Pastor Ingrid C. A. Rasmussen’s sermon from 11.29.2015, the First Sunday of Advent.
Listen along here.
The gospel according to Luke, the twenty-first chapter:
25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29 Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
34 “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Word of God. Word of Life. Thanks be to God.
Our Thanksgiving table was small this year by design. Four of us sat around a table set with my mother’s china that comes out twice a year and with goblets that require the strength of both arms. We feasted on turkey, potatoes, stuffing, carrots, cabbage, cranberries, and sweet rolls. We recognized that we had much to be thankful for this year. We gave thanks for the wide sky, the blessed sun, and the songs of the birds. We gave thanks for the joys experienced and the traumas survived and for the space that came with all of it. It was lovely. And with no wild uncle there to share his political views, it was every bit as peaceful as we had hoped.
We stood up from the table, did a few dishes, and settled into the “soft chairs” for the remainder of the evening. [Who am I kidding? We didn’t move for the rest of the weekend.] There we talked about all the refugees on the move, Jamar Clark, the 4th Precinct, and the warming world. The Planned Parenthood attack was soon added to our list. The peace and thankfulness we had so carefully cultivated around the dinner table seemed to fade away. And we were left feeling perplexed, dismayed, confused, helpless, angry, and horrified. Even in our tryptophan-induced coma—or maybe because of it—we understood the impulse Luke outlines in the gospel reading—that is, the impulse to sleep through the worries, to pour a little too much into the glass at the Thanksgiving table and bid the troubles of the world adieu.
These aren’t new impulses. We cannot blame them on the Enlightenment; we cannot chalk them up to the mistakes our parents made when we were teenagers. These are human impulses shared with our ancestors in every time and place. When the things on which we’ve come to depend for stability are in disarray, the Evangelist reminds us, we are tempted to flee—to make a run for it. And should we choose fight over flight, we may be tempted to put our heads down and to draw clearer lines. Both responses—that is, heading for the hills and walling ourselves off—have become perfectly acceptable in many circles. They are filed under the respectable categories of self-preservation and safety.
I don’t think Jesus would be surprised by these responses. If we peel back the layers of Luke’s gospel, we hear Jesus anticipating these very things. We can hear him saying, “Hey you, Peter, Andrew, James son of Zebedee, John, Phillip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James son of Alpheus, Jude, Simon, and Judas, this is reality, and it’s hard. Don’t head for the Qumran caves. Instead, stay alert as y’all head back out into the world.” In the face of Roman imperialism, his words must have sounded oddly optimistic and naïve. In the face of American imperialism, Jesus’ words still do sound oddly optimistic and naïve.
But I don’t think Jesus was an optimist; after all, optimists aren’t born in mangers. As I thought about Jesus’ words this week, it occurred to me that Jesus isn’t touting the power of positive thinking. Jesus is proclaiming hope—a hope that is needed in every time and place, including here in a South Minneapolis sanctuary on November 29, 2015.
In a brilliant essay written many years ago, British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that
these days, we don’t need optimism, we need hope. Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that with the work of many, things can get better. Optimism is passive. Hope is active. One only needs a certain naiveté to be an optimist, hope requires a great deal of courage. The prophets of Israel were not optimists. When everyone else felt secure, they saw the coming catastrophe. But every last one of them was an agent of hope.
Sacks continues with words as true today as the day he penned them:
By discovering the God who created the universe in love, we become practitioners of hope. We’ve seen too much to be optimists. You don’t need to be an optimist to have hope. Religious faith is not “positive thinking.” It’s not naïve optimism. It is not a matter of seeing the world as we would like it to be, and then believing that mere wishing or praying will make it so. God never promised that the world would get better of its own accord. Faith means seeing the world exactly as it is and yet not giving up the belief that it could be otherwise, if we are ready to act with others to make it so. Faith is realism that has been touched by hope. And hope has the power to transform the world.[i]
Faith means seeing the world exactly as it is and yet not giving up the belief that it could be otherwise. Maybe this is a central piece of our community’s Advent call this year as we begin anew. It’s a call to recognize the brokenness—to name the pain seated around our own tables and to name the pain seated around our neighbors’ tables. This is reality and it’s hard. But faith is the claim that it is not the end of the story. We believe that it can be otherwise. It may sound oddly optimistic, but it’s not. It’s a hope grounded in a God who takes on flesh—our flesh—both to comfort and to stir things up. And it’s through the power of the Holy Spirit that we become practitioners of this same hope.
The story is told that two hundred years ago, the Connecticut House of Representatives was in session on a bright day in May. The delegates were doing their work by natural light, as was their custom. But then, right in the middle of the debate, the day turned to night. Clouds covered the sun. Everything went dark. Some of the legislators thought it was the Second Coming, and asked to adjourn. Others called for prayer. Yet others wanted to get home to prepare for the coming of the Lord.
But the speaker of the House—a man I like to think of as a wise mainliner—had a different idea. He arose and said, “We are all upset by the [chaos], and some of us are afraid.” But, “the Day of the Lord is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. And if the Lord is returning, I, for one, choose to be found doing my duty. I therefore ask that candles be brought.”
Today we light one candle, stand up, raise our heads, and sing as the Spirit pries our hearts open once again. We do stand waiting for the Day of the Lord; we proclaim that God is near even now. And together, people of God, we shall do our duty—practicing hope that has the power to transform the world.[ii]
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Sacks, Jonathan. “Optimism Is All Very Good, but It Takes Courage to Hope.” May 2010. Read the whole article here: http://www.rabbisacks.org/credo-optimism-is-all-very-well-but-it-takes-courage-to-hope/
[ii] Bromley, Robert. Abraham Davenport, 1715-1789: A Study of a Man. Westport: Technomic Publishing Company, 1976.