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.


Sermon: Sunday, November 30, 2014: First Sunday of Advent

Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9  +  Psalm 80:1-7,17-19  +  1 Corinthians 1:3-9  +  Mark 13:24-37

paper_machete_itunes-logo-finalYesterday afternoon Kerry and I dropped by the Green Mill in Uptown for a weekly event that happens there on Saturday afternoons called The Paper Machete, which the producer describes as a “live magazine.” It’s one part news to one part satire as writers, comedians, actors, journalists, musicians and others come together to present work reflecting on the absurdity of the past week. They had plenty to talk about yesterday given the various agonies of the last seven days.

“From Ferguson the hashtag to the actual Ferguson,” the M.C. led before running down a long list of happenings coinciding with our annual Thanksgiving celebrations that left many of us feeling something other than thankful. Head in our hands, we understand him completely when the prophet Isaiah opens this new year in the life of the church with the desperate plea, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”

There’s a symmetry to me in the way the church year ended last week with a vision from the gospel of Matthew of cosmic judgment in which each of us is called to account for ourselves not on the basis of what nation or clan or group we belong to but on the basis of how we cared for those among us struggling most deeply, and the first words of the new year in which the prophet cries out for God to come down from heaven and redeem a corrupted world. Scenes of divine judgement make many of us feel uncomfortable, conjuring up images of a distant, angry God; but are we equally uncomfortable when it is we ourselves calling on God to traverse the tragic gap between heaven and earth and save us from our self-inflicted sufferings? What is the difference between calling out for God to intervene on behalf of the hungry, the stranger, the prisoner, the sick and being called to account for your own treatment of the same? I suppose it’s a matter of which way you point the finger.

This makes the season of Advent difficult. Throughout this season we will say that we are waiting for the arrival of our Lord, but what do we mean by that? It is the ancient proclamation of faith often recited as we prepare to receive communion at the Lord’s Supper, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” We who live on the other side of the resurrection are not waiting for Christ to be born, we are waiting for Christ to come again. What does this mean for we who call on God to “tear open the heavens and come down?”

1958031_891036030237_54408422828328216_nAs I was scanning Facebook for pictures of family and friends enjoying their Thanksgivings and I came across pictures of Steph Berkas, one of our seminarians last year, and her husband Nate. They are in South Africa right now, celebrating the holidays together with friends made during their year of missionary service there. It struck me how improbable that would have seemed twenty-five years ago, when apartheid laws were still in place, that two White young adults from the United States would be able to travel freely and easily throughout South Africa visiting friends of every ethnic background.

Or I think about how tomorrow is the 26th annual World AIDS Day, and how far we’ve come in the last quarter century — from a president who could barely speak the word to treatments that for many people have made HIV and AIDS a manageable condition instead of the death sentence it once was. Still, all I have to do is go back and re-read Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On or watch Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart to remember the horror of those early days, when I was in college and many of you were getting phone calls from friends, brothers, uncles telling you that they were sick and needed your help. Then I remember the visceral urgency of the prophet Isaiah’s cry, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

It’s not an either/or scenario.  It’s not either God intervenes in human history or we’re left to fend for ourselves. Listen to Archbishop Desmond Tutu talk about the struggle for liberation from apartheid and you will hear his utter conviction that God was moving in history for the freedom of the oppressor and the oppressed from a system that dehumanized them both. But that movement began with cries to heaven as well. It began with Cry, the Beloved Country and the freedom songs sung in townships from Soweto to Guguletu, songs that reminded us of our own Civil Rights Era, cries of “How long? Not long!”

ap9210110285When we join with the prophet Isaiah in crying out to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” we are not relinquishing our own power to make a difference in history. We are joining with the millions of families that stitched their tears into quilts in honor of the lives of loved ones lost to AIDS and sent them to be displayed on the lawn of our nation’s capital as a cry to heaven and a call to the powers of this world to do something. We are joining with the tens of thousands marching in the streets of Ferguson and Chicago and every other major city across this nation carrying signs that read, 996142_719803884735812_8807735881668704328_n“Hands Up Don’t Shoot.” We are giving voice to the pain that threatens to kill us if we remain silent about it one minute longer.

This is the starting place. This is the beginning of a new year, which comes weeks before the new year as marked by the empires of this world because God is already moving while we are still waiting. God is moving in the souls of people who know that nothing is hopeless, who cry out to heaven because they still expect God to answer, who can acknowledge their own complicity in the systems that oppress them but long to be free so that all can be free. God is moving in you.

So I will ask you this morning, right now, to be still and turn your ears inward and listen for the voice of your own soul naming all that is breaking your heart. Maybe it’s Ferguson. Maybe it’s a relationship with a family member that never seems to get better. Maybe it’s your own persistent loneliness. Maybe it’s the relentless violence in Afghanistan. Maybe it’s the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine. Maybe it’s your marriage. Maybe it’s the deep needs of our neighbors right here in Logan Square at the start of another cold winter. Right now, be still and listen to the voice of your own soul whispering your heartbreak …

If you’re able, write it down, your heartbreak. Or speak it aloud, quietly, to someone near to you …

Hold on to these words, the ponderings of your hearts. Pray on them. If you can, share them with a friend so that you are not alone in holding them. Find the song that gives voice to their urgency. Shout them to God, joining with the prophet Isaiah, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!



Sermon: Wednesday, December 19, 2012: “Fear Not! Advent Worship Nearing the Longest Night”

Texts:  Isaiah 12:2-6  +  Luke 1:5-25  +  Luke 1:26-38  +  Matthew 1:18-25  +  Isaiah 43:1-7,15-21


What might you do if you weren’t afraid?


Would you quit your job?

Would you ask him out?

Would you insist, “Stop. No more!”

Would you tell the truth?

Would you finally say, “I love you.”


What might we do if we weren’t afraid?


Would we ask how she ended up on the corner begging for change?

Would we share more and keep less?

Would we interrupt the joke told at his expense?

Would we listen more than we speak?

Would we give up our guns?


What might happen if the nations weren’t afraid?


Would they distribute their resources more freely?

Would they find new exports that cannot kill?

Would they dismantle the drones and the tanks and the missiles?

Would they tear down the walls and open the roads?

Would they send their children to school instead of to war?


Fear is the enemy of change.  Change requires us to take a risk, to imagine a future different from our present and to act as though that future was already on the way.  Fear cannot dare to risk, and will endure a tortuous present rather than chance an even more disastrous future.

Fear is real, but it makes for a poor reality.  It is impossible to live in this world, awake, without seeing true cause for real fear.  All around us we find evidence to make the case for fearful living.  The career employee laid off just years before retirement.  The friend or relative diagnosed in the prime of life.  The marriage shattered by an inconceivable infidelity.  The son or daughter lost to war.  The empty schoolyard and the grieving nation.  The case for fear makes itself.  It needs no help from us.

The case for hope requires angels, messengers of a new reality working to be born, laboring to become real.  The angel appeared to old Zechariah as he offered his prayers in the Temple, “do not be afraid.”  The angel appeared to young Mary as she awaited the day of her marriage, “do not be afraid.”  The angel appeared to righteous Joseph as he prepared to take a wife, “do not be afraid.”  God’s message came to the nation of Israel, occupied and dispossessed, “do not fear.”

Before anything else can be said — before God can assure an old man that his dreams of parenthood are within his grasp, before God can explain the scandal taking root in the young woman’s womb, before God can convince the man to set aside conventions and laws, before God can promise the people that their children will all be called home — before anything else can be said, God’s messengers must first say, “do not be afraid.”

What might happen if fear was set aside?

The refusal to let fear rule our lives is the first step along the path that leads to a new life.  It is the decision to take a new road, to commit to a new future.  It is not easy, and it does not come without its own costs.  Of this open road, the poet Walt Whitman writes,

“Listen! I will be honest with you,

I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes,

These are the days the must happen to you:

You shall not heap up what is call’d riches,

You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve,

You but arrive to the city to which you were destin’d,

you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you

are call’d by an irresistible call to depart,

You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and

mockings of those who remain behind you,

What beckonings of love you receive you shall only answer

with passionate kisses of parting,

You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their

reach’d out hands toward you.”

Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road,” stanza 11

Zechariah and Elizabeth conceive, and their son is the herald of a new future.  He is executed in prison.  Mary and Joseph provide a home for God’s own Beloved child, Israel’s long awaited savior.  He dies on a cross… but not before the world is forever changed.

How might your world change if fear did not hold the last word?

Long before God’s messengers appeared to Zechariah, or Joseph, or Mary, God spoke to God’s people Israel, as they longed for a home most of them had never in their lifetimes seen.  To a people dispossessed by empire and despairing that the future could ever be different from the past, God declared,

“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?  I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isa. 43:18-19)

Into a world filled with violence, into a manger because the small business owners said there was no room, into a people occupied by a foreign empire, into a family touched by scandal, God puts on flesh and becomes vulnerable to the human condition.  To all the conditions you and I face each day.  With a fearlessness that can only be born of love, God does a new thing and the world is made new.

Tonight, as we approach the longest night, as we wait for the coming of the Lord, God’s messengers arrive under the cover of darkness to speak to us those ancient words, bearing the promise of a new future:

Do not be afraid.