Sermon: Sunday, December 11, 2016: Third Sunday of Advent

Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10  +  Psalm 146:5-10  +  James 5:7-10  +  Matthew 11:2-11

I took a class in college called something like “Conceptual Physics,” but which we all called “Physics for Poets.”  It was a physics class without any math, mostly taken by English and other humanities majors in order to fulfill a distribution requirement in the sciences. We studied things like Newton’s law of universal gravitation and Einstein’s theory of special relativity using stick figures named Moe and Joe sketched out on the chalkboard by our professor, Dr. Kim.

I don’t really fancy myself a poet, though I try my hand occasionally, but the link between the science of the observable world and the theologies that connect my experience of the world to my knowledge of myself remains. Physics sometimes, unexpectedly, helps me understand religious concepts. For instance, hope.

Werner Heisenberg

Werner Heisenberg

The German physicist Werner Heisenberg, a pioneer of quantum physics, published a paper in 1927 that described the unavoidable imprecision that enters when trying to plot both the position and momentum of an object.  He was thinking of unimaginably small objects, like electrons or photons I suppose, not soccer balls.  His idea, which we now call Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, says that the more closely you try to pin down where a thing is, the less accurately you can say how quickly it is moving, and (I think) what direction it is moving in.  Conversely, the more accurately you describe the velocity of a thing, the less accurately you can describe just exactly where the thing itself is.

Now, remember, Heisenberg was writing about quantum physics, laws of nature operating at an unseen level.  Fortunately for us, for most of our waking days, we do a pretty good job of determining where, how fast, and in what direction objects around us are moving (which is why we are able to play soccer). But when we begin asking questions about the inconceivably small, invisible and practically undetectable world around us, operating at the microscopic level, different rules apply.

So, and here’s another piece of physics for us to mull over, the harder you try to observe things at this level of existence, the more likely you are to actually alter what you are looking at.  This is called the “observer effect,” and if you’ve ever used a tire gauge to check the pressure in your tires, you already know what I’m talking about.  You know how this works, you unscrew the tiny cap to the inner tube of your tire and, as you apply the gauge to the tire, you hear the hiss of air being released.  You wanted to know the pressure in your tire, but the very act of measuring the pressure has changed the pressure itself.  In quantum mechanics the same thing happens.  In order to observe objects at the sub-atomic level, like an electron, we have to direct photons at it, which actually changes the path of the thing we’re trying to observe.  There is no neutral observer at this level of science – to watch is to participate.

A long time ago I picked up a habit from a dear friend of mine who has spent most of her life practicing the art of counseling and, in particular, counseling people around issues of oppression and its impact on their lives. She very intentionally greets people by asking, “what’s new and good?” I’m sure you’ve heard me repeat the greeting plenty of times myself.

This isn’t arbitrary on my part.  It’s not just another way of saying, “what’s up?”  Although I’m interested in knowing what’s persistently old and difficult, I often choose to begin small groups by asking “what’s new and good?” because I believe that choosing to focus, training yourself to observe, what is new and good in the world is a spiritual practice. Although each of us has a multitude of stories we could choose to tell about our lives, when we practice looking for the new and the good, we are choosing to find evidence that the past doesn’t define the future – that old hurts do not cut off the possibility of future healing, and that signs of that new life are already appearing.

As with any spiritual practice, choosing to look for what is new and good in the world is not easy and does not come naturally for most of us.  Like the painful throbbing of a stubbed toe, old injuries stick with us and demand our attention.  Chronic pain, ongoing illnesses and the injustice of oppressive systems that surround us make it difficult to concentrate on what is emerging and new, what is healing and hopeful.

The season of Advent is much longer and much harder than we often care to admit.  We say that it is the four weeks before Christmas, but in another sense, it is our whole lives.  We spend our whole lives waiting for the vision of the prophet Isaiah to come true,

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom…

the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water…

and the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing”

The wildernesses in which we wander feel so arid, and maybe especially so during this season when the desire to create the perfect Christmas for our families and children is at odds with the struggles we face at work, at home, or as a nation.  Our country feels more divided than at any moment in recent memory. Isaiah’s promises feel far off, so far off that we doubt we will ever see them in our own life.

cwyenjqwqaey7woMartin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”   Justice, these days, can feel hard to find.  It can seem tiny in the face of personal tragedies and ongoing wars, almost microscopic.  We would like to know precisely where God’s justice is, and when it will arrive.  But theological physics seems to indicate that we cannot know precisely where God’s justice is and how quickly it is moving – only that it is on the way, and that our own search for the signs of God’s justice, in fact, changes the world we are trying to observe.

So, in this moment when racist organizations we once imagined to be on the fringes of society are gaining confidence and organizing themselves into a global movement, I am choosing to celebrate the news that the Army Corps of Engineers sided with the water protectors at Standing Rock. I am finding hope in images of military veterans kneeling before elders of the Lakota Sioux tribe, offering an apology for centuries of violent oppression and exploitation of Native peoples. As we listen to newly emboldened anti-immigrant rhetoric moving from the margin to the middle of American discourse, I am encouraged by the actions of states like California and sanctuary cities like Chicago that are putting mechanisms in place to resist mass deportations should the federal government move against our neighbors under the cover of paranoid fantasies and slanderous lies.


Photo Credit: Josh Morgan for the Huffington Post

I am looking for what is new and good in the world.  I am perfecting my perceptions.  I am practicing hope, and I am waiting with patience for the fulfillment of God’s promises – knowing that as I look for evidence of God’s work in the world, I am drawn into that very work.

What are you looking at this Advent season?  What are you looking for?  How are you training yourself to seek and to find evidence of God’s movement in the world? I know it’s hard. I know that! The temptation to constantly rehash all that is old and wrong and broken is ever-present. But I also know that there are no neutral observers. To watch is to participate. It matters which stories we tell. It matters, the conversations we have. Do you say it’s all falling apart, or do you say the moment for radical transformation is finally upon us? It matters!

Stay awake, therefore, and watch for the coming of the Lord.


Sermon: Sunday, November 27, 2016: First Sunday of Advent

Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5  +  Psalm 122  +  Romans 13:11-14  +  Matthew 24:36-44

You know the feeling, when you’re suddenly woken up in the middle of the night by an unexpected sound. The moment when half of your mind still sees the figures from the dream you were dreaming and the other half has flipped the switch on all your alarms. Your heart is beating, the adrenaline is rushing, your breath is held as you strain to listen for any further sound that might clarify what’s going on. Is that a creaking floorboard in the living room? Was it a dish slipping into a new position in the sink?

“Wake up!” you whisper, if there’s anyone to whisper to. “I heard something.”

I’ve lived through that moment dozens of times. I’m sure you have as well. I’m fortunate in that I can report that the sound has always turned out to be a dish, or a car door out on the street, or a cat knocking something off of the counter. Or maybe it was just the dream itself, interjecting a sound so real my sleeping mind could not tell the difference between the fiction in my head and the facts of the real world waiting on the other side of waking.

What a frightening comparison Jesus makes between the coming of the Son of Man and the violation of our homes by a thief as we sleep. No wonder we so often skim right past this image on our way to the concluding command: “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Mt. 24:44) Like a major chord at the end of a melody in a minor key, we instinctively move to resolve the tension presented by this disturbing image.

So here I tread lightly, because I know that sometimes the sound that wakes us from sleep is real, the shattering of glass, the door forced open. Sometimes our homes are invaded and the things most precious to us are taken away and never recovered. That is not God, and it is not part of some divine plan that we suffer theft or violence to our homes or our bodies. When God gives the law to Moses humanity is commanded to neither covet nor steal, and not to kill. When these things happen they are a sign of the sinful brokenness of human community. Still, it is precisely because of the emotional power of this image, of a thief coming into our homes as we sleep, that Jesus uses it to shock us into reconsidering what we imagine God’s advent in the world will be like.

If the fullness of Christ’s reign were coming on my terms, I could pretty quickly sketch out some major changes to the world as it is. Recounts and election results would barely scratch the surface. I would take an eraser to the map of the world and be done with nations once and for all. I would see social goods like housing, education, and healthcare treated as human rights instead of commodities to be bartered in exchange for labor. I could go on, and you’ve heard me preach long enough that you could probably go on for me. Then you would have lists of your own, agendas you would set for God’s advent in the world.

The point is that God is not coming on my terms, or yours, and God’s arrival will not feel like the vindication of my personal or our collective grievances. Rather than coming to enforce my vision for the world as it ought to be, Jesus hints that if I knew the hour of his coming, I would stay up late and bar the doors against his entry — because the changes that are coming will feel to us like loss, not gain.


So, let’s try a different exercise. Rather than making a list of all the projects you’ve been waiting for God to come home and get started on, let’s try this instead: let’s take an inventory of your life, a variation on the kind you might turn in to your insurance company so that they would know how much to reimburse you in case of a theft. Let your mind’s eye wander through your home, noticing the items you cherish. Not just the obvious ones, but the hidden ones. Is there anything there you’re attached to in unhealthy ways? Things that own you as much, if not more, than you own them? Bottles, pictures, pills? What hangs in your closet, what’s parked in your garage? Where were they made and by whom? What do you find in your cupboards or your refrigerator? How did those items get there? How far back can you trace their history from production to point-of-sale? How many hands, and whose, touched them on their way to your home? What do you know about those people’s lives?

Turn your gaze toward your calendar, the one on your phone, or in your day planner. The one you keep in your head. Who and what gets your time? Who and what doesn’t? What actually fills the spaces between the appointments marked in pen and pencil and pixels? Do the ways you spend your days match the story you tell about your life? Is there a relationship you imagine you still have time to mend? Is there a dream, a calling, you’d like to think you still have time to pursue?

Quickly scan the last dozen conversations you’ve had with family, friends or acquaintances. To what topics do you keep coming back? What complaints do you keep rehearsing? Who are you arguing with in your head, where no one can hear what you really want to say?

Pretty quickly we realize that we are holding on to all sorts of things that simply have to go if there is ever going to be room for something new to be born, in us and in the world. For some of us it is habits of consumption that feed an economy that is killing the planet. For others it is habits of addiction that are slowly killing our bodies and our relationships. For yet others it is habits of speech or habits of silence that keep us from acting on our deepest desires or most strongly held beliefs. For each and every one of us there are false stories about who we are and where we come from that hold us back from being fully, truly human — stories of White supremacy or internalized racism, gendered stories of dominance and deference, class stories of wealth and worth, sexual stories of normalcy and deviance, national stories of sovereignty and exceptionalism.

As the itemized list grows longer and more abstract, as our analysis gets broader and less precise, we realize that we don’t entirely understand how we got here, how we became who we have become, what’s ours and what is not. So we keep our heads down and preoccupy ourselves with “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,” (Mt. 24:38) laboring in our respective fields, working side-by-side, if not arm-in-arm, hoping we can get to the finish line without too much more being taken away from us.

Wake up!

You know what time it is. The very fact that you can make the list, that your soul intuits the things you suspect the Lord would take if Jesus broke into your life to make space for a new creation to begin again in you right now is all the evidence you need. This is why Paul can direct the church in Rome to “live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.” (Rom. 13:13) You may not know the hour of Lord’s coming in judgment and glory, but you know at least some of what would need to change if that hour was now. So live as though it is, and help move our broken present into God’s promised future.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Our Lutheran heritage has, at times, become so preoccupied with the heresy of “works righteousness” that we’ve stripped discipleship of any mandate to amend our lives. Let me say that in a slightly different way. In an effort to prove that we understand that it is God’s work in Christ Jesus that saves us, not we who save ourselves through our actions or beliefs, we have settled for doing very little at all and then called that a virtue. We each struggle with this in ways that are products of our history and particular to our nature. Some of us show incredible discipline in our personal lives and relationships, but struggle to connect our faith with the plight of the world in powerful ways. Others make heroic sacrifices for the sake of societal and systemic change, but are ruled by unchecked emotions, compulsions, and reactions.

As we begin a new year in the life of the church, and particularly as we move from the gospel of Luke to the gospel of Matthew, we will notice a renewed emphasis on the positive function of the law and calls to “righteousness,” which for Matthew signal a continuity between the newly emerging church and the Jewish tradition out of which it is being born. This means our faith comes to expression in actions, not just beliefs, opinions, and convictions. We beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. We study non-violence. We speak peace to our relatives and friends and we actively seek the good of our neighbors. We live honorably, avoiding the forms of excess that mock the poor and disrespect the gift of the bodies God has given us.

It is not easy, waking up, being woken up, staying awake. Even in moments like these most recent days, when the news rings out stories more alarming than any clock, still we long to get back to “normal.” To go back to bed. To hide in our dreams. But the time for that is behind us. Now is the moment for a new commitment, a new accountability, an active, costly discipleship that will take things from us we do not want to give up.

But in their place, friends. In their place, salvation. For our bodies and our lives. For our families and our friendships. For our neighborhoods, and the nations, and the planet. Salvation is coming, and is nearer to us now than it has ever been.

Get ready.


Homily for “Fear Not! Advent Worship for the Longest Night”

Texts: Luke 1:5-25  +  Luke 1:26-38  +  Matthew 1:18-25  +  Isaiah 43:1-7,15-21
waitingThere is waiting, and then there is waiting.

We ask children what they’re hoping to get for Christmas and we smile at the delicious torture of delayed gratification, their palpable urge to rip the paper off the packages. Or we nod knowingly at the friend who has some ambivalence about going home for the holidays, remembering the awkward conversations around the dinner table that marked the transition from childhood to adulthood. These waitings that have defined beginnings and endings. You can count down to Christmas one day at a time as you open the doors of the Advent calendar. You can look ahead to New Year’s Eve as a tonic for the intensity of the Christmas reunion.

But what happens when there is no end in sight to the waiting that defines us? When your heart aches for a companion. When your body yearns to be touched. When the dreams you held for your future seem further away with each passing year. When the one you love — a parent, a spouse, a child, a sibling, a friend — is lost to death, or divorce, or disagreement. When illness becomes the single fact defining a life. When darkness seems truer than light.

There is waiting, and then there is waiting. There is anticipation, and then there is despair — the name we give to our fear of the future when we cannot imagine it could be any different from our present.

Our Advent vigil is filled with the stories of those who have known the second kind of waiting. Old Zechariah and Elizabeth, waiting year after year for the child that never came. Young Mary, waiting for an end to the tyranny of a violent empire. Loyal Joseph, waiting for the answer to an impossible situation. God’s people, waiting for a way forward when no way was in sight.

The endings to their stories are so familiar to us, it’s difficult to allow our imaginations the space they need to fully flesh out the depths of their despair, the totality of their anxiety. We know how their stories resolve. We don’t know how our stories resolve.

Consistently, however, the first words spoken by prophets and angels are “fear not!” Why is that? What is the use of telling people to be unafraid of the things that rightly terrify us to death? Modern science can describe with great precision what ancient wisdom could plainly see: when we are afraid, our natural response is to fight or to flee. It’s an adaptive response, incredibly useful when confronted with a predator, an immediate danger. It’s less useful when the threat is more abstract — an attack on our dreams, our beliefs, our values, our identities.

In moments like these, when neither fighting nor fleeing can remove the things that terrify us, we need a different response. We need faith. We need stories of times when dreams deferred were finally realized. When corrupt powers shattered in the face of undeniable truth. When moments of inspiration provided solutions to intractable problems. When a way forward opened up. We need a story bigger than ourselves, but told on a human-scale, a story we can fit our own lives inside.

And we need prophets, we need angels, we need messengers who will interrupt the story running roughshod over our fragile hope, lights in the darkness that contradict the persistent voice of despair that has made its home in our hearts. We need each other.

I don’t know what each of you is waiting for, or what kind of waiting you’re in the middle of tonight, the eve of the longest night. I don’t know if you’re waiting, or if you’re waiting. I do know that each of you knows what it’s like to be afraid, to wonder if your life, if the world, could ever feel new again. And I know that you are people of deep faith, people who have seen God raise people and places left for dead to new life. You, no less than Zechariah, or Mary, or Joseph, know that God’s life is wrapped up in your life and vice versa.

But if you have forgotten that, or if it’s simply too painful to keep hoping for something that seems forever away, then I have only one request of you this evening. Please let us hold on to that hope for you. Let us wait with you on this longest night for the light that is surely coming.