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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.

Advent 1B-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Happy New Year! Drop the balloons. Shout hooray. Cue the music. Today is the start of the new year in worship. We move from the end to beginning again. Yet, somehow today feels less like a party. Like when you can’t pay the electric bill. We flip on the lights but we’re in the dark.

Advent begins, not with the pop of a champagne cork, but with lament at the hiddenness of God. It is more impatience than patience. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, Isaiah pleads (Isaiah 64:1). “Restore us, O Lord of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved,” cries the Psalmist (Psalm 80:3). In a case of be careful what you wish for, Jesus warns in Mark’s gospel that on the day of the Lord, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken,’ (Mark 13:24).

You might be wondering whether these readings were chosen because of the pandemic. But no, these and others just like them, are what is read every year. The first season of the Christian new year begins with brutal honesty. The world is not as it should be. It is not okay. The morning after frankness of Advent is less of a surprise this year when so many things have disappointed and threatened us at once.

Advent is uncomfortable. But sometimes, rather than rush through our discontent, it is better to sit with our sorrow a while. It is there that wisdom and compassion are born. Our hearts and hands are opened. Lives are reborn.

Impatience with how the world works has led many Christians, in recent years to search apocalyptic readings like these for clues. If the heavens and earth are to be shaken when the Lord comes, we’d sure be pleased to know when. Yet, one thing all end-time predictors have in common is that they’re wrong. The prognosticators all seem to ignore Jesus’ words that no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father (Mark 13:32).

So, we’re left stewing. Funny thing though, when we turn from trying to locate the end-times on the calendar to watching for the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God in each other, we can be mostly right. In fact, the moment we stop waiting and watching for Jesus to show up we stop waiting and watching for grace. Jesus called himself the Son of Man. He represents how human beings are truly meant to live, and points to the kinship kingdom that is the original design of the Creator, the Ancient One.

To come out of this pandemic better than we went in, we must let ourselves be touched by others’ pain. We must let our impatience mature into wisdom and compassion, the gifts of Advent. Then we become antibodies to the virus of indifference. Then the true light starts to leak out of us despite ourselves. It is a lamp for our feet and a streetlight for our path. This light has allowed the saints of each generation to make the same great discovery. All Life is a gift. We grow by giving of ourselves, not preserving ourselves, but losing ourselves in service.

Put down your calendar and start looking for Christ’s coming again in your neighbor. This week, the day after Thanksgiving, Pope Francis wrote an editorial which appeared in the New York Times. He wrote, “Sometimes, when you think globally, you can be paralyzed: There are so many places of apparently ceaseless conflict; there’s so much suffering and need. I find it helps to focus on concrete situations: You see faces looking for life and love in the reality of each person, of each people. You see hope written in the story of every nation, glorious because it’s a story of daily struggle, of lives broken in self-sacrifice. So rather than overwhelm you, it invites you to ponder and to respond with hope.” Pope Francis, Pope Francis: “A Crisis Reveals What Is in Our Hearts,” NYT, 11/26/20)

Advent is so consistent in celebrating the light of Christ precisely because we spend so much of our lives dwelling in the star-less midnight of unknowing and hope. The true light revealed in darkness shines from each other’s eyes. It constantly leaks out and shows itself from underneath, and outside, and from deep within us. This light tirelessly transforms lives and changes history.

I’ll give you an example. Years ago, a teenage boy and his parents, were forced to leave home and work in a labor camp during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The boy took up art to avoid doing heavy labor. He won a competition. His painting of Chairman Mao Zedong was the best. You may remember the artist He Qi. He visited Immanuel about six years ago. One of his prints depicting angels hangs in the church today.

One day, He recalled, he encountered some Christian art on the cover of a magazine. It was Raphael’s Madonna and child. He secretly painted that image over and over again at night. “She was holding baby Jesus in a chair. It really touched my heart,” He Qi said. It was the first Christian image He remembers seeing, and it conveyed a peace he still considers the distinguishing characteristic of Christianity. He said, “During the Cultural Revolution in every corner in China, every minute people were fighting. Everything was revolutionary. Horrible. It was very difficult to find a peaceful message. So, in the daytime I painted Chairman Mao; in the evening I painted Madonna.”

Advent is about keeping watch for the light God reveals in darkness. Advent opens us for encounter with the coming Christ even in the most unexpected places—even in a baby in the manger. “Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in the stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too.” (Frederick Buechner, sermon entitled, “The Face in the Sky”)
Advent gives permission to tell the truth, even if that truth is laced with sorrow. This truth is forged by the Spirit into wisdom and compassion. As we become less afraid of the dark our eyes are better able to see life as it is, and not as we mistakenly assume our religion requires us to render it. We begin to see each other more clearly and to be called into serving Christ through welcoming one another as Christ. Christ coming again and again is the advent worth waiting for, preparing for, watching for. Let the stars begin to fall and the earth tremble.