Getting Advent Wrong

Getting Advent Wrong

When I was growing up Baptist in the south, we never celebrated Advent. I’m not even sure I heard about it at all until high school or college! But every year, the Friday after Thanksgiving, we pulled out all the Christmas albums, stacked as many on the turntable as it would hold, and spent the day singing along and decorating the Christmas tree.

After we assembled the tree (always artificial), we untangled all the lights and wrapped every single branch – that alone took half the day. Then each ornament was carefully placed, making sure no two that were alike hung too close together. The most special ornaments always went on first, to be sure they’d have the best spots to show themselves off. And the sentimental ornaments, the ones that were too special not to keep, but too raggedy or plain to show off? They were carefully placed towards the back of the tree so that no side would go empty. Every ornament – whether in the front or around back – each one had a story, and every year those stories were told again, those memories reawakened. Those ornaments were reminders of who we were as a family and what was important to us.

It was our ritual for beginning the season and getting ready for Christmas. And when I began to practice Advent, it didn’t feel all that different. The Advent wreath with its candles, the special colors we use, the songs and scripture readings and stories we come back to year after year to remind us of who we are and what is important to us, to begin the season and get ourselves ready for Christmas.

But this year, as I’ve thought about the lectionary readings for the first Sunday of Advent, and the Gospel reading from Matthew in particular, I can’t get away from the feeling that we’re getting Advent wrong, or at least missing something important in it.

Advent is the time in the liturgical calendar when we anticipate the miracle of God becoming a man, when Jesus came as a tiny crying baby in a stable in Bethlehem, and changed everything. But Advent is also the time in the liturgical calendar when we anticipate Jesus’ second coming, the day when he will come again to earth to complete his mission, when he will set everything right and the world will finally be all it was meant to be. It will change everything!

That’s the way I’ve come to think of it, at least. But when I was growing up, I was taught the second coming would be the End of the World. And while I believe the way that was taught to me was misguided and even harmful, Jesus’ words to his disciples in the day’s Gospel reading tell me there’s something more to that than I’ve wanted to see.

36 “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows. 37 As it was in the time of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Human One.[a] 38 In those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. 39 They didn’t know what was happening until the flood came and swept them all away. The coming of the Human One[b] will be like that. 40 At that time there will be two men in the field. One will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left. 42 Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know what day the Lord is coming. 43 But you understand that if the head of the house knew at what time the thief would come, he would keep alert and wouldn’t allow the thief to break into his house. 44 Therefore, you also should be prepared, because the Human One[c] will come at a time you don’t know.

Matthew 24:36-44

Jesus has been telling his disciples about the end of the world – the end of their world.  Things will get bad, and then they’ll just keep getting worse. Jerusalem and the Temple, the center of their world, the things that tell them who they are and what matters to them – they are going to be completely destroyed, and the people who manage to survive will have to flee for their lives. And after all that suffering and destruction, “the Son of Man,” Jesus says, will return and gather up his people. It’s all going to be very surprising, and Jesus is warning his followers not to be surprised.

The whole chapter can be confusing, and Christians have been arguing about what it all means for hundreds of years. Did what Jesus describes happen just a few decades later, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Empire in 70 CE? It did. Could what he describes happen again at some unknown time in the future? Many Christians believe it must, since the second coming didn’t happen back then.

Honestly? I don’t know what I think this passage is telling us about what will or won’t happen to Jerusalem in the future, but I do think Jesus is talking about something that I’ve been missing in Advent.

Jesus obviously isn’t telling us to take four weeks to prepare for the day we’ve chosen to celebrate his birth, his first coming. Christmas Day is nothing if not predictable – it comes around on the same day every year. But the end of the world? The end of the world comes for somebody somewhere every single day of the year.

It will be like the time before the flood, Jesus explains: “they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” right up until the end. “Then two will be in the field;” Jesus says, “one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.”

Somebody’s eating dinner and the phone call comes with news that shatters their world. We go to work, fall in love, prepare for the future, and suddenly, out of nowhere, our world ends and nothing will ever be the same.

The bishop who confirmed me was named John Rucyahana. He was the bishop of Rwanda at the time. John had escaped the genocide because his family went to Uganda as refugees when he was in his teens. When he returned to Rwanda as a grown man in the days following the genocide, it was only to learn that many members of his Tutsi family had been taken, while he was left. In only one hundred days, out of the eight million people in Rwanda, one million people had been hunted and murdered by their fellow Rwandans. The world had ended for them in ways we can barely begin to imagine.

And John was left. John and the other Tutsi who had survived, and the Hutu friends and neighbors who had slaughtered them. They were left, in the rubble of their lives and country. There was nothing left to do but build a new world, and that’s when, as I see it, Jesus showed up. He showed up in John and many others. John dedicated himself to his country and became one of the architects of a nationwide movement of accountability, justice, reconciliation, and mercy the likes of which the world has never seen.

I remember Bishop Rucyahana telling us that if the churches of Rwanda had truly been confirming Christians instead of merely going through the motions of a formality, the genocide would never have happened and one million slaughtered Tutsi would still be alive.

To him, confirmation was a matter of life and death. To him, our confirmation meant that, while others had been taken, we were left to build a new world – the kingdom of God Jesus proclaimed, or perhaps better understood for the world we live in today, the KIN-DOM of God, where there is no “us” and “them,” where no human being can be considered less human or less deserving of life and every good thing than we are.

Whether the people and places that make up our world are taken by violence, or disease, or poverty, or natural disaster, or immigration policy, or a legal system that’s anything but just, or divorce, or misunderstanding, or simply someone else’s choices; it’s no easy thing to be the one who is left. Confusion, fear, guilt, regret, anger, grief, survival – there’s no end to the things those who are left may have to deal with.

It may be us or someone else, but the end of the world comes for somebody somewhere every single day.

And in the middle of the grief and everything that goes with it, there’s always a new world to be built. That’s when Jesus will show up in and through us to build his Kin-dom, if we will let him.

Whatever else the end of the world and the second coming of Christ may mean, it means at least that – here, now, today.

And the thing I think we miss in Advent is that Advent is not really about Advent, or even Christmas. It’s a reminder to us to practice. To practice being ready for the things we don’t know are coming. To practice for all the things we know will come but not when or how. To practice for the end of the world and being left. To practice building a new world in the rubble, a world that looks like the Kin-dom of God.

Let’s try not to get it wrong.

What are We Waiting for? – An Advent Sermon

What are We Waiting for? – An Advent Sermon

Luke 3:7-18

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with[a] water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

John the Baptist is the character in Advent who reminds us that Jesus’ coming is political.

Not Republican or Democrat political – though it certainly has implications for how we vote – but political in the sense of how we choose to construct life together, how we engage our responsibilities both as those governed and as those who do the governing, how we recognize and understand the power we have over others and the power others have over us.

John the Baptist was the ultimate outsider. His life itself was a protest against the powers of his day – the power of the Roman Empire and of local authorities, even the influence of the religious establishment. He lived a life in the wilderness – “off the grid” we might say – disentangling himself from the marketplace and the basics of everyday society like housing, clothing, and even food. He lived in the wilderness, wearing rough camel-hair garments like the ancient prophets, and eating a diet he could gather in the wild.

John was popular – crowds came out to hear him, and his message was clear and unsparing. “Get ready! The Messiah is coming, and he’s bringing God’s judgement on all of us! It’s time to repent! Things need to change!” That’s why John baptized people – as a sign that they were repenting and changing their lives.

And all kinds of people came to John to be baptized, Luke tells us: ordinary people, tax collectors, even soldiers. John was not easy on those who came – he called them a bunch of snakes and accused them of using baptism as a “get out of jail free” card. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” he told them – you’ve got to show you’re actually changing your life, not just talk about it!

But apparently, these folks were serious, because they ask John what they needed to do.

He told everybody, “If you have more than you need, give it to someone who needs it.” But there was more…

The tax collectors were Jewish sell-outs to the Roman Empire, and when they collected taxes, they had the discretion to take a cut for themselves. That’s the way it worked. John didn’t tell them to quit their jobs, though. Instead, he told them not to collect any more than they were obligated to – to take the system Rome used to manipulate Jews into oppressing Jews and flip it on its head.

And even soldiers came to John, most likely Jewish soldiers working for Rome as something like a local police force. They were apparently throwing their weight around and acting like the mafia, since he told them to stop extorting money from people with threats and intimidation and false accusations. They were to be content with their rations and pay – which wouldn’t have been much for non-Roman citizens, and much like tax collectors, soldiers usually supplemented their pay by using their position. John tells them to stop.

In a system that thrives on injustice, legal and illegal, John is telling people to do something different. To act with justice and compassion towards each other.

No doubt, these people were a lot like us. No one else was going to take care of them or their families if they didn’t, so they only did what they had to do. They were trying to survive in a system they didn’t create – who could blame them for taking advantage of it? And Jewish revolts were common – the soldiers probably thought a lot of the people they harassed and accused deserved it, and that some of them might turn around and kill them if they had the chance.

The Jews were divided. Extremists planned revolts, while others did their best to make friends with Rome. The soldiers were policing people who’d probably been their neighbors, and most of them thought the soldiers and tax collectors were traitors to be working for Rome.

And here comes John, and he doesn’t fit with any of them. He doesn’t tell the tax collectors and soldiers to quit their jobs, but he does tell them to quit playing the game – working the system. And he tells everyone with even a little more than they need to be generous and share what they have.

John is telling them – and us – that repentance means seeing everything differently. Instead of looking at the world and seeing how we can take care of ourselves, he wants us to look at the world and see how we can take care of somebody else. Instead of looking at the world like the tax collectors did, and seeing a system we can use to our advantage, he wants us to look at the world and see how we can seek justice for others. And instead of looking at the world like the soldiers did, and seeing threats and enemies, he wants us to look at the world and not be afraid we won’t survive without violence.

John knows that repentance means much more than saying we’re sorry. Repentance means seeing a new way to live with each other and with the systems of power that shape our world and manipulate what we see.

For most of us, Advent is about waiting for Christmas. When we’re kids, we’re waiting to open those presents! When we get older, we’re waiting for the family to gather, for the shopping and decorating and getting ready to be done, for something that will make us feel that special Christmas feeling we remember. And maybe some of us are really just waiting for it all to be over and hoping we survive it!

But for Christians, Advent is about waiting for Jesus to come. Waiting for the day we celebrate how he came the first time, as a tiny, crying, baby in a manger; and waiting for him to come again as the King of All Creation. We are waiting, and while we wait we are making our way in the world and doing our best to get ready. It’s a little like waiting for a child to come home from college – we just want to see them and be with them!

But John’s kind of waiting is less about anticipation and more about that getting ready part. “He’s nearly here!” John yells at us. “What are you doing??? What are you waiting for???”

And that’s the part of John’s message that gets me – What are you waiting for? What am I waiting for?

I spent the first forty years of my life waiting – waiting for God to tell me what to do with my life, waiting for God to tell me it was okay to do something I wanted to do, waiting – in a way – for my life to start, for things to get going. It took me forty years to realize that’s not how God works – at least not most of the time. God’s already told us what to do – “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God,” is how the Prophet Micah puts it. John the Baptist says, give what you have to help others, don’t take advantage of power, and don’t hurt others to help yourself. It’s not okay to just go with the flow – look beyond the system and what it wants you to see. Jesus said, Love God with everything in you and love your neighbor as yourself.

Where we live, what job we choose, who we marry (or don’t) – all of those things are important, but they’re context, not core. It took me forty years to realize that, and then I started making choices and doing things. One of the first things I did was start going to a different church, one closer to the community I lived in. I changed jobs so I could work somewhere I was freer to stand up against the oppression of LGBTQ folk, especially in the church. I bought my first brand new car, I moved into the City, I started giving a lot more away.

I did a lot of those things because I started looking for how I could do justice and love mercy and walk humbly, how I could love God and love my neighbor better instead of being afraid of what I might get wrong. But I’ve barely scratched the surface.

I have one friend, a Baptist pastor in Tennessee, who has accidentally become a one-man Facebook hotline for Christian LGBTQ kids whose families and churches can’t accept them. He gets at least one new private message every night from a kid asking him for help – often asking him to talk to their parents who might listen to a pastor.

I turn on the news and every day there are more kids fleeing for their lives from Central America and getting locked up as soon as they cross the US border. They’re scared and they need a safe place to grow up, and they don’t have lawyers or anyone to help get them through our broken immigration system.

I have another friend, a black man in his early thirties who grow up in Chicago. A few weeks ago on of his childhood friend’s big brother was shot and killed by a police officer while he was doing his job as a security guard and restraining a man with a gun who’d started shooting in the club he worked at.

There’s a sense in which Advent is less about what we are waiting for, and more about what and who is waiting on us. Waiting on us to realize what we can’t afford not to give. Waiting on us to see the justice they need from us. Waiting on us to vote for their good instead of our own. Waiting on us to do the right thing.

The world is messed up, and it can be confusing. And there’s so much more justice to do, and mercy to learn to love. I’m trying to figure out, what is it I’m waiting for? What are you waiting for?

What are we all waiting for?

(Audio)

Advent in the Dark

Advent in the Dark

It’s dark.

The days keep getting shorter, and what daylight we have in Chicago is often cloudy and gray.

Advent – the four weeks leading up to Christmas – is always that way (at least in the northern hemisphere). The nights creep ever earlier, dawn ever later, and we live more and more in the dark.

“In the dark” – it means we don’t know what’s happening or what happens next. It’s a lot like the centuries before Jesus came in Israel, and even after he came. They were in the dark. A people struggling to live under empires that could’ve cared less about them. Promised something more, they had no idea where it would come from, what it would look like. Their heroes kept failing them, and for the most part, their hopes got it wrong.

The world seems pretty dark to a lot of people these days, too. Full of fear and uncertainty and instability and failed heroes.

We celebrate Advent with the beautiful words: hope, peace, love, joy. We celebrate Advent like we know what comes next. But the kicker is, they didn’t. And beyond the words of the Christmas story, neither do we.

Advent is about confusion. Living in the dark. Finding enough light to keep living, nonetheless.

The pregnant teenager with no good explanation. The kid hiding their reality in a closet, terrified of how their family and community would respond if they knew. The un- and under-employed, stuck in a system that seems determined to keep them there. The persistently single, longing for a chance to get excited about someone. The refugee longing for a peaceful life when the world has crumbled out from under them.

We live most of our lives in the dark, and it rarely feels safe. So much haunts us there – fears of the past, fears of the future, fears for tonight.

So we light candles of longing, candles of coping, sometimes candles of change. Candles that defy the dark with kindness, generosity, solidarity, risk.

We tell ourselves and each other stories – stories we can’t be sure will be true, but we offer them in hope anyway. We create paths of flickering light with our words, like luminaries in the night that may lead to a bonfire on the beach with something warm to drink, a sweet bread to savor, and others with stories to share.

We look for those flickering lights to lead us to each other, and maybe that’s the only hope we really have in the dark.

Looking for Advent

Looking for Advent

There’s nothing like getting the flu for Thanksgiving to get Advent off to a slow start. Until this weekend, I felt like the beginning of the holiday season had pretty much missed me.

But I’m getting caught up.

I spent Saturday evening at a holiday potluck party with old friends and their families at a church I used to attend, and it felt like a Thanksgiving do-over. There’s a big, red wreath on my door, and travel plans to see family at Christmas have been solidified.

And today it snowed all day, in pretty, big, wet flakes that covered every branch and limb. It’s beautiful – our first snow of the year.

Advent is about waiting, preparing. In the middle of the holiday bustle, it asks for quiet.

The quiet of falling snow. Of a cat curled up for a nap. Of a warm cup of tea. Of noticing. Of wondering.

How can joy come to fill us to overflowing if we haven’t first cleared space for it?

The flu didn’t leave me much choice about clearing space this year. Being sick will do that to me. Body and mind won’t let me do much more than rest. The normal stuff of life goes on pause and fades into the background as the simple rhythms of sleep and wake, food and water, come to the forefront.

Nothing makes me present like being sick. After forty-plus years, I’m still trying to absorb the lessons in that. How being mindful of my breathing becomes natural, when the rest of the time it’s nearly impossible. How anticipation no longer rules my thoughts, and frustration with all I may be missing out on doesn’t arise.

In the midst of those gifts, it’s also hard. As an extrovert, the isolation of illness can be depressing, especially when I’m feeling well enough not to be sleeping most of the time. And as a single, it can be scary to wonder who can help take care of you. I’m so grateful for the friends who checked on me and brought medicine and groceries. But there were times I would’ve given a lot to have someone to bring me a glass of water instead of having to find the wobbly energy to get it myself. And in the night, when my temperature was spiking, I couldn’t help but wonder when anyone would know if I lost consciousness. If a dangerous fever came while I was asleep, who would know? (I’m grateful for phone alarms and for apps like kitestring that will send a text to a contact if you don’t check in within a prearranged time.)

There’s something in Advent that’s about aloneness to me. The aloneness of John in the desert. The aloneness of the pregnant Mary with an unbelievable story. Aloneness did not last forever for either of them, but it was there for a time.

And so I’ve entered into Advent, forced to be quiet and alone and present, and looking for the lessons.