Thursday, November 30, 2017

Cultural Lectionary and Advent

In so many ways Advent is totally out of step with current U.S. culture. That's okay, but it does make it a challenge to connect with what people are thinking about, feeling, and needing when the holiday season and cultural machinery is cranking so strongly by mid-November.

Yet, in this Christian season and every other season, there are themes that might work well.

In these tumultuous social and political days, our larger context seems to revolve around a distant, perhaps dangerous ruler, cultural uncertainty and upheaval with strong divisions of opinion, and maybe some hope and expectation despite the craziness of the times. Hear any stirring of Advent or Christmas themes here that works for the proclamation of Good News in your community and church?

I'm especially drawn to ways the Advent story may be a help and a comfort for the larger community a church is in. In particular I wonder about the cultural lectionary, the ideas catching a lot of the current stories, related to power. More specifically, note how often power is a theme in the current stories of political intrigue, ongoing racial tensions and division, and allegations of sexual misconduct. Every day seems to bring another outrageous story! Now, don't let this devolve into another easy political rant. Instead, note that every party is drawn to power, wants to use their power, and does everything they can to retain power. So, this isn't partisan, but a truth for all times, places, and political groupings. Or note the celebrities, in their rise and fall, as they seem to present one persona, and over time seem to use their power and position that often results in a scandalous fall. I hear echoes of the Old Testament definition of idols, and the New Testament story of Jesus in the desert facing those temptations which we all face, including the allure of power and being king or queen of the world.

Recall that emotion is usually strong around these subjects, and our emotion and hectic pace this time of year will only heighten the tension in our personal and community life, so delve into this with your best footwork as you walk that tightrope of engagement, preaching in this moment of opportunity, and pastoral care of a people who are likely wounded and somewhat shaky. This could be a great opportunity to give voice to the community and to help folk tap into their soul as you give words to the challenges of our time.

The first Sunday of Advent this year certainly captures some of the sense of God's power, and God's distance, and the ways we humans are, in Isaiah 64:1-9. Be sure if you define 64:5, and "those who do right," that you don't fall into a trap. It's likely safer to go with the latter part of the verse as the lead for what is right. Verse 7, while rather bleak, captures some of the problem of our day. Be sure to emphasize that it is "our iniquity" and don't go the route of the easy to preach "your iniquity," i.e. it's not my sin problem it's your sin problem. Emphasize the plural in this as you study, pray, prepare, and preach, and see where it leads. If preaching in a contemporary service you might help the worship leader and congregation accept the personal pronoun early in a song, but at some point transition to the plural, i.e. please move from "I" to "we" and from "me" to "us!" If our music only reinforces a solitary Christianity and Christmas then we've lost an opportunity.

Advent 2B offers the beloved text from Isaiah 40:1-11 with a focus on temporary humanity and eternal God. There is strong penalty for human sin, yet the comfort, power, and new beginnings offered by God are also an option. I'm somewhat captivated in this reading with our current cultural context with " not fear" and "Here is your God!" It offers a striking contrast with some of the current mood of "Fear, and more fear" and "where is your God" or perhaps a small, diminished god of our own making that is so much less than the living God.

Isaiah 61:1-11 in Advent 3B is a powerful passage that turns the whole world order upside down! While I believe, and have experienced, that this points to Jesus, I also believe it points to the way a church can be in the community. As individuals, and a congregation, how might we practice these ways every day in our community? Check out how this can be a populist, grassroots movement that better defines power, overcomes some of the biggest issues of our day one person at a time, and makes right so much that is wrong. This is both a God movement, and our response to God's work in our lives so that we practice Sabbath/ Jubilee in transformational community ways. This is personal renewal, church renewal, and community renewal in ways that offer abundant life.

With Advent 4 and Christmas Eve the same day I know many clergy friends are making certain adjustments in order to help it all work well for their congregation. Sticking with Advent 4, I like Mary's Magnificat in Luke 1:39-56. Of course, this power theme is a key concept in Luke, so it's easy to continue the exploration of power and community, and Jesus who offers redemption of both individual and "us!" "...He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty." Don't soften the "rich" language, and don't lose the way God is working, and which we should join in on.  

Venture beyond the normal, generic, sanitized, sweet Christmas story- if that is possible- and find ways to bring the reality of life to life in the church. You might engage your community in some of the best themes of the season that may meet their fear and angst with a shared hope for a better day.  Welcome the cultural lectionary into your worship and preaching and you'll find stronger ways to connect with the community this Advent.