Advent Sunday invites us to assume our roles in the drama of Jesus’ (re)birth. Let’s get ready together. Do you know your lines? Are you prepared to go out on the stage and hit your marks? This Sunday, the Singers of the Street (SOS) Choir joined Rev. Victor for an exploration of justice, perseverance and, above all, hope.
[The words of Jesus:] “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Not too long after Jesus, a man named Iraneaus explained the Incarnation this way: Gloria Dei est vivens homo, which means, roughly: the glory of God is the human being fully alive. Perhaps you call the Incarnation the baby in the manger or God-in-the-flesh, but the Incarnation is what sets Christianity apart from most every other religion on the planet. Such an Incarnation is the cornerstone of our hope.
Two weeks ago, this church responded to the attacks in Paris, Beruit and Baghdad with an interfaith prayer service organized by Rev. John. Last week, Rev. Joann invited us to participate in a spiritual revolution wherein suffering and dying will be no more. Modeling what a Presbyterian revolution would look like, our Session took a stand on the Syrian refugee crisis, calling for compassion rather than hysteria. Since last week another revolution broke out in Chicago when Laquan McDonald’s killer was charged after 18 inexplicable months, and Planned Parenthood was once again targeted by another lunatic with another gun. According to Shooting Tracker dot com, our country averages more than one mass shooting a day.
How are we to glorify God as people fully alive in this kind of world? Today’s lesson is about how Jesus wants us to practice audacious, unmitigated hope.
How many people here have performed in some kind of theatrical production? If you raised your hand, you probably know the cardinal rule: obey the stage manager. The stage manager is there for your own good. The stage manager will tell you how long until you go on. The stage manager wears the all-knowing headset and speaks to the light booth, and gives you advice like: “There’s someone texting in the front row. Don’t let them throw you.” It behooves every performer to develop a good relationship with the stage manager.
“Let’s go on with the show!”
In 1946, Irving Berlin wrote the title role in Annie Get Your Gun for Ethel Merman, one of my favorite tenors. The story goes that, at one of the show’s eleven-hundred performances, Ethel, backstage in her dressing room, got distracted and lost track of time. The orchestra was stuck vamping, repeating Ethel’s entrance music, but where was Ethel? Now, vamping is a kind of waiting which is closely akin to panic. During Advent, we wait with purpose and hope, but that night, the orchestra waited with great anxiety, vamping and wondering where was she who had made her entrance every other time.
The stage manager sprung into action, tearing backstage and knocking on Ethel’s door. “Miss Merman! You’re on!”
Ethel, without missing a beat, replied, “Really? How’m I doin’?” She went on and brought the house down. It wasn’t the time to freak out and spin out of control. It wasn’t the time to conduct a public opinion poll or think it over—not even the time to apologize. It was the time to stand up and go on with the show.
That’s what stage manager Jesus is telling us in Luke’s gospel today. When the world around us is falling apart, it’s imperative that we do not miss our cue. Your entrance music, it’s playing already, and it’s time to glorify God as a person fully alive.
When the bills come and there’s not enough money, when the doctor’s face says it all, when your children have made choices that bring shame and dishonor upon generations of perfectly honorable people, and, kids, when your parents do likewise, when the television yammers on with Hillary and Donald, death and doom, more shootings and more ISIS, interspersed with Kardashians and so-called “reality shows” that feature only the most unreal and plastic people — church, this is our cue! We’re on!
Now, if we’ve missed our cue, we’d better come onstage gangbusters, like Ethel. Today, Jesus says to get out there on those boards and show ‘em what your made of. Heaven and earth will eventually pass away, but God’s word is good forever.
Then, Jesus charges us with two imperatives: stand up, and pray.
Let’s examine what Jesus means when he tells us to pray. In English, prayer means something like “an expression of thanks” but more often “a solemn request.” With our limited understanding of prayer, we sometimes think of God as the Cosmic Vending Machine. Insert prayer and out pops what I prayed for. Problem is, sometimes prayer actually works that way! I was praying for a new car, so God must have given me this new Tesla.
But what does Jesus mean when he tells us to pray? Jesus spoke ancient Aramaic, the modern version of which is spoken by a good number of the Syrians refugees today. Think about that.
In ancient Armaic, the word for prayer was slotha which meant “to turn toward” and “to set a trap” — to recondition our thinking so that as we are able to finally perceive something of God, we are ready, prepared to take God seriously. The Aramaic word of prayer instructs us to face God, to incline our minds toward God, to bait the trap for God.
Jesus instructs us to not be trapped by the world’s fear and foreboding nor by our own self-absorption. In our contemplative services, we get still and focus outwardly and inwardly all at the same time, listening for God rather than only speaking to God. Then, as people fully alive, we are moved to service by the inexplicable hope we receive. That’s prayer.
Recently, Pope Francis made it plain: “First we pray for the hungry, then we feed them. That’s how prayer works.”
Lift Up Your Heads
The other thing Jesus tells us to do in the midst of fear and foreboding is: “Stand up! Lift up our heads! Redemption is at hand.” This is the hope we cultivate during Advent. The peace talks have failed, the apology was rejected, there’s no parking anywhere—yet, our hope is placed in God our redeemer, the one who is coming to be reborn in and for each of us.
So, (re)learn your lines. Stay alert. Listen for your cue. Obey the stage manager.
Dr. Karl Menninger, the famous psychiatrist, was once asked following a lecture on mental health: “What would you advise a person to do, if that person felt a nervous breakdown coming on?”
Most people thought he would say: “Consult a psychiatrist.”
When I call Kaiser, the phone tree voice tells me, “If you think you’re having a medical or psychiatric emergency, dial 9-1-1 or go to the nearest hospital” which is solid, defendable advice.
But Dr Menninger spoke from his own wisdom, surprising everyone by saying: [If someone told me they felt like they were having a nervous breakdown, my advice would be:] “Leave your house, find someone in need, and do something to help that person.”
Tibor—and the Latte Nazi
This week I had the honor of helping a homeless Hungarian emigrant named Tibor obtain a San Francisco ID Card. With heavy Hungarian running in the background, together we tried to satisfy the City’s rules which outline how homeless people must prove residency. Tibor’s case manager’s letter had been rejected by the City twice already. So, I decided to go with him as his advocate and try to help.
Tibor presented his documents. Now, the clerk in the office looked at the letter and shook his head, and then, addressing the Anglo with the minister shirt rather than the homeless applicant, told me, “This letter needs to say that he has received services at the shelter for more than 15 days. It doesn’t say that.”
“But the letter says that he’s received services there since August of 2010.”
The clerk replied, “No, it must say ‘longer than 15 days.’”
On the inside I was apoplectic, but outwardly we both just smiled and, silently I prayed for this child of God to do the right thing. Finally, the clerk said, “Well, we can make an exception this time.”
Now, at last, Tibor has a San Francisco ID card—and a little more hope. And I have a little more hope because Tibor allowed me to help him. (I acknowledge Tibor who is sitting in the congregation.)
Not everyone is so easy to help. On the way back from City Hall, I bought a homeless man a cappuccino, and he yelled at me, “But I wanted a latte!” Helpers help for the sake of trying, not to always succeed. Look to Jesus. In today’s lesson, he knew his time on earth was coming to an end, and yet he kept on helping people.
Many of us in this room and watching online are living in fear, fear of war, fear of a random attack. Many of us are living paycheck to paycheck, wondering if the eviction notices will be acted upon. Some of us are worried about how to diversify funds and invest responsibly. And on top of that, many of us are dreading our own emotions, knowing that we are prime candidates for yet another episode of holiday depression. Jesus says, do not get trapped by the things that happen in this world. Get unbent, raise your head, stand up and set your trap for things above. The Greek word translated as “stand up” actually means “to unbend” — to straighten out what’s become twisted, not just out there but in here, unbend yourself and lift up your gaze. Get out of your house, find someone who needs help—and can choose to receive your help—and then help them!
The hope of Christ, the glory of God, is the human being—yes, you!—fully alive.
Singers of the Street sing “Stand Up” by Jonathan Welch
 Iraneaus is thought to be a “theological grandson” of John the disciple, the one who stood alongside Mary as Jesus died on the cross.
 Taylor Small, accessed online at <http://taylormarshall.com/2013/04/the-glory-of-god-is-man-fully-alive-did.html> (November 6, 2015)
 Robert Bruce Mullin, A Short World History of Christianity, Revised Edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 39.
 The full text of the Calvary Session’s 2015 Refugee Crisis Statement is available online at <https://www.calvarypresbyterian.org/2015-refugee-crisis-statement/> (November 24, 2015)
 Although this story is posted various places online, I heard it first from opera stage director Chas Rader-Shieber while singing at the Skylight Opera Theatre of Milwaukee.
 Luke 21:36 “Be alert at all times, praying…”
 New Oxford American Dictionary, Apple OS, 2015.
 Rocco A. Errico, Setting a Trap for God: The Aramaic Prayer of Jesus (Unity Village, Missouri: Unity House, 1997 & 2003), 5.
 Errico, 7.
 Therese Borchard, “Helping Someone Can Alleviate Depression” at Psych Central, October 2015, accessed online at <http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2015/10/19/helping-someone-else-can-alleviate-depression/> (November 6, 2015)
 Luke 21:28 accessed online at <http://scripture4all.org/OnlineInterlinear/NTpdf/luk21.pdf> (November 20, 2015)