A Blue Advent. Jay’s sermon for the first Sunday of the season of Advent.

Advent is the four-week season of preparation for Christmas. On the first Sunday of Advent (November 27 this year), we change the colors that adorn the sanctuary to blue. We also light the first candle on the Advent wreath. Each year, the blue hangs in our worship until they are changed to white for the celebration of Christmas.

Matthew 24:36-44

36“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only God alone. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Advent has a way of sneaking up on us. At this time of year we know that Christmas isn’t too far away, even in an unusually warm November, but the countdown of remaining shopping days does not get us ready in the same way for this first Sunday of Advent. Tucked away in what’s better known as Thanksgiving weekend, the beginning of Advent can easily get overlooked, and we may find ourselves unprepared for this season of preparation. I can say that there have been many years when already just a few days into Advent I’ve felt the need to play catch-up. Unpack the Advent calendar and wreath at home, read the few daily devotions I’ve already missed, and so on.

But I’ve never been too concerned about getting ready for Advent because in a sense it’s the season of the year that I’m always most prepared for. I like what Pastor Heidi Neumark says about this. She writes, “Advent is a reflection of how I feel most of the time. I might not feel sorry during Lent, when the liturgical calendar begs repentance. I might not feel victorious even though it is Easter morning. I might not feel full of the Spirit even though it is Pentecost and the liturgy spins out fiery gusts of ecstasy. But during Advent I am always in sync. Advent unfailingly embraces and comprehends my reality…my longing.”

While Advent may surprise us, it doesn’t take any of us much time or effort, I suspect, to get in touch with our own sense of longing. Our desire for healing, for peace, for wholeness, for what’s known in Hebrew as shalom, this longing is something we carry we us, though it takes different forms for each one and it varies from year to year.

Christian writer Diana Butler Bass shared in the Washington Post last week about her own preparations for Advent. As she was selecting candles for her Advent wreath at home, she briefly considered the once traditional penitential purple and joyful pink ones, but then she quickly settled on blue, just as we have used in worship for the past many years. “Blue candles,” she thought. “That’s what I feel like this year. Not penitent. Not joyful. Just blue.”

She believes she is not alone in feeling blue this year, and I’m sure that’s true. At this particular moment in our country, at least, many feel a unique kind of sadness or longing. Butler Bass says, “No matter how one voted in the recent election, it is obvious that happiness was a big loser in recent months — with therapists, psychologists and clergy reporting high levels of ‘Trump-related stress,’ especially among women and minorities.” This year you may have had more worries than usual about what would be said at your Thanksgiving tables. You may be distressed after hearing stories about others getting yelled at or even more serious hate crimes since the election. You may have experienced some of those things yourself. These realities can leave one feeling afraid or angry, but they also cause one to feel sad, really blue. “A blue Advent,” Butler Bass says. “That sounds about right.”

And so our blue candles and paraments in worship today seem especially appropriate. They may reflect our general mood. But they—and the season they mark—not only embrace how we feel but are also intended to help transform us. Blue may be the color of sadness, but it is also the color of hope. The blue in our worship is the color of the sky right before dawn. It’s a blue of promise that no matter how dark or cold things may be right now, we will see the arrival of a new day. There may be ample evidence to the contrary, but still we light candles not only in the darkness but as protest against the darkness. And as the light grows over these four weeks, we pray that so will our trust in God’s promise of shalom.

So on this first step into a season of longing and hope, we read a passage from the prophet Isaiah which itself serves as a kind light against the darkness. The prophet, after calling attention to the violence, corruption, unfaithfulness, and trampling on the poor within their own city of Jerusalem, offers a picture of what that city can yet become. Nations will stream to it, he says, even those who had been fierce enemies. They will come to learn to walk in the light of God. They will dismantle instruments of violence and transform them into tools for production. They will study war no more but will instead study the things of peace and will go out into all of the world to bring healing and establish justice. It’s an image that sounded as absurd then as it does today. But for centuries it has pointed people of faith to God’s dream for a transformed earth. It has been a source of faith-nurturing hope.

I don’t know how people first responded to Isaiah’s message, but despite everything else going on, the prophet persistently kept watch for God’s shalom in his own life experience. He waited for it.

Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote an Advent reflection in which he said, “Not everyone can wait: neither the sated nor the satisfied nor those without respect can wait. The only ones who can wait are people who carry restlessness around with them.”

There’s a big difference, it seems to me, between passive waiting and carrying restlessness around with you. We are called to an active kind of waiting, a waiting that is confident that the world as it is is not how it should be or will be, a waiting that can only come from faith in the One who promises healing in the midst of brokenness.

We are called to restlessness, which leads us to participate in God’s healing work even as we watch for its fulfillment. Restlessness is my prayer for all of us this Advent.

That’s why today is a great day to celebrate the gift of baptism. Like nothing else, this sacrament points us forward with restless anticipation of what’s to come, both in the lives of the children baptized and in God’s unfolding mission in the world. We could not participate in this sacrament—none of us—if we did not carry with us the restless hope—even joy—in what God is doing. And in telling and hearing God’s promise around this font, we provide a shining light against the darkness. Thanks be to God!

 

 

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God is our hope in difficult times. Jay’s sermon for Confirmation Sunday, November 13.

Luke 21:5-19

5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8 And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!’ and, “The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9 “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12 “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Last week, some families got together here at church to listen to a recording of a speech by Glennon Doyle Melton. Some of you may know her; she writes the popular blog called Momastery, and she has shared through her writing her personal struggles with addiction, bulimia, anxiety, depression, relationship issues, and parenting. She describes life as “brutifual.” She made up the word to describe how the brutal and beautiful aspects of life are intricately and always woven together tightly. Denying one is to deny the other.

I recommend the speech that she gave at the Westminster Town Hall forum downtown. You can find it on the Minnesota Public Radio website. One thing she talked about that I found especially helpful was a mistaken assumption that many of us have about parenting. As parents or grandparents or other adults in the lives of young people, we might assume that our primary job is to protect our children from pain. Keep them from suffering. But that’s not only not possible but also often unhelpful. She said it was never our job as adults—or even our right—to protect our children from pain but instead to point them to it, to help them face it, to help them work through it, to let them know that they can do it and they’re not alone. Life is often difficult; if we ignore that fact then we can never learn or grow or heal.

The truth is, it’s not just in dealing with children that we’re often tempted to avoid facing the pain in our lives. Glennon Doyle Melton said that that’s because as soon as we start to feel difficult emotions like sadness or loneliness or fear, then the world starts showing us easy buttons. Do you remember that commercial from years ago with the easy button? The idea was that as soon as things get stressful you could hit the big red button and everything was all better. Well, we might be sold easy buttons in various forms. They take the form of food, booze, shopping, unkindness, sex, or scrolling through a Facebook feed—anything to numb or avoid the feeling. But those easy buttons prevent us from learning from the feelings or the realities of the present moment.

The same is often true when it comes to our friends. When someone we care about is hurting, it’s so tempting to offer some meaningless platitude or try to fix the problem for them. That’s really about making ourselves feel better, though, to disconnect ourselves from what they’re going through. It does nothing for them. Instead, what we’re called to do is to sit with each other’s pain, to “weep with those who weep” as the Apostle Paul said. Not fix it. Just sit with it, bravely and lovingly. Glennon Doyle Melton offered a great definition of friendship: “it’s just two people sitting and not being God together.” That’s something we can do, right?

Still, this is something that I, for one, am still learning to do. Now, there are always plenty of opportunities to sit with others in difficult times, when people grieve the death of loved ones or struggle with relationships or worry about work. And now this week, I have heard from several people that they feel afraid following Tuesday’s election. It’s not just because of the results, but the incidents and comments made both before and after the election have revealed in a new way—at least to some of us—the misogyny, racism, homophobia, and Islamophobia that do exist in our country. When it comes to these things, there can be a temptation to explain, defend, fix, or assure. I believe what we’re called to do above all is to sit with one another and listen. We provide space that is safe and compassionate. Then we can see what there is to learn. But the healing and new life don’t come until we have acknowledged the pain.

When the disciples traveled with Jesus to Jerusalem, as we heard today, they were understandably amazed by it. “Look at the huge stones,” they said. Jesus, though, seemed unimpressed and tended to point out other things at the temple—a vulnerable widow making her offering, for example, or the moneychangers taking advantage of pilgrims. But when it came to the temple building itself, he said, “don’t get too attached. It won’t last.” Now some scholars believe the Gospel of Luke was written after the destruction of the temple by the Romans, and that may be true. But I also think that Jesus knew where things were headed with the temple. He knew it couldn’t stand for too long. And he certainly did not identify the basis of his faith with that structure.

For the disciples, though, it was unimaginable that they could lose the center of their religious and civil life. “When will all this be?” they asked Jesus. And when Jesus answered them, he didn’t say, “I’ll protect you from it all,” or “Here’s how it will be and here’s how you can prepare in order to avoid the worst of it.” As much as we might want it from Jesus, he did not give them an easy button. He was honest with them and said there are difficult things ahead. Your life of faith will bring you into hard situations and conflict with others. There will be suffering. He didn’t minimize the challenges at all. Like a parent, he pointed them to the pain. But he also assured them that they would not be alone. Suffering is not a sign that God has abandoned you. Don’t listen to any false prophet who tells you otherwise. No, even when it feels like things are falling apart all around you, God will remain with you. God is present in this and every moment. In God you will find strength and help for the life to which you are called. And God will do new and marvelous works for you and through you that you would have thought unimaginable.

In their Jerusalem walk through the temple, Jesus helped the disciples wrestle with a question that we might ask today as well: how are we to live in a world that is both beautiful and brutal? It’s an important question. And I think the students getting confirmed this morning can help us to answer it. Today, with watery crosses on their foreheads, they affirm God’s promises made for them in baptism and recommit to living their baptismal covenant. Specifically, there are five commitments they make today.

First, they promise to live among God’s faithful people. They say they’ll stay in relationship with other people who also travel this journey of faith. They’ll sit and listen to others tell of their joys and their pain. They’ll share their own. They’ll participate in community where all are welcome, without exception.

Second, they will hear the word of God and share in the Eucharist. They will come to worship to be reminded that God’s love is unconditional and to be set free from guilt and fear and anything that would hold them back from really living.

Third, they will proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed. They’ll help others to know that they are valued, that they matter, and that God’s love is always more inclusive than we imagine. They’ll do their best to show this with what they say and what they do and by speaking up when others are mistreated, bullied, and abused.

Fourth, they will serve all people, following the example of Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to be served but to serve. In faith, we bear one another’s burdens.

Finally, they will strive for justice and peace in all the earth. As I said to the students at dinner last night, I doubt there was ever a time in history when this commitment was more needed. Our Lutheran theology reminds us that God desires our involvement in government and civil societies as much as in the church. God cares about the physical needs of all people and all creation and invites us into liberating, life-giving work.

These are some big commitments that the confirmands are making today, and I know that they are ready to make them. I also think we should let them lead us all into doing the same because this is what a life of faith looks like in our brutiful world, God’s good and broken creation. We do our best to follow through on these commitments. And when we fail, we trust in God’s grace and start again. God’s call comes to us new every day. It comes to us in this very moment.

The Resurrection of Gerry Werth (1952-2016)

The gospel according to Matthew the sixth chapter:

25 ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,* or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?* 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God* and his* righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Word of God. World of life. Thanks be to God.


Welcome in the name of Christ, who knows us and loves us. Amen.

Every morning for the past several years, Gerry sent son Anton a text message. These messages offered Anton encouraging words as the day began. In each, Gerry identified one “part” of Anton that makes him who he is. Gerry reminded Anton of his merit-worthy parts, his awesome parts, and his “you can do it” parts. All of these disparate parts, Gerry said, help to make Anton, Anton.

Today, we gather as a community united by shock, sorrow, and God’s promises, and we remember the parts that helped to make Gerry, Gerry.

Gerry loved his family. On one of Gerry and Karen’s first dates, Gerry handed Karen his professional business card. [When I heard this fact, I said I was surprised that she said “yes” to a second date.] Looking at his card, she asked him what all of the letters behind his name represented. He responded saying that he didn’t want her to know him by his degrees, he wanted her to know who he was. That exchange began a twenty-year relationship marked by mutuality, wonderful trips, shared meals, and deep love.

Son Danya says the whole family liked Gerry’s shoulder rubs. As the family settled on the couch after dinner, Danya would send his dad a text message in the next room saying that he’d like a massage. Gerry would respond saying that he would finish the project that he was currently working on and be there in a few minutes. Seconds later, Karen would send a message to Gerry requesting a back rub. Danya says that as soon as the text message was received they’d hear Gerry’s footsteps coming down the hallway. Gerry adored Karen.

Shoulder rub preferences aside, we all know that Gerry adored Danya and Anton, too. None of us got through a conversation with Gerry without him mentioned his sons. They were a significant part of who he was, and he worked hard to honor the gift that he had been given when they came into his life. He told them he loved them, often saying it in Russian to celebrate their heritage. He rarely missed an opportunity to give them morning hugs—he and Dayna held each other a long time the morning of the day Gerry died. Even in the tough times, when one or both of the boys were upset and would leave the house to walk off some steam, Gerry would say, “When you are ready to come home, I will come for you. Wherever you are, I will pick you up.”

Danya says that when he was younger he wondered why his dad didn’t throw the football with him like other parents he knew. But, as he grew older, wise Danya said that as he learned more about Gerry’s parts, he learned to accept his dad for who he was.

Gerry was intelligent and observant. Karen says he was off the charts introverted, which didn’t bode well for him when she took Gerry, an only child, home to meet her parents and her six siblings. When the family overwhelmed Gerry (which was often), he would simply close his eyes and sit quietly. I’m sure many of you saw him take this posture. Karen’s sisters say they learned, over time, that Gerry hadn’t simply checked out; he was, in fact, listening carefully to the conversation buzzing around him.

Gerry was careful and prepared. He was never a serious Boy Scout, but he did carry many thing on his belt, just in case he needed them. If they weren’t on his hip, they were in his bag. Hand sanitizer, pens, Kleenex, Band-Aids, you name it—if you needed something, chances are Gerry had it. Sometimes his preparedness slowed him down; he wanted to think about a project from all angles before he did anything. He once needed to move a decorative, backyard wishing well, and Karen saw Gerry and a friend stare at the wishing well and discuss it for an hour before they did anything. Danya smiled and added, “It was only about three feet tall.”

Joking aside, that wishing well and many other projects prepared Gerry to help Danya to build an outdoor pizza oven in the church’s rain garden, a project that will inspire community in this neighborhood for years to come. The oven, built over many months and completed just this past week, is Danya’s Eagle Scout project. Last Sunday after worship, church members reported to me that Gerry stood next to Danya’s beautiful project and told all the passersby who would listen how proud he was of his son.

Gerry was deeply spiritual. He was a consistent worshiper in this community. He sat back in that corner, eyes closed during the sermons. Pastor Jay and I, like Karen’s sisters, like to think he was listening intently. About a year ago, Gerry led a memorable devotion at one of our church council meetings. Citing one of the most well-known scenes from the musical Fiddler on the Roof, Gerry said that there are times in our lives when we welcome God’s presence. And there are times in our life when we would prefer to keep God at arm’s length. Most of us, he said, see these as irreconcilable opposites, as two parts that could not be brought together. But Gerry said that growth in his spiritual life had come as he learned to hold together the contrasts.

This understanding of theology—that two things can be true at the same time—shaped the way he interacted with the world. Perhaps this was seen most clearly in his work as a family physician who specialized in addiction medicine. In a world that wrongly demonizes addicts, Gerry could see the patient’s addiction and the beloved child of God living with it. He could hold them both at the same time. And he could help others to hold both of them at the same time, too. In one of my last extended conversations with Gerry, he told me that he believed addiction was the “new leprosy” and that the church and God’s people had a role to play in reaching out the touch those the world had deemed untouchable. Nothing was beyond repair and no one was beyond redemption, in Gerry’s mind.

In this way, Gerry pointed us to a truth about the God in whom he placed his trust. Gerry’s life pointed to a God who can hold all of our parts together—those parts we proudly display and those we’d rather no one see; those parts over which we have control and those that always seem to have control over us; those parts that the world praises and those the world considers untouchable. God holds all of them in love, even with others say it cannot be done.

The passage from Ecclesiastes is full of contrasts. A time to be born and a time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to seek and a time to lose, a time to keep silence and a time to speak.

Thinking about Gerry’s theology, it occurs to me that he’d say that there are times when we need not choose one of these contrasts or the other, but instead when we need to learn to hold them at the same time. Today is one of those times. Today is a time when we weep and laugh. Today is a time when we seek and lose. Today is a time when we keep silent and speak. Today is a time when we mourn Gerry’s death and dance because of the beautiful life he lived.

Today we carry Gerry on the final leg of his baptismal journey. Even in death, “we acknowledge that this is not the end of the journey nor the final word but that God is already speaking a new word, already performing beyond our sight and our full knowing another mighty work of hope.” Today is a day when we give all of Gerry’s parts back to the God who so lovingly created him 64 years ago, knowing that grace, light perpetual, and unconditional love have already found him.

AMEN.