Whenever I have the option, in these settings I will almost always choose to talk about Paul’s letters, the Pauline Epistles. In January, I will be talking with you about a present-day Epistle. But for today, Paul’s writings bring with them wisdom and practical life counsel wrapped in beautiful prose and, more often than not, his letters extend a challenge to all who indulge them. All of this from a guy who spent a major part of his life denouncing what would become his life’s work. One Marxist atheist French scholar described Paul’s travels and work throughout the Mediterranean as “militant peregrinations.” I love that. Soon, the Confirmands will learn more about Paul as we continue looking at church history. How many other churches do you know that study “militants” in confirmation classes?
Here we are on the second Sunday of Advent and as the anticipation of the blessed birth approaches, so too builds our stress levels. Parties, gifts, events, travel, vacations, budgets, taxes, finals. All the year-end stuff, or, the “doctrine of depravity” as my Wesleyan friend refers to it. In that backdrop, today’s text says clearly and simply, in all of your preparations don’t forget what this season is all about. Don’t forget to pray. Don’t forget where your hope truly comes from. Open your doors and your hearts. Trust that you are loved beyond measure as a child of God.
Dietrich Bonheoffer, a Lutheran Pastor who was killed by Nazi Germany, has a slightly different take. He says this about Advent: “The joy of God goes through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is irrefutable. It does not deny the anguish when it is there but finds God in the midst of it, in fact, precisely there.” If it is true that God comes to us through our trials, a natural question arises: What God are we waiting for, exactly? A suffering God? A testing God? A political God? A rescuing God?
These days, suffering and testing fill the air. But rescuing? Not so much. If you watched the Viking game last week, you know exactly what I’m talking about. I went to the game with Danny and 67,000 of our closest friends and I can tell you that in the final 50 seconds of the game we were all waiting for rescue but it never came. You may have heard about the suffering and testing taking place on the streets of Chicago where I’m from. This year, more than 4,100 shootings have claimed more than 700 lives…and counting. The families of the Oakland nightclub fire, and hate crimes in the Twin Cities.
In Hebron, Palestine, where I lived for several months earlier this year, flooding has ravaged the Old City where local Palestinian shop owners make their modest living. Palestinian engineers are unable to make necessary repairs because Israeli soldiers prevent them from accessing drainage systems. And closer to home at Standing Rock, more than 500 arrests, scores of injuries, jailing of journalists, and threatened blockades by the empire of food and supply deliveries to the camps. There are no rescues on the near horizon in any of these places and, while the solutions to some of these issues are more complicated than others, even when there are realistic legislative fixes begging to be implemented, instead we are met with political muteness and with wondering whether that silence, that inaction, will empower those forces that seek to divide us.
What God are we waiting for, exactly?
You might remember that the Apostle Paul’s life changed on the road to Damascus but lesser known is that Paul was on his way to annihilate the Christian community in Damascus when he had his conversion experience. There is a beautiful and powerful 17th-century painting by Caravaggio of this event and it shows Paul lying on the ground, stunned, with an out-of-control horse contorted above him in a pose that looks Paul may have been bucked off the horse and thrown to the ground.
From personal experience, I can tell you that getting violently thrown from a horse shakes you to your core. Having the wind knocked out of me I was unable to breathe and completely delirious. It’s an experience I will never forget.
And perhaps this is what this part of Paul’s letter to the Romans and what Bonheoffer were getting at. By shaking us to our marrow and after our delirium wears off, perhaps then we will be awakened enough and ready to receive God. Perhaps…but it’s not quite. Our rescue won’t magically come to us as the result of either a literal or a metaphorical bump on the head. We have to take affirmative steps to liberate ourselves with God as our guide, companion and protector.
In Paul’s Advent message, he gives specific instructions to us about how to unlock the door to receiving the Christ child. The text says this: Welcome one another, just as Christ welcomed you. If this has a familiar ring to it that’s because it’s nearly identical the Great Commandment—the highest law—to love God with all your heart, mind and soul and to love your neighbor as yourself. This is both the promise and the challenge at hand and it requires us to be people not only of hope but people of deed. “Welcome one another, just as Christ welcomed you,” means the abundant welcome, the most staunch expression of solidarity, the widest possible invitation, the deepest pool of compassion.
A couple of weeks ago, we did some sidewalk chalk drawing in front of the church and one of our artists wrote something like “All are welcome here” and the next day someone else wrote “except conservatives.” Debating whether or not this is true misses the point. The fact that we were surprised at the reply tells us that when we put ourselves out there, outside these beautiful doors for all to see—on the sidewalk and in the world—it means we are going to meet some people and learn some things that we didn’t know before. We can’t love people we never meet and don’t know. In order to become the mirror of Christ in the world, all means all, not just all of us who are here. How many more people can we love? How big and wide open are our hearts? Enduring together. Speaking truth to power. Firm in knowing that as believers we are in God and God is in us. Abundant love is a daily spiritual practice and that is the Advent message and our challenge.
First Church, these are timely questions and I don’t know about you, but I love challenges. We have caroling, study hall, Posada, and Christmas Eve all coming up as special events this month when we are specifically inviting the public to join us. But don’t let that stop you from inviting people here every Sunday and just about every day in between when we have various activities. That sounds like a lot, and it is, but there’s even more to think about.
If we are going to welcome one another just as Christ welcomed us we have to remember that never once did Christ say, “I’ll see you in church”… he brought mercy, compassion, healing, food and love to them. Go and do likewise. Word and deed. Just as Christ did, making a special effort to reach the people who have been unwelcomed in every other place. Not even the parents of the Christ child were welcomed and many of us know what it’s like to feel unwanted and unwelcomed. It can be cold and lonely but that’s where we are called to go, knowing that God is with us every step of the way.
How will we respond if we are called to provide sanctuary to an immigrant family or to anyone? Will our hearts —and our doors—open wide enough if we are called to become part of a present day underground railroad? Can we love each other enough to stand together and hold our sisters and brothers in high office accountable for their actions and for their silence? For those of you who wonder what this means for us, we have some idea based on what we are already doing at CES, Lexington Commons, Restorative Justice and other ministries. But this text both looks back when it says whatever was written in the former days was written for our instruction, and it looks ahead—the root of Jesse shall come so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. When we look beyond the present, our hope, our Advent, anticipates a new future through the birth of Jesus with God.
In his letter, Paul declares his purpose: to urge that we would live in harmony, and that together we may with one voice glorify God with all joy and peace in believing. And then Paul tells us specifically whom the God is that we are waiting for. We are waiting for the God of steadfastness, encouragement, hope and kept promises. We are waiting for the God that embraces us in all our imperfections, the God who will soon send a son to remind us that we are never alone and the God whose love we can never be separated from.
Friends, how big are our hearts? How much more can we love our God, each other and our neighbors?