “here” of human suffering — that we draw closer to the life of God and to the healing power of grace.

“Raise your head,” Jesus says, “to respond to these apocalyptic signs with staggering hope and confidence. When it feels like the very foundations of the heavens are crumbling, we are to stand up. When the roaring sea and the waves confuse us, when the sun, moon and stars come tumbling out of the sky, we are to raise our heads. When the news cycle feels like an endless fire hose, people pour into the streets in protest, families are separated, and fires blaze through neighborhoods, we are to stand up and confidently usher in and claim the redemption that God promises.” (Lauren Wright Pittman)

In Advent, endings and beginnings run together. Ancient truths and dreams of the future teach a single startling truth: our creator and redeemer are one and the same. Our living God, the Ancient of Days, is our Alpha and Omega, our beginning, and our end. Today, at the start of Advent, the past and future join hands. Lutheran theologians are fond of saying the kingdom of God is both ‘already and not yet.’ The gift of this season shines a light on our path as we navigate the difficulties of this present moment and lead us into the loving embrace and the ongoing work of God that is already, always, and everywhere.

And we do face some difficulties, don’t we? Economic, political, and ecological disasters loom around us. Our fear of the future is also deepened as we navigate the rebuilding and reweaving of our faith. Our old ways of being religious have ruptured. Look! Something new is being born among us. We were taught to seek out and pray to a God whom we imagined to be entirely outside the natural world only to discover, or to rediscover, that God to be found deeply within it and in all that exists, everywhere. “The Trinity reveals that to be and to be in relation become identical, and hence there is no God outside the Trinity, and its characteristic is a constant giving and receiving in love.” Sallie McFague, A New Climate for Christology, p. 72)

The word religion is believed to have come from the Latin, religare, meaning to “bind” or “reconnect.” Religare is about mending what has been broken, recovering what has been mislaid, bringing people together, and reconnecting that which is frayed. From the perspective of its definition, religion should not have caused the breaches, it should not itself be fractured, and it should be part of the solution to the troubles of this world.

“But neat definitions rarely match the messiness of reality. One can rightly claim that religion has always been fractured and fracturing, and it has never embodied its etymological promise. There is another possibility, however. Cicero, the ancient politician and philosopher who lived as the Roman Republic ended and Rome emerged as an empire, believed that religion derived from relegare (not religare), meaning “to re-read” or “to go through again” (as in teaching again or rethinking).
The project of rereading religion – contemporary theologian Catherine Keller refers to it as dreamreading – a kind of reading that awakens new possibilities and leads us to “apocalyptic mindfulness” amid destruction. She asks, “Might facing the Apocalypse in its ancient intensity help us face apocalypse in our own time? Such ‘facing’ would not mean mere recognition, submission, acquiescence. It means to confront the forces of destruction: to crack open, to disclose, a space where late chances, last changes, remain nonetheless real chances.’” (Diana Butler Bass, The Cottage, 11/28/21)

“In the first Gospel text of the new year, Jesus calls his followers to apocalyptic mindfulness – to dreamread the ruptures visible in the world all around and see their meanings more clearly. To Jesus, signs of the end are harbingers of glory, signaling a world saved from evil, pointing toward the full bloom of a just new creation. In Luke, Jesus implores that his disciples will have the “strength to escape” not the crises themselves but the fear and dysfunction and disorientation that come from ruptures. Fear is the trap, inattention the temptation. Know that the Kingdom of God is near, Jesus urged. See what comes over the Advent horizon.” (Diana Butler Bass, The Cottage, 11/28/21)

As we prepare to enter another Advent that will not look quite like we anticipated, I pray for grace to kindle hope. Hope does not wait until we are ready for it and have prepared ourselves for its arrival. It does not hold itself apart from us until we have worked through the worst of our sorrow, our anger, our fear. This is precisely where hope seeks us out, standing with us, in the midst of what most weighs us down. Hope is beautifully stubborn this way. (Jan Richardson)

A Poem by Jan Richardson entitled, “Blessing of Hope”

So may we know
the hope
that is not just
for someday
but for this day—
here, now,
in this moment
that opens to us:

hope not made
of wishes
but of substance,

hope made of sinew
and muscle
and bone,

hope that has breath
and a beating heart,

hope that will not
keep quiet
and be polite,

hope that knows
how to holler
when it is called for,

hope that knows
how to sing
when there seems
little cause,

hope that raises us
from the dead—

not someday
but this day,
every day,
again and
again and
again.

—Jan Richardson

from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief

Christ the King B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Let your kingdom come, Lord God. From the sixth century, beginning in Italy, the seven names which the prophet Isaiah mysteriously ascribed to the coming Messiah are recited, one for each day of the week leading up to Christmas. Here at Immanuel, it’s our tradition to sing one each of the seven Sundays from All Saints to Christmas Day. Today on this the festival of Christ the King at the close of Pentecost, we stand ready to open to the coming year at Advent. We sang the now ancient antiphon, inspired from Isaiah 64:8, “O king whom all peoples desire, you are the cornerstone which makes us one. O come and save us whom you fashioned out of clay” (O antiphon, Rex gentium).

Another proof text for this antiphon is here written in stained glass. “For, to us, a child is born, a son has been given; authority rests upon their shoulders; and they are named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

Christian faith linked this Wonderful Counsellor and Prince of Peace to Jesus, the lowly borne man from Nazareth who, scripture says, carried the cross by himself and was taken out to The Place of the Skull, called Golgotha. “There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side. Pilate had an inscription put on the cross written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’” (John 19:17-20)

Jesus Christ is king. Jesus Christ is ‘the ancient of Days,’ ‘the Alpha and the Omega,’ ‘the one who is and who was and who is to come,’ ‘ruler over the kings of the earth.’ Yet, for centuries now, we have mostly understood this truth in one narrow way that is now falling apart. In its wake, we pray, let your kingdom come, Lord Jesus.
Through the lens of the climate crisis, racial reckoning, and world wars, we are finally starting to see what we thought we knew about Jesus and God was a way to hold the kingdom at bay.

We anchored faith and culture to the story of a heavenly monarch, seated upon his throne, a supernatural and angry God telling his subjects how to behave, who demands a price be paid for sins to grant eternal life in heaven. We fancied ourselves as earthly over-lords, as “managing” or “improving” nature, as deserving all the riches of the planet we can hoard for ourselves. That is, we who are faithful, are entitled to these the fruits of the earth because we are God’s chosen people. By ‘we,’ of course, I mean the classic, desirable model of the human being: Western, young, male, white-skinned, well-to-do, educated, confident, Protestant, and able-bodied.”

Thanks be to God this false vison of God’s kingdom is coming to an end. We know this because even our greatest achievement over nature –our insatiable consumer market economy –has boomeranged back on us and become our greatest threat. We are no longer content to quietly suffer the pain of patriarchy and gender violence. The injustice and hypocrisy of white privilege with its shameful legacy of slavery and genocide will not remain hidden. (We are shocked but not surprised at the verdict of Kyle Rittenhouse.) We find ourselves at a fork in the road. Something old is passing away. Something new begins—let your kingdom come, Lord Jesus.

We lift our eyes, our hearts, our hopes, our prayers to Jesus our lord, our savior, our king. We look again to Jesus, the image of the living God. The true face of God is revealed in the human face of Jesus. We search and sift the scriptures for wisdom as the first Christians did who meditated on the words of the prophet Isaiah. And now, Christians everywhere have begun to see again the foundations a new story, a new throne, a new Lord rooted in the old, old story of Jesus.

We encounter Jesus again and meet him as if for the first time. Jesus is a different kind of king. Jesus has shown us a different kind of God. Christianity is a religion of incarnation. God is alive here in us now. God is present throughout creation. Something old is ending. Something new has begun. Let the kingdom come.

From the Sermon on the Mount, in the parables of Jesus, and gospel stories of grace, from the birth narratives, from Mary’s song, from the self-emptying Christ, and from the cross—a different story of faith and life re-emerges. It is a timeless story told also by God’s first bible, the natural world. It is the story of radical interconnectedness, interdependence and diversity. In evolution, the survival of the fittest turns out to be the survival of the sharers. In scripture and in nature we see a countercultural call to human beings to live “for others” as the only possible response to live in harmony with God’s creation that is characterized by giving and receiving, symbiosis and sharing, reciprocal interdependence, life and death. It is time to let this kingdom come before it is too late.

If Jesus Christ is Lord, then the law that animates everything must be sacrificial love and the flourishing of all life. ‘Evolution claims that a grain of wheat does not nourish unless it dies. The Trinity says that the divine life is a dance of giving and receiving among the three “persons” of the Trinity who widen their circle to invite us to join in their dance. From here to the distant edge of the cosmos reality is characterized by this pattern of giving and receiving; hence the human response must be one of daily radical gratitude.’ (Sallie McFague, New Climate for Christology, Prologue, p. xi)

Which brings me to Thanksgiving. If gratitude is the pulse of the universe, then giving thanks must be more than good manners, it must be good for you. We can test this hypothesis. A study at the Harvard Medical School confirms there are three things that can make you happier than winning the lottery. At the end of a year, most lottery winners revert to their old level of happiness. Some are less happy.

The number one component is purpose. Humans are most happy when they are doing something meaningful in the world. Number two is giving. The few lottery winners who managed to gain lasting happiness gave some of the money to charitable causes they cared about. Number three is gratitude. “Research has shown that if you express gratitude on a regular basis, you’ll be happy, you’ll be more creative, you’ll be more fulfilled–you might even live ten years longer” (Sanjiv Chopra, Harvard Medical School).
The pandemic, with all its loss and suffering, and the continued division in our social lives, families, and politics, has made giving thanks more difficult. The Thanksgiving holiday is an occasion many of us pause to acknowledge the things we are thankful for. Perhaps this Thanksgiving is a good time to try adding other prepositions. Instead of what we are thankful for, try using to, with, through or within:
To whom or what are you grateful?

What challenges have you been grateful through?
Have you been grateful with others?
Where have you discovered gratitude within yourself?
Has something in your life changed by being grateful?
In what circumstances have you experienced thankfulness?
(Diana Butler Bass, The Cottage, 11/19/21)

With gratitude and thanksgiving, God’s kingdom comes among us. St. Paul wrote to faithful in Philippi: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5–8). And let God’s kingdom come.

Proper 28B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

A record 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September.” The Great Resignation is in full swing. According to the Washington Post: “Many workers have made the calculation that their old jobs — low paying work in industries like restaurants, which have really struggled to fill holes — are no longer desirable, even as companies dangle raises and bonuses to lure employees back to the workplace.”

Some older workers have taken early retirements, 750,000 people have died from Covid, the U.S. labor force has shrunk. Most cite poor working conditions and lack of childcare as the primary reason for quitting. There’s talk of a “general strike.” The new mantra seems to be: “get me out of this job!” People don’t want to fill the openings posted and don’t want the jobs they have. (Diana Butler Bass, The Great Spiritual Resignation, 11/13/21)

Jesus said, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mark 13: 2b) The 13th chapter of Mark’s gospel is often described as a mini apocalypse. The word ‘apocalypse’ conjures a landscape laid to waste, a civilization in ruins, a dystopian nightmare that is the premise of countless popular movies. Sermons on this gospel preachers will speak of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the fall of Rome, or the scene following a natural disaster. Yet, in these days of the great resignation, when scientists say we have just ten years to make a difference before reaching a climate disaster; when historians and politicians openly speculate about the end of democracy; when doctors and nurses receive death threats for administering medical care, a Mad-Max style end to everything we know doesn’t seem like fiction or ancient history. We are living our own kind of apocalypse now.

Apocalyptic literature was very popular in the centuries before Christ when nothing seemed to be working and the bad guys always won. These strange words of Jesus from Mark 13 we have skipped over and ignored suddenly seem more relevant. Could it be this mini apocalypse is meant for such a time as this?
In contrast to what we might think who have spent hours consuming the movies, tv shows, and novels of dystopia, and of conservative Christian speculation about the end-times, apocalypse is not about destruction. Rather, in the bible, apocalypse means something quite different. An apocalypse is an unveiling, or an uncovering. It is a disclosure of something secret and hidden. To experience an apocalypse is to experience fresh sight. Honest disclosure. Accurate revelation. It is to apprehend reality as we’ve never apprehended it before. (Debi Thomas, Not One Stone, 11/11/18)

If we are living through apocalypse, it is because we are seeing ourselves, our nation, our religion in a difference light. We are confronted with the reflection of ourselves in the potential demise of everything we hold dear and are bewildered and humbled. If the economy of daily life is leading to ecological collapse it is because we have distorted and ignored what it means to be stewards of creation. If we are facing a racial reckoning it is because we have not been honest about the history of this nation. If we have become divided into warring political camps that threaten our democracy and undermine our ability to cope with world-wide pandemic it is because we have not loved, nor listened, to our neighbors as ourselves.

Like the Hebrew prophets of old who warned people of faith of the immanent consequences of their own bad choices, the fruit of apocalypse is disillusionment. In her sermon collection, God in Pain, Barbara Brown argues that disillusionment is essential to the Christian life. “Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion — about ourselves, about the world, about God — and while it is almost always a painful thing, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth.”

The 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “Let us pray to God that we may be free of God,” implying that our conceptions of God and faith must always fall short, always fail. Let’s name honestly, he suggests, the imposter gods we conjure because we fear who God really is. “Let’s admit that we shape these gods in our own image, and that they serve us as much as we serve them. In other words, let’s endure apocalypse so that truth will set us free. Let’s dare to see what Jesus sees. Things are getting uncovered. Let’s hold each other tight and pull back the veil.” (Debi Thomas)

“Don’t be alarmed,” Jesus says, when truth is shaken, and nations make war, and imposters preach alluring gospels of fear, resentment, and hatred. Don’t give in to terror. Don’t despair. Don’t capitalize on chaos. God is not where people often say he is; God doesn’t fear-monger. God doesn’t incite suspicion. God doesn’t thrive on human dread.

So, let us “avoid hasty, knee-jerk judgments. Be perceptive, not pious. Imaginative, not immature. Make peace, choose hope, cultivate patience, and incarnate love as the world reels and changes. This is the great challenge and gift of the Gospel. Not simply to bear the apocalypse, but to bear it well. To bear it with the radical, self-sacrificial love Jesus models on the cross. (Debi Thomas)

The author of Hebrews holds out the antidote to apocalypse and the job description for any community of faith. “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:23-25)

The “Day Approaching” is not destruction but the reconciliation, the final restoration of all creation. The God who made the world still loves it. “This sweet old, fallen world is loved by God and therefore embraced by Christ’s body in the world, by us. In the paschal mystery of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the reign of God is remaking the world. This world has been returned to us as the space for all of our vocations. Our lives take on meaning in the shadow of the Day approaching.” (Stephen P. Bouman, Baptized for This Moment, p. 52-53)

Confronted with apocalypse now, “it’s easy to despair. Or to grow numb. Or to let exhaustion win. But it’s precisely now, now when the world around us feels the most apocalyptic, that we have to respond with resilient, healing love. It’s precisely now, when systemic evil and age-old brokenness threaten to bring us to ruin that we have to “hold each other tight” and allow the veil to part, the walls to fall” (Debi Thomas). What’s happening, Jesus promises, is not death, but birth. Something is struggling to be born. Yes, the birth pangs hurt. But God is our midwife, and what God births will never lead to desolation. What God intends to bring to life in and among us now will end in peace, shalom, and joy.