Pastor Heidi Neumark
Trinity Lutheran Church, W. 100th St. Manhattan
Gospel Text: Luke 21:25-36
Today is the first Sunday of the season we call Advent. These days it’s hard enough to keep track of the seasons outside the church when just last week the calendar said winter and the weather said spring. But we’ve got church seasons too. For those who may be new to the seasons of the church year, Advent is celebrated during the four weeks leading up to Christmas. We dress the church in blue (traditionally related to hope and to Jesus’ mother, Mary) and we light the candles on our Advent wreath, one a week, until all four shine out.
There’s something counter-cultural about Advent. The peanut M&M’s in the Rite Aid I frequent tell the story. One day the peanut M&M’s were black and orange. A few days later, days before Thanksgiving, the black and orange M&M’s had disappeared, and the aisle was filled with red and green M&M’s. I have never seen a bag of advent blue M&M’s, and I don’t expect to see one either.
My favorite Advent memories all have to do with getting ready for Christmas. Lighting the Advent candles, singing Advent music, (the church I grew up in allowed no Christmas carols during Advent, unless we were practicing), making Christmas cards and presents. That was back in the days when time moved more slowly and I never would have sent a store-bought card or gift. I made cookies with my mother, painting bells and stars with tinted icing. I remember sticking cloves into oranges to make aromatic gifts meant to be tucked into underwear drawers. Upon reflection, it occurs to me that they may have ended up somewhere else, but it was all filled with happiness and love. I experienced the weeks of Advent as a time of excitement and glad expectation, getting ready to celebrate Christmas.
That’s one side of Advent, but according to today’s gospel, there’s another side: There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars…distress among nations… people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming…then they will see the Human One coming in a cloud… Distress among the nations. people fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming and what has come. This side of Advent sadly, may be more in sync with more people’s present experience than my memories of candles, cookies and orange/clove balls.
Advent means coming. It’s a time to prepare to celebrate the coming of God made human in Jesus, and a time to think about God’s future coming. Today’s gospel reading is Jesus’ answer to his followers who are worrying about the future. Luke’s first readers shared that worry. Luke wrote his gospel after Roman armies had invaded Jerusalem and left it like present- day Baghdad. Luke wrote his gospel at a time when the Roman Empire was terrorizing Christians who were markedly countercultural, welcoming slaves as equals, resisting what passed for family values in Roman culture. Many Christians were at odds with their own families as well, due to their unpopular decision to forego a violent, military solution to Roman oppression. Where was God in this? What did the future hold? When was God going to come and make things right?
Where is God in Darfur? Where is God when a little girl and her mother are shot in their beds right down the hall from one of our beloved grandmas, Anna Brugman? Where is God when bullets rain down instead of rice as a man is gunned down on the dawn of his wedding day? Where is God when people make fun of the transgender youth in our shelter? Where is God in Baghdad? Where is God in present day Bethlehem, for heaven’s sake? Where is God in the weariness of one’s own soul?
These are not new questions. There will be signs, Jesus told his followers. Don’t give up. Don’t despair. Stand up and raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near. But where?
“Lo he comes”…we sang in our opening hymn…”Lo he comes in clouds descending”…Really? Have you ever seen that? I haven’t. Not anymore than I’ve seen Santa Claus riding across the clouds in his reindeer-led sleigh. I’ve sung about it, but not seen it.
Jesus’ followers may have said something along those lines too because Jesus then changes direction, shifting our attention from the clouds to the ground. From heaven to earth. From his past coming and his future coming, to the present.
Look at the fig tree Jesus says…and all the trees…as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near…so also when you see these things, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
Look at the fig tree. Did you know, we have one of those in the garden behind the church? And fig trees were easy to find in Luke’s neighborhood. Now a fig tree seems a far cry from the vision of Jesus coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But Jesus says, look at the fig tree.
Sometimes power and glory come in strange packages--packages that we might not even check out because they appear to be so unpromising. If we go through life only expecting God to come in one particular way, we might miss the God who comes in ways that almost always defy our expectation.
This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. … Isn’t he Joseph’s son? they said. Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
I first met Andrena, after she sent her son to summer day camp. She was depressed with no interest in church or much of anything. She’d turned to alcohol to dull the pain of childhood abuse. She was in recovery from her addiction, but being sober did nothing to relieve her depression, anger and hurt. Being sober did nothing to reverse her HIV positive status which at the time seemed like a quick death sentence. When I first visited Andrena, still in her bathrobe, at 3 in the afternoon, I missed all the signs.
But God was tending a seedling planted deep in her soul. My soul magnifies the Lord, sang Mary, the promise in her womb invisible to everyone else. I could have used a magnifying glass when I visited Andrena. I saw her shame, her fear of death and her despair. I also saw a beloved child of God. But I never saw the future nor would I have ever imaged what God was up to.
I didn’t see it, even when I saw her growing participation in church, her growing participation in worship, her growing participation in the church’s once a week shelter for homeless adults, her growing interest in theology.
The fig tree was sprouting leaves. Four years ago, Andrena entered seminary. She completed her internship last August. She’s in her final semester at seminary in Philadelphia and interviewing for her first call as a pastor. The fig tree is weighed down, not with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, as Luke puts it. The fig tree is weighed down with rich, ripe figs.
Andrena’s story is now being lifted up by whole Lutheran Church as a sign. You can find the link on our website. Although my cynical side tells me that the spin doctors at our Church headquarters would like Andrena’s story to be a sign of the church’s openness, that’s not the sign I see. I see a sign of a divine gardener at work in the distressed fields of this earth. A sign of God working in circumstances and situations that appear to be beyond reasonable hope or help, laboring among us and with us towards a future we can’t completely imagine.
I share Andrena’s story in honor of World Aids Day using her own recent words:
“As a religious leader stepping forward to put a face to HIV, I’m aware of some of the risks in doing so. But there is a larger risk,” she said. “It’s the risk that people take every day in having unprotected sex. It’s the risk of someone feeling the stigma ... the discrimination of [having] HIV or AIDS.”
People living with HIV and AIDS should be able to find “sanctuary, a shelter from the storms of life” at church, she added.
“People won’t go and get tested if they feel that they are going to be rejected,” Ingram said. “We can do something about minimizing the spread of [HIV and AIDS]. We can erase the stigma and discrimination. We can love one another, and we can be the community that we are called to be—the body of Christ. ... I hope to be a bridge between the community [of people living with HIV and AIDS] and the church.
“This is nothing new for me. I have faced many challenges in my life. Worrying about how people will accept me and being nervous about the call process gives power to the feelings that would bend me over again. I would be fooling myself if I didn’t think about it periodically, but my faith will keep me standing up.”
Stand up, Jesus told his frightened followers. Stand up and raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near.
Drawing near, not desceding from the clouds, but rising up from the streets and stresses of our lives. Rising up like the sap of a tree.
“Jesus said, There will be signs…Look at the fig tree… and when you see these things taking place, you know that the realm of God is near.
There will be signs. And we don’t have to look to Andrena in Philadelphia to see them.
Despite a pack of health problems that would drive most into bed, an elderly woman baked over 30 sweet potato pies to feed the hungry who came to our community dinner on Thanksgiving.
Weeks after brain surgery, another unstoppable woman is organizing art projects for the children in our Creative Learning Center and leading women, newly immigrant and long settled, in making crafts while sharing stories.
“Take and eat!” shouts Charlie, just turned two, just learning to talk, and an enthusiastic worshipper at Trinity’s new early morning service for families with young children.
A seminarian gathers around baptismal font to pray with his confirmation students, praying as our gospel instructs: that they may have the strength to escape these things (that threaten them) and to stand before Jesus.
A grandmother brings three neighbor children who have never set food inside a church in their lives. The verdict: “I like church!” “I like church!” “I like church!”
A Trinity volunteer cooks a gourmet dinner for the youth staying in our shelter and then offers sensitive feedback to those who share their brave, creative work with her upon discovering that she too, is a writer.
On a glorious fall weekend, Trinity members spent the day cleaning out supply closets, unclogging outside drains and filling holes to keep the rats out. Power and glory in unlikely packages. Yesterday others sat and brainstormed on how to make this community more welcoming, more of a sign of the grace and nearness of God.
A young woman who is likely to go to prison before Christmas for a bad mistake spent last evening seeking comfort in our undercroft by playing classical music on the piano rather than seeking the forgetfulness of dissipation and drunkenness on the streets.
You will see the signs.
You will be the signs.
Weighed down at times, as Luke put it, with the worries of this life, but also weighed down with figs, ripe and sweet, offered to nourish the hungers of our hearts, and of this earth.
Sermon for December 3rd, 2006, First Sunday of Advent