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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.