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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 27C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The leaves are mostly down now.  The trees along the parkway across the street, displayed a fiery red. The little Maple near the front walkway is still a glowing yellow. Some people, like trees, reveal their inner glory late in life. To appreciate fall is to savor transience and transition. Being is becoming that becomes being again—which is beautiful and terrifying of course.

Fall begs the question.  What happens when I die?  Unfortunately, the Sadducees, who actually asked Jesus, were not interested in the answer. Instead, they engaged in combat. The Sadducees sat at the top the religious hierarchy.  They controlled the Temple.  They were privileged, landed, elite, arrogant, and often in cahoots with the Roman Empire. In forty years, both they and the Temple would be gone.  But this was their final chance to put Jesus in his place before they committed themselves to dispatch him by violence.

Their contrived outlandish hypothetical question about a woman who marries and is widowed by seven brothers was a trap. Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?  They’re point was to prove that life after death is absurd.

Fortunately, Jesus didn’t answer their question.  He came closer to answering ours. Jesus realized there is no right answer to a wrong question—especially one designed as a trap. Because the Sadducees’ only read the first five books of the bible, the Pentateuch, Jesus quoted Moses.  Moses had stood beside the burning bush in the wilderness and addressed “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Luke 20:37) Therefore, the Lord is not God of the dead, Jesus said, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.” (Luke 20:38)  The dead become like angels.  Jesus will also say, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so would I have told you I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2) He will say to the criminal crucified beside him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) And that’s it.  That is literally all Jesus had to say about what happens when we die.  Jesus didn’t offer many details.  As pastor, what I often say is, scripture offers assurance that this God whom we have come to know and trust with our life, will also be trustworthy in our death. The realms of heaven go beyond my imagining.

Martin Luther said something like this. He taught that we actually undergo two deaths—one big and one small.  We have already undergone a big death in baptism.  We are children of God forever. The smaller one is our physical death.  We are alive in Christ forever–beginning now, now, now, now, and persisting into eternity.  How does that knowledge change the way we live today?

Jesus didn’t have a lot to say about when we die, but he never stopped talking about the kingdom that is coming.  A realm where no human being “belongs” to any other, because all belong equally to God. It is the very kin-dom we invite to take hold every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. For Jesus, God’s kingdom was not a distant future event but a powerful nearby reality. Our true citizenship has already been transferred into Christ’s kingdom. Christians waiting for the second coming have missed the bus.  The good news is there’s always another one coming.  Like the old song says, ‘You don’t need a ticket.  You just get on board.’

This season in the church, the seven Sundays between All Saints and Christmas, this set of readings, are a wake-up call to an ever-present reality. Each season of the church year offers a new window into the life of faith. What makes this stretch of Sundays important is this chance to incorporate an eschatological lens to our life in God. The Alpha is our Omega, our beginning is also our end. God has joined these together in an eternal now Jesus called the kingdom of God.

Dwelling in this kin-dom brings an end to business-as-usual. A new “Day” is upon us.  It puts an end to our fear. It protects us from the slings and arrows of this world. We are servants of the God of the living. So, we hold out for the impossible.  We may dare to live as Jesus longs for us to live. We set out to advance this kin-dom. We work right beside God confident that the love which propels us has also embraced us and will never let go.

For the next seven Sundays our bible talks a lot about the end times. It will often do so in a language and style popular among ancient people called apocalyptic literature. Earthquakes, plagues, wars, and famines are its dreadful portents, great signs from heaven that God’s judgement is loose upon the land.  This baffles modern Christians unfamiliar with this literary style.  We often become apocalyptic literalists, by trying to reconcile details from different stories as if these were secret divine messages to be decoded.  At best, this is an exercise in futility. At its worst, as in Christian Zionism, it becomes foreign policy, as when Christians send money to Israel hoping to provoke holy war and the second coming.

So, these seven Sundays are important not just for faith but also to prevent violence and suffering from the misuse of scripture. This gospel about God’s kingdom that is coming does indeed set fire to the world as we know it –but it does so from within our hearts and minds. The war being waged now is one of spirit and of faith.

We are a resurrection people.  Christ has opened the door to undying life.  Jesus affirms the dead are alive to God.  God gives life and preserves life.  The resurrected life has a different character than life lived only in the present.  Jesus taught us, the resurrection is not only a future hope, but an urgent and crucial aspect of our life today.  The true dignity and power of human life within us comes from beyond us as a gift from God.  Our fragile and finite lives are caught up and joined together in the one eternal life of God.

We do not know what the future or what heaven will be like.  We only know at its center will be the One we have always known, who has loved us, and calls us by name.