Sermon–November 27, 2011–Advent 1B

First Sunday of Advent B
Preached at First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Muskegon, MI, while on Internship.

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

As Paul greets the Corinthians in his letter to them, so too, do I greet you today: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I can’t tell you how happy I am that we are finally out of the season of Pentecost. In case you hadn’t noticed, these last few weeks have been filled with readings proclaiming woe and destruction, fire and brimstone, weeping and gnashing of teeth. Oh my goodness, who wants to listen to that, let alone preach on it!

Week after week we were reminded of our own sinfulness, our own inadequacy, our own fallacies, our mistakes, our excuses, our whoopsies and oopsies, and everything else we really would rather keep to ourselves.

If you are just as tired of these types of readings as I am… good. Somehow, I think… that was the point. Some of us have been waiting weeks for Advent to come. But what are we waiting for?

The more I use the Revised Common Lectionary, the more I am convinced that we don’t give it enough credit. For me, let’s face it, after All Saints’ Day, I could move straight into Advent and do without those nasty, uncomfortable lessons. Why do we have to listen to those, anyway? I was about ready to throw up my hands and say, “Enough already! Enough!”

And lo and behold, I looked at today’s readings: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” “Make your name known to your adversaries!” “Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember our iniquity forever!”

“Enough already, enough!” The frustration that I have experienced these past few weeks comes to an ultimate finale on this, the first weekend of Advent. As I said, I think I need to give the Revised Common Lectionary a little more credit.

And if I thought I had it bad, being oh so inconvenienced by these past few weeks, the readings today snapped me back to reality so hard I think I have whiplash.

You see, for me, these readings were just that… readings. For others, they are daily cries for help that too often go unheard. Isaiah’s preaching echoes the lament being shouted by the Judeans in exile.

“Enough already, enough!” they cry. “How much more are we supposed to take, God, how much more! We NEED you!” They felt like God had abandoned them. With all of the terrible things they’ve gone through, how can anyone say that there is a God. What kind of a God would allow this to happen to a chosen people? These same cries are shouted over and over again by people suffering persecution and oppression. So again, what are we waiting for?

Well, I can tell you what our brothers and sisters are waiting for, those who live on pennies a day, those who wonder if tonight the army will show up at their houses and take away their loved ones, never to be seen again.

They look for Mark. They eagerly wait to see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Their salvation is marked by the coming of angels gathering the elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the earth. They are waiting for deliverance from their oppression and persecution, their poverty and powerlessness, from death itself. What are we waiting for?

Advent. The season of waiting. Are we waiting for Christmas Day, when we get to open our presents? Or Christmas Day, the day when we celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, Immanuel, “God with us?” Not anymore. All that is behind us. We know the story. We know its beginning and its middle and its… end? Or do we?

Advent is not just about remembering the birth of Christ. Christ DID come, Immanuel, “God with us”, and died for the redemption of humanity. But there is still war. There is still persecution. There is still violence and oppression. What are we waiting for?

Listen: “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

God’s not done yet. If there were nothing left to do, there would be no reason for the church to proclaim the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. There would be no reason to do… anything Christ told us to do.

God’s not done yet. And THAT’S what we are waiting for.

Advent. The season of waiting. The season of working. One cannot get any work done while they sleep, and so we are told, “Keep awake!” We don’t know when God’s work in this world will be finished, and so we wait vigilantly, not wanting to be caught asleep when the work is completed. We do this not because we are afraid of being left behind. Rather, we keep awake so that we can continue to do God’s work in the world, as we are able, until God returns to finish it.

With the end of Pentecost and the beginning of Advent, we realize that we have reached the breaking point. We can’t do it all ourselves. We’ve tried for too long. So we cry out to God again, “Come!” And as we look out over the chasm before us, a divide that leads us to despair and hopelessness, we hear an echo return—but not in our words. Instead, we hear these words echoed back to us from across the great divide:

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I am coming.” Amen.

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Visitors to the Table

I sat down at a small round table in the fellowship hall where two visitors munched on coffee cake and sipped Kool-Aid.

I had met them earlier in the hallway; their friend, a member of the congregation and the one who had invited them to our church in the first place needed help answering a question they had. I don’t get to interact with visitors as often as I would like, so I was eager to sit and talk with them.

“I don’t know if we’ve been really introduced. I’m Ken.”

Meeting Michael and Cathy

They shared their names, Michael and Cathy. They’d been here before with their children and wanted to come back again.

“This was the first place we’ve visited that none of the kids complained about.”

That brought a smile to my face. Were they new to the area, I asked? No, but they had been searching for a new church since their old one wouldn’t welcome them anymore.

“Too many divorces between the two of us.”

By too many, they meant two. Each had been in a previous marriage before. Cathy was glad to be out of her old marriage; Michael didn’t talk about his. The two of them had been married two years now.

Our church doesn’t care how often you have been divorced, I said. It’s just not a sticking point for us like it is for others. That seemed to get their attention.

We continued to talk about their experiences with other churches and their reactions to each. I was interested to hear about which traditions they experienced–I never stop thinking with an ecumenical mind, it seems.

Coming to the Table

Eventually, it was time for them to go home, and I stood to show them out. Michael stopped me, however, and said that he had a couple more questions he wanted to ask.

“What is your Communion practice here, your belief?”

I told him that what we say at the table is true (and what had been said that morning during the service)–when Christ sets the table, everyone is invited. It is not for us to withhold it from anyone.

I watched their faces as they processed that idea. They came from a tradition which did not treat Holy Communion in this way. Most don’t. Cathy remembered being scolded for attempting to tak Communion because it was “not for her”.

Michael noticed an announcement in the bulletin about “First Communion” and asked what that was about. I explained that First Communion classes were usually for children who do not yet commune. The classes, a mere two, teach the children what Communion is all about.

We have these classes not because children can’t take communion before a certain time; it is simply a matter of church organization and order. Theologically, we could give Communion to an infant. I suspect we do not do so because we don’t want the child to choke.

“What about baptism? ‘Cuz… I’m, uh… not…”

Here, Michael assumed, would be the end of the discussion. They would be escorted promptly from the church and told to stay away from the altar until they were no longer heathens.

This had been their experience in other churches, why would this one be every different?

Ideally, I said, one should be baptized before coming to Communion. That has been the traditional formula: baptism, and then Communion. But if you came up again for Communion, we would commune you.

“You would?”

Yes, we would. We stand by our belief that when Christ sets the table, all are invited. Would I take the opportunity later to talk with you about the Christian community and would I encourage you to explore why you are coming to the table and how you can be a fuller member of the community? Yes. But if you came to the table, you would not be turned away.

I don’t think they expected to hear that. After a few moments, they kindly and generously thanked me for taking the time to talk to them and answer their questions. As they left I wished them blessings in their search for a church home, a place where they would not only feel welcomed but fed–physically and spiritually.

Seekers, Not Shoppers

I will be the first to admit that I do not react well to Church Shoppers.

“Do you have a Sunday school program? How many teachers? How  many kids?”

“Do you sing hymns, contemporary music, or nothing at all? Do you use the organ, piano, or praise band?”

“How many services do you have, and at what time? Vestments? Liturgy? Candles? Incense? Communion rail? Lectern and pulpit?”

The check list goes on and on. The shoppers have a specific image of what kind of church they want to attend. They go from church to church with their list. For the most part, the list is superficial (in my eyes). The list approaches church from a consumer perspective. The church is a product.

I struggle with church shoppers. On one hand, I am insulted by the insinuation that church is a product to be analyzed and presented in a consumer report.

On the other hand, I know that some of these list items are important to the shoppers: if they have kids, they want to raise them in a church with a good Sunday School program, for example.

Michael and Cathy, however, are not shoppers. They are Seekers. They are not looking for a church with programs to suit their busy lifestyle. They are not looking for a church that sings the same music they like to sing.

They are seeking God. They’ve been to church after church, rejected at some, uncomfortable at others, and hurt by others. They are seeking grace.

I could spend the rest of my ministry working with Seekers, baptized or unbaptized, Lutheran or otherwise. When I think of Evangelism, I think of Seekers. They need the Good News most of all because they are the ones who have been seeking grace and have yet to find it.

Will Michael and Cathy come back again? I hope so. In their eyes I saw a glint of hope. Maybe this is a place where they can finally find the welcome that has been denied them in other places.

Maybe this is a place they can finally call home.

Sermon–November 23, 2011–Thanksgiving Eve

Thanksgiving Eve 2011
Preached at First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Muskegon, MI, while on Internship.

Deuteronomy 8:7-18
Psalm 65
2 Corinthians 9:6-15
Luke 17:11-19

Thanksgiving. A time to give thanks. But remember the LORD your God.

I am a person of short memory. Ask anyone on staff here who has had to deal with me, I have a hard time remembering anything. Big things, little things, important things, trivial things: nothing is safe from the purging process in which my brain so delights.

And there doesn’t seem to be any pattern to what I can and can’t. I can tell you that the shortest verse in the New Testament, in Greek is in the first letter to the Thessalonians. Or I can tell you that Luke Skywalker’s call sign was Red-5 at the Battle of Yavin when he destroyed the first Death Star. I can tell you that the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” is not found anywhere in the Bible, but was in fact spoken by Benjamin Franklin. Or I can tell you that the Orca, the Killer Whale, is one of the only known whales that attacks and kills other whales, particularly the sperm whale, for food.

On the other hand, I often forget my lunch sitting on the counter. Or that I have a 7:00 AM small group at the Steak ‘n’ Egger. Or where the Song of Solomon is found in the Bible. Memory is a funny thing. We can forget any number of things. And when it comes to the lessons of our past, well, why should they be any different?

I have had many interesting discussions about prayer with classmates. It seems all of us have similar experiences when it comes to praying. When things are going badly, our first instinct is to throw up our hands to God and say, “Help!” But when things are going well, we tend to just enjoy the great blessings life has given us. I still neglect giving thanks to God even at the dinner table when I am about to eat.

The Israelites had plenty to thank God about. They had a covenant with God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt, who brought them out of the house of slavery, who led them through the great and terrible wilderness, and arid wasteland of poisonous snakes and scorpions, who made water from flint rock, who fed them in the wilderness with manna.

Have you ever noticed how often we hear about what God has done? So many people will look at our first reading tonight and see the part about keeping God’s commandments, ordinances and statutes.

“Aha!” they will say, “there he goes again, telling me what to do! All demanding and commanding, pah! Forget this!”

I don’t think God is being unreasonable though. The command to keep the covenant is bookmarked on both sides by not only what God has already done for the Israelites, but also by what God is about to do for them. The Israelites had a lot to thank God for. And still they forgot. Once things were going good again, the people forgot all about what God had done for them.

It’s easy for us to forget, too. Most of us haven’t had to wander around the desert for 40 minutes, let alone forty years, having to depend on food from heaven to survive. We’ve never lived under oppression. We’ve never experienced slavery. Most of us never had to rely on God for our very existence. It’s easy to forget about God.

We are raised to believe that we can get anything we desire if we just work hard enough. We lift up as idols those men and women who rise from the lowliest of circumstances and become world leaders and billionaires. “Wow, look at everything they’ve done! Look how far they’ve come.”

But remember the LORD your God.

We truly are blessed for the lives we have been able to lead. Deuteronomy tells us how: it is God who gives blessing and wealth and prestige.

Paul, then, tells us why. We are blessed not so that we can show it all off to the world. We are blessed, not so we can set ourselves up as idols to be adored. Instead, we are blessed for the sole purpose of being able to bless others. Our own human ideas about wealth and power and blessing don’t count for much.

One of my favorite movies—and there seem to be a lot of those—is the Prince of Egypt, and one of the songs, “Through Heaven’s Eyes”, has a verse that says,

“So how do you measure the worth of a man
In wealth or strength or size,
In how much he gained, or how much he gave?
The answer will come
The answer will come to him who tries
To look at his life through heaven’s eyes.”

How much we have or how much we give away is not important. That we have, and that therefore we give away—that is why we are blessed. This holiday then is not about giving thanks, but thankfully giving. We are blessed with the abundance. But remember where it came from, and where it needs to go. Remember the LORD your God.