Ars Praedicandi: Ed Foley on the First Sunday of Advent

First Sunday of Advent, Cycle C
by Edward Foley, Capuchin

In the aftermath of midterm campaigning
and unending runoff elections
in an era of political divisions
and special prosecutors
in which the specter of corruption lurks
at virtually every corner of our government

It might surprise some to learn
throughout our national history
there have been deeply religious people
even clergy!
who have been elected to lead

The first speaker of the house of representatives
Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania
was a Lutheran Pastor …
and almost 8% of the first congress were clergy

One of the more interesting religious figures in our political history
was Thomas Jefferson
3rd president of the U.S., Founder of the University of Virginia

A polymath who designed classical buildings
read and wrote at least 6 languages
and was a noted horticulturalist

Jefferson was also very interested in ethics
producing his own bible, The life and morals of Jesus of Nazareth  [1]
Maybe we should make it required reading
for all Christian politicians today?

While a deeply moral man, as a “deist”
Jefferson did not believe that God intervened in human history
so he designed his collection to highlight Jesus the moralist
whom he great admired

The result was an 84 page volume
cut and paste from select verses of the gospels

Key to Jefferson’s cutting and pasting
was eliminating every miracle
and all other Jesus acts that could be considered
supernatural – including the resurrection
Jefferson’s’ bible has been described as
“scripture by subtraction”

My excursion into Jefferson’s cut and paste job on holy writ
was prompted by my recent rereading of Mary Gordon’s book
Reading Jesus: A writer’s encounter with the gospel [2]

Dedicated to her son—a seeker—she divides the book in 2
first: NT passages that have been a source of hope
then: what she calls “the problems of Jesus”

It’s in that second part, the problem section of the book
that she tackles apocalypticism
or texts about final days
like the ones that confronted us last Sunday
and the one’s that accost us today

In the midst of her contemplation
Gordon muses aloud whether
one should take a Jeffersonian approach to such texts
and simply cut them out of the bible
which means cutting them out of our lectionary

For she is not sure about their value
or what virtues such texts nourish
or even what kind of God they reveal.

From a preaching perspective
on the one hand I instinctively agree with her
and my life as a preacher would be much easier
if I didn’t have to brave such texts in the pulpit

On the other hand, Douglas’ words throw down the gauntlet
to our lectionary … to our liturgy
a challenge that I think we need to tackle

And so the preaching quest before us is to discover
if these texts are intended to do anything more
than vex the people of God and add
to our already personal and societal high anxiety levels

Jesus, like John the Baptist
who will make his advent entrance next week
and hold center stage for the 2nd and 3rd Sundays of Advent
were both apocalyptic prophets

That does not mean, however, that they were hell bent
on predicting the end of the world
or were soothsayers
who could have predicted
the deadly paradise wild fires
the crash of the Indonesian jet liner
or the recently earthquake in Alaska

Instead, Jesus and John and prophets like them,
were people of profound faith
believing in a God active in the midst of their struggles
and because of this faith they hoped
for a profound and decisive change in their world
what the gospels identify as
the very inbreaking of God’s reign

That abrupt change concerned not only the physical limitations
that Luke enumerates earlier in his gospel
the lame walking, lepers being cured
and the dead being raised to life

but a reversal of injustice and prejudice
a reversal of xenophobia and racism
a reversal of the dark side of today’s social order …

reversals prophetically announced by Jeremiah, in our 1st reading
in the very renaming of Jerusalem
from City of Peace
to a place where God’s Justice dwells

In these days following the funeral of EJ Bradford
the young black man
mistakenly killed by police in an Alabama mall
in these days
as the trial gets underway
of a self-professed neo-Nazi accused of
running his car into a crowd of folk
and killing counterprotester Heather Heyer
in these days after the killing of a black security guard
in Midlothian
and the surprising quick justification of that act
by Illinois state police

there are similar calls in our own streets
from segments of the African American community
from those who oppose white supremacist politics
for those fed up with the gun violence
that peace cannot be purchased at any price
and every city of peace should first be a city of justice.

But are such apocalyptic readings
in this adventing season
when we desperately await the inbreaking of God’s reign
into our own darkening and violent world

are these readings only prompts to protest
protests that sometimes themselves become excuses for violence
as is unfolding these days
on the streets of Paris, the city of light?

Or do they actually promote virtue
and provide some guidance
for a Jesus path through these markedly difficult times?

Part of that answer might be found
in the unusual design of today’s Gospel

for if we look closely at Luke 21
it actually narrates a partial reversal of the Genesis creation story

The lamps that God hung in the sky to light the earth
on the 4th day of creation in Genesis 1
the sun and moon and stars
are now turning into cosmic distress signals
But notice they are not being switched off

because in this reverse creation story
God is not abandoning the divine promise
given to Noah in Genesis 9
after the earth was devastated by water
which God promised never to do again
with the rainbow as a symbol of that promise

God is not abandoning the divine covenant with humanity

but in days of distress, for Luke’s community and our own
God is changing the covenantal symbol
from rainbow to redeemer
from water droplets to baptismal baths
from planets to people

In the first creation stories God created order
out of the abyss, out of chaos
planted a garden
birthed the human family
and acknowledged all creation to be good

But in these days
such apocalyptic readings remind us
that humanity has upturned God’s created order
that in our violence and greed
we have allowed the aboriginal chaos to return
that in our racism and xenophobia
we have created a new abyss
for the outsider, for the stranger
and in our immigration policies
we have too often sundered the human family
separating parent from child
sibling from sibling
lover from loved

Poet and Pastor, Erin Wathen
offers a poignant reflection on this creation reversal
framed through familiar carols and advent hymns
as she muses

Who is it that we’re looking for, when we sing
away in a manger, no crib for a bed …
Who is that baby we think is coming
to sleep so soundly, so content in his poverty and Unbelonging?

Who is that child who so unobtrusively slips into the night
so as not to disrupt our … Black Friday, or empire of greed

Is the Empire that greets migrant children with
a parade of guns and a cloud of tear gas
like the march of Herod’s troops
as they chase the unwelcome
off into the night,
singing What Child is This?

What child is this, indeed, who comes to find sanctuary
in a kingdom that fills its Decembers with
parades and presents, and elves on shelves leaving
treats and mischief,
It’s all … so … Magical.

But our O-so-Holy-night …
Our …Little Town of Bethlehem
strikes a dissonant tone

In a land that idolizes childhood
but sometimes brutalizes even abuses children

we sing of angel choirs,
as we chase children back into the unforgiving desert

We are waiting for someone to save us from
these winter frozen hearts …
…walls making prisoners of us all. [3]

O come, O come Emmanuel we pray
beseeching “God with us” to save us from sin and despair

But in this creation reversal
our apocalyptic texts turn the tables on us
as did the Christ with shocking regularity to his own disciples
with the discomforting reminder
that a saving God is not with us
unless we are with a God who loves and saves all…

Peace reigns when the baptized stand for justice
when we recognized that every newborn
every infant lowly is an infant holy
that unwed mothers can be handmaids of the Lord
and that homeless families can be holy families

In this advent season we pray and sing about waiting on God
while apocalyptic texts remind us that God is waiting on us
In the poignant words of Howard Thurman [4]

to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

When we take up that adventing mission
that apocalyptic challenge
then we too will live in a city of justice
and Emmanuel, God with us, will be manifest to all
not in twinkling lights
but in enduring justice
through Christ our Lord

[1] Lanham: Dancing Unicorn Books, 2016.

[2] New York: Anchor Books, 2010.

[3] altered as noted through italics and …

[4] From Black Fire: African American Quakers on Spirituality and Human Rights¸ ed. Hal Weaver et all (QuakerPress, 2012) and ubiquitous on the internet, e.g.







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