Jesus Gets Born

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Luke 2:1-20

While there are many awkward things about Christmas falling on a Sunday, I admit that there’s exactly one thing about it that’s small but awesome. Because it means that twice this year, we’ll gather on a Saturday night for a big celebration. Tonight, and then again on Easter Vigil as we begin the big party of Easter. For the Christian faithful around the world, Christmas Eve a holy night. A big night, with high expectations.

Big enough that I feel like it should’ve begun with a big announcement, maybe even a recognizable one, like:

“Live from South Hadley — it’s Saturday night!”

We’ve got all kinds of expectations around Christmas: getting the whole family together, everyone being happy, perfectly placed decorations, warm holiday cheer. And, as often happens with big moments, it rarely pans out exactly perfectly.

I’ve been watching a series called Friday Night Tykes, a reality show about youth football in Texas. In one episode, a team mom goes to great lengths to make the team seeing their jerseys for the first time before the season begins special for all of them. Of course, though, as often happens with kids, the kids aren’t paying attention, they’re cutting up, they’re loud. Diligent, the team mom gives everyone a paper bag with their jersey in it and counts down — 3, 2, 1 —- OPEN!

The boys all open their paper bags. There are some sounds of awe, but mostly there is just little boys yelling. One kid towards the front immediately throws the jersey over his face. Another hits his friend with his. The mom sighs, “This is not how I envisioned this.”

For sure, we as humans are quite used to building up to big moments and then being let down. One of the marks of a kid growing up is that kid’s ability to handle disappointment, because getting let down is a part of life. It happens in sports. It notably happens in politics. And it definitely happens in our personal lives. We’re quite used to being let down at the last minute.

Not only is life full of let downs, but it’s downright scary out there sometimes. Finances, global politics, our health — we live tenuous, scary lives when you really think about it. Like my chaplain colleague said after reading a patient’s chart once: “It’s scary to be alive!”

It’s one of the things that helps us identify with the Peanuts character of Linus. He’s the one that’s always carrying around his security blanket, and no matter what anyone tells him, he refuses to part with it. Charlie Brown tries to talk him out of it. Lucy tries. Every time, he refuses. And who can blame him? It’s scary to be alive!

But my friend Joseph, the San Franciscan Episcopal priest, pointed something out a few weeks ago that has stuck with me when it comes to Christmas. In a world where we are used to being afraid and quite used to being let down at the last minute, Jesus never doesn’t get born. Every single Christmas Eve, Christians gather all over the world to celebrate Christ’s arrival in a manger that night. No, our celebrations may not be everything we hope they will be. Things go wrong. Hot candle wax makes its way to the carpet or (worse) to our vulnerable hands. People forget what they’re supposed to do. But none of this stops the essential good news from being proclaimed all over the world this night: Jesus Christ is born. God has come into the world, into our mess, into our scary lives and our disappointment with the angel’s words: “Fear not.”

Fear not, for God is here. God has come into the world as a baby, and now God is here in each of us and bread and wine. No matter how disappointing anything else about this Christmas may be, Jesus never doesn’t get born.

Now, the truth, in the words of my pastor friend Kathleen, is that preachers in the Western world have long been trying to proclaim the Gospel of Christ’s birth half as well as A Charlie Brown Christmas.

This year, I noticed something that I’d never noticed before. Right at the end, when Charlie Brown is mulling over his disappointment and feeling as if he’s messed up Christmas with his sad little tree and his fumbling, he says, with exasperation (along with many of us on Christmas) “Everything I do is a disaster.” Then he adds, “Isn’t there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about?”

Linus, grasping his security blanket, says, “Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.” Then he walks to center stage, dragging his security blanket behind him, and says, humbly: “Lights please?”

He then goes on to recite what was part of our Luke reading tonight, about the angels telling the shepherds of Christ’s birth. He tells about how the angel appeared. And Linus holds up his blanket as he tells about how the shepherds were afraid. And then something incredible happens that you might not have noticed before.

Linus recites, “And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not!’”

… and he drops his blanket. The blanket that no one could ever get him to part with falls to the floor as he continues, “I bring you tidings of great joy which will be good news to all people. For unto you this day in the city of David is born a Savior.”

No matter how scary life is, no matter how disappointing some parts of Christmas will turn out to be, no matter how much goes wrong this year — as my friend, aptly named Joseph, says, “Jesus never doesn’t get born.”

Unto us this night is born a Savior. And tonight we celebrate with Christians around the world. Fear not.

And yes, parts of your Christmas may not be perfect. But Jesus was literally born in a barn. That first Christmas was far from clean and perfect. But the Savior was still born.

This week, Lynn Willis, spiritual director for the LEAD program of the ELCA, wrote a poem about how perfectly raw and dirty that first Christmas was, with the baby born in a stable:

“May you embrace the raw,

amazing story of the incarnation this year.

Unwrapped. Untidy.

With all of its dank and sharp and acidic edges.

And in thanks and praise and wonder know that

Jesus meets us where we are. Emmanuel.”

May you embrace the beauty of Christmas this year, knowing that it doesn’t have to be perfect, because Jesus never doesn’t get born. The world sings with joy, and we join in. Jesus meets us where we are: in our families, in each other, in wine, in bread. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Dance Dance Incarnation

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Luke 1:46-56
Matthew 1:18-25

Alice Walker said it first: “Hard times require furious dancing.” (1)

I first heard the quote from a dear friend of mine named Melinda. Melinda was the hospice chaplain on the pastoral care staff at the hospital where I worked in Atlanta. She’s also an immigrant from South Africa, a white woman a little taller than myself with spiked hair and stylish glasses. Melinda is older than I am, but she’s cooler than I’ll ever be. A perceptive person can detect in Melinda a sense of peace and calm, but also a strength and feistiness that comes from struggle and perseverance. It is fair to say that Melinda taught me how to be a chaplain — and if I ever found myself in need of hospice care, I would want her to be my chaplain.

She brought this Alice Walker quote to us one day when things at the hospital were particularly busy and difficult. Melinda knows what all of us knew: that the next crisis is probably just around the corner. We could not dream of a peaceful work environment because we worked in a hospital. Given hard times, we could only endure, and, when we can, find rest and yes — occasionally even dance. Because hard times require furious dancing.

There’s been quite a bit of talk lately about how 2016 has been a difficult, tragedy-laden year. Even this week, the crisis in Aleppo, that’s been brewing for years, is bubbling over and the results are unspeakably horrible. All over the world, we’ve seen more terrorist attacks. The election was one of the most divisive in recent memory and if you’ve seen the news you know that it’s not getting better. Everyone seems ready to turn the page on 2016 and begin a new year.

But what I’ve been thinking about lately is that if we expect the clock striking midnight in two weeks to really turn the page, to close the door on tragedy and crisis, we’re kidding ourselves. New beginnings are nice, but they don’t save us, just as no election result can save us. The next crisis is around the corner, as it always is, no matter who’s in charge or what year it is.

This is why Alice Walker’s and Melinda’s message rings as true as ever: “Hard times require furious dancing.”

Because of our Advent study on Wednesday nights, I’ve been thinking more than usual about my days as a hospital chaplain. Once, when reviewing a patient’s chart where a freak brain bleed had debilitated the patient out of the blue one day, another of my chaplain colleagues remarked, “Man! It’s scary to be alive!”

Truer words have scarcely been spoken. Because whether we know it or not, we are all one breath away from crisis and hard times: medically, financially, relationally. The next crisis is always looming. It’s scary to be alive. Melinda, as a hospice chaplain, knows this better than most. She knew that the next heartbreaking case was just around the corner. There is no guarantee of good times and everlasting peace, at least outside of permanent divine intervention. The next crisis may be just around the corner — in fact, it probably is.

“Hard times require furious dancing.”

Perhaps that’s why, when she was pregnant with Jesus, Mary sang.

In place of the psalm today was “The Canticle of the Turning,” which is a faithful rendering of Mary’s song, the Magnificat, in Luke 1. Mary sings, I think, not because she thinks that everything is going to be nice and peaceful now that the Messiah is coming. She knows it won’t be. Mary knows better than most that hard times are ahead. By the time she sings these words, she’s already had to contend with explaining to her fiancé exactly how and why she was pregnant — and though we’re so familiar with the story that we may miss it, “I’m pregnant with the Messiah” was probably not an easy sell to Joseph as an explanation. A pastor friend of mine has a favorite Advent meme: one of Mary holding a positive pregnancy test and covering her mouth in shock.

Mary knew that hard times were coming. She knew that the next crisis was probably just around the corner — and it was. Soon after Jesus’ birth, the Holy Family would become refugees in Egypt, fleeing Herod’s bloodthirsty reign as he killed every child two years old and younger in an attempt to protect his own power from the newborn Messiah in a humanitarian crisis that recalls what’s happening in Aleppo right now, where even children are killed for political ends.

This may seem an odd sermon to preach, since Christmas is usually such a happy time. And for sure, Jesus’ birth was a time of great joy with angels singing — but what Mary knew is that the next crisis was just around the corner. As, here on Earth, it always is.

It’s scary to be alive. So the idea that “hard times require furious dancing,” or that Mary would sing as a response to all of this, might strike us as odd at first.

Right after more than fifty people were murdered in a gay nightclub in Orlando this year — yet another of 2016’s horrors — there were many responses. There was sympathy. There was mourning. There was fear. But the following weekend, something else started to happen.

People started to go out dancing — dancing because they were still alive, dancing for themselves, dancing for each other, dancing for freedom. The Twitter hashtag #IWillDance appeared. People danced not out of disrespect for the dead, but out of respect for them — because they were determined that no act of terror could make us retreat in fear. It was declared boldly: even now, even in our heartbreak, we will comfort each other and we will be free.

We will dance.

“Hard times require furious dancing.”

For me, music is one of the lights of my life. I love using the music streaming platform called Spotify, and I like to joke that I fancy myself a Spotify DJ. Every year, I make playlists for Advent and Lent with music that is as new as I can find. This year, the song on my Advent playlist that has most spoken to me is a collaboration between the musical artists called Salt Cathedral and Matisyahu. Matisyahu is, as it would happen, a Jewish hip hop and reggae artist who has already been inspiring me for years. The song they produced together this year is called “Unraveling,” and it is, in essence, a dialogue between the singer from Salt Cathedral and the hip hop lines of Matisyahu wherein Matishayu declares that he is “unraveling every day” while the lines from Salt Cathedral are lines of support and love: she sings, “If you’re tired, not much more you can do, know I’m right here — I’m right here with you” as he raps over her: “When my right is my left and my left can’t connect and my eye come correct and the grass is wet and the debt is paid what can I say — I’m unraveling every day!” (2) [Listen to it here]

I’ve come to love this song more and more as Advent has worn on for two reasons. First, I love it because it is so theologically good — that while we each unravel every day, we simultaneously “embrace the love and live for each other,” as the song says. Second, I love it because even while it describes struggle and support, it is so deliciously danceable.

“Hard times require furious dancing.”

Finally, the content of Mary’s song points us towards something even better than the love and support that we can promise each other here — she promises us that someday, the impossible will happen. Someday, this child she bears will make all things right. The world is about to turn. She sings that God has “brought the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). As we sit in the seemingly eternal Advent of our world, this seems like a far distant pipe dream. Here on Earth, we see the opposite happen. The rich and powerful are as rich and powerful as ever while the poor suffer. But the underlying reality is that Christ has come and we have to hope even in the darkness that maybe, just maybe, as we declare every Sunday — Christ will come again.

Until then, we wait in darkness, in Advent, together. We gather at this table every single Sunday and hope against hope that someday even our next tragedy will be made right. As we talked about last Sunday, faith isn’t logical — it’s actually pretty crazy. I have sometimes declared that I’m a little jealous of those who don’t have to believe in anything. Because faith is hard. Faith is crazy. But without it, I wouldn’t be able to cope with the pain that I have seen: Matisyahu in the song I mentioned earlier captures it perfectly: “These feelings can’t stop bleeding, and these eyes they won’t stop seeing.” Because my eyes can’t stop seeing pain, my heart can’t stop believing that someday we will all be free — from pain, from tragedy — that a day will come when the next crisis won’t be just around the corner, and peace will reign forever.

It was the Fourth Sunday of Advent last year when I first officially met you all as a whole congregation. Like today, I preached on the Magnificat and I challenged you, like Mary, to sing loud in hope. We’ve been singing loud together for a year. We will continue to do so, together, here for each other: as Matisyahu says, “When my right is my left and my left can’t connect” — when you unravel, I will be right here with you. And when I unravel, you will catch me, too, because God has given all of us to each other for such a time as this. And we will continue to sing loud, like Mary, not because we think that it’s all smooth sailing from here on out. We turn the music up and we sing loud because it won’t be, and music helps us to feel free — and to remember that God is with us, that God has come to us and to declare in hope, every single Sunday, that Christ will come again. So turn the music up this Advent.

Hard times, after all, require furious dancing. Amen.

1. Alice Walker, Hard Times Require Furious Dancing (book), New World Library, 2013.
2. “Unraveling,” Salt Cathedral ft. Matisyahu, November 2016.

Call Me Crazy

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Matthew 11:2-11

The fastest way that we write people off: call them crazy. (1)

Truth be told, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking John the Baptist is a little crazy.

It happens every Advent: we get two Sundays in a row to think about this guy John the Baptist. Now, during this family oriented, fun season of Advent, we might imagine that John the Baptist is a gentle character, a gentle saint, maybe like Santa Claus. (But then you remember that St. Nicholas punched a heretic once — true story, google it — and even that argument kind of falls apart.) The reality of John the Baptist, though, is that he was kind of a scary dude. You might even say he was a little crazy.

Advent really is different than Christmas. While our less liturgical neighbors are thinking about shepherds and angels, we’re talking about apocalypses and crazy dudes in camel’s hair.

Footnote: Sometimes being a Lutheran is deeply weird. Christmas is warm and fuzzy, but Advent? Advent is crazy.

Truly, John the Baptist isn’t unlike the street preachers of our own day. My current cover photo on Facebook, the one that dominates the screen when you go to my personal page, is the same one it’s been for just about every Advent for the last five years or so. It’s a photo that I found years ago when looking for something to bring a little Advent to my little corner of the massive social network. I don’t even remember where it came from anymore.

It’s a photo of a white man in a tuxedo without the jacket. He has on glasses and a very serious expression. He’s standing up very straight on a street corner like your average crazy street preacher, and he’s holding a sign that defies expectations.
It reads, in big, handwritten letters, “THE BEGINNING IS NEAR.”

I have loved that photo since I first found it.

We often think of street preachers yelling just the opposite: “Repent, for the end is near!” Though we often write such people off today as crazy — and believe me, I have some good stories of bad theology from the street preachers I’ve met and heard around Atlanta — John the Baptist wasn’t unlike the street preachers of his time. Last week we learned all about him: about how he wore camel’s hair, ate bugs and dressed strangely. Even today, Jesus seems to ask John’s disciples: “What did you go out to see?” A spectacle? A crazy person?

Because of John’s eccentric description in the Gospels, it’s no surprise that those who have chosen to depict him in art, plays, movies, and books have had a field day with our old friend John the Baptist. In one of my favorite books, Christopher Moore’s Lamb, which is the hilarious story of Jesus told from the point of view of Jesus’ childhood best friend, Biff, John the Baptist is Jesus’ insane cousin, always going out to scream at the crowds. Like in the Bible, he’s about the same age as Jesus, and everyone dismisses him as the nut in the family that everyone has — up to a point, when they realize the crazy cousin is onto something.

Then there’s Godspell, when the same actor who plays John the Baptist also plays Judas, ushering in both the beginning and the end of the story. From this angle, we can see that, when it comes to Jesus and resurrection, saying “the end is near” is not all that different from saying that the beginning is near.

Finally, there’s Cotton Patch Gospel, one of my favorite depictions of John the Baptist. Cotton Patch Gospel, a book by Clarence Jordan turned into a musical, tells the story of the life of Jesus as if Jesus had been born in modern day rural Georgia. Though the story is a reinterpretation of the Gospel of Matthew, the story stays true to the overall story of Jesus — a seemingly regular boy born to poor young parents in the middle of nowhere: Gainesville, Georgia, to be exact.

I was going through my second Advent as a pastor years ago, I decided to make this version of John the Baptist into my Advent theme. It was so much fun that I decided to bring a little of it to you guys, because what is Advent without a little Southern charm.

The opening song from the musical is called “Something’s Brewin’ in Gainesville.” A little later, we meet John the Baptist. Allow me to get into character.

We are told, “At this time, a new preacher showed up in the rural part of Georgia called John the Baptizer.” Jesus went to the Chattahoochee riverside to hear him preach. “He heard John claiming that the famous virgin’s baby of Gainesville was no rumor, but an his-torical fact.” “People were coming from all over: Atlanta. Opelika. Oneona. Two Egg. Cordell. Ty Ty. Gluck. And when they owned up to their crooked ways, he dipped ‘em in the Chattahoochee.”

The first we hear of John is him ranting like a street preacher, similar to what we heard last week: “You sons ‘o snakes! Tell me, who put the heat on you to run from the fury ‘bout to [crack] break over your heads!? You got to reshape your lives! ‘Cause God’s new order of the Spirit is con-fronting YOU! Hallelujah! …He’s so much stronger than I am, I’m unworthy to shine his shoes! Hallelujah! He’s gone dip you in the Holy Spirit and fire! His combine is already runnin’! Hallelujah! Can I hear a hallelujah?”

Get the idea yet? John the Baptist is no regular saint. He’s a little crazy. He’s essentially a crazy street preacher who just so happened to be telling the Gospel truth. And part of what makes him kind of like a crazy street preacher is his sense of conviction, of certainty.

So then, if John is so crazy and certain, why is it that he sends his disciples today from prison to ask if Jesus is really the one who is to come. That’s right, in case you missed it: the guy in prison for this Messiah sends someone to say “Are you the Messiah?” So much for certainty. Even John the Baptist, in prison for his faith, wondered about his own faith: am I crazy?

And Jesus isn’t impatient with them or with John. He simply says, “Go and tell them what you see” because Jesus is a big believer in “by your fruit you will know them.” The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Or in the hummus, I guess, in this case.

“…the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

In other words, go back and tell John that the impossible is happening. Go back to prison and tell John he’s not crazy. It’s real. This is happening.

Or, more accurately, go back and tell John the Good News that God is here, and it’s crazy.

Illogically, absurdly amazing. The impossible is happening. Go back and tell John to rejoice. The truth is that faith entails being a little crazy — believing the impossible, and rejoicing.

You may have noticed that we lit a pink candle this morning.

You may have thought that this is for no particular reason.

You’d be wrong. One pink candle? For no real reason? C’mon, that’s crazy.

You see, sometime around the ninth century, church folks decided that Advent, the preparation time for Christmas, should be four weeks long. And they decided that people shouldn’t only repent and be sad as they remember the way the people longed for the Savior of the World to come. In their wisdom, our ancestors in faith wanted us to rejoice, too, because help is on the way — and help has already come. And so for one Sunday out of the four, they made one candle a few shades lighter than the others. Since the original color of Advent was purple, the candle a few shades lighter is pink, and that gave us Gaudete Sunday, when we are called to both acknowledge our need for a Savior — and also to have the gall to rejoice.

Which is pretty crazy when you consider the state of the world: the war, disease, poverty, and hatred that seem to have a grip on the world so often chokes out joy and faith.

Faith is hard. Faith is stubborn. Faith is somewhat illogical considering the evidence.

Faith is crazy.

Faith is like the crocus that comes up in the desert in our Isaiah reading. Stubborn like the buds and blades of grass that push their way up every spring. If all you knew was winter, imagining spring would be difficult. Faith is sometimes like that. It is for me. It was for most of the saints. It certainly was for John — even crazy John the Baptist in camel’s hair, imprisoned for his faith.

Faith is crazy and downright hard for the logical mind.

Mary Oliver has a poem about how illogical hope can be. Her poem, “Mysteries, Yes,” posted by a pastor friend last week, is where I want to end today.

She writes:

“Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the mouths of lambs.

How rivers and stones are forever in allegiance with gravity

while we ourselves dream of rising.

How two hands touch and the bonds will never be broken.

How people come, from delight or the scars of damage,

to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say, ‘Look!’ and laugh in astonishment,

and bow their heads.” 

Let us rejoice, beloved. Let us look with astonishment on what God is already doing among us. Let us dance, laugh, and rejoice. Because God is coming, and God is already here in bread and wine and words and in each of us.

And that’s crazy. Thanks be to God. Amen.

1. This was first and most succinctly stated in my hearing by Dr. Greg Ellison of the Candler School of Theology.

Alarm Clocks, Football, and Belonging: A Sermon About Repentance

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The New England Patriots’ End Zone Militia. 

The Second Sunday of Advent

Matthew 3:1-12

This past week, when I drove back from my parents’ home in Alabama back here to South Hadley, I had to leave early on both mornings of my drive in order to get ahead of some pretty nasty rain and that evil Northern creation called a “wintry mix.” This required driving all day, crashing with kind friends, and then waking up at some ungodly hour of the morning to do it all again. You know how it feels when the alarm goes off so early that it seems like it’s going off in the middle of the night, because it kind of is? When the alarm’s sound comes crashing into your skull with such force that your first thought of the day is a very impolite word or two?

That’s the experience I had.

That alarm that shatters your sleep and springs you into action isn’t pleasant, especially when it interrupts your sleep in a warm bed to throw you into a world of cold rain, as my alarm did. But I knew that it was necessary, so I let it move me.

It was time to wake up and go somewhere.

We usually see repentance as being kind of like that, and sometimes it is. I imagine that John the Baptist’s words, to his original hearers, must have been like a sharp sounding alarm. I imagine that they called up that same feeling of visceral, shocking unpleasantness. I mean, really. Take another look at what he says in today’s Gospel text.“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (v. 7). 

… Merry Christmas, everybody?

This would be a terrible Christmas text indeed, if indeed it were Christmas. And it may have been Christmas at Target since before Halloween but in here, it’s Advent: a time of waiting, and yes, a time of repentance.

I’ve always thought of repentance as this kind of experience: unpleasant, like jumping into cold water or waking up to that jarring alarm. And you know, a lot of the time it is. Jesus routinely smacks me upside the head, usually when I’m being unnecessarily bitter or judgy.

But ever since I left the Southern Baptist church of my childhood, and especially since I entered Lutheranism, I’ve learned that repentance isn’t about getting a smack upside the head. Thinking about things this week, I’ve concluded that I’ve been confusing repentance with guilt — that in order to repent you have to feel bad.

To “repent,” after all, is simply to change direction — which can be unpleasant at first, or it can just be a sudden and certain realization that things could be different than the way they are now. Repentance, in other words, can really be a hopeful thing.

Blessed Advent, everybody.

I grew up, as you all know by now, in Alabama, where college football is king. I went to church on and off as a kid, and I was, of course, Baptist like everybody else. Repentance was talked about a lot, usually in terms of the unpleasant alarm that shatters your sleep. We made that mistake of conflating repentance with guilt. True repentance, I was taught, was usually noted by tears and shame, so preachers pushed to make people feel “convicted,” which is a fancy Baptist word for feeling terrible.

One common device for making people feel bad was to go after something they loved. In Alabama, as you also know, college football is king. People love their teams. In Alabama, you are born an Auburn fan or you’re born an Alabama fan, and things rarely change throughout the course of one’s life. Team loyalties run deep.

For example, the Auburn Tigers have always been my team. When I was a baby, I wore Auburn onesies. As I grew, so did the Auburn apparel. My dad and I bonded over football games. From the time that I was little, my bedtime stories were stories of great Auburn players and coaches — of Bo Jackson and Pat Sullivan, of Shug Jordan and Pat Dye.

People often joke about college football as another religion in the South, a comparison that often makes preachers uncomfortable and moves them to preach repentance for what they see as idolatry. “If only people would get as excited about Jesus as they get about football!” they moan every fall, hoping that football fans will feel guilty and repent.

As I grew older, I began to question this preaching tactic. Was my love of football really taking anything away from my love of God? Was my ability to love really a zero sum game — that anything and anyone I loved took away from my love of God? As time went on, these sermons would make me angry, but this year, I’ve come around to rethink them. Most criticism after all, contains some grain of truth.

The truth that those preachers are getting at is that the church is sometimes — often, depending on the church — not a very raucous or thrilling place. At its worst, it can be about obligation more than anything, going to church because we feel like we have to.

Football, on the other hand, is different. Football is about family, about belonging, about doing something together. You wear your team’s colors proudly and you attend the games because you love the team so much. The games have an expected liturgy and order: before the Auburn games begin, the eagle flies around the stadium. When the Patriots score a touchdown, the End Zone Militia fires off their muskets.

Football fills us with pride and belonging, giving us a common story — tales of great games and great players and great coaches of old — and a common bond that knits us together with strangers around the state and around the world. I have been as far away as the Netherlands wearing my Auburn hat and heard “War eagle!” from a stranger at the airport.

What if church gave us the same sense of belonging and a common bond with strangers as football? What if being a Christian carried with it the same sense of being a part of something greater than ourselves, of doing something together with people around the world? What is it that lights us up about football that translates into our lives within these walls?

I don’t think there is anything to feel guilty about here. Despite some unfortunate and notable examples, football loyalties typically don’t hurt anyone, as long as people remain level-headed and nonviolent. Surely God doesn’t hate fun — there was some doubt about that when I was a kid, but now I firmly believe that as long as no one is being hurt, God likes fun just as much as anybody. Good theology aside, I’m pretty convinced that God is an Auburn fan — God always did like a good underdog story.

You see, Lutheranism and the Holy Spirit have helped me to reimagine repentance.

The last time I attended an Auburn game, I watched the eagle float above the crowd as the people chanted “Waaaaaaaaaar eagle, hey!” ending as the bird landed at midfield. No one told the crowd to do this; we just knew, all 85,000 of us, what to do. I decided that this is how liturgy, how church, is meant to be: to knit us together with common symbols and a common story and a common purpose. But we’re not currently very good at that in our churches.

A little repentance — a change of direction — is required.

How do we build that kind of community? Together. By forming traditions and an identity and a sense of community and belonging around our faith. Around our story. To agree to attend not because we feel obligated, but because we feel inspired by the stories that we tell here and the things we accomplish together — things that knit us together with Christians around the world and throughout history.

I have tons of interest in liturgy and the ways that it connects people to God and to each other and to our ancestors and contemporaries in faith, and I am here to build this kind of community, but I need you. Each of you is important. Each of you has an angle on faith and commitment and this congregation’s passions and identity — what it is and what it could be.

So let us pay attention to what our relationships and our passions out in the world teach us about who we are and what we crave as humans, and what they teach us about community and belonging. What do your passions teach you about God and about yourself? What do the things you love teach you about your needs as a child of God? What do your relationships with your clients or your students teach you about care and community? About God? What do you love about bowling or football or music that helps you feel connected to other people and to something bigger? How can we use that to build our community here?

What is God teaching you through your life out there that you can offer to help us be a better church, more connected to each other and the world around us?

We’re here at the beginning of a new church year. This is the first church year that we will walk through from beginning to end as pastor and people. This is the first year that we get to tell the whole story of Jesus together.

We are in Advent, telling the story of when the people of God cried out for a Savior. We remember together what it means to us to wait in darkness to find the light. Advent reminds us what it’s like to change direction and to have hope. The church year is not something we live through year after year as an obligation. It is a song that we sing again and again to remember who we are as a people, and what knits us together.

Repentance sometimes shatters your sleep and jars you into an unpleasant awakeness. But repentance is not the same as guilt. Real repentance doesn’t just tear down the negative — it builds something out of hope and resolve. Repentance, at its best, helps us to turn and build a better future.

So let’s start here, in Advent, as we light the darkness, candle by candle, on that wreath, until the Son of God appears at Christmas. Let’s walk through the night towards the dawn together, knowing that what God reveals in the darkness and in the dawn will change us as individuals and as a community forever.

Whether it’s unpleasant or whether we’re excited to greet the day, the alarm is going off. It’s time to wake up, to take note of what God is teaching us in each moment in here and out there.

So let’s wake up and go somewhere. Amen.

Guest Post: Hiking and Heart Transplants (Debbie Brown)

For Advent 1, I took a break to visit family in Alabama. Preaching at OSLC was Debbie Brown, our congregation’s president and a graduate of the New England Synod School of Lay Ministry. 
Enjoy! 

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I love Advent, it is one my favorite seasons of the church year. I enjoy the traditions: lighting the Advent wreath, attending mid-week Advent services, and reading Advent devotions.

This morning, we began our worship service by lighting the first candle on our wreath It is one small flicker of light heralding the countdown for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Then, each week until Christmas, we will light one more candle. Each candle adding its light to the next, producing an ever-increasing circle of light symbolizing the coming birth of Christ. He is the light of the world – his is our salvation, God’s gift that overcomes the darkness in our lives.  The wreath itself is symbolic of the continuity of God’s eternal love. There is no beginning and no ending. But Advent is a bit unnerving too because it is a season that not only prepares us for Jesus’ birth, but also prepares us for Jesus’ return in glory.

Our lectionary readings for last week and this week illustrate that endless circle. They serve as bookends to the church year, ending in the same place we begin it today…with a vision of Jesus’ second coming.

Reading today’s Gospel, I couldn’t stop thinking about Pr. Anna’s sermon last week. She talked about how as a child, the idea of being prepared for Christ’s coming worried her. I can just picture little Anna sitting on the porch wondering if Jesus would think she was ready enough for him. I can’t even imagine how frightening it must have been for a little girl who feared God’s judgement and wondered what she could do to insure she wouldn’t be one of the ones left behind. She wanted to be ready!

I think most of us try to prepare for whatever comes our way. We plan for the joyous times in our lives – celebrations of marriage, birth, and family gatherings. We spend a lot of time and money to be sure that these celebrations are memorable and wonderful. We also plan for the bad times. In the winter, we make sure we have a full tank of gas when we travel in bad weather. We carry snow brushes and scrapers, extra blanket in our cars, and extra snacks in our car. We stock our homes with milk, bread, and other foods that don’t need to be cooked if there is a power outage. We accumulate savings to help tide us through unexpected job losses, and we save for our retirement. We make out wills to help care for our families when we pass on. And, we spend a lot of money to insure what the things that are valuable to us, including our health. We don’t like surprises, and we especially don’t like the uncertainty of the unknown.

We hear the same kind of aversion to the unknown in our Gospel reading today as Matthew recounts Jesus’ discussion with the disciples.  By the time Matthew’s text was written, it was already almost fifty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The temple in Jerusalem had already been destroyed by Rome, an event that Jesus predicted would usher in his powerful reign. The people longed for Jesus to return. It would be a time when evil was finally overcome and true justice was carried out. And they wanted to be prepared when he did.

Matthew included this passage for the benefit those who believed that Jesus would return in their lifetime. Time was running short for many of them. A decade after the temple’s destruction, there was still no Jesus. He’s taking his sweet time, and they are beginning to lose hope.

I think most of us today aren’t holding our breath for the day of Jesus’ return. It is now almost 2000 years after his death and resurrection. And we have witnessed all the events listed in scripture pointing to the end of times – wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, floods, terrorism, deadly diseases, and divisions. There are times we too lose hope and we wonder – Lord how much longer must we wait for peace?

Unfortunately, Jesus doesn’t have an answer for us. Today’s reading reminds Matthew’s hearers and us that even he doesn’t know the hour or the day of his return. It will be unexpected. Just as in the days of Noah when the rain began to fall, it will be a day like every other one. People will be going about their everyday lives preparing for the day’s work, planning for celebrations, and taking care of everyday business. They will have no idea that the course of history will be changed forever. Without a moment’s notice, nothing will ever be the same again.

Jesus says, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

The picture on the front of our bulletin illustrates four people. Two are working in a field. One sees Jesus in the sky, the other is totally unaware. Two are milling grain, one notices something dramatic happening while the other continues to go about her work without missing a beat. If we are tempted to think that this is a picture of the rapture where one person is taken into heaven while the other is left behind for the terrible times of the tribulation, then we are missing something important.

You see, the Greek word for the word “taken” in this text doesn’t mean to go up or to meet. Instead, the word means to go along with. It is the same word that is used in the Transfiguration story where Jesus takes Peter, Paul and James with him to the mountain. It is there that Jesus is revealed to them in a very new and unexpected way.

Advent is definitely about the past and the future. but even more so, it is about our lives in the present. We are not just preparing to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus and we are not just preparing for the time when Christ comes again to make all things new. We are being prepared to see Christ in very surprising ways each and every day of our lives.

Jesus says, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

But it isn’t easy is it. Perhaps you have days like me – days when problems at work or events in the news preoccupy you with a sense of hopeless despair – days when you wonder if love really does win – days when you get so wrapped up in your own little world that you are unaware of anything else. I admit, I am notorious for getting wrapped up in the business at hand.

Quite a few years ago, I started hiking parts of the Appalachian Trail with a group of women from our church. We tackled about 12 miles a day during the weekend, stopping at night to enjoy a campfire, a meal, good fellowship, and rest for the next day’s hike.

Paula Terkelsen and I often hiked side by side on those weekends, and I am so thankful we did. You see, my mind was always so focused on getting to the next stop that I would forge ahead, determined to just get to our next destination without somehow hurting myself.

But Paula was much more aware of our surroundings. Her eyes and ears were always open for the beautiful miracles around us. And she would stop me in my tracks. Deb, look at these beautiful wild blueberries. They are so wonderful to eat. So we would stop, pick, and eat berries.

And later – Deb – do you hear that bird singing? And she pointed out a bird that I had never seen before in the trees above us.

And again, Deb…look at the salamanders crossing the trail….aren’t they cool? After checking the bottom of my shoe to be sure I hadn’t steeped on one, I would take a moment to marvel at their beauty.

If Paula hadn’t been hiking with me, calling me into the present, I would have missed out on experiencing so much of God’s wonderful creation… God’s presence in the here and now.

Jesus says, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Most of you are familiar with Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, founder of a congregation named House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. She often talks about her profound experiences of how Jesus has come into her life unexpectedly, and turned her world upside down.

She is a former drug addict and alcoholic, and her life is a witness to how Jesus broke into her heart and brought her into sobriety – albeit kicking and screaming all the way. And to her horror, Jesus went even further and prepared a way for her to enter a Lutheran seminary.

Throughout her faith journey, she never lost her love for the people in her life along the way. They fueled her vision of a church that embodied Jesus’ love for all, even the people others often viewed as unworthy of God’s love.

Her congregation soon grew as she shared God’s love and grace to drug addicts, alcoholics, atheists, agnostics, convicts, and people all along the spectrum of sexuality and gender. Her message is simple and clear. Jesus loves you – no matter who you are or what you have done, and you are welcome here. But she also makes it clear that people need to be prepared for a change of heart, because Jesus has a strange way of breaking into life unexpectedly and turning everything upside down.

House for All Sinners and Saints flourished. Soon, people came from all over to see what was happening. Before she knew it, regular people like lawyers, doctors, and business people in their suits and Sunday best were coming to worship.

In her book Pastrix, Nadia describes the horror she felt when she saw that “normal” people seemed to be diluting out what she describes as the church’s “special kind of weird.” So she devised a plan to have all of her members meet in order to formulate a vision statement that would scare all the “normal” people away.

She invited the original members to talk about who the church was designed to served and the radical inclusivity that House was founded on. But things took an unexpected turn when one young man spoke up and said, “look, as the young transgender kid who was welcomed into this community, I want to go on record as saying, I’m glad there are people who look like my parents here because they love me in a way that my parents are finding difficult right now.”

Nadia describes that moment as a time when Jesus reached into her chest and ripped out her heart, convicting her of her hypocrisy, bestowing forgiveness, and replacing it with a heart filled with God’s love and grace. 

Jesus says, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Today, we are reminded that Advent is the beginning and end of our story. Jesus’ birth was two thousand years ago and the reign of Christ will come when we least expect it. But in the meantime, Jesus comes to us over and over and again in unexpected ways. Sometimes he reveals God’s presence in creation through a hiking partner that forces you to slow down; sometimes God’s love is seen in the love and acceptance of ordinary people that look like the ones who have had a hard time loving you; and sometimes our preconceived ideas are challenged in painful ways – like when your heart is ripped out of your chest and replaced with a heart filled with God’s love and grace.

How have you experienced the unexpected appearance of Christ’s presence in your life? I know you have… because Jesus has already begun to prepare your hearts by claiming you as children of God in our baptism. Each of us experience God’s presence in the world when we reach out and serve others, and when we share our faith stories.

This Advent, we will be gathering as a community of faith each Wednesday evening when we gather much like the early Christians did. The evenings will focus on Christ’s presence in the sacrament of Holy Communion and around the table where we share a meal and witness to the ways Christ breaks into our lives – especially in the dark places where we least expect to find him.

Jesus says, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

And by the way, don’t expect to be able to walk away unchanged from an encounter with Christ. Today and every day, Jesus is turning our world upside down and inside out – one heart at a time, preparing us for his return and filling us with hope that in the end, God’s love wins and all will be made new.

Thanks be to God. Amen.