Waiting for Christmas

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 2:22-40

Click here to listen to the sermon only

Good morning.

Would you pray with me?

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing and acceptable to you this day, O provident God, our strength and our redeemer.

Let me first begin by thanking Bob Hill for the opportunity to be with you as your preacher today. If you have read the chapel’s term book, printed this summer, you may know that Dean Hill was scheduled to be preaching today. More on that in a moment.

When talking with people about where I work, I often refer to Marsh Chapel as a “teaching church,” fulfilling that role of providing hands-on training for the next generation of clergy, in much the same way that so many of our local hospitals, as “teaching hospitals” prepare a new generation of medical doctors. At the chapel, we employ undergraduate students in a paid internship as they discern vocation and explore the practices of ministry and leadership. As a contextual education field placement site, the chapel hosts seminarians in their second and third years of study, as they hone the skills necessary for both for local church ministry and for leadership in nonprofit settings and the academy. Finally, the chapel retains a few “emerging” church leaders, each with advanced theological training, as members of the university’s part-time chaplaincy staff, usually charged with the management of one or another of the chapel’s specialized ministries. My wife and I are fortunate enough to be part of this third group. Like several of our Chapel Associate colleagues, we are entering the final stages of the process toward ordination in our respective denominations.

Each of our categories of part-time staff, our Marsh, Ministry, and Chapel Associates, are on a learning journey. Yes, our time here at Marsh is spent in service to the chapel community and the university more broadly, but we are also preparing for other kinds of leadership and service in the world. It is the same work of preparation taking place across the university day by day, week by week in laboratories, classrooms, and lecture halls. Being part of a university community predisposes people to being in a mode of expectation – whether for the completion of a hard-earned degree, the beginning of a new job or new career, or simply the publication of an article. Students, doctoral students especially, are accustomed to waiting a long time, but when the happy, long-expected moment comes, our joy is also the joy of the community around us. Here at Marsh we have celebrated one of those long-expected joys in the ordination to Christian ministry through the United Church of Christ of our friend and colleague Liz Douglass earlier this term.

Over the past several weeks, Jen and I have had the blessed task of completing 17 final requirements to be eligible to interview for ordination in the West Ohio Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. Among those tasks is the need to preach a sermon based on a set of texts selected by the conference board of ordained ministry. With the Dean’s blessing, I have the honor of standing before you today, working with those texts, in a final examination of sorts.

If, as you heard the scripture lessons this morning, you thought to yourself, these passages don’t sound much like the reading for the first Sunday in advent, you would be right. The prophesy from Isaiah declaring that “God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” is traditionally read alongside today’s gospel lesson which recounts Jesus’ presentation at the temple and subsequent identification as the Messiah first by Simeon and then by Anna. Depending upon your tradition, these texts are read either on the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, or for most Protestants, on the Sunday following Christmas during certain years of the lectionary cycle. The gospel lesson is most definitely not a traditional advent story; it is one of only a few stories about Jesus’ childhood. This is the same gospel text you will hear again at Marsh Chapel on December 28, when my wife satisfies her conference requirement with a better version of this sermon.

While the Gospel lesson is not traditionally a text for the advent season – it undergirds the contemporary observance of advent as a time of waiting for Christ to enter into the world. Our gospel narrative tells us that Simeon had waited with patience and prepared for Christ’s arrival. Similarly, our story implies that Anna had been waiting, preparing perhaps for decades for Christ’s arrival. What does this period of waiting and preparation look like?

Often in America today we experience the civic holiday of Thanksgiving as the beginning of “the Christmas season,” or at least that is what many retailers would have us experience. A variety of large department stores and other retailers opened on Thanksgiving Day this year to provide opportunity for shoppers to get “great deals” on their Christmas gift lists. For many, Thanksgiving has long been a time to spend with family – giving thanks for the important people in your life and the rich blessings we have. But as the commercialization of the Christmas season expands, those “once-a-year deals” come at a cost – an especially high cost for those at the margins of our economic system. For thousands of hourly employees, many making not more than minimum wage, they have little option but to work on Thanksgiving Day if they hope to keep their jobs.  I enjoyed much of Thursday visiting with my wife’s parents, grandmother, and extended family, but one of my wife’s cousins left the multigenerational family get-together quite early because she works at a retailer which was going to be open Thanksgiving evening all through the night and into the evening on Friday. Do we really live into the season of advent by shopping for deals on Thanksgiving Day? If we are to live into the righteousness foretold in the Isaiah text today, perhaps we, as a nation, ought rethink our practices of preparation for Christmas.

What ought we do to prepare for the celebration of Christ’s incarnation on earth? What does it mean to be waiting for Christmas? Last year, Marsh Chapel, through the leadership of my colleague, Chapel Associate Jessica Chicka, initiated the Sustainable Advent Project – an alternative to the consumerism run rampant during this time of year. You are able to sign up on the chapel website – bu.edu/chapel – for a daily email devotional which includes a sustainable practice you can enact to support the stewardship of God’s creation.

Perhaps you participated in Small Business Saturday yesterday. Yes, the annual event which encourages shoppers to patron small and local businesses is a trademarked shopping event presented by American Express, but the sentiment behind it – that we should be (and can easily be) more economically and ecologically responsible consumers – is a good one. If you haven’t finished your shopping lists yet – and still intend to do so – perhaps you can think about how you can use your dollars to support your local economy and workers at a fair wage while also reducing your carbon footprint.

Rev. Brittany Longsdorf and her husband Carson Dockum celebrate the advent season with an “advent tree.” They commit to writing notes to one another each day and leaving them for one another in numbered envelopes tied to the branches of the Christmas tree set up in the corner of their living room. Jen and I were so inspired by this that we skipped purchasing an advent calendar this year and have a wall of numbered envelopes in our apartment – approximating Brittany and Carson’s tradition. There is no single best way to prepare for Christ’s coming, but how will you walk closer with God as you wait for Christmas this season?

Simeon proclaims Jesus as a light for the world. In this season of waiting, can we also be reflections of Christ’s light in the world?

For many, the period of waiting in advent also coincides with a period of waiting for justice. The tragic shooting death of Michael Brown has rocked the nation.  Public demonstrations, many of which have been participated in by my own students at the School of Theology, are seeking to foster legitimate public discourse about continuing racial inequality in America. “Black Lives Matter” is more than just a hash tag. Yes, it is does appear regularly in my newsfeed, recently affixed to a portrait of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, here on BU’s campus, but it is so much more. It communicates the frustration felt by so many about the contemporary status quo in much of America. One theology student has flown to Missouri multiple times in the last several months to help organize and be part of the awareness-raising efforts there. To hear her speak with such conviction about the importance of using one’s body as a prophetic device is inspiring. Undoubtedly, she is a reflection of Christ’s light in the world. Her path is not an easy one to walk. But there are other things we are all able to do. We can start by having open and honest conversations with our neighbors about the variety of experiences we each have had with police, with employers, with mortgage brokers as we, as a country, seek to walk closer to God on a path toward justice for all. The reality is that I have not had the life experience of so many of my African American and Latino/Latina colleagues, but I need to know their stories if I am to be a helpful companion on the journey for justice.

How do we hear and learn each other’s stories? We need to be involved in the neighborhoods in which we live. My friend and colleague, Rev. Jay Williams, is the lead pastor of historic Union United Methodist Church in Boston’s South End and a doctoral colleague of my wife’s at Harvard Divinity School. Jay is leading Union with intentionality in developing neighborhood partnerships. In recent months, Union has been awarded several significant grants to further its ministry with and among Boston’s poor and at-risk communities. In 2015, the church expects to launch a new feeding ministry with a community partner out of the soon-to-be renovated community kitchen in the historic building. Many of you listening on the radio are part of religious communities with deep ties to your local communities through soup kitchens, free stores, and Freedom Schools. You can celebrate Christ’s incarnation into the world when you participate in these social justice ministries day by day and week by week, really becoming neighbors with those whom you serve and serve among.

A powerful instance of this work of dialogue – itself proclaiming the goodness of God’s love – was captured in a striking image on Friday. A photo, now captioned by several news outlets as “The hug shared around the world,” shows a 12-year-old African American, Devonte Hart, tearfully embracing a white police sergeant, Bret Barnum, at a demonstration in Portland, Oregon on Friday. Devonte was holding a sign reading “Free Hugs” as protestors gathered and milled about with police in Portland. In an act of radical hospitality, Devonte encountered complete strangers in conversation and offered a hug. As others had done, the police officer, Bret Barnum, also engaged Devonte in casual conversation but then, according to the Oregonian Newspaper, “He asked Devonte why he was crying. [Devonte’s] response about his concerns regarding the level of police brutality towards young black kids was met with an unexpected . . . ‘Yes. [A] *sigh* [and] I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’ The officer then asked if he could have one of [Devonte’s] hugs.”[1]

This radical hospitality is practiced each week by students in the group I Embrace You each holding “Free Hugs” placards on the plaza outside Marsh Chapel. Sid Efromovich, an undergraduate classmate of mine, founded the student group a number of years ago while participating in a United Nations youth think tank committed to finding radical, creative solutions for peace. The “Free Hugs” campaign is certainly not exclusive to BU; the simple gesture and conversation which ensues is practiced around the world in a variety of settings, and it has real, tangible results. If you feel drawn to this practice during advent, I Embrace You will give you on-site training to become a hugger yourself.

The act of kindness and finding common ground captured in the photo of Devonte and Bret’s embrace is exactly what Howard Thurman identified as part of the “the path of courageous, creative integrity.”[2] Devonte and Bret both refused to give into “fear, hypocrisy, and hatred,” what Thurman calls, “the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited.”[3] Together they wait actively for justice and their genuine act of dialogue announces the truth of Christ’s incarnation in this season.

As we seek to grow in righteousness this advent season, to walk the path of courageous, creative integrity with Thurman, may we, as Isaiah writes, not keep silent. May we have the strength of Devonte and Bret to actively wait for Christmas and to proclaim the Good News of the coming of the Messiah through courageous and creative words and deeds. Amen.


[1] See http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2014/11/post_495.html

[2] Vincent Harding’s forward to Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited.

[3] Ibid.

– Rev. Soren Hessler, Chapel Associate for Leadership Development

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Leave a Reply