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 and the World Turned Upside Down

Advent and the World Turned Upside Down

Mary was a girl, a young woman, from a working class family in a small Jewish town in the backwater of the Roman Empire.  As an unmarried girl in a country under military occupation, she was the most vulnerable of people, but she was no shrinking violet.

When the Angel Gabriel tells her she will have a child – the Messiah and promised leader of his people, she asks questions first: “How exactly is that going to work?” When she says yes, her assent is not merely submissive obedience. She is a full participant, agreeing to put her body and life on the line for the freedom of her people.

Mary has never known a world at peace. Revolution has been brewing longer than she can remember as the Jews grow increasingly discontent under the power of Rome and her representatives. And Mary knows she has been asked to be the mother of their deliverer.

Like many a young unwed mother, Mary travels to spend time with relatives out of town. Maybe she was trying to get away from gossiping neighbors, or her family’s disappointment and struggles to believe her story – “So an angel told you God was going to make you pregnant????” Whatever she faced at home, it couldn’t have been easy.

But when she arrives at her cousin Elizabeth’s, she doesn’t even have to tell them her story. The miracle baby Elizabeth herself is carrying after decades of barrenness leaps in her womb, and Elizabeth knows: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.”

And Mary responded with a song of relief and rejoicing. Her song of praise – her “Magnificat” – expresses far more than her sense of honor at being chosen by God:

“God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,” she sings,

“and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.”

Mary is singing a song of revolution, a song of reversals, of God turning the way things are on their head!

The powerful will be cast down, and those without power raised up. The hungry will be satisfied, and the wealthy will go hungry. As John, “the voice crying out in the wilderness,” will proclaim, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain made low.” The prophet Isaiah provided those words, and these:

God will “provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”

In Mary’s song and John’s prophetic work, God’s kingdom is proclaimed as a kingdom that turns the way things are upside down!

Mary knew, and we know, that doesn’t happen peacefully. The powerful are rather attached to their thrones and not inclined to give them up without a fight. And the rich protect their wealth and security. We don’t want to give up the power, influence, and resources we have. We fight to protect them. But…

The valleys will be lifted up and the mountains laid low.

The powerful will be cast down and the powerless raised up.

The poor will be filled and the rich will go hungry.

When you hear those things, does your heart flinch a little in fear? Mine does. As much as I want to think I’m on Jesus and Mary’s side in this, I’m afraid of all I have to lose when the world turns upside down.

The Holy Spirit’s job is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I heard that a lot growing up in church. The thing is, I don’t think anybody neatly fits into either category most of the time.

I was talking to a friend recently who, after being well-off most of his life, really struggles to make ends meet these days. He works at Trader Joe’s, and told me recently about a young couple who came through his check-out line. They were clearly wealthy – he recognized designer clothes and tastefully expensive jewelry. But they were quietly arguing and she was trying to hide tears. “Sure, they have money,” he said, “but they’re suffering in ways I know nothing about, and I’ve never known anyone who isn’t.”

I think he’s right. Most of the time, each of us are comfortable in ways and truly afflicted in other ways. We have a good job, but our marriage is struggling. Our kids are doing great, but our parents are suffering. And if we have a season when everything is going well, an illness comes, or an unexpected death, and suddenly our lives are turned upside down.

We’re all going to need comforting – and Jesus came for that. He brings good news to the oppressed, binds up the brokenhearted, gives the oil of gladness instead of mourning.

But that flinch of fear in my heart, that clinch in my stomach, when I hear that God is in the business of turning the way things are on their head. That feeling? That tells us where we’re comfortable. Where we feel threatened by God’s work in the world.

Don’t shuffle that feeling off to the side. Don’t try to silence it with justifications. Sit with it this Advent and Christmas. Listen to it. Let it make us uncomfortable. Let it show us how we can best join in God’s business of turning the way the world works on its head.

Recognize the power you have and use it on behalf of those who don’t have; or better yet, share it with them. Share the wealth and resources you have with those who don’t have much. Choose to let the heart of God turn your world upside down.

In agreeing to be the mother of Jesus, Mary put her heart and body on the front lines of her people’s fight to overthrow the power of the Roman Empire and turn their world upside down, and God had even more in mind for her son than she knew. Mary had a choice – she could’ve turned away. She could have protected her reputation and the possibility of a normal, uneventful life.

But Mary said yes to God and his plan to turn the way the world is on its head, whatever it cost her. What will we say?

Who Raises Up the Despised?

Who Raises Up the Despised?

(A sermon, on Genesis 29:15-28 and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-45. Audio is available here.)

Jacob, he loved Rachel,
And Rachel, she loved him,
And Leah was just there
For dramatic effect.

(from Rich Mullins’ “Jacob and 2 Women”)

The way the story is told, it’s not easy to understand what Laban was thinking when he pulled his trick on Jacob, and it’s even harder to know how Leah must’ve felt – whether she was glad to go along or not, she wouldn’t have had much choice in their culture but to do what her father told her to do.

We do know something about what Jacob felt though – we know he didn’t want Leah, he wanted Rachel. It would always be about Rachel for Jacob. It would always be Rachel he loved.

Unloved and unwanted. Leah lived her life as the despised wife, always competing with her sister for Jacob and always losing. It’s hard to imagine a more miserable situation.

But that’s not the end of Leah’s story. Later we learn that because she was despised, God gave her children, and ultimately the line of Christ came from the despised wife.

We have a God who sees the unwanted, the overlooked, the powerless, the despised, and raises them up.

Jesus, Leah’s many-greats grandson, always had time for despised women – a Samaritan woman with a less than stellar reputation, a woman caught in adultery, a widow grieving her only son. And it wasn’t just women – Jesus’ whole ministry was filled with the overlooked and unwanted: the men he chose as his closest disciples were all Galileans like himself, and Galilee was considered a backwater by Judean Jews. He spent most of his time with those despised by the religious as drunkards, tax collectors, and sinners, and he went out of his way to help those even his disciples thought were a waste of time – beggars, children, and Gentiles.

His parables were full of unlikely heroes – women, servants, a Samaritan. Over and over again, Jesus urges us to value what is small, hidden, and overlooked. A tiny mustard seed is hidden in the ground and becomes a tree large enough to provide a home for birds. A woman hides a little yeast in three measures of flour – that would be forty to sixty pounds of flour, and it is all leavened for enough bread to feed a village. Treasure and a priceless pearl are found hidden in fields.

This is where the kingdom of heaven is found, Jesus tells us – in small, ordinary things; in overlooked, hidden places. In people and things and places we so easily despise.

We have a God who sees the unwanted, the overlooked, the powerless, the despised, and raises them up.

And that makes me wonder, where are those things in our lives? In our communities?

Some of us know what it feels like to be despised – overlooked, unwanted, or even hated and rejected. And many of us really don’t know what that’s like.

I’m not sure which is more dangerous to us.

If we’ve been blessed not to have experienced being despised, that can make it all too easy to miss what we should see.

If we have been unwanted and despised, and have fought to find a place of acceptance and safety, it’s all too easy not to risk what we’ve gained for the sake of someone else who is despised.

We don’t have to hate someone to despise them; we only have to overlook them. To be uncomfortable enough to avoid them.

Who are those people in our lives and in our communities? The people who threaten the places we are comfortable? To be honest, I struggle with the panhandlers in my neighborhood, especially the ones who are more desperate, abrasive and louder, or who haven’t bathed in a long time. It’s easy for me to try to just ignore them instead of being willing to really see them as fellow human beings God loves.

In most communities, we struggle to include those whose language and culture are different. It’s easier to let them have their own spaces than to welcome them into ours. We struggle to welcome those who don’t think like we do, whose lives challenge our beliefs and call us to change. Humans tend to struggle with anyone who is different; we find our family and tribe and keep others out.

Are we willing to be uncomfortable in order to be more like Jesus? To show his welcome to the unwanted? Because that is what he calls us to do – to spread the “gospel,” the good news. At the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus proclaimed himself to be “good news” to the poor, and freedom for prisoners and the oppressed.

We have a Lord who sees the unwanted, the overlooked, the powerless, the despised, and raises them up.

Jesus is present with us in the bread and wine we will share, but he is present in the world through us, as well. And we take the bread and the wine because it is meant to change us – to give us the eyes of Christ to see the overlooked and the heart of Christ to welcome the despised.

Saint Teresa of Avila put it this way:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

The same God who chose the despised wife is the God who calls us to be the eyes and hands and feet of Christ in the world, who calls us to see the unwanted, the overlooked, the powerless, the despised, and raise them up.

Amen.