Sunday, November 28

Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44


I


It is fitting on this 1st Advent as the marker of a beginning for Church of Jesus Christ Reconciler to read portions of the Pastoral Vision Statement written earlier this year as we set out towards this moment in our journey. Our vision is drawn from three ecumenical documents, the most foundational is Baptism, Eucharist & Ministry. The preface to this document says:

”…Consensus is rooted in the communion built on Jesus Christ and the witness of the apostles. As a gift of the Spirit it is realized as a communal experience before it can be articulated by common efforts into words. Full consensus can only be proclaimed after the churches reach the point of living and acting together in unity.” (Preface)
Our coming together is an answer to these words. So “What Is our vision”?
  • A congregation that shares, honors, and celebrates three streams of Christian faith as found in the Episcopal, American Baptist, and Evangelical Covenant traditions.
  • A congregation whose principal aim is developing committed disciples, apologists, and ministers for the Christian faith in a post-modern age.
  • A welcoming, intensely catechetical and transformational congregation, where invitation to Christian discipleship comes through worship and education in each of three traditions of Christian faith.
  • A community of faith that lives in the dynamic tension of representing - and participating in - the life and work of each denomination.
We are not aiming to form yet another interdenominational church that creates an amalgamation out of pieces from different traditions. We are not aiming to have three independent congregations under one roof. We are aiming to form a truly ecumenical congregation that seeks the great Tradition of the church in, through and beyond the three represented traditions, while being committed to respecting the integrity of each tradition.

We are taking the spirit of ecumenism and the discipline of Christian humility to heart in the process of forming this unique congregation, where we celebrate and uphold these traditions as rich and true collections of human understanding and experience of God’s redemptive work through Jesus Christ and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

By engaging faith as the first priority, and by understanding faith as a journey, we affirm the quest for authenticity, challenge and questioning. By affirming, teaching and mutually exploring the Christian faith out of our respective denominations, we offer a different relationship to them: as spiritual and theological traditions of the historic Christian faith, mutually enriching and being enriched by the faith of the Church Universal.

Since denominational identity is increasingly in question and on the wane in contemporary society, we focus principally on Christian identity. This begins by being willing to be formed by things within but also beyond our individual traditions: by the historic faith of the church by the ecumenical documents we have mentioned.

We see this local ecumenical congregation as a proclamation of the universal body of Christ-- the one holy catholic and apostolic church-- as a concrete and not merely a spiritual reality. We want to be an example of how we can be reconciled one to another, not just as individuals but also as institutions, when committed to a pervasive Christian life. This, we hope, will be a sign and beacon for embodied reconciliation between denominations at the congregational level. (John 17:20-23)

We believe that our varied spiritual traditions point in partial ways to the faith once delivered to the earliest saints - that is, the apostolic tradition of the church which has never disappeared, and that we believe is partially proclaimed in our varied traditions.

Our coming together in this way admits the wall of Zion have been torn down, the boundaries of Zion must be resurveyed, and we must begin to rebuild from the ruins of denominationalism. In our seeking to rebuild (that is, our willingness to speak of our spiritual traditions as partial articulations of the faith of the church) we witness to Christ and the Christian faith both to the world and the church.
As this piece of bread was scattered over the hills and then was brought together and made one, so let your Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your Kingdom. (The Didache 9:4)”
How does this vision relate to the season of Advent, the waiting for the coming of Christ? Or perhaps more to the point can we see the vision of the church as waiting upon Christ? Our texts call us to wakefulness in this time of waiting: to be awake to the coming of Christ, to the work of the Spirit at work in the world bringing the age to come. Our texts are also about the end of that age and the beginning of the age that is to come, has come and is coming. The age of which the church is itself a sign.

I believe God is at work in our being gathered together but God being at work means needing to be attentive to that work. Matthew speaks of God’s work at the end of the age as that which can take us unaware, things can seem to be not that different from any other time. In some ways our being gathered together can seem un-momentous, simply another church plant simply the act of Protestants seeking something new. The question for us on this day and as we move forward is will we remain attentive to the work of the Spirit, attentive to the signs of the age to come, the reality of Church and Emmanuel, God with us.

Paul articulates this in a slightly different way, speaking of the dawn—the night is passing away and the day is almost here. We are to live as those who are already in the day. Wake up, others still sleep but the day is upon us! We can be taken unawares by the coming of the age as those who live also in an age that is passing away, that has been passing since the coming of Christ.

As we gather over the weeks and months and years we must continually call each other to wakefulness as we hear the call of God to come: gathered by God around Word and Table. Stay awake, awaiting the coming of Christ in our midst. We do not know the timing. If we are asked "What time is it?", we perhaps have an enigmatic answer: Dawn. The night is far gone but the day is yet to come: Ending and beginning all at once.

II


Our coming together has not been without challenges and questions along the way. One challenge has been timing; the when’s. At first, it was “When do you meet?” This was hard to answer, but became less so. When did you begin this project? Oh, my. This is a question that is answered with another question: Which beginning?

There was that day when David Gortner and I cornered one another. Did it begin then?

We had a Disciples of Christ pastor, Jennifer Kottler, involved briefly as well. She and David have been acquainted for years. Did it begin then?

One night there were several of us gathered around a table in the lounge at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary for our first dinner together trying to figure out what we might be called to. Did it all begin then?

When did the congregation begin? When will it come to its fruition and what will it look like? I simply have not had answers to these questions.

Tonight, as we officially begin the life of this congregation, I am aware of how we have been worshiping together for many months at the Community of the Holy Trinity. There are some in this room who have been waiting, dreaming if you will, for more than a year. Tonight is hardly the beginning.

Our dreams have collided with one another: dreams of monastic community in an urban setting; dreams of ministry to young adults in Chicago; dreams of ecumenical communities attempting to bridge great distances within and without. We have been living into this vision, we have been waking dreamers our entire lives. As we gather tonight, I am aware of how this beginning, no matter how much energy we have behind it, is still living into the question of “When?” This is not the beginning, but a point on a journey. Or, perhaps, it is one beginning among many.

And is that not the precarious joy of Advent? We await the coming of the Lord, he who has come, he who has been present since the beginning. Is it not true too that this dream, this waking dream, has been with us since the beginning?
2:3 Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

2:4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
This is Isaiah’s hope, a proclamation of things to come that is revealed in the present but is not yet…an old testimony to a present reality.
13:11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers;

13:12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light;
Once again, our brother Paul brings our attention to this quandary of a nearby salvation. Our salvation is near to us, but not in our grasp. It is near to us, we can feel the warmth of it, we may even change how we live, proclaiming Emmanuel, God is with us, and yet it is not ours.

This congregation is near to us. We are in the midst of it, this ecumenical vision, our own attempt to live into the saving grace of God. It begins tonight. It began many months ago. It will continue in our waking dreams. So too will it be always out of reach, not quite complete.

III


“Stay awake, awaiting the coming of Christ in our midst.” Larry notes this laudable goal to which Matthew urges us. “You also must be ready,” his Jesus warns. Before we get there, however-- before we ever start talking about being awake and ready for anything-- we’re given a caution that makes that task more difficult. “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” We can note beginnings, as Tripp has done so eloquently-- but often, as he points out, only in hindsight; and the ends are always out of reach, and not left to us. As my father says, “God only knows, and He ain’t tellin’.”

Now, I will admit to you, my brothers and sisters, that this is not my favorite scriptural injunction. As those who know me can tell you, I am a planner by nature: a maker of lists, and a setter of goals and deadlines… an organizer of the details between now and then, and the work that it takes to get from here, to there. “Be prepared for the coming of Christ” is all well and good to say, but hard to do when one doesn’t know exactly what—or where, or when—to be prepared for.

And yet, this is the work that we as Christians have been about for something like 2000 years now. Trying to prepare ourselves, and the world, for Jesus—for the coming of God into our midst. As Larry mentioned, this is what the season of Advent is all about.

But our all-too-human efforts to live into this godly call have often fallen short, haven’t they? Many good people have been trying very hard for millennia; but they have seen this task in very different ways. As a result, instead of bringing together a unified body of Christ, prepared for the coming of the Kingdom, we have divided: fragmented ourselves into little pieces, each striving to be the whole, Somewhere I read that there are currently 20,000 different Christian sects and denominations, worldwide. Twenty thousand! Each believing that they have a better grasp on what God, and Jesus, want from us, than the group next door. I believe this comes to be in part because we do not know the where, or the when, or the what—and in part because we oftentimes have very different ideas about just what that process of preparation, of waiting, should look like.

Sometimes we have deep theological differences (I have learned a lot, in this work, about the distinctions between ordinances and sacraments, for instance). And sometimes we get into a furor over lesser details. Being in the throes of Reformation History at school, one example that comes to mind is that of the 16th century clerics who were deprived of their livings and imprisoned, over vestments-- what they would or would not wear to celebrate the Eucharist. Those of you who have been connected to other contemporary congregations can likely picture similar arguments. These disagreements, large and small, have been and continue to be sources of division in the church

The good news is, we know that this is a problem. And we have been trying to fix it—or at least, talking about trying to fix it—for quite some time. I know the Episcopal Church has struggled with this issue literally since its inception, with varying degrees of success; and we are not unique in this regard. Ecumenical efforts to find common ground have abounded, especially in the last century or so. The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, the Call to Common Mission, the World Council of Churches… there are a multitude of international dialogues.

But most of those do very little to effect day-to-day faithful practice. It is still true that we can have churches right next to one another on the same street, the members of which would never consider darkening one another’s doors. In evangelism, there is often more a spirit of competition than recognition of common mission and call to discipleship. We are not, if you will, awake to the offerings and gifts of those who gather in other ways and other places, and how they might also be preparing for the hour that "only
the Father knows."

This is the point, the purpose, for which I believe we are called together as the Church of Jesus Christ, Reconciler: trying to prepare for that unknown hour together.

Yes, of course we still have our differences. Larry’s Covenant expressions of Lutheran piety, Tripp’s Baptist emphasis on individual and congregational understanding, and my Anglican sacramental theology, find ways to bump heads at odd and significant moments. Working it out can be… well, work. But that work is precisely why we’re here: intentionally maintaining ties to different denominations, holding up the traditions that have formed us and honoring the diversities that distinguish us, while focusing on the common ground that brings us together as the Body of Christ that is the Universal Church.

And so here we are, bringing together people out of three Christian traditions to work together for the kingdom, looking toward that "unexpected hour," seeking to be awake to the movement of the Spirit in unexpected ways. And none of us knows how this will go, how long it will last, where it will lead, or how we will be formed and changed by the effort, or not. Again, only God knows, and He ain’t tellin’.

But maybe, that’s the point.