Advent 1A (November 27, 2016)

We are the bearers of a dangerous memory: the memory of the death and resurrection of Christ. It is dangerous to us if we enjoy false security, but dangerous to Sin and the powers that defy God because the memory names them. That memory lurks in today’s gospel, right in the middle of the scene, as Jesus talks about those “taken.” We usually read this with a Rapture mindset. Two will be in the field or at the mill, one taken to heaven and the other left. But the Rapture, for all its popularity today, is not a part of Christian thinking as we understand it. It only becomes a thing in the last 200 years. Matthew never heard of it. If we remove our assumption that this is the Rapture, what do we have? We have a story of people taken, set amid sayings about horrible things that Christians can expect. What if being taken is much more mundane than we’ve assumed?

Matthew’s first readers likely had some experience with being taken. The year was 64. Rome burned. It was probably an accident, but when the fire was extinguished the Emperor Nero decided to build a palace for himself in the burned-out districts. This looked bad, and when the people wouldn’t stop blaming Nero for the fire, he blamed the fire on the Christians. Christians, with their one God who was invisible but became a crucified criminal, were considered atheists, and with their flattening of social distinctions (all the baptized were brothers and sisters, neither rich nor poor, slave nor free), were considered depraved enemies of the social order. It didn’t take much to get people eager to go smash some depraved atheist Christians. The Roman historian Tacitus describes the process. “First, Nero had self-acknowledged Christians arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers of others were condemned.” Good, old fashioned good secret police work. Tacitus tells us Nero set up shows in his palace gardens and in the circus, at which Christians were coated in animal fat and pelts and devoured by hungry dogs, or were crucified, or were used as street lights after dark. The number of Christians on earth probably numbered a few thousand. Any Christian alive in 64 CE lost Christians they knew (Peter and Paul probably died in this horror), and they lived with the fear of likewise being taken on the way to the fields, the mill, school, the market.

Talking about such things, remembering them in the hearing of others, puts one at risk. On All Saints, I talked about the challenge of naming and proclaiming the faithful acts of those who recently died. I said it is controversial since it is recent history. Christians who lived through Nero’s persecutions had to decide if they were going to remember recent history. Would they accept controversy? We are here today, with the Bible we have and the faith tradition we have, because of those Christians who kept the memory alive; Christians like Matthew, who lived through the persecutions; who wrote gospels that have been described as passion narratives with a long introductions; who saw in the suffering of Jesus something akin to what happened to them and their friends, and who saw in their suffering a way to understand what happened to Jesus a generation prior. The gospel as we know it is, in the words of the theologian Johann Baptist Metz, “the dangerous memory of Jesus Christ.”

We are bearers of a dangerous memory. I admit I didn’t know this growing up Lutheran. I was a white middle class kid from the suburbs. Christianity was a route to a spiritual well-being that matched the economic well-being I already enjoyed. But for every time that I tried to spiritualize Jesus’ teaching on the poor, there were actual poor people, poor because of the very system that provided so well for me. Every time I tried to spiritualize Jesus’ promise of peace into a recipe for personal contentment, there was a violent world whose victims cried out for relief and justice. Every time I tried to spiritualize the Eucharist into something the sole purpose of which was to help me trust that God loved me and everything was gonna be all right, there were Paul’s words, “In the night in which he was handed over….” Handed over to God’s purposes, and handed over by his friend to his torturers and murderers. I’ve said before I don’t usually have “Aha moments”; I have agonizingly slow realizations. This was an agonizingly slow realization. I was in grad school, already ordained several years, when the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ shocked me out of my well-being. I mean, every time I take communion it’s, “Remember your brothers and sisters in Christ fed to animals and used as street lights.” It’s shocking.

Jesus shocks us; he also frees us. Our world tells us that our security is everything and that the function of faith is to help us feel okay about being secure. Our dangerous memory says that the security of this world is false and brutal, and that what God offers us in faith is far better. Our dangerous memory is like the rejection of Sin we do at Baptisms. The last two weeks when we confirmed four young people and welcomed three new members, we asked, “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God, the powers of this world that rebel against God, the ways of sin that draw you from God?” Those questions call upon our dangerous memory of sin, the devil, and the powers torturing Jesus and our fellow Christians. Our dangerous memory reminds us, “When sin, the devil, and the powers go unchecked, horrible things always happen.”

And it reminds us: Jesus offers us freedom from sin, the devil, and the powers. Because of Jesus we don’t have to serve them. Our dangerous memory opens us to see those who suffer not as the necessary byproducts of our society—the price to pay for our false sense of security—but as human beings made in the image of God. Our dangerous memory is not about dwelling on negatives, or always being a downer. It is about being attuned to the world around you without being beholden to the powers that tell you to accept the very things Christ lived and died fighting. When dangerous memory is before you, you’re attuned to see God in those who are broken, and are attuned to see how the powers’ claims on us are not final. Matthew illustrates this a little later. These words of Jesus come in the middle of one great big farewell sermon. We have to wait a year for us to read the end of it in worship and most of us don’t have that long of an attention span so I’ll tell you now it is that famous scene in which Jesus says to those who fed the hungry, slaked the thirst of the thirsty, clothed the naked, visited the imprisoned, welcomed the stranger, etc., “Just as you did it to the one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” Chances to follow Jesus abound. Just notice life going on around you and you may wind up serving God.

This is probably something we most need to hear in Advent. It’s Advent in the Church but in our broader society it is Secular Christmas, that season that starts around Labor Day and gradually picks up steam until it is hurtling out of control and we have parties to host and attend and concerts to give and hear and letters to write and read and cookies to bake and share and things to buy and more things to buy and why aren’t you in the Christmas Spirit I know it is the first Holiday sins your uncle died but you need to be jolly: Santa and America are depending on you! It is the perfect time to recall our dangerous memory.

The Death and Resurrection of Christ asks, “Why are you doing these things?” Jesus doesn’t say, “Don’t bake cookies in Advent.” He does say, “See me in the face of your daughter as she sneaks bites of the dough, hear me in the voice of your mother as she relates your father’s latest hare brained ideas, and in the joyful words of those with whom you share them. (You are sharing them, right?)” Jesus doesn’t say, “Don’t go to Christmas concerts.” (Don’t get nervous, Janet.) Jesus says, “Delight in the sounds and the words that I give you. Share them liberally.” Jesus doesn’t say, “Don’t do presents.” He does say, “What do you expect this to do for you? What is going to happen because of this? You do know I’ve already done everything that matters, right?” He says that last one most of all when the pressure is on this season. “You can’t do it all, so don’t. I’ve done everything that matters. I was with Christians when they were used as street lamps. I will be with you as you say no to some holiday activities, or cannot find the present your kids want.

Our memory is dangerous this time of the year. It’s Advent, it’s our season, but sin, death, and the powers say it is theirs. Our dangerous memory calls their claims on us bogus. The powers want us to do their thing. Instead, we’re getting ready. God is coming. God is the last person sin, death, and the powers want to see. Because, as our dangerous memory reminds us, when God shows up, graves pop open and the dead rise, sins get forgiven, and the powers of this world prove powerless before the grace of God.