Sunday, November 29, 2015

Advent 2, Year C

Who are the prophets that are speaking to us today?

As I read through the texts for the second Sunday in Advent, my attention is drawn t the voices that come before - the voices that announce the coming of something big.  

Especially coming away from this past week's reading and my own reflections on hope inspired by recent events and Luke's end times teaching, I am drawn to Baruch's command to action - get out of your jammies, take a shower, comb your hair, shake of the blues and put on your fine garments of righteousness, oh Israel.  

In Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 1, commentator Deborah Block ponders Malachi's use questions to incite reflection.  A well placed question without a given answer is such a fabulous way to make us think.  When we are seeking to stir people, are we spoon feeding them ideas or nudging them to think, feel and act?  

Zechariah's song takes the place of a psalm...his is a song of wonder and praise to God who looks favorably on God's own.  It also places John the Forerunner in the stream of prophets and names his role - a prophecy about a prophet, if you will:

"And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most high; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people..."  

This baby has big shoes to fill as he grows.  

In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul speaks his own prophesy about how this community will become "pure and blameless."  I've never spent a lot of time thinking about Paul as a prophet in his day, and yet that is a role he played in the communities into which he spoke. 

Finally in the gospel passage for the day, John emerges and is placed in the context of the prophet Isaiah's proclamations.  As in Advent 1, our gospel text is NOT focused yet on the traditional elements of the birth narrative and we really get to once again slow down and put all the parts and pieces together carefully -- not in the rapid fire way that we may remember it from the high points of our childhood or from the way that society wants to race to the baby in a manger -- but slowly pondering what it meant for each character to fulfill their role.

And so I'm thinking about the role of prophets.  And wondering if we can hear modern-day prophets above the roar of the world around us.  I think that prophets are still speaking -- but between technology and globalization, how do they rise above the chaos?  And in that case, what is the role of community -- of the local church -- in listening for prophets even locally?  I know a few communities where one or two voices speak above the fray and name what they see...and what they envision...and what they understand the Spirit to be doing.  And maybe like Paul, they overlap many communities that are connected by their prophetic voice.

That's where my head and heart linger as we wander toward the second Sunday in Advent this year C.

First Sunday in Advent - Practicing Hope

A sermon reflecting on Luke 21: 25-36

Happy New Year!  It is the first Sunday of the year in the Christian way of marking time.  Advent is where the new year begins and this is the first of four Sundays in Advent. 

While the retail world has been sliding toward Christmas since the end of September, we are encouraged to enter first into a time of holy waiting – holy anticipation.  While the world is anticipating gifts under the tree and perfect Christmas decorations and cookies, we are really encouraged to look at where we are and what surrounds us and to anticipate the light that has come and will come into the world.

It reminds me just a little bit of the kind of reflecting that we often do as the calendar new year approaches, assessing what’s happened in the past year and setting intentions for what might happen in the year to come.  It could be a season of committing to new things – not MORE things, because that’s what the world all around us thinks we should do. But it could be a season of revising our lives in anticipation of Christ’s arrival.

Our text for today is NOT a part of the birth narrative – the adventures of getting the baby Jesus safely on this earth.  We’re not yet talking about Elizabeth and Zechariah and the expectation of John the Baptist.  We’re certainly not yet talking about Mary and Joseph and an angel’s visitation.

No… our scripture today is Jesus’ very own words about end times.  About expectation and longing and worry and redemption. 

25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.

Kind of hard to set that to the looping of Christmas music in the background.  Signs in the sun and moon and stars, distress among nations.  Yet here we are. The Lectionary, which is a three year recurring cycle of readings across the old and new testaments shared by many churches worldwide, begins the new church year in this place – talking about expectation and longing and worry and fear and ultimately, redemption – the Son of Man coming with power and great glory.

And this year, I feel like it matches our reality in many ways. Right into the midst of terrorist attacks and shifting world views, Pastor Rodney recently preached an important message, “do not worry.”

I find myself struggling these days to hold together the approaching holiday season with the 24/7 news cycle that is full of fear and foreboding.  We expect one crisis after another, and we may at times actually put on a cloak of fear and distrust. Voices of fear speak into our lives and say things like:
·      We should not let refugees in because one might seek to harm us.
·      We should own guns because we can defend our loved ones that way.
·      We should cling to what we know, hold fast to what we name “traditional” because the unknown, the emerging, the evolving, the new discoveries might be bad.

Just last week, my husband opened his email at work to discover that he’d been “registered” and obligated to a 30 minute, web-based safety training about how to respond in an active shooter situation. By way of background, Matt works in the Children’s Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital – and so in today’s environment, it makes sense that they would want the staff well-trained to respond to an active shooter situation.

The training focused on three viable responses:
  1. Escape, and take others with you, if you can do so safely.
  2. Hide, and hide with others, if you can do so safely.
  3. Commit to action and confront the assailant. 

Wow. That’s scary. 

But Matt’s reflection was this – he’d now had to think about the possibility and imagine what his response would be.  The training accomplished a level of awareness and preparedness.  That is the goal of training, right?  Expose us to the possibility and cause us to think about our response? Cause us to practice a response in our conscience so that when the need arises that response is somehow imprinted upon us. 

Notice that being fearful is not a trained response – take matters into your hands.  Do for yourself and others what you can in light of the situation.

Jesus continues:

28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” 29 Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34 “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly,

Raise up your heads.  My words will not pass away.  Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down by the worries of life.  Don’t be caught unaware.

Practice hope –

Merriam Webster defines hope this way – to cherish a desire with anticipation or to expect with confidence. Yet another definition, listed as an archaic usage, is TRUST.

The theologian Jurgen Moltmann points out that above the entrance to Dante’s hell in the epic Inferno are the words “Leave behind all hope, you who enter here” (Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 1993). Without hope, we cannot live full lives – we lead hellish lives without hope.

This first Sunday in advent marks a new beginning and it is a new beginning marked by hope.

God entered into this world, a baby born to a young mother and father, refugees fleeing violence and oppression.  My mother’s heart tells me that even without really knowing and understanding what this new life meant to the world, Mary looked into that new baby’s eyes with hope for his future.

Here in the last weeks of autumn we have watched nearly every leaf fall from the trees.  Grays and browns dominate the landscape and moldy death piles up at the base of towering oaks now bare.  The air is thinner, colder, often the sky is gray.  And we know that there will be cold rain, ice, snow.  The world as we know it will be buried in white at some point, hidden from our view.

But sometimes in March, the daylight will stretch out over hours and the wind will occasionally carry some warmth.  And perhaps through even snow, shoots of green will appear and crocuses and snow drops will bloom and birth new life in a new season. A new season – one with green growth and shady cover, of fruit and beauty will appear.

In the midst of the attacks in Paris, a different story, this one from Beirut where suicide bombs killed 40 and injured 200 days before the Pairs attack, surfaced in the Washington Poston November 16:

Adel Termos was walking in an open-air market with his daughter, according to reports, when the first suicide bomber detonated his explosives. Amid the instant chaos, Termos spotted the second bomber preparing to blow himself up, and made the quick decision to tackle him to the ground. The bomb went off, killing Termos, but saving countless others, including his daughter.

“There are many, many families, hundreds probably, who owe their completeness to his sacrifice,” Elie Fares, a blogger and physician in Beirut, told Public Radio International in an interview last week.

“In a way, Adel Termos broke human nature of self-preservation. His heroism transcended his own life to save others,” Fares told The Washington Post in an e-mail Monday. “To make that kind of decision in a split second, to decide that you’d rather save hundreds than to go back home to your family, to decide that the collective lives of those around you are more important than your own is something that I think no one will ever understand.”

I have returned to this story a lot in the past two weeks.  Because I believe this man understood that there was hope beyond himself.  He’d looked into the eyes of his sweet children and seen new life, new hope, a new heaven and a new earth.

In a season of fear, in the midst of an ancient refugee crisis, a baby was born in less than ideal circumstances. 
Hope came into the world.
Hope is coming into the world. 
Hope will come into the world.  Born in us.  Again and again.

Christ has died. Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.

We speak these words when we gather at the communion table to receive the body and blood of Christ.

Christ has died.  Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Our hope is not merely some promise about a world beyond this one.  Our hope is in the sun rising tomorrow.  Our hope is in cries of new life. Our hope is in seasons that just keep cycling to prove that new life is birthed from death. 

A life of fear means that we anticipate each loss with dread.  A life of hope means we see that new beginnings come from each ending.

Time and time again in this season of advent the scriptures we read include the angels saying, “fear not.” That is the voice of God speaking into our lives.  Fear not.  And…

Love God. 

Love your neighbor. 

Practice hope. 

In this new year, could that be your resolution?

Love God, love your neighbor, practice hope. 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Advent 1, Year C - Happy New Year

I am currently working in a congregation that does not use the lectionary. And that makes me sad because my faith life has been shaped by the lectionary rhythm. And so, headed into my favorite lectionary year, (Year C) I thought I'd try to blog about it once again - this time a week ahead. The best motivation? I am preaching Advent I need to get on it!  I would love your feedback, your reflection, your engagement as I walk back into this discipline. When I wrestle with the text, it infuses my worldview. Join me?

As I write this, Matt and I are talking about a young man who has taken his own life. We are pondering Emma's RA experience this week caring for a resident threatening self-harm. Paris has been rocked by unthinkable acts of terrorism and the US, Europe and Africa are threatened by religious extremism. "Business as usual" feels precarious.

Then, add the seasonal backdrop. As the bright colors of fall leaves fade into drab hues, our market driven society drags our chilly fingers and toes into the consumer driven world of glittery, over-stimulated red and green Christmas. 

The lectionary, however, encourages us to move a little more slowly. This is the very beginning - the mark of the new year. 

And we don't begin in Bethlehem. We don't begin with a miraculous pronouncement of the one who is to come.We don't begin with carols. We begin with waiting, reflection, anticipation, hope.

We begin, in some ways, at the end.

The prophet Jeremiah anticipates one who will "execute justice and righteousness." That sounds suspiciously like judgement at first blush. 

And the psalmist seems to be pleading for refinement and correction, teaching and direction.

And that reminds me, a little bit anyway, of where my mind typically dwells in the new year. Fitting, right? It is the church's new year.

In Paul's letter to the church at Thessalonica, he's praying for a correction in the community. He's praying for God to intervene, to redirect, to strengthen.

And finally, in the gospel of Luke, we are deep in. Jesus is in the temple threatening a dark time as the Kingdom of God draws near. He references heaven and earth passing away. He encourages his followers to remain alert and to pray for strength that they can withstand what is to come. 

Advent is a season of waiting. And we begin in the very darkest place, not exactly sure of what is coming at us. We know, in historical context, that the baby born in Bethlehem emerged as a powerful teacher, prophet, healer and leader. The very son of God came, walked among us in flesh, died at the hands of the dominant culture, and returned to life to eat again with those he loved. We know the story right up to today. But that doesn't mean we know the story tomorrow. Such has been the walk of Christions for 2000 years.

As we enter into a season of waiting, we wait, in some ways for what has already happened.

...We also wait in hope for what comes next.