Today we’re entering Advent, the season in which we wait in joyful hope for the coming of Jesus into this world. We remember a time when this has already happened, 2,000 years ago in a back stable in Palestine, and we look toward the future, yearning for the time when Christ will come again. Each week, we light the Advent Candles and proclaim our Christian virtues of hope, peace, joy, and love.
But how do we hold on to hope when everything around us is falling apart? How can we believe that God is present as thousands are dying from Ebola? As molten lava slowly creeps towards towns in Hawaii and other islands face eternal flood? How can we believe in peace as we watch the city of Ferguson riot in response to last Monday’s grand jury decision? As militias in Ukraine continue to roam the streets? How do we hum along to the joyful soundtrack of Christmas songs as workers strike to push for a living wage and fair working conditions? As we fear new terrorist organizations like ISIS? How do we believe in love as the leaders of this nation tear each other apart and demonize each other?
There are too many people who have too many reasons to lack hope, peace, joy, and love.
There are too many places where “goodwill toward all” is a laughable dream.
But we are not alone.
We are not the first to fear the future, to worry and wonder where God could possibly be amidst the struggle and strife. Isaiah’s writing reminds us of another time of difficulty.
The Israelites, newly returned to the Promised Land after more than a generation in captivity in Babylon, were facing an unknown future. The home they had known before the exile was now in ruins. Everything had to be rebuilt. Homes had to be repaired. Gardens had to be replanted. The life they had known, the life they had yearned for, the memories and stories of which had carried them on the long journey home, no longer existed. And instead of the heavens tearing apart and God appearing, instead of the mountains quaking in God’s presence, God was gone. God seemed to have disappeared. No one was speaking of God or calling on God’s name. God seemed to be hiding – far from where they needed God to be.
How often do we feel like the Israelites – lost, confused, uncertain, depressed, alone and afraid – and wonder why God never seems to show up when we think we need him most?
Intellectually, we know that God is with us. Emotionally, we’ve all experienced those times where we cant find God. Nerves set in. Worry and anxiety seep into our souls. And we remember the promise that Jesus tells us in Matthew: “I am with you, till the end of the age.”
Is that it? The end of the world?
I used to skim over the apocalyptic passages in the Bible because I saw them as “too intense.” I thought it wasn’t fair to hear Jesus talk about the world being in shambles and things in chaos – wasn’t Jesus nicer than that? But the thing is, Jesus – the gospel as a whole – isn’t about being nice – it’s about speaking truth. It’s about calling out injustice and making us aware. It’s about pulling God into the chaos. And when the world is falling apart, when fires are blazing and hatred is brewing and everything we ever thought and loved no longer seems to exist, it’s just about all we can do to call on God to return to this world.
Not all apocalypses – that’s right, plural – need to be like “Left Behind.” In fact, rarely are they escapist – the destruction of the world so that believers can escape to heaven. In Revelation we are told that when Christ returns, it will be good news! He will wipe every tear from their eyes, there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things have passed away. Everything wrong in the world will be made right.
That doesn’t come without struggle, changing the systems that are hurting us all. I think that’s why God constantly relates struggles, future change, with being in labor: it’s hard, it’s painful, and it can be nearly deadly. But once – perhaps if – you survive, is not the world a better place with that new life, your beautiful child, a part of it? Changing systems are hard. Calling out destructive powers can be painful, and sometimes even dangerous. But it’s not done for the sake of destruction, but for the sake of good.
I couldn’t help but think about Advent’s emphasis on Christ’s return as I watched the news this past week. It seems the only thing some of our news programs wanted to talk about was what was going on in Ferguson. After Officer Wilson was not indicted, the city of Ferguson once again was the place of riots. Night after night, buildings and businesses – but praise God not people – were harmed, while others tried to police the streets and keep the peace among themselves. It was a shame to see the violence escalate in a place that has seen too much violence in the past year, but I was reminded of a statement that Martin Luther King said with regard to race riots over 50 years ago:
“Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. ... And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of ... society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
While our nation has changed greatly in the past 50 years, it has been made very clear that many of our brothers and sisters do not feel as if this nation is equally theirs. And it is not our place to determine the validity of other’s feelings, but to hear their cry and consider our actions in response.
Now, no good can come from violence. But violence is the language of those who have no hope, who have no belief that good can come in the end. As we enter this season of Advent, this time of proclaiming hope, peace, joy, and love, when we assure the world that Christ has come and that Christ will come again, that the sin in this world will not last into eternity, we need to remember the story. That the world was changed forever by a little baby – the most vulnerable of all people. It’s not always about proving our strength, but having the strength to be vulnerable. That’s what’s really going to change the world.
The band REM had a song that I’m referencing in the title of this sermon: “It’s the End of the World as we know it, and I feel fine.” And while they might not appreciate my appropriating this song, I’m going to anyway. Because that’s our Advent message. The end of the world, the return of Jesus, does not need to be a terrifying thing. The destruction of systems in which people feel trapped, in which people feel ignored, that’s a good thing. Law and ethics are not the same. Peace, when it means maintaining injustice, is not our goal.
And frankly, our world can end over and over again – it’s not just once. Remember what Jesus said at the end of his apocalyptic passage?
This generation will not pass away until this has taken place.
We’re used to hearing this passage preached as a prophecy for the distant future, when recorded history will end and the world will come to an end. But surely Mark, who wrote his gospel nearly 40 years after Jesus died, would not have included this passage if he knew it was wrong.
It must have struck Mark that heaven was not “out there” somewhere, but inside him – inside the places of his heart. Likewise, the Son of Man doesn’t come stepping off a literal cloud in the sky, but rather dwells within those who believe and who work toward his end in this world.
This world renewed, this world re-molded, is our home for eternity, that for which we hope. We have the opportunity to reflect that future in our present
So, this Advent let us remember the baby we long for.
And, mourn the baby who will be crucified.
Let us lament what has been destroyed
And to hope for what has been promised.
Let us act.
Let us pray.
Let us learn.
Let us be the people that see the baby’s promise.
The original intention of this four-week Advent Series, “Sounds of the Season” was to speak a bit about an Advent hymn each week that we rarely get to sing but that teaches us more about the season before Christmas. Given current events, that didn’t really get to happen this week, although there still is a pertinent theme between the events in our world this week and the next hymn. “Lift up Your Heads, Ye Mighty gates” was written in the 17th century, during the 30 Years’ War: a time when European nations were all fighting against each other, Protestant vs. Catholic, which led to huge destruction of land and hunger for so many civilians.
And yet, we have a hymn of hope: one that still, in the midst of destruction, expects the Savior of the world to come. Even in the midst of destruction, in the midst of pain, God can open our hearts, can change our ways, and can guide us so that the earth will shake, the old ways will be over, and God’s love will come and reign among us. Let’s sing.
We finish our series on Dr. Seuss this morning with the Grinch Who Stole Christmas: a story well-known and well-loved, though I’m sure several of you thought it’s just too early.
I agree, to a certain extent. The Christmas season continues to creep into our fall – decorations are hung around stores as soon as Halloween’s are taken down – and church is one of the few places where you can be sure that you won’t hear about Santa Claus in November. Advent begins next week, and that season, as well, is not a celebration of Christmas, but a month of preparation in which we ready ourselves for God’s coming here on earth. We don’t begin celebrating Christmas, really, until the 24th – and then our celebration really begins.
But this week, we are entering what I think might be the most hypocritical weekend of the year. Thanksgiving weekend. The week that begins with us showering praises over the many blessings in our lives, emphasizing spending time with our family, preparing an abundance of food that we enjoy together or serving others on the most volunteered-on day of the year and, 12 hours later, ends with us trampling over each other because we need more. The average shopper spends over $400 on Black Friday.
From Abundance to scarcity, before the leftovers are eaten.
We give nice “lip service” to gratitude on Thanksgiving, but I think our actions on Black Friday – and the rest of the month of December, really – speak much louder.
What consumes most of your attention? The most time? The most energy? Is it things, or is it people? Often our jobs cause us to focus on people, but is our focus then so we can earn more to get other things?
A couple more questions: are we more concerned with owning, or being? About making more money, or improving in our relationships?
Simply put, we live in a materialistic culture. We are defined by “busyness,” and our society is much more interested in material things than spiritual things. As a whole, we are captive to our seemingly unquenchable thirst for more. We see this in advertisements that surround us – whenever we stare at a screen or open a magazine or drive down the highway, we see campaigns trying to convince us that what we have isn’t enough.
And we have overwhelmingly bought into it. We look for the technology that will make our lives easier, the clothes that will make us look more professional, the stuff that we think will make us happier.
Money – and the things it buys – cannot produce happiness. In fact, we’ve all heard of lottery winners whose lives have actually, in terrible irony, become worse once they receive their fortunes.
Now, this is nothing new. I’m seeing a lot of nods out here, as we’re all thinking about people we know who are too interested in “stuff.” But it’s not just about hoarders, or the best technology, or keeping up with the Joneses. A love of money, a flourishing of materialism, is actually much more sadistic, much more sinful, than us just thinking about and pointing fingers at other people. It has reordered values. It has disordered our priorities.
We’ve used things to become more and more independent and ostensibly self-sufficient. We turn our faces towards televisions and entertainment when we used to spend evenings with each other. We move farther away from families and, in turn, lose our support systems. Where we used to depend on others to help us throughout the day – with childcare, or chores, or processes of daily life – we now consider dependence a negative thing. It’s a burden.
When we no longer need others, we no longer pay attention to others, either. We don’t listen to what others need. We become more arrogant in society: if we don’t need anything, then no one else should, either. Materialism, our capitalist economy, It has contributed to a greater division between rich and poor, in contrast to a society in which all feel welcome and equally represented. The reign of God, the kingdom of God that Jesus talks about throughout our gospels, is in direct contrast to our love of money.
And there’s a lot of struggle in our society to obtain the necessities to keep going. There are too many people who are struggling, hurting, unable to thrive in our nation. Over 15 million children – more than 20% of the children in the nation – live in houses that are food-insecure. When they pray for their daily bread, it’s because they’re not sure it’ll be there. At the same time, about 40% of food in this nation never gets eaten. And that’s a conservative estimate – others push that up to 50%.
There is a sick, in my opinion sinful, irony in blaming others for being in need.
Hear again what Moses told the Israelites in Deuteronomy this morning:
7 because the Lord your God is bringing you to a wonderful land, a land with streams of water, springs, and wells that gush up in the valleys and on the hills; 8 a land of wheat and barley, vines, fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey; 9 a land where you will eat food without any shortage—you won’t lack a thing there—a land where stone is hard as iron and where you will mine copper from the hills. 10 You will eat, you will be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord your God in the wonderful land that he’s given you.
Moses begins with Thanksgiving: gratitude for the many blessings that will be coming in the Israelites’ lives. Beautiful, tasty food, strong materials and clean water. Their needs are covered. But notice what warnings come directly after: Don’t forget the Lord.
Moses recognizes that, as we need less, it’s easy to forget God. Don’t forget the one who brought you to where you are. Don’t be deluded enough to think you did everything on your own, that you’re completely independent. Even if you are prosperous, God has given you the gifts that you have used well. Your strength, your community, your intelligence, all come from God. No man is an island.
Our stuff doesn’t define us.
This is something the Grinch didn’t understand – not at first, anyway. He thought that if he could just take all the things away from the Whos – their toys and their trees and the roast beast – he could take away their happiness.
It was quarter past dawn...
All the things the Grinch had taken were accouterments, mere symbols of the important and lasting values that the Whos held dear.
He stared down at Who-ville!
Gift-giving itself isn’t inherently bad. Giving things to others isn’t inherently sinful. But notice: for the Whos the focus wasn’t on receiving the gifts, but on the spirit of the season. Gifts had been purchased to give to others in celebration of their community. And the community was not something the Grinch could stuff up the chimney on Christmas Eve. The community still existed, even if their gifts didn’t. It was this tacit but visible rejection of materialistic values that ultimately enabled the Grinch to draw closer to a truer understanding of the importance of Christmas.
And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow,
So as we enter this holiday season, the week that begins with gratitude for what we have and ends with yearning for what we don’t, challenge yourself. Challenge yourself to consider how you would celebrate if all the stuff disappeared up the chimney. Challenge yourself to re-think gift giving this year.
Glennon Doyle Melton, writer of the blog Momastery, offers an alternative to standard holiday gift-giving. Instead of piles of stuff under the tree, instead of focusing on things that everyone’s excited about for about 12 hours before it’s forgotten again, consider giving four: one gift you want, one gift the world needs, one gift to wear, one gift to read.
One gift you want: recognize the interests of your loved one. Prove that you’ve paid attention to them, to what they love, and give appropriately.
One gift the world needs: My friends, the world is calling out in desperate need. People are starving, others are sick, some go without education, or family to call their own. Christmas is when we celebrate that God came into our world and pulled those the world ignored into our line of vision. Who can you support this year? How can you give to make the world better? Buy a flock of chicks through the Heifer project to give food to a family in Bangladesh. AloeTree is an organization that sells kid’s clothes and toys to help combat child trafficking. Church World Service has a catalog of alternative gifts so that you can give to those you love and change the world at the same time.
One gift to wear: I think that’s simple enough, don’t you?
One gift to read: I’ll admit, I don’t read as much as I used to. I’m too busy. Rather, I think I’m too busy. But I always seem to have time for Netflix. Reading opens our minds, can make us more aware of others’ struggles, can broaden our worldview. Reading is known to reduce stress and help us unplug in this eternally-connected world. And unplugging can help us feel less frantic, less rushed, less worried about comparing ourselves to others.
We’ll have some gift suggestions in the bulletin starting next week.
It’s easy to rail against culture as the church – and frankly, there’s a little too much negative press about Christians complaining about “what the world has come to.” It’s easy to do. We know our culture is too materialistic, too greedy. To Grinch-y. Instead, I challenge you to re-define this year’s gift-giving. Don’t ignore gratitude once the turkey’s been eaten. Keep your community in mind this holiday season. Depend on others. Sing together. Take a step back and focus on the abundance, not the scarcity, in your life.
It’s not our stuff that defines us. It’s not our stuff that should define the holidays, either. Happy Thanksgiving.
This sermon was preached on November 2, 2014. Unfortunately, it didn't get videotaped, so it only exists in outline form.
5 When Jesus[a] saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely[b] on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Gladys Maude Ferron was born on January 10, 1922 in New Jersey. This dear woman with the rather unfortunate name is better known to me as Mom-Mom – my maternal grandmother.
· About Mom-Mom
o Talk about how much I idolized her
§ Sat near her at the dining room table
§ Sat next to her on the couch
§ Would go pick tomatoes from the garden while she was cooking dinner
· She always managed to find a way to use those green tomatoes I’d pick, too.
o She had a sharp wit and never stood back on her word.
o Mom-mom was a great cook – she learned all the good meals from my grandfather’s German parents while he was fighting in Europe – but even more important, she was a fantastic baker.
§ Her snickerdoodles were the family’s favorite. It was always a good day when there were snickerdoodles in the house.
o How I was able to remember her
o She died in 1997 – weeks after my 10th birthday – but I still think about her often. The things she taught me, the way she acted, has stayed with me so much that I’ve always known she’s never been completely gone.
· So here we are, celebrating All Saint’s Sunday.
o All Saint’s Day began in the Roman Catholic Church as a celebration of beatified saints, those who have been declared holy. Historically it is followed by All Soul’s Day, a day in which teh church would pray for the souls of those who have died in the past year.
o In the United Methodist Church, we don’t tend to celebrate one certain canon of saints – but the celebration of All Saint’s Day has prevailed. We celebrate the whole “communion of saints” – all who have done God’s work, whose life has done good, who have been a blessing to others – whether specifically “churchy” or not.
o The reason we celebrate these saints, whether codified or not, is because these blessed people have pointed us towards God. They have lived lives that reflect the good news in some way – in freedom, in love, in belonging, in welcome.
o We are surrounded, both physically and in memory, by these people. In our reading from Revelation, John of Patmos saw a great multitude – from every tribe, nation, language – surrounding him in his heavenly vision.
o They are through with their struggle – no longer hungry, no longer exhausted – but they are still a part of God’s reality. They have done their part, and we have proclaimed “well done, Good and faithful servant.”
o This, I believe, is what the writer of Hebrews called “the great cloud of witnesses” – the whole contingent of incredible people that we love, admire, know – either personally or from far away – that have both made us who we are and walk with us on our journey.
o They may not be with us physically in the same ways that they were previously, but that doesn’t mean that those whom we love and admire are completely gone from our lives.
o Just in the same way that my grandmother is alive while my mother repeats her sayings and I bake her snickerdoodles, the saints in our lives are very much alive while those who knew them continue to teach their lessons.
o We mourn their passing when they die because it’s only fair. Someone we loved, admired, is no longer a part of our everyday life. And even though we know, at some level, that death is as common an occurance on this earth as birth is – one of two inevitable things in the world, according to Ben Franklin – we always hope it can be evaded in some way. At least this once. But that’s just never the case.
o Enter the Beatitudes. These phrases, as well-known and celebrated as they are, are a bit confusing when you think about it. They twist the world as we know it on its head. The meek take control, righteousness prevails, and those who mourn are consoled.
o We aren’t blessed to mourn in a sick, twisted, “God needed that person more than we did” sort of way. God isn’t bloodthirsty like that. But those who mourn, those who deeply and heart-wrenchingly miss those who they love and have since passed on, are blessed to have known these people who make up the great cloud of witnesses.
· Keep doing what those saints did, carry those saints with you
o Our God is a god who blesses so that we might be blessed so that we might in turn bless others. (repeat that.)
o So on this All Saint’s Sunday, this day when we celebrate that great cloud of witnesses around us, let us remember that all the saints who have surrounded us have blessed us. And while they may be gone from this earth, as long as we do what they taught us to do – they will not be fully, completely gone from this world.
o So bake snickerdoodles. Toss a football back and forth. Encourage people to vote. Plant gardens. Bestow the blessings you have received on others so that the world may continue to be blessed by the saints in your life.
Introduce the lighting of the candles:
As you can see, there are many candles up on the altar this morning. Let us celebrate those who have come before us, who have lit our paths thus far. Take a candle and light it in the
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