Church Interrupted! A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

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Augustana Lutheran Church
27 November 2016 + First Sunday of Advent
Matthew 24.36-44; Romans 13.11-14



Doomsday.
The end is near.
The rapture is coming.

Don’t worry. I haven’t gone rogue or joined an end-of-the-world ultra-fundamentalist cult. But you have to admit there is a certain fascination many people have with some version or another of what they think “the second coming” will look like. And they’ve dreamed up some pretty bizarre scenarios.

In 1806, for example, a domesticated hen in Leeds, England, began laying eggs on which was written “Christ is coming”… until it was discovered that the hen’s owner had been inscribing the eggs and, um, reinserting them into the bird.

More recently, American radio evangelist Harold Camping calculated that the end would come on May 21, 2011, and when that date came and went, revised it to October 21. Oh, and all this after four previous miscalculated dates seventeen years earlier. If at first you don’t succeed…

Of course, none of these predictions has ever come true, but at least for me, there is still a certain fear there. What if they’re right this time?

The thing about fear is…

Oh, I just hate that noise! If my phone alarm spoke New Testament, it might sound something like, “It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”

Now what was I saying? Oh yeah, the thing about fear is that it almost always comes as an interruption.

My phone alarm is an interruption every morning — albeit an interruption that I can control with a tap of the snooze button, exactly two times, for exactly nine minutes each, for just a touch of extra sleep before waking up for good shortly after the coffee maker’s own timer has gone off and brewed just enough coffee for my first cup. (Don’t think I don’t have this timed out perfectly.)

Unlike my alarm, however, fear is an interruption that can rarely, if ever, be controlled. It’s what makes end-times predictions so scary for many, a fascination that Hollywood has capitalized on with apocalyptic blockbusters.

Our gospel text for this First Sunday of Advent could nearly be one of them. An earth-destroying flood that sweeps everyone away. A sudden rapture. A violent home invasion. And did Jesus say something about an unknown day and hour?!

Not exactly “Joy to the World”… If this isn’t a text that conjures up fear for its listeners, I don’t know what is.

But another thing about fear is that it is also a wake-up call.

Two years ago this past Thursday, I was standing outside of Chicago Police headquarters with at least a couple hundred others. Together, we were waiting to hear the grand jury announcement that would decide whether or not Officer Darren Wilson would be indicted in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, earlier that summer.

As soon as the announcement was made, the crowd began marching, peacefully but defiantly, from the south side precinct all the way to Chicago’s Loop downtown.

It was a call to action, spurred by a fear about what it means to be a person of color in this country that the supermajority of us in this room will never experience.

Ferguson inarguably become a watershed moment in the modern civil rights movement. Unfortunately, moments like it have only become more the norm than the exception, as hate crimes against marginalized and oppressed communities seem to have surged in recent years.

Ferguson was a wake-up call, but every hate crime against a person of color, or someone who is transgender, or a queer person, or someone who happens to be Muslim, needs to be a wake-up call.

In the midst of a national election that has left many in those communities feeling shocked, angry, and scared, we the church have the opportunity, not to cower under the grip of crippling fear, but to face that fear and do those things that the church has always done when it’s at its best.

In a gospel text of frightful images, Jesus calls his disciples to an attitude of wakefulness and watchfulness, but these things are not idle behaviors.

In Advent, yes, we wait and we watch for the coming of the Messiah — and we know that’s going to happen, and indeed has already happened. But we are also urged to be about the work of the reign of God that that Messiah has ushered in. What would it look like if we upped our game in living out what it says on the back of our Augustana t-shirts: “grace, justice, and faith in action”?

Paul reminds us what that means in Romans. “Besides this…” our reading begins. This: “Love one another,” he writes just verses earlier. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

And: “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public,” writes Cornel West.

We don’t have to do it all — no one expects that of us, least of all God. Indeed we cannot do it all. But there is a certain ethic at stake in these apocalyptic texts that urges us to action.

The point is not to be preoccupied with the future — not rushing to Christmas during Advent, not making bizarre claims about the second coming so we know when exactly we need to be on our best behavior when Jesus shows up. The point is to be concerned with the present moment. There are real fears in the world, held by real people, that demand real action.

Yet I believe beyond believing that life can spring from death… words we will sing shortly in our hymn of the day.

Life can and life does and life did and life will always spring from death. Wait for it, watch for it, and work for it.

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“But the end is still to come” – A Sermon About Loss and Uncertainty in the Wake of Tragedy

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Grace Lutheran Church
15 November 2015 + Pentecost 25B
Mark 13.1-8



As part of their Military Voices Initiative to commemorate Veterans Day this past week, the popular NPR podcast StoryCorps featured a video about Marine Lance Corporal Travis Williams and his squad. Travis tells the story of when he and his team were sent on a rescue mission in Iraq in August 2005. One morning, as they were loading into their vehicle, Travis was about to hop in when he was told he needed to move up to another vehicle. Just moments later, he heard an explosion. A bomb had ripped apart his comrades’ vehicle and left all twelve of them dead.

Tearfully, Travis recounts going back to the barracks alone for the first time and having to sort through everyone’s personal belongings to send back to their families: unmailed letters, unwashed dishes, even dirty laundry. “It was all I had left of my friends,” he sobbed.

Certainly, the loss of his friends, like any kind of devastating loss, left Travis in a state of shock, grief, and uncertainty. It’s a loss of innocence. It makes us skeptical of the assumptions of safety and security we once held. And it makes us wonder, “What will happen next?”

Bombs are not supposed to go off. War is not supposed to happen. Tornadoes, tsunamis, and earthquakes are not supposed to destroy communities. Loved ones are not supposed to die from cancer. The people of Paris and Beirut are not supposed to be shot and killed and bombed and held hostage.

Loss of people. Loss of places. Loss of the familiar and the comfortable. All these things which shape our identity and give our lives meaning, purpose, and rhythm—things we take for granted suddenly taken away.


synagogue in Baden-Baden, Germany, burning during Kristallnacht (photo credit: CNN.com)

On Monday last week, my seminary community gathered for our usual midday chapel service, but that day we gathered to observe the anniversary of Kristallnacht, “the night of broken glass.” On the night of November 9 and into the early hours of November 10, 1938, Nazi Storm Troopers and Hitler Youth were given orders to stage a massive, highly coordinated attack on Jews living throughout Germany and its territories. That night, they ended up burning 267 synagogues, looting and destroying nearly 7500 Jewish-owned businesses, and taking 91 Jewish lives.

Things familiar and held dear—lost. Places of worship, shops, homes, lives—gone in an instant.

At our observance of Kristallnacht, we heard the testimony of Walter Falk, a Holocaust survivor who now lives near Chicago. Falk was only 11 years old when Nazi soldiers raided his home. Shortly after the events of that night, he was one of the lucky ones who managed to escape on the Kindertransport, an operation arranged by the British government to secure safe passage out of Germany for 10,000 child refugees, with the assumption they would be reunited with their families after the war.

children sifting through debris in a ruined synagogue in Koenigsbach, Germany (photo credit: CNN.com)

Falk recalled the difficulty he undertook in packing up his entire 11 year old life in one suitcase, with room for only one toy among many treasured possessions. But the most poignant moment, he said, came when he had to say goodbye to his mother before boarding the train. Falk’s entire life was about to be uprooted.


That feeling of uprootedness and the devastating loss in the midst of war was intimately familiar to the original hearers of Mark’s gospel. Most biblical scholars agree that Mark was written during the Jewish-Roman War between 66 and 70 AD. If you look in your bible, you might notice that the verses I just read from chapter 13 are titled something like, “The Destruction of the Temple Foretold.”

But in all likelihood, by the time these words were written down, the temple in Jerusalem—the center of Jewish religious life in the first century and the place where devout Jews believed God was most present—had already been destroyed, along with the rest of the city.

Jesus’s words would have stung for Mark’s readers. But Jesus’s words would have said something else too.

The Apocalypse of Saint-Sever

This passage from Mark is the start of a section sometimes referred to as “the little apocalypse.” I know that word apocalypse is loaded with meaning, usually conjuring up images of horsemen, beasts, dragons, fire, rapture. But on a less frightening level, apocalypse simply describes a particular literary genre, like romance or science fiction. One of the major themes of Jewish apocalyptic writings is God’s ultimate control of the world. In these kinds of writings, it was taken for granted that God would rescue the world at God’s own timing.

And Jesus hints at that, too. Did you catch it? These things must take place, he says, but the end is still to come. The destruction of the temple—the loss of the tangible foundation of Jewish identity—is not the end. And it doesn’t get the final word.

In the story about the loss of his squad, Travis describes feeling guilty for being the only one left, but he also talks about his feeling of responsibility to let everyone know who his comrades were and what they did. The tragedy he experienced doesn’t get to be the final word.

Speaking of veterans, this summer I interned as a chaplain in a VA hospital. I had the privilege of meeting all sorts of wonderful people, but one who will always stick with me is Beverly. I met Beverly at the beginning of the summer and ended up talking with her regularly for several weeks. Her journey from addiction to recovery was a rocky one, but it reminded me that our stories, no matter how saturated they are with grief and loss and uncertainty, are not over. Addiction, a cancer diagnosis, or the foreclosure of a home do not get to be the end of our stories. When Beverly was discharged from my floor, she went to go live in a home where she could continue her journey of recovery and be closer to her young stepdaughter whom she cared for. Beverly’s story is far from over.

If we read a bit further in Mark, we would hear Jesus’s encouragement to his disciples to carry on in their preaching of the good news. Like Travis’s responsibility to tell his comrades’ stories, we have the responsibility to bear witness to the good news of God in Christ. That good news ultimately points us to the cross, but we know the cross is not the final word. It doesn’t tell the whole story.

image credit: Jennifer Clark Tinker

Resurrection, not death, is the end—the goal—of the story. And so our moments of loss and uncertainty do not get to be the end either. What happened in Paris and Beirut, and tragedies like those that happen around the globe with far too great a frequency, don’t get to be the final word. Jesus came to announce the reign of God and promise abundant life for all, and when we look to the resurrection, we can be certain that what God promises will happen. We get a taste of God’s promise of abundant life every week here at this table, and we will confess the certain hope of the resurrection in just a few moments in the words of the Apostles Creed: “On the third day he rose again.” When we say those words, we boldly bear witness to the life-giving gospel and declare that the story is not over.