2 Miles Ahead
Sermon from Sunday 12/2/18, 1st Sunday of Advent
Sermon Series: Border Crossing
2 Miles Ahead
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Back in the summer of 2014, I was serving as the pastor of a small congregation in the mid-Michigan area. It was a small community, 1500 or so. I’m sure it was like any small town in Wisconsin. People were blue-collar factory workers who used their community as a home base, a sort of ‘bedroom community.’ I had just finished my first year there. As any good pastor does, you become a part of the community life quickly. In doing so, you learn the ins and outs, the perspectives, the theologies of the people. In my year, I learned that the community was pretty traditional in terms of their interpretation of Scripture and even in their understanding of the role of women in leadership.
One local organization, Wolverine Human Services, had applied for a grant that would have allowed up to 120 migrant boys, children from Mexico to be housed in our small community. This brought our small community to its feet in an uproar. At one point, on Main Street, on the side of city hall there were protesters with guns walking. On the other side, directly in front of the speedway, there were protestors with peace signs and tie dye.
About a week before this protest, and everything coming to a head, I had been away at a camp for the week. I had been aware of the tension in our small town, and as I left for camp, I sought after God. I begged God for direction. Many people in our congregation were against the children coming. Many in my personal, faith, and social life were for the children coming. How was I going to approach this?
The night before camp started, I had gotten word that our United Methodist Bishop, Deb Kiesey, was at camp and was going to lead worship on Sunday morning before the kids arrived. My co-counselor and I decided to take a walk that evening, and we found the courage to greet our Bishop for a few moments. During that conversation, the topic turned to the events in our small town. I never asked Bishiop Kiesey, what do I do? Yet, in her own gentle, spirited way, she told me to do what Jesus would do. So, I went home a week later and did.
I had some fall out from my participation in a prayer vigil for the migrant children. Yet, to this day, I am grateful for each and every sign that told me, that guided me, that directed me towards this path that I had taken. That courage has stuck with me over the years.
Fast forward to this past Summer, 2018. Your worship team and I met for an afternoon of long-range planning. At the time, the picture of the holy family in a cage was making its rounds on social media. This was the time when the current administrations policy of removing children as they cross our southern border was being enforced to a fuller extent. It was a horrific time. We are reminded of other times throughout history when the policies of our government did more harm than good to humanity. Our hearts were breaking. We felt a nudge to craft a sermon series around this topic for this time of year. We were sensitive though, that this could not have been such a hot topic right now. Little did we know, that there would be caravans of people trying to make their way into this country as they seek refuge and hope.
I tell you these stories because I want you to know that a lot of intentional planning went into all of our worship experiences this month. This is not your typical feel good Advent or Christmas series. Sure, we might sing some Christmas carols, and you might see some traditional parts of the season come out like in the lights and pointsettias. There have been some amazing and powerful nudges that we needed to do this series. There is a greater purpose for this, this series, this season, and we hope to capture that this month.
Today, is the first Sunday of Advent. This is the season where we essentially prepare ourselves for the birth of Jesus Christ. We spend these next days and weeks waiting and longing for the birth. These days are often characterized by hope, peace, love and joy. They are often talked about as a time of being in the wilderness or darkness. This is also a time to really reflect on our personal discipleship, and what do we believe about Jesus Christ.
This is where Luke’s Gospel comes in. In the passage, he writes of the return of Jesus, and how we all have signs of this holy event. He writes of the destruction of Jerusalem before the passing of this first generation that has known and followed Jesus’ footsteps. Yet, even though this will happen, and God’s people will begin to scatter, God’s kingdom will always be near. The summary of Luke’s gospel is found in this readying. His central concern is not details of the past or the future. His central concern was simply living a Christ-like life. This is best accomplished when one is aware, alert, and awake to the workings of God in the world, the means of grace.
Paul then says, though, in our Thessalonians reading that this alertness doesn’t come easily. In fact, the ability to discern how to live out our faith in our daily lives is a learned trait. It is one that comes through holy acts and loving practices so that lives become more about holiness, rather than just surviving day to day. Through the growing love we have for each other, God transforms the whole human self so that we find ourselves in God’s justifying grace.
All this is to say, that this life stuff that we deal with on a daily basis is not easy. It is especially not easy to be a person of faith in this world. Many times, Jesus calls us to be counter-cultural. Jesus says, “love our neighbor.” Our response is why? They look different than me. I can love my neighbor, but I don’t have to talk to them to. Jesus says feed the hungry. Our response is, sure, Ill pick up an extra jar of peanut butter next time I go to the store. Counter cultural responses look a lot different. When Jesus says love your neighbor, there is an expectation that a relationship will form. When Jesus says feed the hungry, there is an expectation that a sacrifice will be made so that someone new will know Jesus as the bread of life.
Friends, we are on a journey this Advent season and in our faith lives. We are making our way to the day when we will see the baby Jesus for ourselves. Along the way, we have to practice acts of piety such as daily prayer, study and devotion so that we continuously learn how to receive the signs of grace in our lives. We must learn an awareness and hold an open heart to the power and grace of God. We must also practice acts of mercy on our journeys. There are so many others in the world who are traveling with us, literally or symbolically. When we practice mercy, we do things like not leave anyone behind on the side of the road. We do things like respond when our hearts are pulled by the inhumane practices of our government.
Each step on the faith journey is flagged with something… first communion, baptism, confirmation, first experience with death… These signs are directional signs that tell us that we are about to move from one point in life and faith to another. We make conscious choices to go right or left, and those choice impact the next transitions that we experience.
It has been interesting this week to hear your reactions as you saw the signs here in the sanctuary. They are certainly powerful. I hope that you experience a stirring in your spirit when you see signs likes these on the news, read of them in the papers, or simply as you read the stories of Advent as we prepare for Jesus. These signs might not exactly say, “2 Miles Ahead: Jesus is coming” but they do say, “People are coming, they need help. What are you going to do?” God didn’t come in as the human Jesus so that we would sit on our hands and wait. In fact, all the signs were there, and people flocked to this holy birth, seeking refuge, hope and the promise of a new day. Those who missed the signs called out for murder. Those who missed the signs called out for violence. Those who missed the signs missed out on a chance to show grace, to show God’s love.
Let us pray. God, as we enter into this Advent journey, we have a long season ahead. We know that traveling with you will often be challenging, forcing us to think differently about this world. Yet, we also know that there are others traveling with you who don’t need yet another challenge. What they need is us. Speak to us God. Show us the ways that we can make a difference. Reveal to us the direction that you would have us go. May we not miss the signs ahead. Amen.