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.

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