A Glimpse of Glory

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church + The Transfiguration of Our Lord + February 11, 2018

Reading: Mark 9:2-9


A few years ago I helped lead a group of college students on a service trip to New Orleans. We stayed in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Even seven years after Hurricane Katrina, the Lower Ninth bore obvious scars of the natural disaster: injured buildings; FEMA’s spray paint; abandoned houses, reminders of neighbors who left to shelter with family in other cities and never returned.

Our home for the week was the Lower Ninth Ward Village, a warehouse turned into a community center — or rather, turning into a community center. It was clear that a lot of work had gone into the place: walls were painted with bright murals; a garden grew in the backyard; one of the rooms had been converted into a computer lab for the neighborhood’s students. This place was an amazing refuge and beacon of hope for its community. But it was also clear that this was a work in progress: we kept discovering, as we cooked, that the kitchen was missing some basic equipment; one afternoon we saw a rat scurry across the kitchen floor, and we hurried to move ALL of our groceries behind the protective walls of the fridge.

On one of our first mornings, one of the young women described the huge bugs she’d seen in our sleeping room the night before. She said she had kept awake for a while, imagining all the kinds of bugs could be crawling around the floor, crawling up the legs of her cot, wondering if they could be dangerous. Finally, she said, she’d fallen asleep, reminding herself, in all seriousness: “God won’t let a bug kill me.”

I think I kept a straight face when she said that. But inside I was shocked. How can you say “God won’t let a bug kill me” while we are sleeping in a building that once had floodwater rising up over its windows? While all around us buildings are still marked with codes showing whether any deceased people had been found inside? While our neighbors for the week are people who were already poor, suffering from a continuing history of systemic racism and poverty, and then were hit by a disaster, and now are still struggling to recover while most of the rest of their city has gone back to normal?

Saying “God won’t let a bug kill me,” especially in that particular place, with the stories we’d been hearing…it sounded hollow and insensitive and, well, maybe a little ridiculous. But, this young woman was only doing something that we all sometimes do, something we are trained to do by a culture that does not want to face suffering or failure or grief or death. She was using her faith as a barrier against her fear of suffering. She was thinking of God as a powerful, protective figure that will make everything go her way, at least most of the time.

But that is not a promise God makes to us. That is not who God is. And there’s a big danger in that thinking: because — as many of you have already learned all too well — there will come a day when something really bad will happen, something that a god who makes things go our way would never let happen, and we will be left wondering if that god really exists. And if that is the only god we know, we will be left wondering if God really exists, or cares about us.

Today in worship we remember and celebrate the story of Christ’s Transfiguration. And I think this story can seem as unreal and disconnected from our experiences as that false god who only lets nice things happen. Jesus suddenly transforms, his clothes blindingly white, and he speaks with two of the greatest Jewish figures of all time, men who had walked the earth a thousand years before. God’s voice declares from the sky: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

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Transfiguration – Mosaic along the entryway to the Basilica of St. Peter, Vatican City. Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition

So few human beings in all of history have ever had — or even claimed to have had — such a direct experience of God’s power and glory, such a clear communication from heaven. So we probably come away from this story thinking, “Wow! What an amazing sight that would have been to see!” or “That must really have confirmed for those three disciples that Jesus was the messiah.” Or, if we are feeling cynical or doubtful this morning, “Yeah right, like this one actually happened.” In any case: how do we apply this story to the complications and questions of our life? How does this bright, shining vision of Christ’s glory have connection to our experiences, especially if we’re facing life’s most humbling or devastating moments: illness, death, loss, disappointment?

Here’s the thing that helps me: the Transfiguration was weird and out-of-this-world for Jesus’s disciples too. That’s why Peter fumbled around as he tried to react in the midst of all his awe and fear of what he’d just witnessed. This story is an out-of-place blip of shiny glory in a life otherwise spent staring life’s pain in the face. As far as we know, Jesus grew up like just about everybody else in his world: poor. In the years of his life we know most about, he wandered around with a rag-tag group of followers, surviving off of whatever food and shelter someone offered them, sometimes scavenging for their own food. And yes, he performed many, many healings: but those demonstrations of divine power also involved staring disease and death in the face, being surrounded by sick people, touching lepers. In Jesus, the God of all glory entered right into the midst of our suffering: experiencing pain physically and emotionally, spending time with the poor and the sick and the dying and the grieving and the angry people.

The Transfiguration occurred at a time when Jesus was really trying to drive home the point that the messiah, the Son of God, did not come to ward off suffering. The messiah would have to suffer and die. Those who wished to follow him would have to follow him into lives of suffering and sacrifice.

The story of the Transfiguration appears in three of the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And in each of those books, it appears as part of the same sequence of events — which doesn’t often happen with stories, since the writers arranged each arranged the stories in their own ways. In all three tellings, the Transfiguration is preceded by Jesus asking his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter confessed, “You are the messiah.” And then Jesus explained exactly what that meant: he would undergo great suffering, be put to death, and after three days, rise again. Anyone who wanted to follow him would have to “take up their cross” (Matt. 16:13-28; Mark 8:27-9:1; Luke 9:18-27). All three gospels link this story to the Transfiguration, saying it was about a week later that Jesus took three disciples up the mountain, where they saw him change before their eyes. As they came down the mountain together, Jesus again reminded them that he would soon be made to suffer.

When they reached the rest of the disciples at the bottom of the mountain, a great crowd was waiting for them. The crowd had brought the disciples a boy who was possessed by an unclean spirit. The disciples had been unable to cast it out. So immediately after that moment of dazzling glory on the mountain, Jesus again came face-to-face with the suffering of the world. Jesus healed the boy, and then went on with his disciples, teaching them, yet again, that he was about to be betrayed and killed (Matt. 17:14-23; Mark 9:14-32; Luke 9:37-45).

We understand the Transfiguration best when we see that it is a glimpse of glory in the midst of a life turned towards human suffering. It’s like a peek behind-the-scenes, a vision of the glorious God present there in the suffering of Jesus; and it’s like a promise of the resurrection that would come after the crucifixion. The divine power in Jesus would not keep him from suffering, but it would bring God nearer to our suffering, right into death, and then the divine power would bring new life. That is the promise of the Transfiguration.

Maybe you have a memory bank of moments like the Transfiguration; memories or stories or Bible verses that remind you that God is with you even when life feels awful, that remind you that God will bring new life even from our tragedies.

We would prefer it if God kept suffering from happening in the first place. And I will always insist that getting angry with God after a tragedy or asking why God “let something happen” is a biblical reaction: there are psalms and whole books of devastated and furious laments in the Bible. Still we must remember what we have been shown and promised: what we see revealed in Jesus Christ is not a god who keeps us protected from all harm, but a God who is right there with us when we are suffering, a God who transfigures our suffering from something devastating to something meaningful (even if still painful), a God who leads us to new life even after death. Our lives may never be the same; but God will use the change for a new creation, a resurrection that — like Jesus’s resurrected body — bears the marks of the pain we suffered even while we begin our new life.

These were the promises that sustained the disciples through their years of persecution and martyrdom. These are the promises that we can lean on today, even when we come to our own times of suffering. Amen.

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Listening for God? Listen to Others.

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 4th Sunday after Epiphany + January 28, 2018

Readings: Mark 1:21-28; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13


Our Monday Night Bible Study group has been reading the Gospel of Luke. For months. Very slowly. Very, very slowly. We started back in September, and tomorrow we’ll be reading chapter 10. Well, the first half of chapter 10.

But we’ve been going at such a slow pace for good reason. This gives us the opportunity to really think about each passage: to pay attention to the details of the the story, to trace back to roots in Old Testament passages, to ask any question that pops into our heads from, “What do you think Elijah and Moses said to Jesus during his Transfiguration?” to “Why did Jesus get so crabby with those people?”

A question we come back to over and over is, “What would it have been like to be there?” What would it have been like to see Jesus stand up in the synagogue and declare that he was the messiah promised in the book of Isaiah (Luke 4:16-30)? Would I have believed him, or would I have been part of the crowd ready to throw him off a cliff? What would it have been like to see fishermen abandon their boats and follow him (Luke 5:1-11)? Was something about him so engaging and powerful that he just drew people to leave their lives for him? Would I have been one of them, or would I have just paid attention from afar?

Our gospel reading for this morning, from the Gospel of Mark, inspires questions along those lines. What would it have been like to be there? To hear Jesus teaching “a new teaching — with authority!” The passage doesn’t give us much detail about how exactly Jesus taught, or even what he was teaching at that moment. How would we have recognized his authority? Was it in the way he spoke and held himself? Was it — like some Bible scholars say —  that he just taught on his own merit, not referring back to “what Rabbi so-and-so” said like the scribes did? Was it — as others say — that he was so amazingly genuine, that he proved his teachings by his actions: by his compassion, by his miraculous healings and exorcisms? The people who heard him that day had not been taught that Jesus was the Son of God. He was just a stranger from down in Nazareth. But somehow they recognized — maybe not that God was speaking to them, but at least that this teacher had authority like they had never seen before. How did they know?

Our wondering about these ancient passages comes from the deep longings of our own lives as people trying to know God, to follow Jesus. What would it be like if I could hear God speaking with authority that directly? How do I know what God is trying to teach me today? I want to know what God wants me to do — but nothing feels clear. What I’d give to have Jesus standing in front of me, speaking with such authority that there is no room for question.

Today we usually turn to the Bible as our in-person source of God’s authority. But even with the Bible, things aren’t so clear. This passage seems to point in one direction; this passage in another direction. Or, I heard one pastor interpret a reading this way, and another pastor tell me it meant something different. We hold the Bible to be an authority for us — but we still need an authoritative interpretation. And maybe that’s why so many people flock to churches that emphasize that they “read the Bible literally,” that they know the true interpretation, that they have a clear picture of what God is telling us and what God wants from us. We want to hear something certain, but we find God to be bigger than a simple answer or a single interpretation. God just keeps being mysterious.

As we tune in to what we do have right in front of us — this mess of questions and readings and interpretations — as we tune in, trying to hear the authoritative voice of God, we face the constant danger of shaping God’s will in our own image, of interpreting God’s Word in a way that kind of fits our own desires or expectations of God or the way we were raised. We may do this on a personal level, and it is really hard not to do it on a group level: interpreting God and the scriptures in ways that match the pattern of our culture or the groups we belong to. Like, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the Bible passages American Christians almost never take literally are the ones about giving all your wealth to the poor or to the community. Just like we tend to interpret the news from within the political or ideological bubbles in which we are comfortable, we interpret God’s will from where we are. It’s what comes naturally — but it can be a problem, something that keeps us from more clearly discerning the God who is bigger than us and our groups.

Christians have been doing this around the world for thousands of years, even right after the time of Jesus. Paul wrote the letter which we just read from a few minutes ago, 1 Corinthians, within twenty years of Jesus’s death. Jesus’s closest disciples as well as others who had seen and heard him teach face-to-face were still alive, travelling throughout the Mediterranean region and beyond, sharing their firsthand knowledge of Jesus. But despite being so much closer to Jesus in time and space, these ancient Corinthian Christians had the same problem of thinking God’s will was pretty similar to who they were, what they thought, and how they wanted to live. And Paul had to keep telling them, No, wait, try to think of things from a perspective outside of your own.

We can see that in today’s reading. A group of Corinthian Christians thought among themselves, We know that some of the meat for sale in the market or served up at our friends’ houses has probably been sacrificed to pagan gods. But we know that those gods aren’t real, so it’s not like the sacrifice actually does anything to the meat. It’s totally fine for us to eat that meat like it’s just regular food. The one true God won’t mind.

And Paul wrote to them: Yes, that all makes sense, but have you considered what you eating sacrificial meat might look like to others? Some of your Christian siblings – newly converted from their pagan beliefs — are so used to these sacrifices being important, so used to thinking that food has been changed now that it’s part of that ritual, that they can’t help but see you as participating in pagan worship when you eat it. God might be ok with you eating the meat, but God’s not ok with you confusing others in the Church, maybe leading them in the wrong direction, to think that going back to their old ways is ok. Actually what Paul wrote was more extreme: “But when you thus sin against members of your family…you sin against Christ.”

In another part of the letter, Paul criticizes the wealthier members of the church for the way they celebrated Holy Communion (which back then was more like a meal). You sit down and eat your food, Paul wrote, which seems fine to you. But did you notice the rest of the church? Others can’t afford what you have. Or they’re still working for their small portion while you’re already free to sit down and feast. So “one goes hungry [while another has so much to eat and drink that he] becomes drunk.” It’s humiliating for those who have so little. And it’s completely ignoring the whole point of Communion: to come together as one body, sharing what the Lord has given.  Again Paul wrote in strong language: “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body [meaning the church, the Body of Christ, the community], eat and drink judgement against themselves” (1 Cor. 11:17-34).

In both of these examples, Paul told subgroups or cliques within the Corinthian church to look to the wider church community to better discern what the will of God might be. By forcing cliques of Corinthians to imagine how another might see things, or feel, or what another person’s life was like compared to their own, Paul helped them see how God’s will might be different than what they could discern from within their bubble. After all, God’s plan, God’s care, encompasses all people — and so God’s will must surely take into account all those perspectives and experiences. Paul reminded them, over and over: You are one with a bigger, more diverse group of people than you realize. And keeping with the understanding of God shown through Israel’s holy stories and prophets and Jesus himself, Paul always assumed that God will would lean toward the needs of those who were more vulnerable, more in need.

These examples remind us of something we easily forget: the Bible is not the only authority left to us now that Jesus has ascended. Jesus’s physical body is gone, but God has given us the mystical Body of Christ, the Church. That doesn’t mean the hierarchy or the rulings of denominations; the Body of Christ means our one-ness in Christ, the holy way that we belong to Christ, and how through Christ we belong to one another in a holy way. Not just the “one another” we experience in-person here at St. Andrew or with other friends; but the “one another” that, in Christ, connects us with the Church around the world: with other denominations, with Black churches, with churches in other countries, with people wealthier and poorer, with people facing famine and war, with people facing racism and sexism, with people facing apathy and self-centeredness.

God has made us one with a bigger, more diverse group of people than we sometimes realize. God has made us responsible to a bigger, more diverse group of people than we sometimes realize. That responsibility to one another is a voice of authority in our lives, and it is another way that God speaks to us today.

We have to work out God’s will for our lives situation by situation, leaning on all the means God uses to speak to us: the teachings of Jesus, the Bible as a whole, the traditions of the Church, the experiences of our lives, and the Body of Christ. And as we learn to better “discern the Body of Christ,” to consider a wider circle of people and their perspectives and understandings, we will be less constrained by our own image, and better able to discern the Word of the God of all Creation.

The Stories We Pass Around

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday after Epiphany + January 14, 2018

Reading: John 1:43-51


Early in November I went to Houston for a training session for the ELCA National Youth Gathering, which will take place there this summer. As part our training we did a practice run-through of our Synod Day worship and activities, and the pastor of a local congregation gave the sermon. I remember one of the personal stories he shared.

It had been a little chilly in Houston in October, well, at least chilly for Texas, and at least before the sun came up, which is when Pastor Jackson liked to go running. So one of those chilly mornings he pulled on a sweatshirt and pulled the hood up to keep his head warm, and went for his usual morning run. As he jogged around the quiet streets of his suburban neighborhood, a police car pulled up beside him, and the officer stopped Pastor Jackson to ask him a few questions. “When the police officer first saw me,” Pastor Jackson said to us, “He saw a black man in a hoodie running around a nice neighborhood in the dark, and that’s why he stopped me. I explained who I was, that I lived in one of these houses, that I was pastor at Living Word, that my accent was from my home country of Liberia.”

I think the point of this part of the sermon was how important it is to get to know one another, to share our stories and to listen to others’ so that we can live in a stronger, more caring community. “He saw me and thought of one story,” Pastor Jackson said, “but when we said good-bye, he knew my real story.”

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, when our nation remembers the work of Dr. King and the others who fought for the rights of African-Americans and other people of color in the Civil Rights Movement. We remember how, eighty-eight years after the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, after eighty-eight years of Jim Crow laws kept people of color segregated, prevented them from voting, relegated them to schools with poor funding, and backed a host of other abuses, finally civil rights were again legally enforced and protected through things like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the desegregation of schools and other public facilities, and the more general protection of the Civil Rights Act.

But even more important than looking back on those important dates and pieces of legislation, we ought to remember the most difficult challenge faced by Dr. King and others who fight for the protection of civil rights and for recognizing the worth of all humans: the harmful stories that get passed along in our culture (sometimes unintentionaly), the harmful stories that automatically come to our mind as we observe and understand our world.

Dr. King and his contemporaries had to deal with these stories in order to affect any legal changes. They had to work to contradict the stories that undergirded the laws and common practices that harmed people of color. Some of these stories were outrightly racist, stories like: People who are black are dangerous; people who are black are less intelligent; people who are black are from an entirely different race and ancestry than people who are white. Other harmful cultural stories were simply apathetic: People who are black are exaggerating; they have all the same rights I do; they just need to work harder; why are they causing all this trouble?

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Memphis sanitation workers during a 1968 strike. Via CNN.com

Though much has changed in the United States since 1965, harmful and incorrect stories continue to be passed on in our culture. It’s one of those human-nature things that’s been going on since ancient times.

Jesus had to deal with his own share of cultural stories as he did the work of God’s mission. In church we talk a lot about the various stories some of the Jewish people told in the first century about the coming messiah. The messiah will be a mighty warrior; the messiah will take back the throne of Israel; the messiah will judge us all according the law of God (and make the same judgements I would make). It was hard for Jesus to be seen as the messiah when his work was humble, he stood against the religious leaders, his judgments were either gentle or unexpected, and he won his great victory through public execution on the cross. His story was not the story people expected.

Today’s gospel reading reminds us that Jesus had to deal with the misguided stories people told about him on a personal level, too. There were people who knew only one or two things about Jesus, and immediately judged him to be lesser, they completely sidelined him. All Nathanael had heard about Jesus was that he was from Nazareth, and already he’d put Jesus into the cultural story of what people from Nazareth were like. Maybe he was repeating a common hometown joke when he said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Jesus had to almost supernaturally shock him out of that story in order to get Nathanael to see Jesus for who he really was. People form Jesus’s hometown dismissed him because they did know him, and couldn’t shake the story they knew: “Isn’t this the carpenter? Mary’s son?” they ask, offended when he starts to teach in the synagogue (Mark 6:1-6).

Throughout the gospels we also see that Jesus engaged in the work of contradicting common stories and telling new ones for the sake of other people, namely, those people who are most vulnerable in society. In fact he does this so often that it must have been a major part of his ministry. Some examples: Samaritans were hated figures in Jewish culture, yet Jesus made a Samaritan the hero of one of his most famous parables (Luke 10:25-37). When men pointed out to Jesus that the woman in their company was a sinner, Jesus evened the judgement playing field by pointing out that those men were sinners too — aren’t we all? (Luke 7:36-50; John 8:1-11). When his own disciples said that little children weren’t worthy of Jesus’s time, he encouraged all the adults to be more like children (Mark 10:13-15). While it was seemingly natural to admire the religious and political leaders, with their beautiful clothes and obvious righteousness, Jesus told a different story, calling those leaders hypocrites, pointing out all they did to hurt the poor, and instead lifting up the example of the people who were lowly but faithful as the better examples of righteous living (Luke 20:45-21:4). And of course there are the famous Beatitudes, where Jesus turned our idea of who is blessed upside-down: “Blessed are the poor… blessed are the hungry…blessed are those who weep…” (Luke 6:20-26)

Jesus constantly contradicted the cultural stories that did harm and told new stories to help people see the world differently. Jesus called his disciples to be part of his new stories. He wanted them to hear the new stories and also to live those stories. To hear the story that all are sinners, but that God extends grace to all, and then to live it by befriending those society cast out as “too sinful.” To hear that God blesses people who are poor, hungry, suffering, misunderstood, hated, and then to be a blessing to them.

Today Jesus continues to call disciples, to call us, to be part of this work of spotting the harmful stories and telling new stories. We do this when we tell and retell the stories of Jesus, so that his stories are always louder in our minds than the harmful stories of our culture. We do this when we listen to the stories of other people and reflect on them. We do this when we tell our own stories. We do this when we don’t let the harmful stories go unchallenged.

And Jesus calls us to live his stories. To live so that through our actions others may see the truth of God’s story in action: what it looks like in everyday life when every person is valued as a child of God and grace abounds.

The Christmas Story Gets Complicated

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 1st Sunday of Christmas + December 31, 2017

Reading: Luke 2:22-40


Merry Christmas! This is, according to the church calendar, the seventh day of Christmas; and according to song, it’s the day to give someone you love seven swans-a-swimming. Today is also the first and last Sunday of this year’s Christmas season, so this is our last opportunity to sing Christmas carols during worship. (By the way, your worship planning team tried to pack in as many as possible). And it’s the last time we will gather together to read a story of the sweet baby Jesus.

On Christmas Eve we heard the story of the birth of Jesus, heralded by the familiar, joyful words of the angel: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” And the angel chorus chimed in, “Peace on earth!” (Luke 2:8-14).

And I’m sure you’ve been seeing and hearing those words not only in church, but printed on Christmas cards, swirling in pretty script around pictures of bright stars or snowy trees or a children’s nativity play where, miraculously, all the children are in the right places and standing still. You’ve probably heard the angels quoted in Christmas songs and at the end of Christmas movies and — whether Jesus would have liked it or not — in advertisements for Christmas sales. The angels’ words are happy tidings that we like to hear over and over again.

In today’s gospel we hear words that also bear the joy of the Christmas season: the song Simeon sang when he finally saw this month-old baby who would grow up to be the messiah. From ancient times the church has loved these joyful words, too; since the 4th century they have been sung in worship, especially in evening prayer services. “Lord, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

And yet right after this joyful song Simeon switched tone as abruptly as a record scratch or a bishop’s microphone falling down in the middle of a Christmas Eve sermon.

After his song Simeon turned to Mary and said mysteriously, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Simeon’s song settles us into that joyful, peaceful Christmas spirit — and then this prophecy jolts us with shadows of the anger and opposition Jesus will face, shadows of the hypocrisy that Jesus will call out, shadows of the cross and Mother Mary feeling her soul pierced as she watches the execution of her firstborn son.

Do you remember the way you learned history in elementary school? The major events of the past were turned into simple stories, usually with happy endings: Columbus finally won the support of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, and so “in fourteen-hundred-ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue” on the “Nina and the Pinta and the Santa Maria, three little itty bitty ships that’s who,” and discovered America! Yay!

Then, as we get older, we learn that history is always more complicated, and usually a lot darker too. We learn that a few other Europeans had been to the Americas before Columbus. We learn that among the fruits of Columbus’s discovery was the enslavement of native peoples and, arguably, their genocide. And maybe the story is tinged by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s leadership in the bloody Spanish Inquisition. In any case we find out that there’s a lot more going on in the story than we sang in our children’s songs, more opinions on what happened, and much we don’t really want to sing about.

Today’s gospel reading takes us through a similar arc of realization, from simple, happy Christmas story to the knowledge that Jesus’s story will be more complicated and a lot darker than we want to think about as we celebrate his birth.

It’s an important reminder: Jesus’s mission was and is more complicated than our Christmas carols or Sunday school lessons. I think it is also more complicated than what we usually proclaim as the basic gospel message: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).

First of all I want to affirm: that message is at the core of the Christian faith. In an eternal way, and a way that should free us from fear and from our enslavement to guilt and anxiety, we do not have to fear God’s judgment; instead we can trust and rest in God’s grace and forgiveness and love. Hold on to that promise above all.

At the same time, we can see in Jesus’s ministry that his mission was not only about the fate of our souls or what happens when we die. Jesus’s message and ministry changed the everyday lives of the people he met. He healed the sick. He gave hope to those who were suffering. He fed people who were hungry. And his forgiveness meant not only being made right with God, but it also meant that those outcast for their sins were welcomed into a community.

But as he worked to save people from suffering or from sin, his message could get difficult to bear. Working for the good of the oppressed, he publicly called out the leaders for their mistreatment of the people (e.g. Luke 20:45-47). Working for the good of the individual people he met, he pointed out their need to change their ways: to Simon the Pharisee he said, “You have not been nearly as generous as this woman you call a sinner” (Luke 7:36-49); to the rich young man he said, “give everything you own to the poor and follow me,” (Mark 10:17-27); he physically threw the money-changers out of the Temple (Luke 19:45-48).

Saving people from sin in the here-and-now meant offering forgiveness; it also meant that “the inner thoughts of many would be revealed,” that Jesus would help people see the pride or the greed or the prejudice or whatever sin they clung to, made excuses for, overlooked…and pry them away from it and into a new way of living. Salvation was not always a pleasant process, and that is why Jesus became, “a sign to be opposed.”

Jesus continues this complicated work today. The message and work of salvation are more than the warm-and-fuzzy message of a Christmas greeting card or the bumper sticker that reminds you, “He died for you.” Salvation comes when we find relief from anxiety in trusting our prayers to God; salvation also comes when we feel challenged to change our ways.

And if you have trouble seeing that or believing that Jesus is still at work today: remember that God gave the Church to be the Body of Christ. We don’t have to look for Jesus’s presence only in big, in-your-face miracles; Jesus works the many ministries of salvation through us. God’s forgiveness is at work when we forgive one another; God’s acceptance is at work when we welcome visitors. God’s healing is at work in doctors and nurses, in the food we bring to those who are sick, in the communion we bring to those who are homebound.

God’s challenge may be at work when we hear another person’s point of view; when we advocate with those who are suffering; when we are called out for something we have done wrong.

Don’t wait for something simple or miraculous to realize that God is at work. Look around you at this complicated, sometimes dark, world — God has always worked in this kind of place, in these kind of times, in ways that are hard to see and understand, in ways that are frustrating and difficult. So look for God right here. And together, in the midst of all this mess, we can find our way to that message of faith and joy: “…my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.” Joy to the world. Amen.

 

 

Katharina von Bora Luther

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church+ Midweek Advent Service + December 20, 2017


A Reading from Colossians:

…you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

(Colossians 3:9b-17)


Some of the most exciting parts of Katharina von Bora Luther’s life — at least from our outside perspective — happened before she ever met Martin Luther face-to-face. She came from a noble family, but one who had fallen on hard times, and her family gave her over to the care of a convent when she was five or six years old. Sometime in her early twenties, while living the life of a nun in a cloister, she heard the teachings of Luther’s reformation, and something in those teachings must have affected her deeply — because one Easter Saturday, she and eleven other nuns sneaked out, abandoning their vows, the convent, and the only life they knew, taking a leap of faith into a dangerous and unknowable future. Abducting nuns was a crime punishable by death even if the nuns were willing escapees. But some reformers were willing to risk it, and so in a plan master-minded by Martin Luther himself, a man named Leonard Koppe smuggled Katie and the other women in a wagon full of fish barrels (or so the legend goes).

What were these ex-nuns to do now? How were they going to survive? Since there was still little respectable space for a woman outside the home, their best option was to marry. Katie looked lucky at first: she met a man she actually loved; he was of noble birth to boot, and he loved her back. They dreamed of getting married. But his family intervened; she was an ex-nun: too scandalous, too poor, and too old. Katie became the last ex-nun still without a husband.While she suffered from a broken heart, Luther and a friend kept trying to set her up with old pastors. Although she should have been thankful for any opportunity for a stable life, she rejected the matches, finally saying she would only marry one of two men: Nicolaus von Amsdorf, “a devoted bachelor,” or Martin Luther himself. Whether because Luther admired her spunk, or wanted to “irritate the pope and the devils,” or get his parents of his back, he agreed to marry her — making Katie the most famous of the very first women to fill the role of pastor’s wife.[1]

Katharina-v-Bora-1526-1

Portrait of Katharina von Bora by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1526). Katie lived with the Cranachs for a time before she married Luther.

Martin Luther wrote his second-to-last letter to his wife on February 10, 1546, a week before he died. It gives us a little peek into their twenty-year marriage:

To the b[lessed], anxious L[ady] Kat[therin] Luth[er], Doctor of Zulsd[orf] at Wil[tenberg], my g[racious], dear wife

Grace and peace in Christ! My most blessed Lady Doctor! We thank you most kindly for your great concern, which has prevented you from sleeping. For since you started worrying about us, a fire at our inn, right outside my chamber door, nearly engulfed us. And yesterday – no doubt through the power of your concern – a stone almost fell on our heads and crushed us, as in a mouse trap. For in our private chambers, lime and mortar crumbled above our heads for two days, until we sent for some people, who merely touched the stone with two fingers, causing it to fall down. It was big as a large pillow and as wide as a large hand. For this, we would have had to thank your holy worries, had the dear angels not been guarding [us]. I fear that if you do not cease worrying, the earth will finally swallow us up and all the elements will persecute us. Is this how you learned the catechism and faith? Therefore, pray and leave it to God to worry, you have not been commanded to look after me or yourself. It is said: “Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and He shall sustain thee,” as in Psalm 55 and many other places.

We are, thanks be to God, hale and healthy, except that we are growing weary of the whole business. And [Justus] Jonas so desperately wanted to have a bad leg that he bumped into a chest; so great is human envy that he begrudged me being the only one with a bad leg. With this, I commend you to God. We would now like to leave and go home, God willing. Amen. On the day of St. Scholastica, 1546

Your Holiness’ willing servant
M. L.[2]

Though Luther teases her for her all her anxiety, maybe Katie felt like she was justified in worrying so much about her husband — and not just because he had received death threats for years. Katie had to worry over Luther from the very start of their marriage. When the couple married in 1525, she was 26 and he was 41. He had been a bachelor all those 40 years, and on top of that a monk (which I’m sure comes with its own quirks) and a professor single-mindedly devoted to his work in reforming the Church. We can imagine Luther’s type: a brilliant scholar and revolutionary so absorbed by the workings of his mind that he comes off as absent-minded in the day-to-day works of life. And this imagining probably isn’t far off: there were times when Katie entered Luther’s private chambers to find his bed stinking and rotting: he’d neglected to change the straw that made up his mattress.[3]

When Katie married Luther, she immediately felt the need to take control of the financial situation. Though Luther’s fame had spread throughout Europe and so had his writings, he had not been collecting any payments for his books.[4] He had no fixed salary, either, and on top of that, he had a hard time saying no to people in need. Luther changed the world, but struggled with his own upkeep. So Katie immediately got to work: collecting money for his writings and fixing up all the disrepair in Luther’s home, the Black Cloister or Black Abbey (and yes, that’s where the Nashville brewing company gets its name, because Katie Luther, one of the first preacher’s wives, was renowned for her skills in beer-making).

Katie turned the Black Abbey into a self-sufficient household. She grew fruits and vegetables, raised farm animals, fished, baked bread, and made butter and cheese. She increased their wealth by purchasing additional land: more farms and orchards.

All this work went into feeding and sheltering more than just Mr. and Mrs. Luther and their six children. The Luthers also raised six or seven nieces and nephews and four orphans.[5] The Abbey served as a boarding school for theological students and a hostel for other visitors as they came to talk with Luther and the other reformers. Katie regularly hosted meals for 30-40 people, and she often fed as many as 120 people.[6] In that time of great political and religious turbulence, Katie frequently sheltered refugees; and when the plague reared its ugly head, she turned her home into a hospital.[7] All this work shows Katie’s great hospitality and practicality, and also a skill for leadership and a strength of will to match Martin Luther’s own. It’s no wonder that Luther’s favorite pet names for Katie included, “my Lord,” “most holy Mrs. doctoress,” and “the boss of Zulsdorf.”

When we talk about saints, we often talk about their wondrous miracles passed down in stories: like St. Nicholas travelling in a dream in order so save sailors caught in a storm.

Katie Luther worked more down-to-earth miracles: figuring how to stretch the family income to not only meet her family’s needs but also to generously care for others; keeping up all the tasks of a self-sustaining farm; putting up with theological guests who thought Luther’s wife should keep her mouth shut on matters of faith and the Bible, even though she had her own share of religious education.

This difference between the miracles of Katie and the “classic” saints reflects one of Martin Luther’s teachings: the priesthood of all believers. Prior to Luther, the church had considered only certain occupations to be a “spiritual” calling: the obviously religious work of priests, monks, nuns, and the like. The rest of people fell into the category of “secular.”Luther rejected this divide, writing, “In fact, we are all consecrated priests through Baptism.”[8] With that idea, anyone’s work — both what they did for money and the role they played in their family and community — was a spiritual calling. Katie Luther was one of the first and most public models for living the roles of wife, mother, and house manager as a holy calling from God. Her holiness — the work of the Holy Spirit in her — showed in her dedication to her tasks and the grace-filled hospitality she showed to her guests and to people in need.

This was how Katie saw her work: as a way to live her faith. Martin Luther once told her he would give her $50 if she would sit still and read the Bible. She told him she had read enough back in the convent; now she wanted to live it.[9]

Katharina von Bora Luther reminds us to see all of the roles we take on and the tasks we perform as calls to embody our faith — an active, living faith. Whether what we do is as bold and extraordinary as running away from a convent or as ordinary as waking up at the crack of dawn to take care of our family, all these tasks may be holy if we do them in service to God. As the scriptures say: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Amen.


Bibliogarphy

Katie Luther: The Morning Star of Wittenberg, (documentary) The Evangelical Lutheran    Church in America. Posted by the ELCA on YouTube, October 13, 2006. Available         online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4h6NoxNhmE

Martin Luther, the Reformation, and Women, (documentary) DW Documentary.       Posted by DW on YouTube, October 31, 2017. Available online:                       https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBMLO1MomWU

Kirsi Stjerna, Women and the Reformation, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2009).


Notes

[1] Kirsi Stjerna, Women and the Reformation, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), 51-56.

[2] “The Reformer as Husband – Luther and His Wife,” German History in Documents and Images, online: http://germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/docpage.cfm?docpage_id=4421 Source of original German text: “Luther an seine Frau. [Eisleben,] 10. Februar 1546,” in D. Martin Luthers Werke. Weimarer Ausgabe (Sonderedition). Part 3: Briefwechsel. Vol. 11, pp. 290-92. Translation: Thomas Dunlap

[3] Kirsi Stjerna in the documentary Katie Luther: The Morning Star of Wittenberg, (ELCA). Online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4h6NoxNhmE

[4] Stjerna, Women and the Reformation, 62.

[5] Stjerna, 58.

[6] Stjerna, 61.

[7] Stjerna, Women in the Reformation, 60.

[8] Martin Luther, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. Quoted in Timothy Wengert, “The Priesthood of All Believers and Other Pious Myths,” Valparaiso University Institute of Liturgical Studies Occasional papers, 1-1-2005, p. 12.

[9] Stjerna, 61.

St. Nicholas: Image of the Good Shepherd

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Advent Midweek Service + St. Nicholas Day + December 6, 2017

Reading: John 10:11-18


Our first story for tonight begins like a fairy tale or a romcom: with three women – three sisters — dreaming of being married. But these sisters held out very little hope of actually finding husbands, because their family was poor. This was the late 200s or early 300s AD, and they needed a dowry – a large gift from the bride’s father to the groom – in order to attract a good husband. Without a dowry, their chances of being married were slim; and if they were not married, these women had essentially no opportunity to earn money to support themselves and their family, and they would become a burden; they faced a very strong likelihood that their family would have to sell them into slavery – in our contemporary terminology, give them over to human trafficking — just so that everyone could survive.

One morning, one of the sisters was taking the family’s stockings down from the fireplace, where they’d been hung out to dry. One of the stockings was surprisingly heavy. She reached down inside, pulled out a small bag, and opened it to find a pile of gold coins. The family rejoiced at their luck, and soon the eldest daughter married.

Not long after the marriage, another bag of gold appeared mysteriously in the house, and the middle daughter was able to marry. Seeing the pattern forming, the father decided to start keeping watch at night, hoping to discover the person behind these generous gifts. He sat awake near the fireplace, night after night, until finally he saw a third bag of gold come sailing in through the open window. The father jumped up and stuck his head through the window, where he caught a glimpse of a local monk sneaking away. “Oh, Nicholas, it’s you!” the father shouted. “You have saved my daughters from disaster!” Embarrassed, Nicholas begged the man to keep his good deeds a secret, saying “You must thank God alone for providing these gifts in answer to your prayers.”[1]

Stories like these form the legend of St. Nicholas – the ancient Bishop of Myra (in what is now Turkey) who has been remembered for centuries for living a life of remarkable generosity, for defending the innocent and the wrongly accused, and for protecting those in danger.

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Statue at the Church of St. Nicholas, Ebermannstadt, Germany. Statue by Harro Frey (1989); photo by Immanuel Giel (2006). Via Wikimedia Commons.

In one story, Nicholas appeared to be dozing off during a dinner at the Council of Nicea. In his sleep, he heard voices calling his name, and he left his body behind, following the sound of the voices out into the middle of an ocean, where a ship was caught in a raging storm. Nicholas raised his hands and the winds and the thunder and lightning hushed. When he awoke back at Nicea, another bishop said, “So much has happened while you slept!” Nicholas replied, “Yes indeed, a ship has been saved and many sailors rescued.” The bishops assumed he was speaking in metaphor: the Church was a ship, and the council had saved the church from heresy. But sailors have believed differently, naming St. Nicholas as their patron saint.[2]

St. Nicholas even saved his people from the burden of high taxes. His people begged him to speak up to the Emperor about the taxation, and so Nicholas traveled to see Emperor Constantine and pled for his people. The emperor granted a large tax cut and gave Nicholas a copy of the order, so that Nicholas could return home with proof of Constantine’s decision. Before Nicholas could return home however, some of Constantine’s finance ministers convinced him that the tax cuts were a really bad idea for the royal treasury. So Constantine called Nicholas back and asked him to return the order so that they could change it to smaller reduction. “I can’t,” Nicholas said. “The order has already been put into effect.” Miraculously, Nicholas had already gotten the order all the way to Myra: he had thrown the parchment into the sea, and almost immediately it was found in the water back home and rushed right to the proper authorities. Faced with such divine intervention, Constantine allowed the big tax cut to stand.[3]

For thousands of years people have continued to tell stories of St. Nicholas saving those in danger, even after his death. Sailors claimed that Nicholas pulled them up out of the sea after they were cast overboard; parents claimed that Nicholas saved their children from danger; others claim that he returned people home after they were kidnapped or put in prison. Some people in a Palestinian city claim that St. Nicholas protected their city from bombing in the 1940s, having seen a vision of St. Nicholas with his arms stretched out, catching the bombs. After a battle with Israeli soldiers in the 2000s, one Palestinian gunman claimed to have seen a man with white beard protecting the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church from bullets.[4] Even if you maybe don’t believe stories like these, we can see the power of St. Nicholas’s memory and the devotion the stories of his life continue to inspire in people.

And of course St. Nicholas has inspired traditions throughout the world.  In many countries, like Germany and the Netherlands, children leave their shoes out the night before St. Nicholas Day, often with a tray of carrots or hay for the saint’s horse, and in the morning they find candies, fruit, and other gifts tucked into their shoes. In a Mexican town named for St. Nicholas, his festival lasts for an entire week and includes a parade of his statue, fireworks, and music. The town of Beit Jala in Palestine is home to a cave where St. Nicholas supposedly lived around the time of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Greek Orthodox, Catholics, and Lutherans as well as many Muslims take part in St. Nicholas Day festivities there, which include a procession to the cave and concerts. The memory of St. Nicholas draws people from around the world to celebrate.[5]

I can’t resist the pun here: so many people have flocked to St. Nicholas because he was a shepherd to his people in the same way Jesus was. The people of his time and place, and then people around the world and throughout the centuries, have seen in him the image of the great Good Shepherd.  Jesus once said, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” and when we hear that we think of Jesus’s supreme example of laying down his life for us on the cross. But we can expand how we understand that, too: the good shepherd must lay down his life for the sheep in both large and small acts every day, choosing to put his sheep’s needs over his desire to take a nap in the shade or run away from the wolf or spend all day by the village well, hoping that the young woman with the sharp wit comes by to draw water.

Jesus laid down his life in large and small ways throughout his life: he saw people in need of healing on the street, and he stopped to help them. He stood up to powerful people on behalf of those who were suffering under their rule. He fed the crowds who came out be healed and taught. Jesus death on the cross was the strongest example in an entire life laid down for the mission of God and in service to others.

St. Nicholas took the teachings and the model of Jesus seriously and laid down his life for God and for his people, too. When he was still young and his parents died, they left him a sizeable inheritance; and he knew right away he must use that money to help those who were in need. He spent time in prison when the Emperor persecuted Christians. He listened to his people and responded to their needs. He gave away money and food, he stood up for those being mistreated, and he saved those in danger. And he was always quick to point back to the God revealed in Jesus Christ as the one who inspired his good deeds, as the true source of the generosity and protection seen through St. Nicholas. As he said to the father of the three brides: “You must thank God alone for providing these gifts.”

As we remember these stories of St. Nicholas, and as we see in them the image of the Good Shepherd, I hope that we, too, may see the opportunities we have to lay down our lives for others, maybe especially in the small, everyday ways – in opportunities to put a loved one’s needs first, or to stand up for those who are mistreated, to protect someone else in body or in reputation or in fair treatment, even just to listen to another person’s story. And I hope that we also pay close attention to notice the ways that others lay down their lives for us, and catch a glimpse of the Good Shepherd at work in our family and friends and even in strangers.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, who in your love gave to your servant Nicholas of Myra a perpetual name for deeds of kindness on land and sea: Grant, we pray,that your Church may never cease to work for the happiness of children, the safety of sailors, the relief of the poor, and the help of those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. [6]


[1] “Three Impoverished Maidens or The Story of the Dowries,” St. Nicholas Center. Online: https://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/three-impoverished-maidens/

[2] “Where Was Nicholas?”, St. Nicholas Center. Online: https://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/where-was-nicholas/

[3] “Tax Relief for Myra,” St. Nicholas Center. Online: https://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/tax-relief-for-myra/

[4] “Palestine,” St. Nicholas Center. Online: https://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/palestine/

[5] From “Around the World,” St. Nicholas Center; information from the particular pages of the countries named. Online: https://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/around-the-world/

[6] Anglican prayer, “Liturgical Prayers,” The St. Nicholas Center. Online: http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/liturgical-prayers/

Keep Awake

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 1st Sunday of Advent + December 3, 2017

Readings: Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37


This Wednesday I felt like just about every conversation with other human beings started by jumping right into the particularly hot topic of current events right now: the ever-growing list of famous men who have been accused of sexual harassment. Their names came up while I talked with people waiting to see Jolene; they came up while a few of us got to know our new nursery attendant; they came up while we were gathering for our Worship Planning meeting. And then I got home, and a friend came over for dinner, and started the conversation with, “Did you hear about Garrison Keillor?” And I wanted to scream “Yes, I heard, and I know, but I’m hungry and I don’t want to think about all these guys anymore!”

And while some of the particular men being accused may surprise us, or some of the details of the stories of harassment may be particularly gross and shocking, most of the people I’ve spoken with — especially the women — have not been surprised by the high number of incidents or people involved. And that’s because we all already knew that harassment and abuse happen all the time. It’s a fact of life; it’s been a fact of life for pretty much ever, and unfortunately I think most women are used to just putting up with it. Until very, very recently, it was hard to imagine anything changing, even if we did speak up; it was hard to imagine even being taken seriously. For many of us, I bet it’s still hard to imagine any change happening in our own circles. And for those of us who took deeply to heart the childhood lessons to “not be rude” or “not cause a fuss,” it’s hard to imagine actually complaining or accusing, anyway.

In life in general when we feel “that’s the way it’s always been,” or “that’s just how it is,” it’s hard to imagine any change, and even harder to try to be the one doing the changing. And often we don’t even see the need for change, because we’ve only ever known things the way they are. It’s “the water we swim in”; we take it for granted; we don’t think about it. We just live in it.

But we are entering a Church season where we look towards radical, foundation-shaking change. Today is the first Sunday of Advent. This is the season of the church year that leads us to feel our deepest longings: longings for the “way things have always been” to change. Longings for God to send a prophet or messiah to break apart all that tells us “that’s just how it is” and to bring about real justice and real rightness and real peace. Longings for even Godself to disrupt our world: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”

As we begin this season of praying that God would come and disrupt “the way it’s always been,” maybe it’s helpful for us to enter Advent acknowledging that we, as a whole, have such a strong tendency to let things go on the way they are going, to let things be “the way they have always been.” There are a huge range of reasons why we do this, from just not thinking about it, to believing we can’t change anything anyway, and all the way to recognizing that we benefit from the way things are and fighting to keep them this way. In any case, we tend to preserve the way things are, to “go with the flow,” even if it’s not good for others, sometimes even if it’s not good for ourselves.

So maybe it’s helpful for us that right now, as Advent begins, our news sources don’t go five minutes without reminding us that we have lived in the habit of overlooking or hiding harassment and assault all this time. Maybe that will help us to notice some of the other things we put up with or let keep on going that we shouldn’t, whether those are other society-wide things, or unhealthy patterns within your friends or family groups, or personal habits you’ve let slide for too long.

Advent is a time to remember that God wants change, that we need change. Things aren’t going to stay the way they are: God is coming, and God is going to shake things up.

In today’s gospel lesson we read of how Jesus told his disciples that the great day was approaching: the day when God’s messiah would come into the world and change everything, knocking away everything contrary to God’s will. Some of the images he used were disturbing: “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light…” But at the heart of Jesus’s message here is a promise: God will gather God’s people together. Things seem awful and scattered and violent now, but God will make them okay. The messiah is coming, and he will make things good and right and just.

In the meantime, Jesus said, while you wait, do not go about business as usual. Do not fall into the patterns of the world as it is. “Beware, keep alert…keep awake– for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: keep awake.”

In this passage Jesus reminds me of a character in the Harry Potter series, Professor “Mad-Eye” Moody, and his catchphrase: “CONSTANT VIGILANCE!”

With Jesus it is the promise of God’s coming that calls us to constant vigilance: Keep awake, be on the lookout for the promise to come true. Watch — always watch — for the moment when God does “tear open the heavens and come down,” when God comes to change all the awful ways things “have always been”, when God establishes God’s perfect kingdom. We aren’t living for “the way things have always been” or for the way things are — we are living forward, towards that promise.

The emphasis in our gospel lesson is on something big and final: that future event we call the Last Day or Judgment Day or the Apocalypse. But Jesus’s command here – “Keep awake!” — doesn’t have to be only about that one day.

Because as we are keeping our eyes peeled open for the messiah’s return, watching out for the signs that it’s finally happening, our constant vigilance will help us catch onto what God is already doing here and now. With our eyes wide open, we might see past “the way things have always been” to the way things could be, the way God wants them to be. We might see the ways God is already here, already pulling apart the things in our world that cause (or allow) suffering and injustice and evil.

God is at work in the testimony of those who are suffering (Listen.); in the efforts of those trying to change things for the better (Watch.); in the little voice in the back our heads that says, “This isn’t right; God wants things to be different than this. Better than this.” (Pay attention.) We need to keep awake, keep alert, so that God can pull us past our habit of accepting the way things are and into a future built on God’s promises, God’s vision for the world.

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“Judgment Day” (painting), Aaron Douglas, 1939. Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition

During Lent we often choose to give something up or take something on as a way to challenge ourselves for that season: to try and rid ourselves of a bad habit, or encourage a good one; to become more aware of others’ suffering or to make a bigger place for God in our lives.

As we begin Advent, let’s take Jesus’s words here — “Keep awake! Keep alert!” — as inspiration for an Advent practice. From now until Christmas, is there something you can give up that would help you be more aware the need for change in our world and more alert to God’s work around you? Is there a practice you could take on that would help you to know God more or to remember to look for God around you? In the midst of this busy time, full of planning and parties and buying presents and travelling, is there one thing you can do to keep God at the center, to keep yourself grounded in God’s work, to not get distracted or lulled by the ways of the world, but to keep alert for the promises of God?

Think and pray about it for a moment now.

Let us pray.

God for whom we wait and watch: keep our eyes open for moments when you break into our usual way of doing things, moments when you come bringing good news, healing, and salvation. Open our hearts to receive you and the Word you bring, whether it be a word of comfort or of challenge. Strengthen us for service in your mission, until your kingdom comes in full and your will is done on earth as it is in heaven. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray, Amen.