Advent 1C Sermon Notes (2018)

SERMON NOTES — December 2, 2018
Advent 1C

Since this summer, we have been talking about the Gospel as the Good News of God healing the world, beginning with human beings. And the thing which most needs healing for humanity is its being formed in and trapped in tribalism. Our cultures, our religions, our politics are all trapped in being over against others who are not part of our tribe. It keeps us trapped in violence and fear, worshiping gods who prop up all that and make it divinely decreed, as part of the sacred order.

So how does God save us from our tribalism? It will take God’s Son throwing himself into the machinery of our tribalism, like jamming a pipe into a gear box. Jesus lets himself become an outsider to our tribes, executed as the quintessential “bad guy.” And it takes God raising him on Easter to begin to unveil the ugliness of our tribalistic order based on hatred, fear, and violence — so that we can begin to have revealed to us a new way of order based on forgiveness, love, and nonviolent resistance. Christians, for centuries, have fallen back into our own forms of entrenched tribalism — a betrayal of Jesus’ Way by instituting the Christian tribe! — and so the work of unveiling and revealing is still challenging two thousand years later. It takes reading the Bible in new ways through the lens of Jesus. It takes reinterpreting much of our lapsed theology, like a theology of atonement that makes God out to be a wrathful, punishing god.

It also takes relearning and reforming many of our practices, which I’d like to talk more about today. Today we celebrate with xxxx [name withheld] and her family, her First Communion. A special day. As we spent some time learning yesterday, we recalled that I waited until 8th grade confirmation to take my First Communion. xxxx’s Mom waited to 5th grade. xxxx is in 3rd grade. Changing our practice to commune children at younger ages is part of our changing practice to heal tribalism through less exclusive Communion practices.

My home church and Lutheran Church of the Savior began with similar histories: as Missouri Synod Lutheran churches that began practicing more open communion practices in the 1960’s. When the Missouri Synod took a more tribalistic turn in the 1970’s, these congregations made the decision to not go back toward having more exclusive communion practices again. We are gradually learning together that the most special thing about Communion is its inclusiveness, its radical hospitality. Jesus was executed in part because he ate with sinners. He practiced radically hospitality when eating together with others as a way of beginning to live into and heal tribalism.

Our readings this morning also point us to the practice of prayer. St. Paul says to the Thessalonians, “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faithfulness.” And Jesus says to his disciples, “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” It’s hard to maintain faithful practices in the face of cultures and religions that still practice tribalism!

To be always mindful of healing tribalism means we begin to shape some of the things we pray for. God continues to encourage us to pray for our own needs and loved ones. But what happens when we let God reshape our whole notion of family and loved ones to include all of God’s children? Example: at times of war, we pray for the safety of our soldiers. Do we also pray for our enemy, as Jesus taught?

I have found, though, that the biggest change in my prayer practices have come not to what I pray for, but to how I pray. As the Holy Spirit works to heal tribalism in our culture, many people are discovering this different way to pray through what is primarily being called “mindfulness.” Or, being aware of the wider religious traditions, it is called “meditation.” Corporations are including meditation rooms in their office buildings. The Seattle Seahawks employ a Mindfulness Coach. Neuro-scientists are doing studies and showing how mindfulness is healing for the brain and one’s overall well-being. (I recommend Dan Harris10% Happier and the work of Dr. Daniel Siegel.)

But these forms of prayer are also crucial to the Christian practice of healing tribalism! They go back to Jesus himself, who began his ministry with 40 days of prayer in the wilderness! The Gospel writers intentionally show Jesus going off to silent prayer throughout his ministry, and then it comes to a climax in the Garden of Gethsemane with Jesus pleading his disciples to “Stay awake and pray!”

In the Christian tradition of practice, this way of praying is referred to as “contemplation,” or simply “silent prayer.” It was largely lost at the time of the Reformation; a person central to helping to revive its centrality was Catholic priest and monk Thomas Merton, who died in a strange accident in 1968. Many are carrying on his work, perhaps foremost among them is Franciscan priest and monk Richard Rohr (see his Center for Action and Contemplation). (One of his latest books, Just This: Prompts and Practices for Contemplation, is a good starter; I’ve shared with you previously the importance of Falling Upwards: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.)

This morning I’d like to end with Chapter 5, “Sitting with Jesus,” from Brian Zahnd’s book Water to Wine. He writes, for example:

Contemplation, or contemplative prayer, has the potential to be the most transformative practice in our life. It is the way out of the cramped prison of dualism. As long as we remain imprisoned in the reactive world of dualistic thinking, spiritual growth is impossible. There are transformations that can occur only if we learn to look at the world free from the distorting lens of us-versus-them dualism. If we always look at the world through our single-view lenses, we will never change. Contemplation offers us a new way of looking at the world. In order to see the world the way God sees it, we need some contemplative breakthroughs. (p. 94)

His example is Acts 10-11, the story of Peter going to the house of a Gentile, a Roman Centurion named Cornelius. How does this all begin? With Peter in contemplative prayer, given a vision of being asked to eat “unclean” animals. He changes his tribalistic practice by acting on what he comes to know through contemplative prayer.

Zahnd concludes:

The ultimate goal of contemplation is not just a new way of seeing, but love. Everything about God tends toward love. God is love. The highest form of knowing is not empiricism or rational thought — as the Enlightenment told us — but love. For the Christian, true enlightenment doesn’t come from empiricism but from Christ. Christian enlightenment is . . . about love. You don’t really know a thing until you love it. You don’t really know people until you love them. (99)

Paul Nuechterlein
Lutheran Church of the Savior
Kalamazoo, MI

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