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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.

Christ the King Sunday
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

In a far-away land that “is somehow not so far away,” one night a truth fell from the stars. And as it fell, it broke into two pieces—one piece blazed off through the sky and the other fell straight to the ground.

One day a man stumbled upon the truth that fell to earth and read the words carved on its the surface, “You are loved.” It made him feel good, so he kept it, and shared it with the people of his tribe. The thing sparkles and makes the people who have it feel warm and happy. It became their most prized possession, and they called it “The Truth.”

But soon, those who had “the truth” became afraid of those who didn’t have it, who were different than they were. And those who didn’t have it desired it. Soon people fought wars over the small truth, trying to capture it for themselves.

A little girl, endangered by the growing violence, greed, and destruction in her once peaceful world fled her home and went on a journey—through the Mountains of Imagining, the River of Wondering Why, and the Forest of Finding Out—and there she spoke with Old Turtle, the wise counselor. Old Turtle was truly old. He told her that the Truth was broken and missing a piece—the piece that shot off in the night sky long ago. Together they searched for it, and when they found it the little girl put the jagged piece in her pocket and returned to her people.

She tried to explain, but no one would listen or understand. Finally, a raven flew the broken truth to the top of a tower where the other piece was locked up for safety. The pieces were rejoined and shone out with their full message: “You are loved / and so are they.” And the people began to comprehend. And the earth began to heal. (Old Turtle and the Broken Truth, Douglas Wood, illustrations by Jon J. Muth)

The people began to comprehend. And the earth began to heal. I wonder, where we can find some of that healing now? We need some strong gospel medicine. In this week when we remember first to be grateful, we give thanks and praise to God because, in today’s parable, Jesus has offered us a vaccine. God’s love for you is not the whole story. God loves everyone else too.

In a way, that’s what today is all about. Christ the King Sunday was not a thing anybody knew or celebrated until Pope Pius XI instituted it in 1925. He hoped it would help to heal the world, ravaged by World War I. Jesus’s humble kingship is powerful gospel medicine to end the fever dream of empire, nationalism, and consumerism.
Jesus announced, lived, and inaugurated a new social order. He called it the Reign or Kingdom of God. It was the guiding image of his entire ministry. It is the subject of Jesus’ inaugural address in Mark 1:15, Matthew 4:17, and Luke 4:14–30. It is the theme of his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), and the majority of his parables. In God’s kingdom “You are loved / and so are they.”

This truth matters. We suffer from knowing only part of the truth. A partial truth is as misleading as though we had lived a lie. The truth, the whole truth, will set us free. Jesus offers strong gospel medicine. Yet, as Pope Pius XI observed, somehow, we mostly avoid taking the medicine that could heal us.
So, what to do? We return to the gospel. In today’s parable, like an old-fashioned vaccine, Jesus uses a bit of the poison that afflicts us for healing. Binary thinking, either-or, this-and-that, is like a narcotic to which we are addicted like the people in the fable of Old Turtle. The antidote is both-and. “We are one, just as the Father and I are one” (John 17:21), Jesus said. “You are loved / and so are they.”

The recipe for Jesus’ remedy includes a bit of the hair of the dog that bites us again and again. Some of you are sheep and others of you are goats, Jesus says. Yes! Yes! We are quick to take the bait. Some of you are winners and others are losers.

We know how to spot a winner don’t we? Winners buy coffee at Starbucks. Losers line up at the food pantry. Winners make doctor’s appointments. Losers go to the county health clinic. Winners have warm homes and soft beds. Losers get in line for the overnight shelter by 6:00 pm or risk being out on the street. Life’s losers are easy to spot.

Jesus wrote out a list. Losers are the people who are hungry or thirsty now. Losers are the people among you who are strangers. Losers are the ones without proper clothing. They’re people who are sick or in prison. Goats all. Like a sugary treat, we are quick to consume and metabolize this story: don’t be a goat.

But then something Jesus interjects in the parable contains the deeper truth. It hits our blood stream with the power of a vaccine. It is gospel medicine to free us from binary thinking. You are loved – yes. I am always with you – yes. Look for and find me among life’s losers – wait what? Yes, Jesus says, the good sheep love and serve life’s goats. In fact, “Whatever you did to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
In the penetrating light of the gospel, we discover we are all goats, but God has loved us into being sheep. Let the people begin to comprehend. And the earth start to heal.

The Kingdom of God is always right here in the midst of us. Jesus opens a door and invites us to step across the threshold and into the eternal presence of God when we put on the body of Christ. God’s kingdom stands in stark contrast to this fallen world. The counter-kingdom of God sets the rules our lives are judged by. And what does the Lord require of you, O mortal – but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with the Lord your God? (Micah 6:8).

“Jesus gets awfully specific in telling us where we can find him. Each of the habitations he lists [in today’s gospel] is marked by lack: lack of food, lack of water, lack of hospitality, lack of clothing, lack of health, lack of freedom. Christ chooses these places, inhabits these spaces, [then] waits for us to show up. Waits, too, for us to recognize those places in ourselves. [Jesus] knows that if we haven’t recognized the poverty within our own souls, and how he dwells there, it’s hard to see him and serve him in others without being patronizing. (Jan Richardson, The Painted Prayerbook)

Although grace is not unreasonable, ultimately grace does not yield to reason. The real winners look like losers, Jesus said, because they’re the ones that refuse to play the game. It is the spirit of Christ active in love for your neighbor that will carry you to victory. When people respond to human need, or fail to respond, they are in fact responding, or failing to respond to Christ. You are loved, and so are they. Here is gospel medicine for our time. Let the people comprehend. Let the earth begin to heal.

Proper 27A-20

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Intern Justin Perkins, preacher

“Keep awake,” Christ tells us in Matthew’s Gospel. “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” How did those words sit with you this morning?

Almost to the very moment Jesus speaks this phrase, it seems, religious authorities, in concert with the Roman occupation, have gathered to plot Jesus’s destruction. Christ’s ministry of healing and social activism has long provoked their ire, and now brings him to the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem, as he awaits certain torture and death. Yet, before Christ’s passion, Jesus chooses to wait with his disciples as they all anticipate the Passover festival. But the disciples, desperate for any glint of hope in these solemn days, have already pleaded with Christ, saying, “Tell us, what will be the sign of your coming?” Jesus, however, gives them no victory speech, no words for unification, no trumped-up claims toward kingship or distortion of the law in his favor, indeed no kind of visible sign to dispel the gathering shadows of doubt. Instead, Jesus teaches them a parable. At death’s door, Jesus apparently cannot help but continue instructing the disciples, and not with naïve placations for a better future, but in fact calls them to dwell with him in their uncertainty, to be fully present to the moment and all its trials, repeating again to them:

“Keep awake.”

As I hear these words this morning, I cannot help but side with the disciples. Watching and waiting for the election results to trickle in this past week, I am worn down by this act of keeping awake. I feel weary of being on alert at any moment for the anticipated news to come, just as I already feel stretched thin waiting for signs of the pandemic to end. Yet even when the results did arrive, they did not come attached with a blueprint for the way forward, no gilded star emblazoned on our screens or in the sky that suddenly dispelled the suffering present in our nation and around the world.

This is not to downplay the momentous fact that this nation has just elected our first woman vice-president, the proud daughter of a Jamaican father and Indian mother who each boldly pursued their future through education and activism. This is a real achievement to celebrate and to honor all who have fought and continue to fight for civil rights in our country.

But as even as we receive this momentous event, it remains just that: a moment in history that keeps us waiting at ever new thresholds. Indeed, regardless of this week’s results, a door in history was sure to be opened, a byway in time whose terrain we could never know. Listening yesterday to the promises of restoring the soul of our nation and the choice to advocate on behalf of working people and root out the violence of systemic racism, it was hard also not to believe this already could be true, that our waiting was done. But I could not also mistake noticing along with this the reality that our nation remains freshly wounded and deeply divided. So while the promises of democracy this week still claimed to bear light across this threshold, I could not help but awaken also to the shadows that walked right along with us, even within us. “Keep awake therefore,” Christ’s words return to us. But how? I wonder, when it seems like we still stumble about in darkness, bereft of certain knowledge about the future.

It seems apt that today Jesus’s parable divides its characters into two opposing groups. Ironically, despite Jesus’s command, the parable says, “all of them became drowsy and slept.” No one follows Jesus’s command! Not only that but why has the bridegroom failed to follow through on his promised word? How come they could not have planned better? And why did the bridal party not think they could just share the light among them? And why is the bridegroom so cruel? So before we jump to conclusions about who is eternally shut out of the door to the kingdom of heaven, we might look deeper into the parable Jesus offers. Interestingly, it is at the very moment when everyone falls asleep that the characters are best primed to listen. Out of the dark of the night, once all lights are out and there is no longer the distinction between foolish and wise—adrift in the fertile time of dreams and visions—a cry rises from the depths. “Look!” And the action is instant and unified. Everyone, regardless of their status, got up and crafted light—they each became makers of the cosmos around them, shapers of movement and direction in the world. But how little listening results once everyone wakes up! It is then when old divisions renew and new wounds result.

According to Rabbi Rabbi Menachem Nacuhm of Chernobyl, writing in the work title the Me’or Einayim the second-half of the 1700’s, rabbinic tradition teaches that wisdom—equated with the quality of human awareness—is symbolized by olive oil. This follows Exodus chapter 27, where God commands the descendants of Israel to bring oil to the Tabernacle in order to raise the eternal lamp of God’s word on earth. Thus, in the manner which olives are pressed under great duress to reveal the fine substance of their oil, so too does God’s wisdom seek to reveal itself in our lives and in moments of great duress. Though we may either choose to draw forth this wisdom or choose to not carry it with us, it is one who continually seeks to draw from the wisdom of God’s awareness in our lives, especially in these moments of duress, may draw closer to the source of their soul and the eternal presence of God that resides there.

So too it seems that in a world where competing visions of worldly justice pits our own sense of humanity against each other’s, we can too easily lose sight of the true source and purpose of God’s light of creation in the world. Indeed, when we cling to our own self-styled visions forms of light that reflect only our image, we fall into the same patterns of brokenness and reactivity that fuel a desire to possess, exclude, or take away from others’. And when we confuse this reactivity with a quality of being awake that is more like an anxious alertness, a kind of hypervigilance bred out of fear of the other and of our own self, then that inevitably leads us to exhaustion, despair, and burnout, always bracing for defense against our wounded vulnerability. And in awakening to this deep sense of brokenness, I could not also help but think of those communities who have already known and known intimately this deep brokenness of the world, communities and individuals around the globe and in our own neighborhoods A reminder that we cannot properly see the way forward until we attend to this deep inheritance of brokenness, and that further, we cannot survive unless we bear one another’s burden and take up each other’s cross.

But we know God’s light is different. For we know that in the beginning, God completed all creation by giving us the Sabbath, and it was God who first gave light motion to this world out of the infinite depths. Perhaps we would do better to interpret Christ’s call to keep awake as “awakeness,” not the constant fight for staying awake, but rather the aliveness we feel when we strike into the root of our being—a type of fullness of mind, or the sense of expansive consciousness that reaches into the deep wells of a light already and eternally present in our soul. Perhaps this is the true glory of the Messiah—that through the incarnate body of Christ, God so fully offered God’s own being to bear the light of humanity and all creation, even to the point of despair and torture on the cross and finally death, and from that death to new life and resurrection. So that we do in fact know that no matter what worldly wounds or divisions cast shadows on our souls, God in fact already meets us in the hollow absences, reaches into the depths of our despair and anguish in order to keep aflame the eternal light of God’s wisdom and compassionate loving-kindness, that we might in turn reflect that light upon others to bear their burdens. It’s this confounding and ineffable fullness of Christ’s presence where, though our lights may feel dim, our vessels fragile, we are given the freedom through grace to act out of abundance—to be awake and alive to the fullness of God’s presence not only in our inner life but in ways that binds us together in community. Our longing for justice is but the very substance of God’s wisdom dwelling in us—whose infinite source we can never merit or master, but only to draw forth from the wellspring of the Gospel in the world. We draw toward God’s wisdom, searching for the root of our souls. God’s wisdom abides where ours fails—we have only to keep awake to its source.

All Saints-A20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Ok breathe. Take a breath. Blessed are you, Jesus said. Beloved, remember each day begins in love. Jesus sermon on the mount seems tailor made for me this week, in these restless and fitful days of pandemic, social upheaval, and the looming presidential election. Blessed are you. Just breathe.

The people came on foot, or perhaps, by donkey. I wonder. What propelled those people out from the safety and comfort of their homes and towns into the wilderness to hear and see Jesus? What made them move, clanging and banging, with all their stuff behind him?

Somewhere in the dusty, rolling hills of Northern Israel, near the sea of Galilee, Jesus sat down. The disciples and a great crowd sat with him. They came from regions to the north, south, east, and west. They came from Syria, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. They sat at Jesus’ feet. The dust of those hills clung to their clothes. It was in their hair and on their feet. Blessed are you, Jesus said. Just breathe.

Their lives were not their own under Roman occupation. Paying taxes to Caesar left little to live on. Religious authorities were focused on helping themselves more than with serving God. The people went out of their way to hear and see Jesus because he opened the door to an upside-down world in, with, and under this one which he called ‘the kingdom of God.’ Some today call it the ‘kindom,’ because it is the family of God. All your heart, soul, and strength find their true purpose through being part of this family and in belonging to the one in whom we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28).

Jesus said the kindom is revealed in those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, in those who are merciful, who are pure in heart, who are peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. “Blessed are you,” Jesus said, “when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:11). Just breathe. Breathe and know. You belong to the kindom of God.

Jesus’ words are strength for the weary. Jesus embodies hope for the hopeless. Those early followers gathered up Jesus’ words. They treasured them and pondered them. They chewed on them like bread. They drank them like water. Hearing and seeing Jesus restored their soul.

Some years ago, it was popular to wear a wristband with the letters WWJD, “What Would Jesus Do?” It was supposed to remind whoever wore it to keep their minds focused on Christ. Likewise, the sermon on the mount was written so the essential words and teaching of Jesus could travel with us everywhere. Instead of wearing it, early followers memorized it. Instead of WWJD it is WWJS –“What Would Jesus Say?”

Jesus said, ‘Blessed are you.’ Just breathe. Notice, Jesus’ sermon doesn’t contain a single “should,” “ought,” or “thou shalt.” There is no transactional language at all. No commandments. No moral directives. To embrace Jesus’ teaching was and is to live into an upside-down world where neighbor love is the prime and only directive. (Debi Thomas, The Great Reversal, Journey with Jesus, 10/25/20)

Presbyterian Pastor and author, Frederick Buechner, helpfully writes that Jesus’s upside-down kingdom is like this: “The world says, ‘Mind your own business,’ and Jesus says, ‘There is no such thing as your own business.’ The world says, ‘Follow the wisest course and be a success,’ and Jesus says, ‘Follow me and be crucified.’ The world says, ‘Drive carefully — the life you save may be your own’ — and Jesus says, ‘Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’ The world says, ‘Law and order,’ and Jesus says, ‘Love.’ The world says, ‘Get’ and Jesus says, ‘Give.’” One way into the kindom of God is through Jesus’ teaching. WWJS, What would Jesus say?

Great works of fiction can offer us another way to see and live into life as part of God’s eternal family. C.S. Lewis, J.R. Tolkien, and George Lucas are modern examples. Ancient apocalyptic writing like we find in the Book of Revelation, or the Book of Daniel are another. Stories of long, long, ago and far, far away help us get deeper inside the here and now.

Somehow, we get terribly confused by this type of literature when we encounter it in the pages of the bible. Less so when we see it on the big screen. (I feel almost heart-sick about the trans-phobic trouble J.K. Rowling has gotten herself into recently. In the spirit of All Saints Day, I pray that one day God will help us sort it all out.) I mention her because in the climatic Book 7, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling paints a scene that seems it could be written for All Saints.

The hero, Harry Potter, walks to certain death at the hand of the evil Lord Voldemort. He intends to sacrifice himself to protect his friends. But something he carries in his pocket, called the Resurrection Stone, enables the presence of four of the saints who have previously died for him to be there with him, and to talk with him. They give him the courage he needs for the task. They are Harry’s personal cloud of witnesses who give him faith to stand against evil with the power of love.
You see, we cannot enter the upside-down world of God’s kindom alone, but as members of one another. Each one of us remains unique and singular, yet also fully belonging to the one life we live in God. The blessed loved ones we remember today are still with us. They struggle with us. Their love continues to bless us. They remind us to breathe.

Rowling’s Harry Potter Saga, like the Book of Revelation, inspires faith in the power of God’s love as the only power in this world capable of ultimately standing against the hideous reality of human violence. They bring the mighty down from their thrones to elevate the outcast and the seemingly least powerful. As we read from Revelation, we have a place beside those who have come through the ordeal of the same oppressive, imperialistic human violence as Jesus did. We are washed clean in the blood of the lamb (Revelation 7:14). (Paul Nuechterlein, All Saints Day, cycle A, Girardian Lectionary, 10/30/20)

This week, of all weeks, the nation stands as if on the great continental divide of the Rocky Mountains. A glass of water poured out on one side of the divide ultimately finds its way to the Pacific Ocean, while water on the other side runs inevitably to the Atlantic. The path forward diverges into two futures. It’s stressful not knowing how it will all play out or where we will be when we meet again next Sunday. We pray. We watch. We vote! Yet regardless, whatever unfolds, we know. Beloved is where we begin. Just breathe. Breathe and know we belong to each other, and to the entire communion of saints in God.

Amen.