Advent 4: Giving Hope

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A depiction of Mary and Elizabeth.

Luke 1:46b-55 (Magnificat)
Luke 1:26-38

Yesterday the ice weighed the trees down as I steadily and near simultaneously prepared for Advent 4, Christmas Eve, traveling across the country, and for what will happen here at church when I get back from my Christmastide break.

Seeing the pine branches outside my window nearly touching the ground called my attention to the weight in my own shoulders as I listened to the New York Times’ The Daily podcast do their 2017 Year in Sound.

And I began to seriously identify with the pine branches outside my window, weighed down by a cold, steady force over which they have no control: the freezing rain falling from the sky.

I think we’re all feeling a little weighed down in one sense or another: even if you’re lucky enough not to have personal troubles and heartaches, national and international news is one, long, sad stream of facts and fake facts and accusations interspersed with tragedy.

And just as the pine branches are sinking low, Advent 4 and Christmas Eve fall on the same day, a day which puts anticipation and anxiety in tension as churches everywhere, and the tired, weighed down people within them, tried to figure out what to do about it.

“What are you doing about Christmas Eve this year?” was the question that burned through clergy Facebook groups for the entire fall.

For me, the question seemed pretty simple: there are four candles on the Advent wreath, meaning that we have four Sundays in Advent. The festival of Christmas begins at sundown on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Eve is a Sunday, making Christmas Eve itself the fourth Sunday of Advent.

When I shared this with a friend, he responded, “Yeah, but this is New England. I feel like only people who really love Jesus will show up on Sunday morning.”

So congratulations on really loving Jesus, according to a theologically off and offhanded not-to-be-trusted comment by a particularly snarky member of the clergy.

Or if you showed up thinking this would be a Christmas service… sorry.

I get the hesitation. It almost seems too close to still be waiting.

Especially when we’re all this tired and weighed down. If I told you that this year has been the longest year on record, you’d probably believe me for a second. The news cycle moves ever faster and faster in a carousel of 24 hour cable news and tweets and podcasts and phone alerts. Usually, for the left and the right, the message is something to the effect of: a critical foundation of what makes us America is in jeopardy and we must save it!
And you’ve come to church in the middle of a day when you’re no doubt spinning a to-do list around the back of your mind in an age when mortal peril more than occasionally seems pretty close at hand. And what do you get for it?

You get the angel visiting Mary, and between thing about your to-do list, you might question once again the science of a virgin giving birth. That’s always the point in the story when we miss the forest for the Christmas trees.

Because I’m no scientist, but I was a history major tasked with putting stories from the past back together using verifiable facts, and based on that training, I’m a thousand percent sure that zero research can be done on the actual facts of this case, but the theologian in me says that you can get at the point of the story, which is this: humans alone didn’t make it happen.

The point of the story, I think, is that though Mary had her role, human beings alone didn’t make God become flesh, because humans have proven that if we’re pretty incapable of one thing, it’s saving ourselves in any way that lasts. And while that knowledge frequently weighs us down, the whole idea of this faith thing, as least as far as I understand it, is that maybe we’re not the saviors, but the saved.

An image I heard once was that waiting for God’s reign of peace is sometimes something like waiting at the arrivals gate at the airport for someone you love to arrive. You can do nothing but wait. You can’t do one thing to speed the process or to make your loved one show up in your vision. All you can do is to scan face after face, waiting to recognize the face you love.

Human beings are bad at saving themselves and pretty incapable of manufacturing hope within ourselves, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done.
You see, we can’t save ourselves, but we’re are pretty dang good at giving each other hope, just by showing up, because we trust that if we all show up, maybe God will too. And so we go to the arrivals gate — well, the table — and we meet God there every single time.

Advent 4 was the Sunday, two years ago, when I met the entire congregation here. Advent 4 was the day you called me to be your pastor. On that day, just like today, we read the Magnificat and we heard about the angel visiting Mary.

We were all, perhaps, a little less weighed down then, though our world was arguably just as divided and scary as it is now. But that Sunday morning, in here, we met and we gave each other hope. And just for kicks, I revisited that sermon — the first sermon I ever preached here.

For some reason, you see, it stuck out to me that Mary doesn’t start singing when the angel gives her the news that she’s pregnant with God’s baby. She’s actually pretty human about it: she has lots of questions and a little bit of ambivalence. And Gabriel the angel says, “You know, your relative Elizabeth is pregnant via divine intervention too.”

Maybe it’s my pastor ears, but I think this move is pretty pastoral. It’s like when a pastor says, “Hey, so-and-so has been through something similar to what you’ve been going through recently; maybe it’d be helpful for you guys to talk.”

Gabriel doesn’t tell her to go to Elizabeth; he simply mentions that she’s in a similar situation: an unexpected pregnancy via divine intervention. As in the first century Holy Land as now, that is a very tiny segment of the population.

Gabriel doesn’t actually tell Mary to go to Elizabeth, but Luke says she still “made haste” to go to the Judean town in the hill country. Elizabeth, who is also pregnant by a miracle. Elizabeth, who will understand this thing that has happened to Mary, and who won’t think she’s crazy. And here, with another human being who understands that God works in really weird and unexpected and direct ways, Mary is able to find the courage to sing her song of hope.

And so here we are, two years after I first pointed that out to you who were here, and we’re all pretty bewildered and tired and weighed down with a thousand things to do this afternoon. And we have, once again, on Advent 4, just like Mary and Elizabeth, gathered together to sing songs of hope. 

May this day when Christmas is so close that we can practically taste the sugar cookies, may we long for a day when peace on earth will be this close, too. We can’t bring it about. We can’t make it happen. But we can watch for it, pray for it, work for it, and continue to tune in to this crazy hope that it’s possible. We can keep coming to the arrivals gate — the table — to meet God.

My friend Joseph, an Episcopal priest in the Pacific Northwest, puts it this way: “That’s why I love Advent …Jesus never doesn’t get born. We long, hope, wait, anticipate, and we’re never let down at the last minute.” Even if we are exhausted or broken or weighed down when we get there, the Light always comes to us. Always. Christmas never fails to arrive, because God has already broken through. Christ was born in Bethlehem those many years ago.

We cannot save ourselves, but just like Mary, if we say yes, we can have a role in the coolest things. And just maybe, that can melt the ice that weighs us down.

I close with a prayer honoring Mary, posted by a clergy friend this week.

Let us pray. 

“God of impossible love,

you needed Mary

to give consent,

to bear the scandal,

to carry the word within herself:

may her courage give hope

to all people

who yearn to sing new songs of justice

and find the world a dwelling place for God,

through Jesus Christ, the one who is to come.” (1) Amen.

1. Prayers for an Inclusive Church, Steven Shakespeare

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Advent Study: Happy Holy Days (Resources)

At Our Savior’s during the three Advent Wednesdays this year, we took part in a study written by Pastor Anna called “Happy Holy Days,” which focused on tuning in to what’s important during this busy time of year: love, holiness, God’s presence, and other people. These are the resources used in the study for any who want to look more deeply into them and for those who want to follow along from outside the Pioneer Valley.

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Each section contains ten parts of no longer than ten minutes (and most are much shorter). During the session, participants share a meal. The entire session lasts about an hour.

SESSION ONE: Seeing Ladders
“Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!” 

One: Lighting the Advent Wreath
P: Let us pray. God of light,
C: Come to us. Amen.
P: Alleluia, Christ is lighting the night.
C: Thanks be to God!
The appropriate number of candles is lit.

Two: Word.
Read 
Genesis 28:10-19.

Three: Bread.
Communion bread is blessed and broken with a theologically appropriate liturgy.

Four: Meal and Conversation.
Participants receive food (at Our Savior’s, we distribute soups cooked by our people, buffet style) and begin conversation about the night’s topic using the prompts below. Conversation lasts about ten minutes.
“Jacob is just going about his (rather dramatic) life when he realizes that he is in the presence of the holy. When have you been surprised by a holy moment?
What makes a moment holy?”

Five: Reflection (from Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World).
Selections from Chapter 1 are read, with accompanying photos. 
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Find or order the book at your local independent bookstore!

Six: Meal and Conversation, Part II.
Another ten minute conversation engaging the following questions:
Revisit this question in light of the chapter’s emphasis on experience:
what makes a moment holy?
Do you have any ways of waking up to the holiness around you? What are they?
What are some ways that we miss these “ladder marks” (holy moments) during Advent (and at other times)?

Seven: Wine.
“After supper, he took the cup…” Communion wine is blessed and shared with an appropriate liturgy.

Eight: Seeing.
A multimedia presentation using Tait’s “Altars” with snapshot’s from the year’s news. The one I made with photos from 2017’s news (focusing on international news) is here.

Nine: Blessing.
A blessing is sung in rounds (learn the one we use here), then we say:
P: Go in peace; God is with you.
C: Thanks be to God!

Ten: The Holy Dishes (Cleanup).
The study focuses on seeing the holy in the ordinary, and the tasks that sustain life (like cooking and cleaning) are holy, too! Everyone is encouraged to help clean up.
——————————————————————-
SESSION TWO: Sending Signals (Prayer)
“Pray without ceasing…” 
Parts 1, 3, 7, 9, and 10 are the same for each section.

Two: Word.
Read 1 Thessalonians 5:16-25.

Four: Meal and Conversation.
Food is served with ten minutes of conversation using the following prompts:
“The Thessalonian church was apparently feeling stressed when Paul encouraged them to ‘pray without ceasing.’ Realistically and practically, how can a normal, stressed person possibly follow this advice?
Out of people you’ve known, past and present, whose dedication to prayer has most impressed you?”

Five: Reflection (from Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World).
Selections from Chapter 11 are read, with accompanying photos. 

Six: Meal and Conversation, Part II.
Another ten minute conversation engaging the following questions:
“‘Did God find me or did I find God?’ Last week, we talked about awakening to God’s presence. This week, we’re talking about intentionally coming into and/or living in God’s presence in prayer. What do our congregation’s prayers (in Sunday worship and our more informal prayers together) have in common with other faith groups?

How, beyond devotional times or church, do you pray alone? What are some of your practices? (Consider your ways of taking a moment to breathe and decompress – these, too, are a kind of prayer.)”

Eight: Seeing.
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We watched the beginning of this video (until just after the story about the memory stick) to introduce Lin-Manuel Miranda’s advocacy project for Puerto Rico, “Almost Like Praying.” Then we watched the official music video  with subtitles (which I accomplished using split screen and playing this lyric video on mute). 

——————————————————————-
SESSION THREE: Sending Blessings
“Blessed is she!” 
Parts 1, 3, 7, 9, and 10 are the same for each section.

Two: Word.
Read Luke 1:39-45.

Four: Meal and Conversation.
Food is served with ten minutes of conversation using the following prompts:
“In this passage, Elizabeth blesses Mary.  What does it mean to bless someone or something?
In what meaningful ways have people blessed you over the years?”

Five: Reflection (from Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World)
Selections from Chapter 12 are read, with accompanying photos. 

Six: Meal and Conversation, Part II.
Another ten minute conversation engaging the following questions:
“‘I asked him to bless me.’ We’ve been talking about recognizing God’s presence and coming into God’s presence. This week, we’re talking blessing — recognizing the holy in both ordinary things and other ordinary people. Who has blessed you recently? How did they do it?
What are some ways that we can pause during this busy season to (silently or out loud) bless the things and people around us?”

Eight: Seeing.
Remembering the Talmud quote used in Barbara Brown Taylor’s chapter (“It is forbidden to taste of the pleasures of this world without a blessing,” I made a video of “blessings” using John Mayer’s song, “Clarity.” The photo montage included beautiful views, hot coffee, kind church people. At the end, viewers are encouraged: “See the holy, say a blessing.” Try creating your own slideshow!


NOTE: Clergy are welcome to use any and all material in their own teaching, provided that credit is given where it’s due.
Of course, I can’t 
make you give credit, but be a good person, eh?

Advent 3: Rejoicing in the Silly Questions

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The Dalai Lama during his most recent visit to Emory, in 2013. 

Psalm 126
John 1:6-8, 19-28

When I was in seminary at Emory, the Dalai Lama visited. By that point, Emory had established a relationship with him, granting him an honorary professorship as part of the Emory-Tibet Initiative, a broad project with branches in science, culture, and spirituality. (1)

I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting. At the time, I was only just vaguely aware of the Dalai Lama or his life and impact on the world.

My friend Paul from college came over from Birmingham to Atlanta specifically for the visit, and he explained much more to me about the Dalai Lama than I knew already. Paul is a therapist by trade and quite frankly has always been more naturally spiritual than me. So it was Paul who convinced me that this internationally important figure was worth seeing, so I got us tickets to a couple of events.

One of them was called something like “The Professor’s Office Hours,” modeled after the usual custom of teachers and professors having hours when students can come and ask their own questions.

The question I remember most clearly is when one undergraduate guy got up, looking like that guy — you know, the one who wants to impress everyone with how smart he seems. Now, I should add that we graduate students were not always generous with the undergraduates, which is another spiritual matter that the Dalai Lama and I could work on.

Anyhow, this guy gets up and his image is cast on the screens around the arena we were sitting in. He asks the Dalai Lama what he clearly thinks is a profound question:

“Your Holiness, if you had been silent your whole life and then suddenly had the ability to speak, what would you say?”

Many of us, myself included, internally rolled our eyes but tried to remain polite for the sake of our famous Tibetan visitor. To our surprise, a solitary giggle rung out through the arena, echoing off the walls. 

His Holiness was cracking up.

Finally, he got some words out: “What a silly question!” he said. “If I were able to speak and was hungry, I would say, ‘I am hungry!’ Next question. Thank you — sorry” (and he giggled some more) “Thank you.” He smiled at the young man, who, based on his expression, wasn’t quite sure what just happened.

“Next question.”

Paul and I spent the rest of his visit quoting that moment: “What a silly question!”

Indeed, many of the spiritual questions that we think are profound actually end up being quite silly if you think about them for long enough.

I imagine that Jesus might have taken the same tone when his disciples asked him questions like “How should we pray?” I imagine him giggling and saying, “What a silly question! You speak to God!” then, when the disciples pressed him, he gave them the Lord’s Prayer. The Gospel writer just left out the part where Jesus just joyfully made fun of the disciples in all their seriousness.

But then there are the simple questions that people think are dumb questions but end up being quite profound. Like each and every Advent, when someone is staring at the Advent wreath and they finally dare to ask: “What’s up with the pink candle?”

“Mary’s favorite color was pink,” I joked once, before seeing that the person believed me because people believe you when you have on a clergy collar and are talking about religious things. (Besides, we all know that Mary was way more into blue, if you ask the Catholics.)

We light that pink candle today, on the third Sunday of Advent, which our ancestors in faith named Gaudette Sunday, after the first words of the introit in the Latin mass for the day. If were were Roman Catholics listening to a Latin introit today, we would hear: “Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.

“Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say: rejoice!”

Okay, but really though: why pink?

Because, as many of you will remember, until relatively recently, Advent was purple just like Lent — which makes sense, because they’re both seasons of preparation: Lent for Easter, Advent for Christmas. As the third Sunday of Advent is all about lightening up a little bit to allow ourselves to rejoice, they decided to lighten the color, too. And if you lighten a shade of purple enough, it makes, you guessed it: pink.

At some point relatively recently we decided to differentiate between Advent and Lent, and decided Advent should be blue instead of purple, to signal the coming dawn.

So there you go. Sometimes, it helps to ask, even if you feel silly.

Last week in the Gospel, we had John the Baptist preaching repentance. The Sunday before that, we had the stars falling from the sky as Jesus foretold the apocalypse. This week, there’s joy: joy in the psalm, “rejoice always” in the Thessalonians text, good news in the Old Testament passage.

Then in the Gospel: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light” (John 1:6-8).

This is why I love Advent. When you act like it’s Christmas for all of December, you get nice completed manger scenes and reindeer and Santa Claus. When you go all in on Advent, however, you don’t get Frosty the Cheery Snowman; you get John the Baptist, clearly an outcast, eating bugs and wearing camel’s hair. 

Lutherans are weird.

People have argued over the years about the significance of John the Baptizer — what was his role, really?

My theory is that he was so weird that Jesus by comparison seemed quite normal and easy to listen to. It was his eccentricity that really prepared the way of the Lord.

But John also represents something else: in this first chapter of John, scholars (let’s be real: my favorite scholars) suggest that John here represents not only himself, but the entire prophetic tradition: everyone who ever pointed the way towards God before him.

And they ask him a whole bunch of silly questions: “Who are you? Are you Elijah? Are you the prophet? WHO ARE YOU?!”

And I imagine him giggling a bit like the Dalai Lama, because he never really answers, but puts himself right in the middle of the prophetic tradition by quoting Isaiah.

Religious leaders have always had their ways of answering our questions by way of not really answering them, but the point is, he came to testify to the light, and today, Advent takes a turn towards joy. 

The Dalai Lama’s latest book, gifted to me by one of you, is called The Book of Joy and is written alongside Archbishop Desmond Tutu and written largely in conversation form between the two. The opening chapter is called, “Why are You Not Morose?”

The chapter details the conversation between the two on why the Dalai Lama is so joyful considering that he is in exile from his home country and can probably never go back. Archbishop Tutu asks him, “Why are you not morose?”

As the Dalai Lama’s translator tries to come up with a good translation, the archbishop clarifies: “Sad.”

The Dalai Lama takes the Archbishop’s hand, the author says, as if comforting him while he relives the painful events of his exile. He speaks of how an Indian teacher taught him that if you can do nothing about your tragedy, it makes little sense to worry about it. The archbishop laughs here — as if at the simplicity of it all. The Dalai Lama also speaks of the suffering of others giving him perspective, and about how his exile has allowed him to travel much more than he would have been able to if he had been confined to leading in Tibet.

Then Archbishop Tutu sums up my own experience of going to see the Dalai Lama those years ago:

The Archbishop says to his Holiness, “When you smile your face lights up… Because, again, you have not said, ‘Well how can I be happy?’ … You’ve said, ‘How can I help to spread compassion and love?’ And people everywhere in the world, even when they don’t understand your English, they come and they fill stadiums. I’m not really jealous. I speak far better English than you, and I don’t get so many people coming to hear me as they come to you. And you know what? I don’t think they come to listen…. What they’ve come for is that you embody something, which they feel…

The archbishop continues“And I hope we can convey to God’s children out there how deeply they are loved. How deeply, deeply precious they are to this God. Even the despised refugee whose name no one seems to know. I look frequently at pictures of people fleeing from violence, and there’s so much of it…. I say that God is crying, because that is not how God wanted us to live. But you see again even in those circumstances, you have these people who come … to try to help… and through the tears, God begins to smile.

Desmond Tutu concludes, “And when God sees you and hears how you try to help God’s children, God smiles.

There was a person sent from God, whose name is John.

There was a person sent from God, whose name is the Dalai Lama.

There was a person sent from God, whose name was Desmond Tutu.

There was a person sent from God, whose name is your name.

Advent reminds us that the world is hurting, but it also reminds us to smile, and to dare to try to make God smile, too.

And how, you might ask, do you make God smile?

What a silly question!

Help someone, and if all else fails — do something funny. Amen.

1. You can read more about the Emory-Tibet initiative here.

Advent 2: The Beginning is Near

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Isaiah 40:1-11
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

You all know how much I like to mine commercials for funny little pieces of wisdom.

There’s a couple of DirectTV commercials that’ve been airing — a lot — recently that both go something like this:

A voiceover tells us the virtues of DirectTV over cable

and then says, “But some people still like cable.”

“Just like,” we are told, “how some people like banging their head on a low ceiling.” We’re then treated to a guy who at first accidentally bangs his head on a low beam in his attic, then repeatedly and joyfully repeats the process.

Other terrible things people enjoy include, as the voiceover lists them off:

“Drinking spoiled milk.”
A woman chugs presumably spoiled milk while saying “Mmmmm” and giving a victory fist pump.

“Camping in poison ivy.”
A camper stretches as he rises happily from his bed of botanic suffering.

“Getting a paper cut.”
A woman laughs as she cuts herself on an envelope.

And, my favorite: “having their arm trapped in a vending machine.”
A man with his arm stuck in the door lets out an enthusiastic-but-pained “Wooo!”

“… but for everyone else, there’s DirectTV.”

Of course, the idea is that everyone should give up cable and get DirectTV because it’s a horrible and painful decision not to. Some people like suffering, but the voiceover concludes: 

“For everyone else, there’s DirectTV.” (1)
As with many commercials, the thing was played so many times that it got me thinking philosophically in the middle of football games as I enjoy my beer & snacks and wait for the game to come back on.

Recently, I thought, “Well if that isn’t religion in a nutshell.”

For some reason, humans like making religion difficult.

Otherwise, what’s up with people who hit themselves with whips?

“Wooo!”

So here we are, with that in mind, in the second Sunday of Advent.

Mark begins his Gospel and today’s Gospel passage like so:

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.”

And the text flies immediately into John the Baptizer appearing in the wilderness, preaching repentance of sins, telling the folks to abandon their evil ways and get right with God or else.

Then the 2 Peter text comes at us with a call to live a holy life because God is coming to burn up everything with fire.

There isn’t currently an uncensored version of this sermon so I’ll just say this:

Advent doesn’t mess around.

It’s really no wonder that some people view Christianity, as well as a few other religions, as being all about scrubbing our lives clean — by any means necessary — of anything that would corrupt us so that God will not destroy us. God, in this version of Advent, is an angry parent who has gotten a call from the cops that you’re throwing a party while they’re away. And when Dad gets home, there’s gonna be hell to pay — this time, literally.

A common knee-jerk reaction to that, obviously, is to say that if God is love, not wrath, that God is forgiving and understanding.

Yes. And.

What about the ways that we hurt each other? If God just writes everything off, that also must include genocide, atrocities, child abuse — and is that justice? How could a good God allow all these things?

Besides that, repentance has a good and necessary place in our lives, we just usually call repentance by another name: saying sorry. The person never says sorry — who never feels remorse, or who in church language, is never repentant — is a gigantic jerk that no one wants at their Christmas party.

I read an article this week in the Washington Post that was posted by the bishop who ordained me. Bishop Gordy is himself a Southerner, and the article was called “Not My Alabama.” It was in reference to the news coming out of Alabama, not just in the past few months, but in the last century, and the ways that the rest of the nation looks down its nose at Alabama only — and this is key — because it allows the rest of the nation to use Alabama as a scapegoat.

He writes, “if Alabama makes us uncomfortable, it is perhaps because our own foibles are writ a little larger there, magnified that we may see ourselves for who we are and what we are becoming. Alabama hosts rank partisanship and evangelical fervor (both religious and political) that contravenes the Christian spirit. It has demagoguery and scapegoating, the demonizing of fellow citizens, zealotry, suspicion and tribalism — but in none of this is [Alabama] alone. In Alabama it just seems to play out on a wider screen. It is the mirror we shun — not just a state but a state of mind. We hold it at arm’s length because we cannot face the truth about ourselves.”

In other words, Alabama is host to the same issues that play out everywhere else. Alabama is also my home: a place of hospitality and welcome and sweet tea and good-natured people of every race with a wide variety of political views who have one thing in common as Alabamians: they will not let you leave their house hungry.

The article concludes thus: “In each of us, there is a bit of Alabama, the shameful and the noble, warring for dominance.” (2)

Alabamians know this because history rightly will not let us forget this war for dominance within our state and within ourselves.

When my friends with rosier political views tell me that they do not believe in sin, I usually respond, confused: “The world is messed up, though.”

The world is clearly not as it should be. Things are broken. People are capable of incredible good, but we are also capable of incredible cruelty, division, oppression, abuse. Inside all of us there is “the shameful and the noble, warring for dominance.”

Given this reality, we have two choices.

One of them is fundamentalism: that we know what is sinful and what is righteous and we need to impose this harshly on ourselves and on everyone else. We often forget, because fundamentalists are so far outside the fray and because they kill people, that fundamentalism has understandable motivations. If we can be sure that we know what God wants and that God will be angry that we don’t do it, we better act fast, because God is coming and boy does he look mad. The stakes are high.

We can consider that Scripture and our tradition also speak of mercy as strongly as they speak of justice. And, as I say all the time, that God is the main character in the Gospel story, not us and our achievements.

The problem with fundamentalism is that for all its talk of salvation, it’s the people and their efforts who are actually doing the saving. It leaves no room for God to come and save. It leaves no room for grace.

The Bible, and most of Christian thought, however, do.

“Comfort, comfort, my people!” God cries out during our Isaiah passage for today. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low… the people will see it together.”

Christian theologian Fredrick Buechner describes grace this way:

“AFTER CENTURIES OF handling and mishandling, most religious words have become so shopworn nobody’s much interested any more. Not so with grace, for some reason. Mysteriously, even derivatives like gracious and graceful still have some of the bloom left. 

Grace is something you can never [acquire] but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. 

A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace.

Have you ever tried to love somebody? 

A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.” (3)

Grace.

Grace is how we can believe that despite what we see all over the place, maybe, just maybe, the end is not near but the beginning. That the world is beyond human repair but maybe there’s a sliver of a hope that it’s not just us working on it.

Grace is Advent.

And those slivers of hope, those little glimpses of the grace of God, show up everywhere from the nightly news to your grandkids’ smiles to the kindness of a stranger. Or maybe today is your day to be the kind stranger because by doing so, you can give someone else hope that maybe kindness isn’t dead — that maybe, just maybe, despite all this mess, something is about to happen: the beginning is near.

Indeed, some people still like cable, but apparently,

“… for everyone else, there’s DirectTV.”

Just like some people like fundamentalism and find comfort in its harsh rules and harsh punishments and anxieties and violence, and some people like cheap grace and not thinking too hard about things that don’t make them feel good, and some people like throwing their hands up in exasperation because everything on the news makes them depressed.
…….Woo!

But for everyone else — for everyone — there’s Advent. Amen.

1. You can watch the commercial here.
2. You can read the whole Post article here.
3. Frederick Buechner is an 
theologian, author, and ordained Presbyterian pastor. This quote is from Wishful Thinking, published in 1973.

Advent 1: In Defense of the (Advent) Blue Pill


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As in The Matrix, when the world is viewed through the blue lens of Advent, nothing is quite what it seems.

Welcome to a new time zone. Welcome to a brand new liturgical year.

I used to apologize for my love of the liturgical calendar by couching it in self-deprecating jokes about nerdiness. But I stopped doing that quite a few years ago when I noticed that the liturgical year is nothing more than the stories of our lives wrapped in the story of Jesus — or maybe, the story of Jesus wrapped in our own lives and experience.

That’s more like it.

Because these days, it looks more like young people — people of all ages, really — are searching for something to live our lives by, to wrap our whole identity in. People of all stripes try to do it with all kinds of things, some productive, some less so, and some downright violent.

Some of us do it with something as trivial as sports or something as serious as politics or religion, even fundamentalist religion. Hate is being lived out on Internet message boards and classrooms and Hollywood and the government in the form of things like white supremacy, anti-semitism, and sexual harassment, and young men of a bunch of different stripes have gotten particularly violent lately, using guns to kill or, when necessary, weaponizing vehicles.

We talk a lot these days about both white supremacy and fundamentalist religion — particularly, these days, Islam. Why, we wonder, would promising young men become Nazis, or, alternatively, leave their lives here to go off to Syria to fight for ISIS, or, in either case, commit violence at home?

The answer is as simple as it is complex: they need a story to tell them who they are.

Both white supremacy and radical religion situate these young men into a story that gives them an identity. A purpose. A connection to something older and bigger than them.

The truth is, we all need such a story, and up to this point, we’ve gotten it from religion or national pride or our families for centuries. But with the beginning of the internet, things have gone from local to cosmic. We now have unlimited stories with which to identify.

The good news is that today, Advent has gone cosmic, too.

The first Sunday of Advent isn’t about a baby in a manger. It’s far bigger than that.

On the first Sunday of Advent, stars fall and the very universe turns. 

Today, Jesus calls us to keep awake, to keep alert, because things are about to change. The whole world is about to turn.

We all need a story to tell us where we came from and who we are. And today, Jesus reaches through history to hand us a narrative that we can situate our lives in that will actually make the world better instead of making it bleed.

And Jesus calls to us: keep awake! Keep your eyes open!

Various groups tied somehow to the extremes of the political spectrum have adopted the idea of the “red pill” from another cultural story, the early 2000s movie The Matrix. In The Matrix, the main character is offered a red pill and a blue pill by a character who has just revealed that humanity is actually enslaved by technology and that everything he has ever seen his whole life is a lie — an illusion of this complex computer system. If the main character takes the blue pill, he will wake up and everything will go back to normal and he can pretend that he doesn’t know the truth of humanity’s enslavement.

If he takes the red pill, everything will change, and he will begin to fight the technology that has enslaved humanity.

These days, political extremists with various pet causes have used “taking the red pill” or  “red pilling” to describe “waking up” to a vast conspiracy to deceive them their whole lives by some target: the news media, the larger culture, whatever. Those who “take the red pill” feel liberated to spew their unfiltered anger all over the Internet and into the streets in violence. If you can’t tell, I think it’s as ridiculous as it is serious. It’s inventing a story in order to make yourself the hero.

I’m here today to advocate for the Blue pill. The Advent Blue pill, specifically.

This is not your average Matrix blue pill, the kind that keeps you safely unaware. Advent calls us to a different kind of waking up. It places us in a different kind of story.

This Blue pill is quite different from the one in The Matrix because we are, in reality, probably not enslaved by evil robots or a vast web of conspiracy to deceive and control us. We just like to imagine these scenarios because they make us feel powerful and in control and smarter than other people.

We really, really like to be the heroes of our own stories.

The likely truth is that we’re far more deceived and enslaved by our own brokenness and rage than any outside conspiratorial web of deception.

The reality is that the world is just full of scared, angry people without a unifying story to attach ourselves to and give us purpose and identity. We’re swimming; we’ve forgotten who we are and what we’re for.

And so in order to give ourselves that sense of purpose, we wrap ourselves in an identity and imagine a perceived conflict with some other group, be it a political one, a religious one, or an entire race or gender of humanity.

Like in George Orwell’s 1984, nothing unifies us quite like a common enemy.
So there must, therefore, always be an enemy.

Someone to hate. Someone to blame.

The reality is that we’re not fighting each other nearly as hard as we’re fighting ourselves. While you’re more likely to drown in your bathtub than to die in a terrorist attack, but you are 100% guaranteed to contend with your own pain and rage every single day.

Waking up to that reality is a lot harder than “taking the red pill” with its delicious delusions of conflict and self-heroism.

So this Advent, take the Advent blue pill.

Contrary to popular belief, the blue pill, at least in the context of Advent, is less about staying inoculated to reality and more about waking up to the fact that you’re not the hero.

The refrain “keep awake” echoes several times in our Gospel lesson as Jesus begins the Advent season as he always does: by describing a cosmic end and beginning of everything where there is a reckoning. Where the violent are dealt with and peace reigns eternal in ways that humans with our fallibilities are absolutely incapable of bringing about. Advent blue is the color of the coming dawn, a story where we are not the heroes, but the rescued.

Let me tell you about when I first understood Advent.

I worked in a homeless shelter just outside of Atlanta my first year of seminary. While I worked there, I saw beautiful and horrible things, but mostly, I was just constantly overwhelmed at the pain I saw, the complex people, the complex situations.

No matter how much work we did, things never really got better. In fact, this was in 2008, when the financial crisis was just beginning to hit. It didn’t get better. It got worse. There were more failures than successes, more pain than joy.

As a classmate of mine told me, my eyes had been torn open and I was unable to close them. The world felt out of control. And it made me angry: angry at elected officials, at rich people, at almost everyone.

And I sat in our seminary’s Advent 1 service as the choir sang a haunting version of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” to a still and darkened chapel with a single Advent candle burning and the altar bare.

Slowly, the lights came up as two of my classmates ceremoniously carried in the paraments, then the altar cloth, then the elements, as out of nowhere, greens were hung around the chapel and the space was transformed into a place of hope, strung with pine greenery and Advent blue paraments.

And I realized that I, too, had a choice. I could choose to be angry and to blame the pain that I felt and the pain that I saw on people whom I could then hate and fight. I could wrap myself in short-lived stories of political warfare. I could blame the homeless people that I was serving and be angry at them, or I could rage tirelessly against the political parties and entities that refused to serve the poor. I could be angry at those who had too much while others starved.

I could, before it was even cool, take the red pill, waking up to a story where I was the angry social justice hero, out to save the world — and fail, which would only make me angrier.

But as O Come O Come Emmanuel echoed off the rafters of the chapel that day, I realized that the only way that I was ever really going to be able to make it through this life with open eyes was not through anger, but through letting go of trying to control the future. This would allow me to simply do the most good that I could, trusting that peace is coming and God is coming and that no one can stop it any more than they can stop the sun from coming up.

Advent blue, after all, is the story of the coming dawn.

We are not the heroes. We are all the rescued.

This was actually keeping awake: by wrapping myself and my life in a story and in Jesus, whose words will never pass away, even if heaven and earth do.  I took the Advent blue pill.

Don’t get me wrong. I still get frustrated at the state of things. But my life is not wrapped in an existential political struggle, but in the story of Jesus, lived each and every year through this story that we tell with our voices and our resources and our bodies.

So I invite you, therefore, to take the Blue pill.

Because Advent is blue because it reflects the sky just before dawn. The Advent blue pill, as opposed to the one in The Matrix, doesn’t call us to stay ignorant. To the contrary: it calls us, urgently, to keep awake.

Rather than framing the entire story around us, Advent tells us of a future where it’s something — someone — much bigger than us that tears open the heavens and changes the world.

In our world torn by pain and division, we’re all, in some way, afraid. We look at the pain and problems all around us and we wonder “how long?” How long will people in our own country and around the world have to live in fear in their communities, in their schools, and in their own homes? How long will we live at odds with our neighbors and endure division in our families? How long will people have to endure violence and hunger and pain, right up to our own doorstep?

In our lowest points, we are tempted to wonder if things will be this way forever. We give ourselves over to despair and anger. But as Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “a blessing will do more to improve the air quality.” (1)

This season that we begin today — Advent — has a deep and abiding presence with the weight of the air just before dawn and calls us to look deeper. It whispers to us, urgently, as winter grips the land: “Keep awake!

Because we know, deep in our bones: it is dark and cold now, but it will not be winter forever.

Advent’s is a call of urgency and longing, but also a call of promise: there is hope. Things will not always be as they are. Something is coming to us that’s bigger than any group we can affiliate ourselves with.

Like our ancestors before us, we wait in darkness, knowing that we cannot know the specifics. We can only stay ready for what we know is coming — opportunity. Victory. Hope.
Peace on earth.

Advent whispers to us: the night is long and difficult, but the dawn is coming. 
“And what I say to you I say to all — keep awake!” (Mark 13:37) 
Amen.

1. Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, p. 204.