Sunday, November 29, 2020

SERMON: "The Advent Church"

Sunday, November 29, 2020
Alongside the Community Church of Durham
John 19:16-30


Maybe Advent begins in a crowded ICU: in Ames, Iowa, or El Paso, Texas, or a small city in Brazil.  Maybe Advent begins in hallways tangled with machines, nurses, doctors and stretchers.  Maybe Advent begins in a surge of infections, another wave of sorrows and losses.  Maybe Advent begins here, at the cross, where lovers say their goodbyes and mothers grieve for the suffering of their sons.  

It’s a strange thing to read the crucifixion story on the First Sunday of Advent, I know that; but this is a strange year.  “Carrying the cross by himself,” the story goes, “Jesus went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha.  And there they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.”  Advent begins at the cross.  Jesus dies in a crowded ICU.  There are others, everywhere you turn, there are so many.  Old men fighting for every breath.  Young women frightened and desperate for a hand to hold.  Jesus’s not alone there.  There are so many.  Advent begins in darkness and exile this year, and an ICU; and Advent begins with questions that have no answers.

It’s this one moment, though: this one brief scene in John’s story, that I want us to appreciate and even treasure this morning.  This moment when Jesus – dying on the cross – when Jesus sees his mother and his best and beloved friend standing side by side and watching.  So many others have fled.  So many others have hidden in the rubble.  But Mary and that one dear friend remain, at the cross, witness to his last moments.  “Woman,” he says, motioning to his friend: “Woman, here is your son.”  And then, to his friend, to his beloved: “Here is your mother.”  I think this moment has everything to do with Advent, and everything to do with Christmas, and everything to do with the community that draws life and purpose from Jesus’ story, and from Mary’s story too.  Advent at the foot of the cross. 

So imagine this moment with me.  With his body drained of spirit, with his heart broken by violence, but with his faith kindled nonetheless, Jesus invites these two dear ones, these two disciples, to make commitments together, to be a family together, to build community.  He doesn’t say ‘watch out for one another,’ and he doesn’t say ‘keep tabs on one another.’  He says: “Woman, here is your son.”  He says: “Friend, here is your mother.”  Jesus insists that everything he’s taught, everything he’s risked, everything he’s suffered comes to fruition, matures in purpose, as we choose communion, community, life together.  In the end, right there on the cross, Jesus imagines a family of sisters, brothers and siblings—joined not by genealogy but by faith, linked not by biology but by mercy and mission.  The Advent Church.


Over these past few months, we’ve been exploring what we might call the Mary Tradition in Jewish and Christian scriptures.  Or the Marian Tradition, as some would call it.  Traditions are clusters of stories passed on from generation to generation, conveying meaning and celebrating values and inspiring purpose.  Last week, we noted that the Marian Tradition goes at least as far back as the Prophet Miriam: who leads her people out of Egypt with a tambourine, and then into the waters of the Red Sea with a tambourine.  And we remembered Miriam’s faith, her chutzpah, her daring song of praise: in the very midst of her people’s crisis, in the very midst of their flight to freedom, her insistence that God was active and present in her people’s vulnerability and uncertainty.  “Sing now to God!”  Remember Miriam’s song: “Sing now to God!”

And that Marian Tradition emerges time and again in Hebrew Scriptures, and then once more in the Gospels: it’s Mary of Nazareth, of course, who sings a song of praise, even a rebellious song of praise, as she visits with her cousin Elizabeth, as the two of them discern the strange and radical movement of Spirit in their lives.  “My soul magnifies the Lord!” Mary sings to Elizabeth, and to generations to come.  “My soul magnifies the Lord – for God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, and God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.”  How’s that for a freedom song?!  See, then, how this Marian Tradition gets passed along, from generation to generation to generation, and how it begins now to shape the Jesus Tradition and the Gospel itself.  Mary of Nazareth is a singer and a prophet, and a mother and a friend, and a disciple and an example for you and me and the church in our time. 

So this moment at the cross, then: this moment when Jesus looks to his beloved disciple, and then to his mother; this moment when he invites them into communion, into an intentional community of discipleship and care – it’s another prophetic moment in our story.  And again Mary is asked to bear the world’s suffering in faith, to receive her own vulnerability in communion, and to build a movement of sisterhood, brotherhood and courage.  Even at the foot of the cross.  Especially at the foot of the cross.  It’s always, always, always—where the church receives its mandate and direction.  

And friends I think this is the Advent Gospel for the Advent Church.  With all the uncertainty spinning around us in 2020, and surely into 2021, as our country faces its painful past and its divided political landscape, in the midst of so many crises that weigh so very heavily on the planet – we choose one another.  We choose a family of faith.  We choose to light candles for one another, and to bear one another’s sorrows, and to collaborate in projects that bring justice and hope to our neighbors and friends.  At the foot of the cross, in the shadow of a devastating pandemic, we choose one another.  “Woman, here is your son.”  “Friend, here is your mother.”  The Advent Gospel is the Advent Church.  

And when we choose that church – the Advent Church – we come to recognize that the Christ who lives in you and me is the same Christ who lives in every sister, every brother, every sibling everywhere.  And in every land and culture.  And in every forest and every sunrise.  When we choose that church – the Advent Church – we invest Jesus’ teaching with purpose and power and practical responsibility.  Nitty gritty responsibility.  To love this God is to love one another; and to love one another is to choose communion, community, life together.  Nitty gritty life together.  

It involves our best efforts, and frankly our foolishness too.  It involves our dedication, and honestly missing the mark more than we’d like.  The Advent Church isn’t a community of the perfect and the saintly: it’s a communion of the human, the frail, the fractured and the holy hearts who recognize God’s partnership in the imperfect projects of our best intentions.  How does that go?   “It’s the cracked pots that let the light shine through.”  Forgiveness is a must.  Mercy is the only way.  And when we lean into that life, the Advent Church is feast of fellowship, a joyride of spirit and soul, a loving circle of family and friends, together for the long haul.  It doesn’t always make sense.  But it’s a joyride just the same.


Advent is a season of prayerful preparation and holy expectation.  God is doing a new thing: in the world, in the church, in your life and in mine.  In these four weeks of Advent, we keep watch with Mary, and we keep watch with that beloved disciple.  I invite you to make that your Advent practice this year.  Let’s keep watch together.  You are not on this hard path alone.  You may be living alone: but you are not on this hard path alone.  Let’s keep watch together.  A people with many questions.  A people with broken hearts.  A people with a passion for justice and peace.  Jesus says, “Woman, here is your son.”  Jesus says, “Friend, here is your mother.”  You are not on this hard path alone. 

So let’s be open to the new commitments we might make: to one another, to our church, to the sisterhood and brotherhood that Jesus offers us as a gift and calling.  Let’s be open to the Christ we meet – sometimes even on Zoom – the Christ we meet in one another.  In our morning prayers, and in our caroling at home; in our commitments to service and advocacy; in simple feasts around candlelit tables this month: let’s dance into the future with Mary.  Let’s sing love songs with Mary and the beloved disciple.  And let’s dare to believe that we too can give birth to a new world, a new hope, a new church shining with God’s love, rejoicing in God’s grace and awakening to the voice of Jesus our Christ.  

He’s calling your name.  And mine.

Amen and amen.