The North is the South

The North is the South
Rob Gieselmann, Advent 2B, December 10, 2017

Have you ever noticed that some things at Ascension seem backwards? Entering the “Old Transept”, from the offices, a sign on the door tells you that you are entering the South Transept. Thing is, this “South Transept” is located on the north side of the building. The South Transept, you see, is called the north transept, the south transept is by corollary called the north transept. Similarly, the altar faces west, yet we pretend that it faces east. We call this, “liturgical east”, because in the old days, churches were built facing east, in anticipation of Christ’s return.

Also - the front of the church - have you noticed? – faces the back of the property, rather than the front. The front should be streetside, not the back.  The back is front, and the front is back. The last shall be first, and the first shall last. Ascension’s actual address - is 800 South Northshore. South Northshore – if not ironic, the address is at least oxymoronic. Crazy, I know, but so much of Ascension is crazy.

You people are the craziest!

You seem to think being Christian requires you to provide housing to homeless families. That being Christian means you feed hungry people. Family Promise, and FISH? And, as it turns out, you have a penchant for social justice and demand fairness from your government - Just this last year you asked the police to stop the long-time practice of treating mentally ill people as criminals. Justice Knox.

But you don’t stop there, do you? You are crazy in other ways, too – At Bible studies, you actually study the Bible. At prayer meetings you actually pray. The Brotherhood of St. Andrew really is about brotherhood. And, as thinking Christians, you ask questions. Both out of curiosity and as challenging. Question first, and if you get good answers, well, that’s icing on the cake.

But, perhaps you’re not as far out in right field – or is it left field? as one might think. Perhaps, just perhaps, acting in opposition is God’s way. God’s very strange way of behaving. When you point yourself in one direction, God turns you in another direction.

With God, south may be north and north may be south. And Messiah is not the conquering hero that people expected, but a suffering servant. Suffering servant – a man who suffers the pain of the entire world, who shoulders not only the pain you carry, but the pain of this entire church. Who holds it more deeply than you do, and more viscerally than I do.

Advent is not just a Season of waiting – but of longing. Pining, desiring desperately – not the kissing of righteousness and peace that the psalmist spoke of, but hope and desperation together in desirous embrace. And you and I are Advent people when we become desperate – for grace.

Of-course, everybody hopes for better things in life – better health, a good job, better education – Advent is not about these hopes, but about messianic salvation.

Salvation amidst desperation. Hope amidst suffering. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way: The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.

How desperate are you?

I am reminded here of the parable Jesus once told – the one about the tax gatherer and the Pharisee, the sinner and the saint, praying side by side at the same altar rail, yet miles apart. The sinner beat his chest and cried out to God, Have Mercy on Me, for I am a sinner. While the saint folded his hands neatly and said, Thank you God that I am not like that fellow over there.

Do you need Advent? Do you need a servant to bear your suffering? And if you don’t, then why are you in church, anyway? The people snaked their way in long lines down to the Jordan River to be baptized by John because they needed Advent. The air was dry, the people were dirty. And they hoped John’s bath would cleanse their dusty souls.

Theirs was not mere individual repentance, like some evangelical altar call at a Baptist church. Theirs was the repentance of an entire body of people. Collective repentance, not just for life’s foibles, but for the sin of the nation, Israel. Not, I have sinned, but we have sinned, and there is no health in us.

We’re in this together. You and me, and me and you, for personal complicity is rendered irrelevant when it comes to corporate sin. But this is the thing: you and I - we’re good people – You know – we’re good people. I once heard someone describe church people this way: Church people are good people trying to do better.

I have proof of your goodness – the wonderful exercises of faith evident here at Ascension. And I want to leave you proud of who you are, and what we’ve accomplished these past several years.
·      dogs in church
·      and farmers’ market Sundays
·      flexible worship with creative liturgies
·      silence with hundreds of people in one room, without so much as the noise of a pin dropping
·      eating the last supper in church, on Maundy Thursday
·      open discussions about racism
·      full inclusion of all people, adding same sex marriage to the mix
·      financial stability with a plan for repayment of debt – thank you, Andy and Matt.
·      legacy society and a responsible endowment – thank you, Venice.
·      Almost a new nursery – thank you, Bob Sowell.
·      a new and meaningful relationship with St. Luke’s

These are the things we’ve done – the collective us. But I’m acutely aware that all sin is, at its heart, is fractured relationship. Fractured relationship among good people trying to be better. But – with a little Advent longing and desperation – Well - desperation is something a Messiah can work with.

Fractured relationship – that is something a Messiah can work with. And if I know anything, I know this: Messiah Jesus is not yet finished with us. Not you, and not me.

So remember: Sometimes the north is the south and the south is the north, the front the back, and salvation comes from the place you least expect it.

Thank you. For the privilege of serving you.


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