ADVENT Nov. 27 2016 Isaiah 2.1-5, Romans 13.11-24, Matt. 24.36-44 The theme for every Advent season is all about claiming our freedom as Christians -- we are liberated by God’s grace. Chris Tomlin in a newer version of the old hymn Amazing Grace sings, “My chains are gone. I’ve been set free.” And the cry of the black slaves when Emancipation came was “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, free at last!” The question for Advent is God’s utter astonishment that we do not accept this wonderful gift that frees us from sin and judgment. We do not choose to claim our freedom. We sit in darkness. One of the cries of Advent is that “the people who sat in darkness, have seen a great light.” But have we? And do we claim that light?
St. Paul writing to the new Christians in Rome tells them to “wake from sleep,” that the “Night is far gone and the day is at hand.” The prayer for Christians in Advent, like the children of Israel awaiting their Messiah is “stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.” Our needs for the season of Advent are not Christmas trees and parties, presents, and programs, rather we need to be praying for a humble heart, a heart filled with fear at the awesome might and power of God. What we need in this time of confession is strong hearts to join with other Christians and bring peace to the world.
The purpose of Advent is opening our eyes to the light that is coming into the world and what that will mean for us all. Isaiah 2.1-5 is a vision of what the world will be when God’s house is there for everyone and many people -- not just the children of Israel, but people from everywhere will flock to this place to find their peace. The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord! Again ‘walking in the light’.
Unfortunately for a lot of years Advent has been co-opted by a longer Christmas season. Christmas actually begins with Christmas Day and there are only one or two Sundays in Christmas depending on the year. But there are 4 Sundays in Advent and Advent is not Christmas. In the Middle Ages much of Advent was like Lent. People were told to fast and pray, and prepare themselves for the coming of the Christ Child. There is an apocalyptic color to Advent as well. Not only do we prepare for the coming of Jesus into the world as one of us, but we remember that just as God was, God also is, and God will be. That great mystery of the incarnation of God as Jesus Christ.
I really don’t know that we can hold back the tide of Christmas until its proper time. My mother told about growing up in a ranching community in Western South Dakota. The time between Christmas and New Year’s was the time for parties, and programs, and gift giving and the time before Christmas was just that, before. Christmas Eve was always the big celebration in our lives when, on a cold winter’s afternoon, Mom would pick Dad up from school and with my brother and me loaded in we head for the ranch and we would always come down through Baker, stopping sometimes at the truck stop that used to be on the east end of town. It was a wonderful time with Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, the real old-time charm. My brother and I loved the week we had to feed cattle, hunt jack-rabbits for bounty, go ice-skating and just enjoy the winter season on the ranch because we were town kids. You all have memories from days gone by and you are building memories with your children and grandchildren even today.
So with all the preparations for Christmas perhaps where we best celebrate Advent is in some quiet corner of our hearts, a place you have set aside just for God and you, and a time when you marvel at God’s handiwork, and the love God has for each of us who are just plain, ordinary sinners. “My God, my Savior has ransomed me, unending love, amazing grace.”
To be liberated means to be ‘set free’. One of Jesus’ first public appearances in the synagogue of his hometown in Nazareth. I imagine it was quite a crowd -- home-town boy was getting a lot of attention. When Jesus stands to read the lesson for the day it is from Isaiah and in it he reads that the Messiah comes to open the mouths of the dumb, open the ears of the deaf, the lame shall leap for joy -- all of which were miracles Jesus did perform, but the most important thing he did was to liberate those who were captive to the law and thus to sin. Those who saw no way out. Those who believed there was no forgiveness for them. When Jesus told the crowds a the synagogue who he was and what his mission was on earth, they tried to kill him. Now it is hard for us to believe that people do not want to hear they are free, do not want to celebrate their freedom. Run and jump and shout it from the rooftops!
If you believe you are not worth loving, if you believe you have to work your way into heaven by always doing good deeds, if you are the pharisee, not the sinner in a previous lesson, then you are not free. The message of Advent has always been there is One who is coming who has the power to forgive sins, the power to set us free to live in God’s ending love. I think sometimes we dwell too much on our sin and guilt. “We are by nature sinful and unclean and we have sinner against you by thought, word, and deed.” Those are important words and they cause us to plumb the very depths of our sinful nature, but we can’t stay there. The word ‘gospel’ in Greek means ‘good news’ and we are liberated, freed, to make the good news happen for all the world. Remember Isaiah: Many people shall come to the mountain. . . Our freedom in Christ is not to be held closely to our chests, rather it is to be shared with the whole world that we are loved beyond measure. That there is nothing we can or have to do to make God love us. It is truly unending love and amazing grace.
Reading while eating my oatmeal this morning. Good book. I recommend it.
From “Lighter as we go: virtues, character strengths, and aging” by Mindy Greenstein and Jimmie Holland, Oxford University Press, 2015, pp.151-152
The Virtue of Wisdom: knowing what we don’t know
The researchers determined that, at least in the area of understanding and trying to resolve social conflict, older is, in fact, wiser. They recommended that for this reason, elders should be included in more negotiations of social conflicts. . .Laura Carstensen and her colleagues at Stanford suggest that it isn’t only time and the accumulation of experience that account for this kind of wisdom. She argues that with age comes greater motivation to find a sense of meaning in life as well as less motivation to expand our personal horizons. The resulting perspective is likely to lead to more thoughtful, wise decisions. The ability to grow lighter as we go is a form of wisdom that entails learning how not to sweat the small stuff, learning how not to be too invested in particular outcomes (for example, being the “winner” in an argument), and accepting that while it’s worth aspiring to important goals, we won’t always achieve them.
The other night, can’t remember whether I was in Baker or Glendive, I asking God to help me pull together the various strands of my life these days. Almost like Tibetan prayer flags I see all these parts of my life flapping in the breeze. I am hoping it is the wind of the Holy Spirit that causes them all to wave and not just my occasionally exhausted sighs. There are the trips between Baker and Glendive every week and this week an extra trip down and back. The more frequent the trips the shorter the trip seems to be. To look out across the prairies where the blue sky and mild temperatures have lingered much longer than I had any right to hope is wonderful. Our family once had a friend who was a mailman, carried letters in town. He said Mailmen were like sheep herders because they spend so much time alone they get ‘funny in the head’. Well I am not herding sheep, but I can see where one does become ones’s own company when you are alone a lot. There is a tendency to pull away from the crowd, not because you dislike people, but because you enjoy your own company more.
It has been interesting to watch myself begin to reassume that role of leadership in the church once again and then other days just as quickly throw it off and say, no, no, no. Help ‘yes’, take over ‘no’. Good lesson on how easy it is to slip back into old habits.
Seeing that I really have a place in my heart for rural ministry. I love the small church, the wind-swept cemetery, the folks with the squinty eyes from days of peering into the sun and looking long distances whether it is on horseback or in a pickup. I love the stories of the people I have buried. I will have been here five Sundays and by Saturday will have buried five people, none of whom I know. But they each have a story their friends tell and the stories are of remarkable people.
The election has been a turning point in civic life. I am working hard to speak out when confronted and not being afraid to have an opinion. To confront and/or challenge with respect, but firmness in my own rights. I have connected more closely with a couple of young women who are very political, well-educated, with families, who see the need to be really present where and when we can. They are both raising daughters and they want them to be independent and capable and not afraid.
I want the political parties to stop asking me for contributions and instead spend some time focusing on issues throughout the country, but also in Eastern Montana. Parties who do not listen to the people or at least visit the area cannot expect to win. Every interest needs the support of their respective parties.
In the next couple months I have to decide if I am going to run for the city council post I am filling. Part of me says ‘don’t bother’ and the other says ‘give it a shot.’ We’ll see which side wins.
These and other prayer flags are out there flapping in the wind. Not sure where I am going with all these loose ends, but it really is rather fun wondering. And since no decision is earth-shattering it doesn’t matter a whole lot what I do as long as I am caring and useful to my fellow humans. A blessed Thanksgiving to one and all. God is good, all the time.
After a day of disbelief followed by a day of depression (and thinking I should fall on my sword like the good Romans did - brother Greg said, “No”), I have been heartened by the stories from news sources and friends across the wires that there is a renewed vitality in standing firm in our beliefs and working harder to make the difference which is needed in this country. One of the stellar characteristics of a democracy is that we have the opportunity to make ourselves and our beliefs known, but we have to unite to do that and we cannot quit. It is so easy to say, “I am tired”. I don’t want to play these games any more, but that is not the way a free people continues the benefits of that freedom.
As usual my impetus for revitalized thinking came from my brother and his lengthy research into the other voices of the campaign and the hope that we can still make a difference. I began to do some research myself and begin to find these signs of hope: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote -- a 70 year old woman with a lot of political baggage, still was the nominee of a major political party and she won the votes of the people. Secondly, there were several strong women elected to the U.S. Congress who show great promise in working for social justice issues like Medicare, women’s rights, and for education and young people. Catherine Masto is the first Latina woman elected to the U.S. Senate. She took over for Harry Reid in Nevada and is the Attorney General for the state of Nevada; Maggie Hassan won a senate seat in New Hampshire. She has been the governor of that state. She expressed hope that issues like infrastructure improvement and helping the middle class may gain bipartisan traction come 2017. (AP)
Minnesota, always leading the nation in some forward thinking, elected a Somali-American woman, Ilhan Omar, to the U.S. House of Representatives. And Tammy Duckworth won the U.S. Senate seat in Illinois, the one previously held by President Obama. She lost both her legs in Iraq where she was serving our country. Duckworth is the first Asian-American woman elected to Congress and has been very active in Veterans’ affairs. Kamala Harris is the first black woman elected from California to serve in the Senate. She has been attorney general in the that state. Her name is already being voiced as a possibility to run for the presidency in 2020. Her heritage is also Indian-American. Her mother immigrated from India. Women who represent all the colors and creeds of our society. This roster of elected officials give me hope.
And there are a host of other women serving in advisory positions in the U.S. Government who bring a flair for leadership and a real concern for our country. It was just 100 years ago Janette Rankin of Montana was the first woman elected to the U.S. Legislature. That is a legacy that is ours and one we cannot give up on.
I think what depressed me the most this week was thinking that once again Washington, D.C. is being taking over by the white, male, fantastically rich, old, domineering micro-segment of our society. For too long these are the individuals in Congress and elsewhere who have run our country, sometimes well, but most often for their own need for power and control. But there are more of us, the multitudes of men and woman who stand for all the values, carry all the integrity, and will work for what is needed. We may have to support ourselves, but look at the Sanders’ campaign. Do we need to rethink our political party structure, is it time for a viable third party? Perhaps. To return basic human values and justice to our lives we need to begin right where we are sitting. In an interview Kamala Harris said this is a turning point in America’s history. This isn’t about money and power. This is about people and that is what matters.
After an exhausting couple of days following the election, one has to get back on their feet and look to each day and what it means in the simplest sense of the word. Since I’ve been traveling to the United Trinity Parish in Baker, Plevna and Ekalaka, three weeks, I’ve had three funerals. Each one of these people was unique and because I didn’t know them at all, preparing for their final services was doing research of a very personal nature. The first death was a man who was 101 years old. Folks said he was the kindest, gentlest person. He took in children both to foster and then if they were going to school and lived in the country they could stay at his and his wife’s home in Baker. The second funeral was for a 98-year old woman who had lived for years in Ekalaka. When she was a child her parents had moved their family from Ekalaka to Washington. But when her mother died, three of the children went back to Ekalaka to live with their maternal grandparents. Two other children were adopted and they did not re-connect until fifty years had passed. This woman loved life according to those who knew her. She was active and funny and was always interested in people. Her resting place is in Beaver Lodge Cemetery, on a knoll covered with prairie grasses that looks out to the Ekalaka hills. The third funeral was for a bachelor rancher. When I asked people about him they smiled and then they choked up. Every response whether friend or family was an emotional response. He was much loved. They described him as generous to a fault. Always ready to help out someone who needed it. And he loved the high school team in his home town. He went to every game and yelled the loudest from the stands. The funeral procession from the church in Baker to the burial was a thirteen mile drive and cars stretched for miles.
Each day was absolutely gorgeous, blue sky, sunshine, and vistas across miles of prairie land. Many of the cemeteries are family cemeteries with multiple head stones with the same names. And people come when they hear there has been a death. It is a time for reacquainting one’s self with family and old neighbors, to share stories and to laugh and cry at the same time. It is the time of remembering that is so special and for each of these involved a long life, well-lived. They were the products of a simple philosophy of hard work and loving your neighbor. They were practical independent folks whose bodies will now mix with the soil of the prairies in which their forebears lie as well. The churches are far apart. The ranches are miles apart and folks live an isolated and difficult life that involves hard work. But it goes on generation after generation and there is an honesty and a pledge to the basics of life that one cannot find anywhere else.
Reading what I wrote yesterday I was too shrill and alarmist, but I was writing in a particular mood. Today the sun is shining a little brighter and I do have hope. “Hope springs eternal. . .” My brother and I visited last night and he told about a church in the Las Vegas area that was having mid-week evening services. The purpose was to allow people to sit quietly, hear some words about God’s hand in all things, pray and the pastors said people went home visibly more at peace. I really blessed that church and pastors for reminding us all where the power really lies. This Sunday is All Saints’ Sunday and the text from Ephesians 1.11-23 reminds us: “God puts this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the age to come.” The power is where it has always been -- with God. And let all the people say, “Amen.”
The countdown is on to Tuesday’s general election and like most of the rest of the nation I am glad this is over. Although listening to the last days’ rhetoric, whoever wins, the other side is going to ‘take up arms’ and there will be trouble. I can only hope the election process will be calm and people will be allowed to vote in a way that has always been a symbol of pride to the rest of the world.
Whenever I have voted I have always been pleased to be a part of a 250 year process that has been a model. It saddens me beyond measure to hear people talk about what they will do to thwart that process. The long litany of candidates demonizing the opposition has not been good for the country. Because of fear of the “other”, power and control have become the watch-words of the day. It reminds me of reading about the Anschluss in Austria, when the Nazis appealed to the Germans living in Austria to vote to unify. Many of the characteristics of that election have surfaced in our own country -- white supremacy, anti-Semitism, intimidation and outright violence.
The idea that “it can’t happen here” is not a slogan we can take up if we are to protect our rights and freedoms. The struggle does not end with the election. I am afraid it has just begun and we are going to have to challenge those who would take our freedoms away from us.
Pandering to the lowest level of thinking as well as turning on those of a different color or gender or religious persuasion, is some place I don’t want to go to. It is fear that drives us to these levels.
I recently read an enlightening op-ed piece in the New York Times that talked about the world phenomena of white fear. “Whiteness” it said has been for centuries not only a skin color, but has been a cultural right, down to the church we attend, the food we eat and the way we live. It reminds me of the colonial period when the white races went into Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East to rule over the indigenous people. To read about the British in India, for example, is to see the worst kind of ‘white’ thinking. We have long moved beyond a time when one race is superior to another. We all live on this little speck of dust whirling through the universe together and we have to make it work. It takes compromise and respect. You are not going to “pound” your rightness into someone else.
I believe in civic duty and I hope I practice good citizenship. I voted early. I encourage everyone to vote. It hasn’t been the best year for stellar candidates, but we cannot abandon the process which was written into our Constitution. No, I don’t feel good about where we’ve been the last months, but I do believe in the foundations of our society and pray the cracks that have run through it this year will not weaken what we have accomplished since the words, “We, the people of the United State of America”, were penned.