Advent’s Gifts to Us

Below is my sermon from Sunday, November 27th, the First Sunday of Advent. It talks about two readings from the day, from the prophet Isaiah and the Gospel of Matthew. While it is grounded in these texts, it focuses on what Advent possibly has to offer in a world already celebrating Christmas.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I never feel more out-of-joint in church than in these early weeks of Advent. The entire world around us is ready for Christmas—the songs started on B101 before Thanksgiving this year, the red cups are out at Starbucks, the shopping and sales have begun, and Tim and I even put up our tree yesterday. Christmastime is upon us.

And yet, here at church, we have no Christmas songs, no decorations except for a wreath, and instead of feel-good heartwarming movies and stories, we have foretelling of the end of times. Talk about being out of touch with the culture. So why don’t we, as a church, get on board with the times? Throw out Advent and just have a month long celebration of Christmas with the rest of the world?

Because this is one of those times where the church tradition might just know be able to teach us something. Don’t get me wrong, the joy and peace of Christmas are important things, and we will get to them in a few weeks. But Advent has a message that we, and our world, need to hear. Patience. Expectancy. Watchfulness. Hope.

Advent is probably my favorite season of the church year, because it offers not only honesty about the fact that the world is not the way it is meant to be, but also the promise that God’s plan, in the end, will come to fruition.

We get them both on this first Sunday: the exhortations to watchfulness, to be ready and awake, call us to awareness. There’s this odd passage from Matthew, where Jesus talks about the Son of Man coming again, and two people will be together and one will be taken and one will be left.

It’s the kind of passage that we tend to skip over, or at least try not to think about too much. This particular one gave rise to the whole “Left Behind” series of books and movies that sought to play on peoples’ fears of not being good enough for God.

But that’s not what it’s about. The author of Matthew is writing this gospel about 50 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and people are beginning to give up hope that Jesus will come again. They are starting to act like people did in the days of Noah: eating and drinking, marrying and giving away in marriage.

What’s always struck me about this list—it’s not a list of bad things. It’s not a list of sinful actions that people were consumed with. No, they were only consumed with getting on with their lives, but not paying attention to what God was doing around them.

It’s spiritual complacency that Matthew’s warning against. Because, he says, when Christ comes it will be unexpected. You won’t know when it’s going to happen or who it’s going to involve.

Like I said, we tend to gloss over these passages. 2,000 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, it seems less urgent than ever. But while the idea of being unexpectedly raptured doesn’t resonate with us, the idea of the profound uncertainty of life certainly does.

Two colleagues were working; one was diagnosed with cancer, the other was not. Two candidates applied for a coveted job; one was chosen, the other was not. Two kids are making their way through high school; one becomes addicted to drugs, the other does not. Two couples are joined in marriage; one stays married, the other does not.

Our lives are filled with unexpected, often unexplainable events. Jesus says, in the midst of the unexpected, in the midst of uncertainty, be on the watch for God. Keep awake, because you do not know how or where God is going to show up in this situation.

Uncertainty is a scary, anxiety producing concept. But it’s one that we live with each and every day, no matter how well we try to control everything. Uncertainty and the unexpected, whether it is good or bad, will ultimately find a way in to remind us that we don’t have control over everything.

In an article for the Washington Post on Thanksgiving, pastor Diana Butler Bass wrote about the season of Advent: Advent recognizes a profound spiritual truth — that we need not fear the dark. Instead, wait there. Under that blue cope of heaven, alert for the signs of dawn. Watch. For you cannot rush the night.

Advent is not a time for getting a little piece of chocolate every day, although there’s never a reason not to have chocolate. Advent isn’t even a time of waiting for Christmas morning and the haul of presents under the tree.

Instead, in Advent, we wait together for the fulfillment of that promise of the first Christmas: We are waiting for light, for God to renew and heal the world, a promise that we understand to have been mysteriously embodied in a baby born in a manger.

In Advent, we acknowledge the brokenness of this world—our sin, individual, collective, and institutional, that keeps things from being the way they ought to be. Wars and violence, people who are starving in a country that has more than enough food, the way we look not to our neighbor, but to ourselves to judge if everything is ok.

These lists are always a little bit too easy for me to come up with—we don’t have to look very hard to know that things aren’t the way God intends. But it’s not just those things that we have some minor semblance of control over—it’s those uncertain things as well, that we can’t control: illness, accidents, addiction.

Advent is a time that lets us be honest about the pain and hurt that we both experience and cause. But it is also a time that invites us to share in the promise that God is, and will, make all things new. The promise we hear in the prophet Isaiah: Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

It’s easy to hear that promise and think it’s more naïve and schmaltzy than anything the Hallmark Channel could come up with this time of year. But Isaiah is no idealist. He knows how things are—this promise is preceded by his description of what has been happening in Israel: Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence aliens devour your land; it is desolate.

It is in that moment, in the midst of desolation and heartache, that Isaiah offers his vision of God’s promise. We live in such a time where we have seen the first fruits of God’s promise in Christ, but we know—sometimes quite painfully—that we have not yet seen its fulfillment.

And in this confusing time, there is nothing for us to do but to follow the advice of Isaiah: Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord. Let us light candles and sing songs of longing and hope together. Let us be watchful and aware of how God is at work in this world. Let us, as Paul says, put on Jesus Christ, and see the face of God in our neighbor and in ourselves.

Because as uncertain and unexpected as life is—we hold that one thing is completely certain: God is at work in the world, and God will make all things new. Amen.

Christian Identity in Divisive Times

Below is my sermon on Luke 21:5-19. It is mostly my reflection on what it means to be a Christian in America in light of both the polarizing political cycle and the wave of hate speech and actions we have seen since. This is neither a condemnation nor an endorsement of any one political viewpoint. It is necessary to recognize in a democracy that there are varying opinions about economic, political, and international affairs. But, so too must we recognize together that our shared calling as Christians means that, despite these differing views, we are all called together to speak out against hate and violence.

I hope you read this sermon in the spirit in which it was meant: to offer a hopeful reminder that all Christians find our ultimate help in the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’”

All will be thrown down—the Greek word used here is actually the root of our English word catastrophe. If you’re anything like me, you probably feel as if you have just lived, or are living, through a catastrophe.

Whether you welcome or lament the results of the election, there can be no doubt that it has revealed the deep divides in this country: between progressives and conservatives, between rich and poor, between races, between urban and rural. This election has revealed just how divided our nation, our local communities, even our families, and yes, our churches, are. I do not believe that this election, or these candidates, have caused these divides—but it has pulled back the veil to reveal the very serious divisions which exist.

While many welcome the election results as a necessary change, we have sisters and brothers who genuinely fear what this change will mean for themselves, their communities, and their safety and well-being. Maybe you are one. Such fears are not unfounded.

News reports from around the country and here in the Greater Philadelphia area describe the hateful, racist, and frightening escalation of threats and hate speech targeted at African Americans, Muslims, Mexicans, Jews, immigrants, and the LGBT community. (From Bishop Claire Burkat’s message to the synod)

All of us, as disciples of Jesus Christ, are called to take action—to pray, to speak, to attempt to grow trust and build bridges, and to say unequivocally that hate and fear and racism is not acceptable. This is not a job for one party, or one person, but it is a job for all Americans, and it is a calling for all Christians.

Jesus gave this message of catastrophe to his disciples when they were spending their time admiring how beautiful the temple was. How strong it was, how permanent. This building, Jesus says, will be torn down. Do not put your hope in a building, for it will fall.

How often have we done just that? We are just like the disciples, apt to trust in things that have the appearance of strength and endurance, but which are not at all solid. When we start thinking that one candidate or another will save us—we are kidding ourselves. It’s not just politics—we put our trust in any number of things that have no ability to give us the security and guarantees we seek—our wealth, our educations, our social standing or connections. As for these, Jesus says, not one stone will be left upon stone.

We must remember, in the words of the psalmist: I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. My help comes from the Lord: not Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, not the Republicans or the Democrats, not from the market or the banks. My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.

It is in God, it is in Christ Jesus, that we find both our identity and our calling. We can try to find these things elsewhere, we have in the past, and we will surely try it again in the future, but we will only be disappointed.

But in God we will not. Because in God we find our identity as loved, and claimed, and cherished, and redeemed people. In God we find the one who calls us by name, the one who know us (and loves us anyway). Our identity in God is truthful: we are broken people: hurt, lost, afraid, unwilling or unable to truly be ourselves. We are broken people: hurtful, jealous, acting out of fear or anger.

But in God, broken people become whole again; hurt people are offered healing; the lost find a place of belonging; and we are all able to be ourselves. Our help comes from the Lord—our identity comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.

And so too does our calling, so too does our mission as Christians. We get distracted in this tale of apocalypse from Luke that I think we often overlook one of the most critical parts: this will give you an opportunity to testify. Jesus is talking about wars, and famines, and plagues and general chaos—but it will give an opportunity to testify.

It reminds me of the book of Esther—where queen Esther is not sure of her own strength or ability in a volatile situation, and her uncle Mordecai says to her: you were born for such a time as this. Do not be defeated, but rather take this situation that you have been given and do the work of God in it.

This is an opportunity to testify—and what is our testimony in such a time as this? Jesus promises us, I will give you words and wisdom. In some ways, he already has, in our reading from last week, Jesus said, “Love your enemies, and bless those who persecute you.”

Our calling as Christians is not to find easy peace or quick reconciliation. For those would only mask the deep wounds that have been uncovered. But we are called to seek understanding. To try with each other, to listen to each other. We are called to continue doing the work of Christ: to welcome the stranger, bind up the broken-hearted, feed the hungry, and advocate for the poor and forgotten ones.

It is not easy work, but then again we do not do it alone. We do it in the hope and love of the one who brings light out of darkness and life out of death. We do it knowing that when we love, Christ loves by our side. It is not possible without the love of God poured out to make all things—including us—new.

And so I invite you, as you come forward for communion, to dip your finger into this bowl, and to make the sign of the cross on your forehead, as a reminder that before anything else that you are, you are a child of God. And when we come to hard conversations, when we come to difficult choices, when we come to the path between what is right and what is easy, let us remember that identity and remember that our help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. Amen.

An All Saints Sermon

Below is my sermon from All Saints Sunday, November 6, 2016. The Bible passages that it focuses on are Ephesians 1:11-23, and Luke 6:20-31. Feel free to respond with comments or questions! I’d especially be interested in hearing about your ‘thin places’ or any saints that have been influential in your life.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you ever been to a place where you felt like you could feel God? For me, that place has been Forbidden Drive, near the Wissahickon Creek. I used to go there while I was in school to walk and relax, and I always had a closer sense of the divine when I was there.

I wasn’t the only one—the early settlers to the area were drawn there, too. There was a hermitage in a cave near Lincoln Drive, and the Wissahickon was the sight of the first recorded baptism by Mennonites in America.

Maybe you have a place like this, too. Maybe it’s the mountains, or the beach, when you view the grandness of the ocean. Maybe it’s simply a peaceful spot in your own backyard. A place where you are able to feel God’s presence more acutely. The ancient Celtic Christians had a name for these places.

They called them “thin places.” Places where there is less of a barrier between the mundane and the divine. A place where these worlds come together, and if we are paying attention, we can transcend the ordinary for a glimpse of the infinite.

But it’s not only places that are thin. There are thin times, too, times when we are at a threshold—All Saints is one of these times. All Saints Day is one piece of the Ancient Rites of All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day—a time at the turning of the seasons when people believed that the space between this life and the next was especially thin. It was a time to be wary of; you wore masks so that the souls wouldn’t recognize you. You offered up cake and kept your house warm for them.

Despite the vestiges of Halloween that we still celebrate, for the most part, we’ve left that type of thinking of thin places and powerful thresholds far behind us. Maybe to our detriment. Speaking for myself, sometimes the space between God doesn’t seem thin at all, but rather feels like an un-crossable chasm. I feel sometimes I am on this side with my deepest sorrows and doubts and failings and deaths, and God is somewhere else.

Which is why we need the feast of All Saints. Because this is a defiant day, a day where we resist the power of death and all that destroys the soul – injustice, fear and despair, and all the things that draw us from God. It is a day when we lift up in remembrance and prayer those saints who have gone before us, and who have claimed their eternal reward in Christ.

It is a day that insists we don’t forget those who have died. It insists that we neither gloss over death, nor give death more power than it has. It calls us to remember the lives of those who have died, and to acknowledge that in some mysterious way they are with God, and we will be with them again.

Saints who we know, who we still mourn and grieve for. Who in death can seem far away, but today we remember that even in death the divide is not so great because we are one together in our baptism in Christ.

That’s what Paul’s talking about when he writes in his letter to the Ephesians: In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance…you were marked with the seal of the promised Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

What is it that makes a saint? Is it an exemplary life, or some kind of higher level of spirituality or ethics? That’s often how we talk about saints. But when we talk about the saints of God, as when Paul used the phrase in his letters, that’s not what we mean. We mean all of us—you and me, those who have departed this life, and those who are yet to come—the body of Christ.

How do we become saints? Not through anything that we do or don’t do, but through God’s declaring us to be saints. Through God’s actions in claiming us, in marking us with that seal of the promised Spirit, we join the great multitude of named and unnamed Christians who have been our forebears in the faith.

It is God’s action of making holy, of pronouncing blessing that makes saints. And it’s not always the people we would expect, either. For as surely as we have been made saints of God, so have others—so have the ones we might try to exclude, or the ones we disagree with.

It definitely ruffled some feathers when Jesus stood on the plain and proclaimed blessings to some of those unlikely saints: blessed are you who are poor—blessed are you who hunger and thirst—blessed are you who are despised. Blessed are you.

These aren’t the people we think of as saints; in fact, society tends to think of these people as losers. But God calls them blessed. Perhaps God’s idea of who is blessed is a little bit different from ours. But Jesus is describing not only the present, but also the vision of God’s kingdom: a place where all will have enough, a place where hunger and thirst are no more.

Perhaps we ought to keep that vision in mind as our nation considers its future this week, and ask ourselves—in light of God’s vision for the world, what should my values be?

God’s vision is not complete here on earth, but those saints who have found their rest are living already in the kingdom where mourning and grief and hunger and thirst are no more.

When we gather here in worship, we insist that they are here with us, as God is here with us. We make the veil thin and we put ourselves in the presence of all who are with God, and we draw strength from that, and we keep going. Because we’re not alone.

We call them the Communion of Saints. Communion – like our gathering around the Eucharist. This morning, we welcome three of our young people to the Eucharist for the first time—Hanna, Camryn, and Sydney. And this Communion of Saints is the gathering of all believers, not just those who have died, but the living as well.

And our job, as members of this Communion, is to be stewards of one another and all those we encounter: to care for and tend, to build up and strengthen, to be life for one another between the now and the now yet. To try to live in God’s vision for us—to include all those that God calls blessed.

In this act of stewardship we keep that veil thin between God and us, between the kingdom of God and the one we’re in – so we can keep an eye on the life that’s coming, so we can keep walking toward it in the joyful hope that it’s there. Amen.