The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Atonement

One in Christ. Gifted by Grace. Called to Serve.

Advent 2016

Advent 3 A: Our Favorite Day

This sermon was preached for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016. The readings were: Isaiah 35:1-10; Luke 1:46b-55; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11.

In the name of Jesus, amen.

On greeting the pregnant Mary, Elizabeth her relative asks: “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” In prison, John sends a question through his disciples: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” In the animated show of my childhood, Pinky says to Brain: “What do you want to do tonight?” In A.A. Milne’s world, Pooh-bear asks Piglet: “What day is it today?” And the answer is always: today is the Lord’s day!

Piglet and Pooh’s exchange is helpful because we are always living in hope of a day to come, a time when something will be different. Like Pinky and the Brain in their cage, we feel stuck; we are waiting for a different day, a day when something will change. But in both cases, there is a deep wisdom: “What are we going to do tonight, Brain?” “The same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try to take over the world!” Or as Pooh and Piglet have it, “What day is it today?” “It’s today,” squeaked Piglet. “My favorite day,” said Pooh. These guys have waiting down; and more, Pooh and Pinky seem to find endless joy amid their waiting. They have a hope that gives them joy before the hope even arrives, and that is because what they hope for is already experienced in their relationships. Pinky doesn’t yet rule the world with Brain, but he has Brain, his friend with him. Pooh finds joy in today, because Piglet is with him today. For both, today is the Lord’s day. Today is the day that is given to be celebrated and enjoyed; the friend and neighbor is present to be loved so that we might have joy in our hope for a day that is coming soon.

As you may know, the internet loves to play with such interchanges. One edited version of Pooh’s conversation with Piglet goes this way: “What day is it today?” “It’s the day we burn the patriarchy to the ground,” Piglet squeaks. “My favorite day,” Pooh replies. I think there is wisdom here, as well; because for Pooh and for Pinky, for Piglet and for Brain, hope and joy are lived experiences. Every night, Pinky and the Brain attempt to reach the same goal and fail, time and again. Every day, Pooh and Piglet journey without making much progress – they always end where they began, in the 100 Acre Wood. And yet for both pairs their behavior doesn’t change; because they hope, and because they are on (admittedly very different) missions, they continue their regular activity. Despite all evidence, they hope, and because they hope they continue doing what they do every day, every night. It’s rather like a group of people meeting every Sunday for two thousand years, praying morning and night for two thousand years, and never giving up. What day is it today? It is the Lord’s day!

Of course, our lives do run thin at times, and we do seem short on hope. This happens to the best of us: Elizabeth had little hope of a child in her old age, John had little hope of getting out of prison, Mary had little hope of her extramarital child bringing her praise. But each, in the face of doubt and fear, had the audacity to hope that today is the Lord’s day, that today is our favorite day when oppression falls at last, that tonight is the night when we – or rather, God – takes over the world!

This hope sustains us in joy as it sustained them. We too can hear Mary’s song of the day the Lord brings: “You have shown strength with your arm and scattered the proud in their conceit, casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. You have filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” Today, Mary says, is the day not only the patriarchy but all injustice, all oppression, all greed, all desire to destroy for profit, all of it comes burning down today.

And today is also the day when Christ has come, even when we only hear of these things from our prison cells as John did. Is Jesus the one to come? Is the waiting finally over? Is now the day of healing and freedom? And Jesus responds: “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.” Neither Mary nor Jesus speak of some day in the future, but of what is happening now, what is happening today. Today is our favorite day, today is the day in which we find joy and hope, today is the day that God comes down to make us new and welcome us into a kingdom where the least is greater even than John the Baptist. Today is the Lord’s day!

That is the meaning of Christ’s promise to come again, and of Christ’s incarnation among us. That is the meaning of Advent. That is the meaning of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. That is the meaning of every Sunday, in fact of every day of our lives. Our God is not far away, but near; coming quickly, paving highways through impassable wilderness, bringing forth streams and springs in the desert, our God blazes through our lives. We, like people released from prison in a strange land, are going home with our God before and among us. What day is it today? It is the day when the captives are set free, when all bondage and illness and death itself is undone. It is the day we go home, the day we sing in joy on the road on the way to the city of God. It is the day when we walk away from the ruins of self-interest, of human power, of greed and pride and fear. It is today – it is the day of resurrection, the day when Jesus comes among us, the day God visits us, the day of our rejoicing in patient hope, the day of the Lord!

It’s our favorite day.

Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.

Advent 2A Sermon: Public Fruit in the Wilderness

This sermon was preached for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2016. The readings were: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12.

In the name of Jesus, amen.

Start in the wilderness. Out there, away from the crowds and the city, away from money and gossip, it gets hotter and colder. Out there the wolves howl. This is fly-over country. This is the woods lining the turnpike. This is nowhere, and people are streaming into it to find John. John, the dirt-poor man dressed like a prophet, whose life consists of meditating on scripture, castigating moral indiscretion, and dunking people into the muddy Jordan waters. John is the definition of an inappropriate person, and he lives at a time when measured and appropriate actions are insufficient – just as we do today. And he also utters one of the most scathing condemnations of the Scriptures, calling out those Pharisees and Sadducees that we love to hate.

Here's the thing - the Pharisees and Sadducees were the good guys, the upright guys, the law-abiding and appropriate people. These were the respectable religious and community leaders, these were the best behaved and most charitable folk around. The people John is taking to task are really the very people that everyone was trying to be like, and John sees through them. In a similar way, we sometimes think we can see through each other. We think we can know the truth in just these terms, call out the so-called respectable people in our own lives and world. Some of us call it "othering", making an "other" of our fellow human beings and judging them on the basis of "their" conduct or identity.

So who do we make into the "other"? Who is the less respectable one among us? Do we admire those in the wilderness of North Dakota, blasted with hoses and increasingly surrounded by armed powers; or do we admire those whose resistance retains the subtlety of lawsuits and neckties? How do we judge between the various tribes of Pharisees and Sadducees in our own world, those who point the finger and accuse each other - Republicans and Democrats, Palestinians and Israelis, New Yorkers and Texans, Eagles and Giants fans? (I asked my mom and she said that last one makes sense.) For what good fruit should we look?

Consider what is happening out in the wilderness: confession and forgiveness in baptism. Repentance and confession are linked here; and the assumption is that those who are coming are coming to confess. If we are to go out there into the badlands, into the wilderness, we are going to a place of confession, where we are to be judged and will not be asked to judge others. We are not John, here, but the crowds going out to him, with Pharisees and Sadducees among us. John is the one sent to prepare the people for the coming of Jesus by calling out for confession among the people, and baptizing them as a sign of repentance, of changing their lives.

If we go out there now, whom shall we meet in the wilderness? In flyby country, who awaits us? In the woods by the turnpike, in the hills near Standing Rock, on the curbs of Springwood Avenue, who waits for us? Out there awaits our neighbor, whose sins and silence are not ours to judge, because the truth is that we are just as mixed a crowd now as was there in the wilderness by the Jordan. Our journey begins with confession, just as theirs did, and there is always much to confess.

The season of Advent always introduces John the Baptist on the second Sunday, because Advent is a time of renewal and return to our identity, which is given in baptism. To return to our baptism is to go out into the wilderness again, to again go out into the uncomfortable and inappropriate to confess and repent, to see anew who we are and be transformed by God's mercy which makes saints out of sinners. This confession is not about judging the sins of others - the Pharisees and Sadducees we think are among us and rarely identify as ourselves. But that's the truth, isn't it?

We are the brood of vipers, if anyone is. We are those who devour each other, who hurt each other, who struggle for power and control and wealth. We are those who credit ourselves with the great benefits of those who have gone before us which we have inherited. We call ourselves by holy names and seek great mercy for ourselves, even as we condemn the “other” with our hearts and minds.

And yet, there is no mention that John does not baptize these vipers. In fact, what does he say? "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." Holy Spirit and fire! We had best prepare, then, by making some good fruit out in the wilderness! What fruit can we vipers, we judgers, we respectable people, bear that the ax might not cut us down? What Christmas tree might we display to show our piety? What figs and candied apples could we give that we might be spared the fire?

This is the great mistake of we respectable people when we go to the wilderness; we do not recognize what is happening. We are being commanded not to bear different fruit, but to become new trees. We are not being confirmed in ourselves; we are there to confess, to return to the water of repentance which alone can transform us, nourish us, and help us grow! We are not there to plant the trees, but to be made into new, different trees that grow good fruit. And that is why it so important to hear the good news that even the Gentiles, the unclean and inappropriate people, can be welcomed into the promises of God. That is why it is so important that the waters can be forgiveness for the deepest sin and the darkest delusion. That is why is no Christmas tree which God seeks, but the shoot which grows from the stump of Jesse. The good fruit is grown only on the tree of the cross, and it is the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, who dies outside the city overlooking the dump.

So what good fruit must we respectable people bear? We are asked only to confess and submit to being forgiven. Forgiven by this man from the backwoods of Nazareth. Forgiven by this naked, homeless, criminal executed by the state. Forgiven by this native, whose people had been losing their heritage and land and culture and way of living to imperial colonists for hundreds of years. Forgiven in the muddy waters of the Jordan, in the bloody soil of Golgotha, in the forgotten and irrelevant back alleys of Asbury Park or in the dark of a seedy bar. Forgiven by no one, in the middle of nowhere.

The question isn't about the Pharisees or Sadducees and what they will do; nor is it about the crowd, or our neighbor. The question is what it is we came to see, to find. Let's not run to our church attendance, to our charitable contributions, to our respectable homes and families, to our notable addresses, to our Christmas trees and our bank accounts. Let us flee instead to no one, in the middle of nowhere; find him in the water, at the table, on the cross, and see the tree who bears us. Here is the one who baptizes with Holy Spirit and fire, and in him is life and forgiveness for the truly unrespectable – for you and I.

Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.

1st Sunday of Advent A: Waiting for Soon
This sermon was preached on the First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2016. The readings were: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44.

In the name of Jesus, amen.

How long until soon? It’s like waiting in the dentist’s office, or more accurately, waiting for the dental appointment. Of course, these days, the dentists are always bugging us. My sister got a text on Friday morning from her dentist – the second text – reminding her that she had an appointment, and where, and when. It’s a great way to make sure she’s ready! Don’t you wish Jesus sent us texts reminding us to be ready? But of course, Jesus does just that, and today’s text is one of them!

The text isn’t about hunkering down and waiting for the rapture (which is not a thing). It’s not about being afraid. It’s not about hoping to get swiped from the world – the people who disappeared in Noah’s time drowned, and the people who disappeared in Christ’s time wound up on crosses, and the people who disappear in our time wind up in Guantanamo Bay. No, this text is Jesus reminding us to be ready, because we and the whole world have an appointment with the kingdom of God. The problem is that no one knows quite when it is.

Advent is funny like that. Advent is about staying awake and ready for something that we are sure will happen but we don’t know when. Advent is about being ready for Christ, who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. But we have problem waiting, don’t we? We tend to either jump into pretending that what will be already is, or we fall asleep on the watch and revert to how we lived before we got our reminder text. We’re too busy dividing up lives, bombing other countries, piping oil through other people’s land, and neglecting the poor. In fact we do those things because we are too busy to take our time finding other solutions to problems. We’re too busy getting things done to change anything – which means we really don’t get anything done at all. It’s like sleepwalking.

What Paul calls us to do is to wake up. The night is over, and the dawn is breaking, and if we stay asleep we are going to be embarrassed when the visiting king arrives! Don’t we know that when he comes the whole world will flock to him, and everything will be turned upside down? This is the one whose kingdom involves wolves and lions and lambs and cows all grazing in the fields and cuddling. This is the one who stops all war. This is the one whose people beat weapons of destruction and death into tools of gardening, tools of life. This is the king of those most expert waiters, the farmers, who know that we cannot speed the planting or the harvest but must keep awake and do what is needed in the right time.

So today we have a text from Jesus, reminding us of our world’s appointment with the king. And much like the appointment with the dentist, we cannot afford to ignore it, or the appointment will be unpleasant. We cannot pretend we do not know what is coming, or what it will mean. We also cannot speed it up. All we can do is wake up, get ready, and keep brushing our teeth until the day arrives. Morning and night, we keep ready – because the day is coming soon.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.