Jeannette Bauermeister and the Advent Life

Jeannette’s was in many ways an Advent life. So it is appropriate that we would have her memorial today. Not only because today would have been her 83rd birthday. Not only because St. Nicholas day was so important to her that she started gathering goodies for stockings months in advance. But because we are firmly into Advent. And Jeannette’s knew how to wait. Jeannette knew her calling from birth. She baptized her dolls in the bird bath and played church with her sister and cousins. She was born to be a pastor, and she knew it. And by some peculiar grace, no one told her as a child that this was impossible. Whether they didn’t think she was serious, or whether they didn’t know her aspirations, no one told her that girls couldn’t be pastors, and so she never questioned it. At 18, when she graduated from high school, the adults asked her, inevitably, “what are you going to do now?” And she answered in earnest, “I’m going to be a pastor.” And they laughed. Which must have been devastating and heartbreaking and not a little humiliating. But perhaps that was a kind of grace, too. Because to tell a small child something is impossible is to shut it down, often for good. Small children believe what we tell them, and they internalize it. But to tell a stubborn teenager that a thing is impossible, well, that is to plant a seed. To tell a teenager that they cannot do or be something is to assure that it will happen. Especially a stubborn teenager, as I can only imagine Jeannette would have been. And so, in the face of this news, that she “could not” be a pastor, that she could not be the thing that she already knew herself to be, Jeannette began her waiting, even as she began her public ministry. She taught in Lutheran schools in St. Louis and Indianapolis and Minneapolis; she served in the administration at Concordia Seminary and then at Christ Seminary – Seminex; she went to Papua New Guinea and Chicago. And she waited. She took classes along the way, and she preached every chance she got. She preached to seminarians and to pastors and to bishops, she preached at hymn sings and worship services and fundraisers. She preached every year on her birthday, St. Nicholas Day, today, December 6, and she waited. In 1984, she finally received her ordination at Bethel Lutheran Church in St. Louis. The ministry that had started 45 years earlier, with a bird bath in the back yard, was formally recognized that day, after years and years of waiting. Jeannette’s was an Advent life. A life in waiting.

As frustrating as such a life sounds, this is exactly what today’s gospel reading calls us to. Watchful waiting. An active kind of waiting, like Jeannette’s ministry. Waiting done in the knowledge of and hope for what is coming. Waiting in a promise. Living as if that promise were true.

The readings that we have heard today are not your typical funereal texts. They are Advent texts, and they fit this Advent season. While most of the world is already diving headlong into Christmas, we Christians come to church specifically to remind ourselves that it is not Christmas yet, not yet, not yet. So we read passages that remind us that the main thing that we know is that we don’t know. We don’t know when, we don’t know how, we don’t even know approximately where. We don’t know any of the specifics about this expected arrival. All we know is to expect it. And for some reason, we have decided, as a capital-C Church, as an entire faith tradition, that this idea of waiting in expectation, this pregnant pause in the otherwise hustle and bustle life, is important enough for us to spend an entire month, 1/12 of our worship time, just waiting.

Because God has promised to be active. God has promised to rend open the heavens and come down, as Isaiah asks. But the promise didn’t end there. 2000 years ago, God did rend open the heavens and come down. But not in fire and fury, not in majesty and might, not as we demand God to be. But as a baby, in a manger, in a backwater corner of an empire. This is how God chose to dwell among us, in the tent and tabernacle of a human life, fragile and vulnerable. This is how God chose to redeem us, in the life lived for others, and the death died for others. This is the story that God has been weaving down through the millennia, the story that Jeannette’s life was joined to in her baptism. The story of the living God, who draws us forward into God’s promises. It is an Advent story. Because it has already happened – we have seen it in the cross and in the empty tomb. God is at work redeeming the world and turning it to new life. It is an Advent story, because it is happening now – we live it, we experience the daily rising to new life, the forgiveness that frees us to forgive others and love others and work for justice and make beautiful art and music and poetry and to be who we have been made to be. It is an Advent story, because it is still yet to be. The world is not perfect and there is work to do and we are still longing for God to rend open the heavens and come down. And so we wait. And we tell this story, the story of God’s activity, the story of our salvation, so that our Advent lives, our lives of waiting, might also be Easter lives, Resurrection lives, lives lived in light of the end of the story.

I have many stories of Jeannette that I would like to share. How she would delight in inviting a few people over to her house, the ones she knew would disagree just enough to make things interesting, and then she would grease the wheels with well-timed and well-mixed drinks, and just the right comment to get things started, and then she would sit back and listen as her guests sparred about theology or current events or history or all three. Or about how Paul says he learned grace from her, because before he met her, he had never experienced grace from another human being. I think her children will probably have more stories to share about her family life, and many of you already know the stories about her professional life, so I think I will share just one more story, personal to me, about the few years that I knew Jeannette.

The first time I met Jeannette, it was Advent. Well, not exactly. It was the 4th of July, but I was 7 months pregnant, so it felt like Advent to me. I had just moved to Missouri 6 days earlier, and started my first call 4 days earlier. Everything about that moment was pregnant to me: the possibilities of a new home, the uncertainties of a new career path, the expectations of a new call, and the very literal gestation of my third child. In many ways, I was adrift and anxious and in need of a friend. Of more than a friend. Of something as solid as Jeannette proved to be. I don’t know if she sensed it in me, this need for a helping hand, but she immediately scooped me up and made me her project. She and Paul invited me to their Tuesday morning lectionary study group, and there I met the colleagues who have supported me through personal and professional crises. Jeannette and Paul took charge of my maternity leave, too. Paul preached and presided for my congregation for those 6 weeks, and relieved me of those worries. And over the next several years, Jeannette was my cheerleader, encouraging and inspiring me to continue in my call through those first difficult years, the years when I came to realize that this life is an Advent life, an already/not yet life, a life of growing into expectations and possibilities. as I figured out what it meant to be a pastor and a mom and a wife and a human being. She was always ready to boost my spirits with a kind if cryptic word. In fact, almost the last thing she said to me was, “When you came to Washington, a lot of people weren’t sure about you. I wasn’t sure about you, either. But now I know you’re exactly what that congregation needed.”

Anyway, about 6 months after we met, I think Jeannette came to realize that her public ministry was drawing to a close, and she began to clear out some cupboards. She gave a me a few items as she went, mostly cleric shirts she didn’t need anymore. But one day she gave me an item that has become one of my most cherished possessions. If my church were on fire and I had to grab two items from my office, I would grab my ordination stole and the gift that Jeannette gave me. It was her home communion kit. A simple affair, nothing fancy at all, just a small black kit with four solid plastic cups, a small bottle, and a stainless steel paten. Probably not more than $30 to buy one new on amazon. But it is precious to me. Because when I use it in my ministry, I think of all the saints who have gathered around that tiny little portable Table, and how that tiny little Table is a part of the huge Table that welcomes us all. It is a tiny little foretaste of the feast to come. A reminder of the end of the story. And now, every time I share communion with someone using that little kit, every time I visit a hospital room or a homebound person and we take the body and blood of our Lord together, I will remember Jeannette and her ministry to me and to so many others. I will be reminded of how we all come to the Table as beggars, longing for the heavens to be rent open, not knowing when the hour will come. But at that Table we receive the promise, that when the hour comes, whatever the time, it will be dawn, and the tomb will be empty, and we will stand together, side by side, with all the saints. Until then, we live Advent-Easter lives, waiting and watching, because we know the end of the story.

Esther and the Other: Where is God in All This?

The Book of Esther is an oddity in the canon. In fact, arguments have been made for centuries, among both Jewish and Christian scholars, for removing it from the Bible altogether. Why? Simply because it does not mention God once. In fact, Esther is the only book of the Bible that never once mentions God. The argument could be made for the Song of Solomon, but since that’s poetry, everyone kind of figures God is the one being addressed, and considers it theological love poetry. But Esther? Nowhere in the whole Book of Esther is God’s name mentioned. Nowhere does anyone pray, or refer to God, or the history of salvation, or the covenant, or, well, anything theological. Instead, Esther is a book about living as a minority among people who wish you harm. Esther is a book about remaining faithful to who you are, when you surrounded by temptations to be someone else. And I think it is a deeply theological book that never mentions God, because Esther is a book about how absent God sometimes feels when we are faced with the difficult decisions, the harsh realities, the violence and the brutality of life. The Book of Esther never mentions God once, and that in itself is a powerful statement about our experience of God in our own lives.

In fact, Esther is a very Advent sort of book, and it fits this Advent season. While most of the world is already diving headlong into Christmas, we Christians come to church specifically to remind ourselves that it is not Christmas yet, not yet, not yet. So we read passages that remind us that the main thing that we know is that we don’t know. We don’t know when, we don’t know how, we don’t even know approximately where. We don’t know any of the specifics about this expected arrival. All we know is to expect it. And for some reason, we have decided, as a capital-C Church, as an entire faith tradition, that this idea of waiting in expectation, this pregnant pause in the otherwise hustle and bustle life, is important enough for us to spend an entire month, 1/12 of our worship time, just waiting.

But it’s not the only time we wonder when God will show up. Or question where God is.

Where was God when the people of Israel were being driven into exile and dispersed across the world?

Where was God when Jerusalem fell?

Where was God when Esther was forced into sexual slavery in the harem of the king?

Where was God when Ebola began to spread in Liberia and Sierra Leone?

Where was God when ISIS moved into the power vacuum in Iraq and Syria?

Where was God when Michael Brown lay dead on the pavement for 4 1/2 hours?

When Eric Garner was struggling for breath?

When Ferguson was burning?

Where was God when race became a death sentence and rape became a right of passage in our universities?

Where was God when the diagnosis came?

When your spouse, your parent, your friend, your child, was sick, or dying?

When the phone rang in the middle of the night?

When the money ran out?

When the love ran sour?

When you just couldn’t face another day?

Where was God?

This is the question that the Book of Esther asks. A diaspora people, spread across the world, unable to worship their God in their homeland anymore. Where was God? Only in the Temple in Jerusalem? Only in the Holy of Holies, where only the priests can go? Where is God? Only in a book, or a building, or on a distant cloud up in the sky?

We take a month out of every year to practice Advent, to practice waiting, to make our worship about waiting. Because we live these Advent questions every day.

But we wait, knowing the answer. We wait in the already-but-not-yet of an answer given and a promise made. It is not the answer we demand. It is not God arriving on fire and storm, bringing down vengeance on the world, wielding armies and ruling by force. Instead the answer comes in a manger, in a stable, in a vulnerable and fragile baby. Not in a mighty Temple on the mountaintop, but in the tent and tabernacle of a human life.

Where was God? The answer is always and every time, God is here. Emmanuel. God is here, God is with us. The problem is that we have a hard time seeing it, because God is so often here, looking at us out of the eyes of another person, a person who is different from us, someone who needs our compassion and our love, someone who needs God’s kindness and justice. No matter where you stand, God is always calling you to stand just across the way, to stand with the Other. God was with Esther and every other victim of human trafficking, calling us to come across the boundary and stand with them. God was with the Jews in exile, in every part of the world. God is with the people of west Africa, with the sick and the dying, inviting us to stand with them as they seek wholeness and wellness. God struggled to breathe alongside Eric Garner, and God lay in the street with Michael Brown. God was with the people of Ferguson as their city burned, and God was crying out in the streets as the people lamented. God is with the police officers who protect and serve, and with the people who call for accountability.

Let’s face it, race is a problem in this country. And it will continue to be a problem as long as we look at each other across the divide. When 91% of white people in America don’t have a single African-American friend, 91%!, how do we think we’re going to understand the experience of other people? How do we think we’re going to experience the kind of justice that God calls us to, justice that consists of kindness and compassion and relationship?

But race is not the only place we experience that divide. And I’m not even talking about the so-called issues, like gender and sexuality and religious affiliation. You know that divide first-hand. It spans the distance between us and the people we love. It builds walls to protect us from grief and pain, and it prevents us from truly knowing and loving one another. It grows with illness or addiction or distractedness or just time. But that divide surrounds us all.

And Every time, God is just across the way, calling us into relationship, calling us into mercy (remember that Hebrew word hesed?), calling us to cross the boundaries and stand with the Other.

It is not an easy call. Esther balked at it. Mordecai asked her to stand with her people, to plead for mercy from the king, and she was afraid. She was going to have to risk something, maybe even her life, to take a stand. Yes, she wanted mercy and justice, but at what cost? Yes, we want God to come down, to prove God’s presence, to bring justice (but on our terms, please), and to pass judgment (but preferably on someone else). But at what cost will we look to God’s justice, God’s judgment? What are we willing to give up for God’s kingdom to reign, here, among us?

This is what Mordecai demands of Esther, in what is generally believed to be the one and only oblique reference to God in this entire book. “If you keep silent, relief and deliverance will arise from another quarter.” In other words, “If you don’t act, God will still be here, God will still bring us through. But you, you will be on the wrong side of history.” Silence is violence. Not to speak out against injustice is to condone it.

We long for God to make everything right. We wonder where God is in the darkest times of our lives. And in the meantime, God is right in front of us, looking at us through the eyes of the other, and inviting us to cross the boundaries, to tear down the walls, to walk in God’s ways. Calling us to action, to speech, to repentance for our own ignorance and complicity.

And knowing how hard this is for us; knowing how we just can’t get there, no matter how we try; knowing that we will always be afraid to take the risk, afraid of failing, afraid of looking ignorant or broken or just plain wrong; afraid afraid afraid; God shows us the path. God comes into the world to be among us, as a vulnerable, fragile, breakable human being, as Jesus Christ, born in a stable, laid in a manger, living as one of us. And dying as one of us, broken and beaten falsely accused, unarmed, and hanging on a cross. This is where we find God, in Christ on the cross. And this cross becomes our path. It forms the bridge between us and everything that we do not understand. It lays down over the barbed wire and the moats and spans the gaps and scales the walls that we build to protect ourselves. Because of the cross, we cannot hide behind our own comfort, our own fear, or our own sense of entitlement or righteousness. The cross is where we find God, because God was put there by human fear, entitlement, and righteousness. It strips us bear and insists that we cannot use God as an excuse not to act, not to speak, not to insist on change.

The Book of Esther forces the question: Where is God? Where do we find God, when the world seems to be going crazy around us?

And the cross of Christ answers. God is with us. Emmanuel. And in case you were still not sure, the Holy Spirit drew you to the waters of baptism, and made you a part of the Body of Christ, so that when you see another, an Other, in pain, grieving, oppressed, crying out, you might recognize that Other as a part of yourself. And if that were not enough, if you still can’t get there, you have been given this Table, where every week you are invited to receive the Body and Blood of our Savior, Jesus Christ, to take God’s very body into yourself, where it becomes a part of you. Where it frees you from whatever was holding you back, from your fear and your worry. So that you can freely cross that boundary, and meet whoever is on the other side, and meeting them, meet Christ again. Recognize the Christ who stands in front of you, who looks at you out of the eyes of the Other, who calls you to live God’s hesed, to share God’s love, to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with your God.