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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.

The Festival of St. Luke

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

For the festival of St. Luke, on which we celebrate the relation between faith and health, let me begin with a story.  In the beginning, God was like an unhappy farmer. The world looked like Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. The earth, covered with red dust (in Hebrew Adamah), was not fertile or hospitable, because there was “no one to till the ground.” So, God caused springs of water to come up from the earth itself, made a clay, and formed a man (adam) from the ground. God breathed into him, and gave life to this “soil creature,” this “earth-man.” God placed Adam in the garden, to grow it, and to care for the rivers, and plants, and animals, and eventually drew Eve (havah, meaning “to become,” “to breathe,” or “life”) from Adam’s body to be his partner.  Thus Adam and Eve, not a literal first couple, but rather Soil and Life (their “names” from Hebrew words) marry, and their union produces the human race. (Diana Butler Bass, Grounded, Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution, p. 42)

“God fashions the first humans by taking the dust of the ground into his hands, holding it so close that it can share in the divine breath, and inspiring it with the freshness of life.  It is only as the ground is suffused with God’s intimate, breathing presence that human life—along with the life of trees and animals and birds—is possible at all.  God draws near to the earth and then animates if from within.” (Fred Bahnson and Norman Wirzba, Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation, p. 16)

“God’s love is the power that moves the galaxies and the breathes in our bodies. One way to imagine this relationship between God and the world is with the metaphor of the world as God’s body.”  The world, the universe, is the “body of God:” all matter, all flesh, all myriad beings, things, and processes that constitute physical reality are in and of God.  God is not just spirit, but also body.  Hence, God can be thought of in organic terms, as the vast interrelated network of beings that compose our universe.  The “glory” of God, then is not just heavenly, but earthly.”  (Sallie McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology)

What we call health, or wellness, therefore, begins with the alignment of body and spirit. Faith is not a cure for finitude or death but the ground-spring of well-being. Perhaps you have experienced this yourself or you have heard the stories of famous examples. People like

Professor Randy Pausch, a 47-year-old father of three who died of pancreatic cancer some years ago.  Professor Pausch, an unknown computer science expert, gave one last lecture to summarize his life’s learning to students at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. (Lecture Sept 2007). Thanks to the internet, it became a national sensation. The theme of Professor Pausch’s “Last Lecture” was “Really achieving your childhood dreams.”  He didn’t discuss spirituality or religion, but he spoke with the simple authority of a man looking death in the face and assessing what’s most important about life.  One of the most memorable things about him was his undying enthusiasm for life.  “Never lose the childlike wonder,” he advised. “Show gratitude… Don’t complain; just work harder… Never give up.”

“Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears! Let all the nations gather together, and let the peoples assemble…You are my witnesses, says the LORD…” (Isaiah 43:8-9a) Whether in a hospital room, a board room, a church sanctuary, a hotel room, or your living room, it’s all the same. The bible is a profound interpreter of real life.  By the grace of God, even occasions of illness and injury may become times of peace and shalom, an opportunity to gain new insight into our life.  Illness does not have the power to rob us of dignity.  By faith, we may be made well without ever being cured. Conversely, there are many who are cured without ever being healed.

Albert Schweitzer once said, “It’s supposed to be a professional secret, but I’ll tell you anyway. We doctors do nothing. We only help and encourage the doctor within.” Fully one-fifth of the gospels relate to Jesus’ ministry of healing.  It is a misconception to say that Jesus came to save “sin-sick” souls.  Jesus didn’t stop there. Jesus brought both psychical and mental health to those whom he healed.  He restored balance and vitality to community. His mission was to defeat the powers of evil that permeate our world and fracture the alignment of body, mind, and spirit. This kind of balance and wholeness, the bible calls shalom.

Because God is body and spirit, we may look to everyday life to find examples of a more holistic health. One study examined survivors of heart attacks. These were people who had had triple and quadruple bypass surgery.  They had all shared a life changing event. They each came home from the hospital with arm loads of information and training about how to change their lives. Yet, twelve months later, nine out of ten heart patients were eating the same foods as they did before their surgery and doing the same amount of exercise. Did the 10% who were doing better have more will power? Did they have a scarier experience to set them straight?

No, nothing was different except that they had forged an alliance –they had an exercise buddy.  They had met someone in the hospital or down the street in the same situation and made a pact.  So, when the alarm went off at 6:30 in the morning, Bill don’t hit the snooze bar because he knew Joe would be out on the corner waiting for him –and Joe was out there only because he knew Bill would be there.

Because God is body and soul transformation of health, faith, and life comes through relationships of mutual accountability. It comes as we learn to trust each other.  It comes through forgiving one another. It comes through listening and speaking and praying.  Shalom is a by-product of healthy communities with Christ at the center.

Our gospel proclaims this healing Spirit of the Lord is upon you. The spirit of shalom is upon us at Immanuel. Where there is any weariness, we are called and strengthened to be present as God is present.  Where people are hungry, we are called and strengthened to be bread.  Where there is bitterness and strife, we are called and strengthened to be peacemakers. Where there is illness and despair, we are called and strengthened to share God’s shalom—a ray of light and air so that God’s in-depth healing process can begin.

‘Then water shall appear over the burning sand.  Waters shall break forth in the desert and the thirsty ground shall become a pool.  The tongue of the speechless shall sing for joy and the lame shall leap like a deer’  (Isaiah 35:6-7).