During this season of Advent, Unbound invites you to journey with us to the manger. Walk with us as we reflect on the ways in which we are called to act justly, love immensely, and wait actively for the kindom of God. The Unbound Advent Resource offers reflections for each Sunday of Advent while also offering focus words for each day.  As we reflect on each word, think of the word’s importance to you. What does it mean for today? The words for each week are included at the end of each Sunday reflection. Our social media platforms will feature each word for each day.  Again, join us on our Advent journey.  

But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were,so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. (Matthew 24: 36-44, NRSV)

On April 24th, 1980, Ken Horne was sent to the Center for Disease Control with a skin cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma. He would later be identified as the first patient with AIDS, the first of many who would succumb to the disease throughout the 1980s and 90s. Thousands upon thousands lost their lives without warning, without notice, without compassion while being met with toxic and hate-filled theologies of God’s revenge on “the gays” and a government that would not acknowledge the epidemic. People died, right and left. One day they were seen and the next they were gone. Rapidly, people lost their loved ones, their chosen families, their spouses, lovers, and friends. Like a thief in the night, AIDS took them away. Who would be next? Who would be the one to die? Who would be left and who would be taken away by this unmerciful disease?

The Gospel of Matthew transports us to a day of unknowing, a day of uncertainty. This passage has evolved throughout time as a passage about the ever so present “rapture” – when God will call up God’s elected and those who have not followed God will be left behind. For me, that notion is dangerous for there are times when God has nothing to do with who is left and who is taken. Here, we are called to keep awake. To keep awake to the dangerous theologies of a vengeful God that smites those whom we deem different. To keep awake to the grief left behind when we lose our siblings. To keep awake for the kindom of a God who is mysterious but merciful. And to keep awake to see how God moves within us, outside of us, between us, and among us.

Generations of queer people have not grieved their siblings while stigma towards HIV and AIDS is ever present. Globally, HIV and AIDS affects 37.9 million people not including the families of people with HIV or AIDS. This number is growing in some places because of religious ideologies that condemn reproductive rights, greedy pharmaceutical companies, and the increase in drug usage. During this Advent season, may we resist the sinful systems that isolate and stay awake with intentionality to death dealing theologies.  And may we act, educate, advocate and hold in love our beloved siblings with HIV or AIDS. 

Oh God, on this first Sunday of Advent and on World’s AIDS Day, keep us awake in these times of uncertainty.  As we begin our journeys to the humble place of Christ’s birth, may we remember those no longer with us, give space for grief, and always speak to dangerous theologies that dehumanize our siblings.  Loving God, we wait and we remember the ones who are gone and the ones who are lost. Amen. 

Resources:
World AIDS Day Campaign
UNAIDS: Communities Make the Difference
HIV.gov
Center for Disease Control

Reflection by Lee Catoe, Managing Editor of Unbound

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 10On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. (Isaiah 11:1-10)

I love this passage more than any other in the Advent lexicon; it is full of storybook images that evoke hopeful visions of peace and community, collaboration, and the end of violence and competition. In its fullness, Isaiah contains plenty of prophetic judgement. This passage, though, offers up the resurrection image of a new shoot growing from a stump – new life prevailing from a tree cut down and left for dead. In this passage, Isaiah imagines a predator living alongside its prey without enmity, a baby unharmed by a poisonous snake as she plays nearby.  The images are vivid, and compelling. They portray a world we desperately want to know and inhabit – a world possible only when the kingdom of God is manifested on earth.

Sandwiched in between these rich images is another passage that does not appear on the pages of children’s storybooks. It’s the one that begins with “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,…” (Isaiah 11:3b-4a) The language in this lesser known part of Isaiah 11 is extraordinary and radical – it paints a crystal-clear picture of the one who is coming – one who will be fierce not with violence, but with a commitment to justice for the outcast and to God’s preference for the poor. Isaiah uses military language, but flips it around, depicting one who is clothed not in a soldier’s garb, but in equity and righteousness and faithfulness. One who stands up for the lowly, the poor, the lost. One who is fierce with a righteousness that can come only from God.

Isaiah’s prophecy offers us the power of one who is coming to alter the world as we know it. Of course, we read it as we prepare to welcome the Christ child, who came to usher God’s radical love into our broken world. As we face the overwhelming challenges of our time, may the prophet’s words give us hope and courage. May they remind us that God’s justice already has broken into our world; that the one who is coming already has, and indeed is sowing God’s radical love in every neighborhood, every city, every community in this wide and heartbreaking world.

Holy God, in the flurry of the holiday season, we can lose sight of you. It is easy to not notice your radical orientation toward those who have the least power. As we worry about purchasing gifts, making travel plans, wrapping gifts, hosting parties, baking and cooking and putting up the tree; as we plan for decorating the church with evergreens and poinsettia and candles; as we worry about putting out enough extra chairs for the Christmas Eve service, reorient us toward Jesus, who comes like a shoot from a stump, shocking us with the unexpected and extraordinary love and justice of God. Amen.

Reflection by Rev. Kate Foster Connors, Director of The Center

And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 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. He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
Luke 1: 46b-55 (NRSV)

Who were you in the nativity play at church growing up? Or, as it was in my case, the nativity plays at church and school! I was a star a few times; an angel once and I have played a variety of animals in my time. Once I made it to the dazzling heights of being cast as the innkeeper’s wife, but I never had a line – my “husband” did all the talking. Often the female-identified characters in nativity plays don’t have lines: including the mother of Jesus herself!  The Gospel passage for the third Sunday of Advent, tells us a different story. Mary does have a voice: a strong prophetic voice that gives us a vision of her son’s life —a vision of a world upended by justice.

At the congregation I serve, people of all ages will come together to retell the story of Jesus’ birth in our intergenerational Christmas Pageant. When I arrived at the rehearsal, our Pageant Director said, “I have some news for you, you are Mary!” The person who was originally cast as Mary isn’t feeling so good, so this year, at 32 years old, I will be Mary for the first time in a nativity play! Now, both of my arms are fairly heavily tattooed and one of our congregants jokingly said, “Do you think Mary had tattoos?” Before I could answer someone said, “I don’t know if she had tattoos, but Mary could definitely hold her own!” Yes! How grateful I am to be in a congregation where the tattooed, lesbian, Community Outreach Pastor can play Mary in the nativity play AND where Mary’s own strength is recognized (oh, and I do have a line).

The song of Mary has terrified world leaders through the years– it is a song of the poor and oppressed. Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes it as “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung.” Instead of the popular Christmas song “Mary, did you know?” The Magnifcat is the song of the mother of Jesus.   Mary, who prophesied about her son as he kicked in her womb, was there when he died. Mary was at the foot of the cross as he took his last breaths. She never left her boy.  I wonder if when Jesus was hanging on the cross she thought back to her prophetic words and wondered if she had got it all wrong. Did she think, “Why is the Empire killing my son when he was the one who was going to reverse the order of oppression?” Or did Mary, the prophet, know the end of the story? Did Mary know all along that the forces of death and evil would not bind her son, the one whom she birthed in Bethlehem? I think she knew. I think that even when her heart was breaking, Mary knew this was not the end of the story. She held on to that Advent hope that there is a light that shines, a light that will never be overcome by darkness. That light was her son, the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected Jesus: and she knew it. May we know it too.

God of hope, God of upending, God of life, draw us into the song of Mary, deep into the radical shift she sings of. Help us to listen to the prophets of our day, especially to the voices that the church and world have long silenced. Prepare us for your incarnation and for the work to be done in your name. Amen.

Reflection by Rev. Ashley McFaul-Erwin, Community Outreach Pastor of Setauket Presbyterian Church

80:1 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth

80:2 before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us!

80:3 Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

80:4 O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?

80:5 You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.

80:6 You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves.

80:7 Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

80:17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.

80:18 Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.

80:19 Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
 
We have been living in a time where peace seems to elude us. Every social media outlet, every news story, every conversation in ladden with pain, anger, shock, and unrest. The Psalmist cries out to God to direct, to lead the flock out of unrest and sadness into a place of peace. What we know today that the Psalmist would yet to have revealed is that peace was born, a gift for the world to follow in the actions of Jesus Christ. As we wait for the hour of Christ’s birth, let us not forget that Christ has already been born, peace has already been gifted to us. How can we walk in step in 2020? How can we show that God restored and saved us in our day-to-day life?
 
Gracious and loving God, forgive our constant focus on the things that cause us unrest instead of focusing on the precious gift of peace that you gave for us to follow. May our remaining days of this 2019, and every day in 2020 be spent restoring and modeling the actions of Christ than focusing on the evils of this world. Amen.
 
Melva Lowry is the Hands and Feet Fellow in Baltimore working with The Center as part of the OGA initiative to encourage churches to move beyond its walls and engage with its local community. Mel along with Liv Thomas have been working in preparation for GA 224 in Baltimore June 2020.
 

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