Archives for December 2006

Endings and Beginnings, 1 Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2006

Endings and beginnings

December 31, 2006

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26; Psalm 148; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:41-52

Our life is filled with endings and beginnings. Today is the last day of the calendar year. Yet we know in the church calendar that we began a new year on December 3, Advent Sunday. The federal budget year began on October 1, and many institutions have a fiscal year beginning on July 1. Sometimes endings and beginnings mark clear boundaries, and at other times they seem to blend. For example, when someone finishes a program we say they have graduated, yet the service is often called a commencement. When loved ones die we say they have entered larger life. Throughout our life we experience other endings that lead to the possibilities of new beginnings.

We might remember some of those experiences when recalling events in children’s lives. A child is named and handed over to the priest who, after baptizing her or him, gives that child back to godparents, symbolizing their important role in that child’s life. A new expanded family responds that they too will support that child in the days and years ahead. A child is dedicated to a life of service of God and God’s people. Endings and beginnings are telescoped in the short duration of childhood and soon new endings and new beginnings can bring expanding horizons to both the child and to all of us who journey with them. Yet our journeys are somehow inextricably connected to each other, if only in memory. In some special way what affects one affects the other.

In our lessons for today we get a glimpse of two little boys whose lives were undergoing a radical change and whose endings and new beginnings were to transform not only them but also the world around them. Both of them were fortunate. They experienced what many young girls and boys don’t; namely to be loved and treasured in those early years that is so crucial for a lifetime of health, wholeness, and the possibility of growing into responsible maturity. Both accompanied their parents in a religious journey to offer sacrifice and to remember how much God (Yahweh) was involved in their child’s life and in their own.

Samuel had been dedicated for service to God very early in life. Hannah, who had been barren, was able to become pregnant and offered her son, Samuel, to the priest, Eli, for service to God. He stayed in Shiloh and as it says in 1 Samuel 2:11 “served the Lord under the priest Eli.”

Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, accompanied his parents to Jerusalem at the time of Passover. Passover was a special time of giving thanks to God for allowing their ancestors to flee from bondage in Egypt, to remember that God had been with them in time past, and to anticipate the coming of a new messenger. This messenger would announce that the new age had begun. The hope that God would send them someone to announce this new age was growing, especially in the 200 years before the birth of Christ. A cup was placed on a table (the cup of Elijah) in hopes that the messenger might appear, drink from the cup, and announce that the new age had indeed arrived. It was believed by many that Elijah, who at his death was assumed up into heaven by chariots of fire, would return as that messenger and announce the new age had begun. This cup and this sacred meal are also part of the Seder meals celebrated in our time at Passover. Little did anyone know that a young boy attending the Passover with his parents that day in Jerusalem would be that messenger.

So these two young boys, Samuel and Jesus, both seen as gifts from God, were indeed about ready to transform the world in their day and in ours.

At least Hannah knew where her son was. He was in Shiloh with the priest Eli. But Mary and Joseph, trusting that their son was with the familiar crowd who had gone into Jerusalem suddenly lost track of him. This is a parent’s worst nightmare. It was after a day’s journey that they realized he was not with the group. Perhaps you and I might have a hard time understanding the lag in time but obviously this was a trusted group of family and friends who were walking together.

Panicked, Mary and Joseph went back into Jerusalem to find him, and it took another couple of days to do so. When they did, Jesus was in the temple sitting with the teachers, listening to them, and asking questions. His depth of questioning and understanding apparently astonished the teachers.

When Mary and Joseph expressed their worry about his being lost, Jesus responded that it should have been obvious where he was, as it was his Father’s house. We might wonder what the scriptures are not telling us – for if any of us got an answer like that from one of our children after being missing for three days, we probably would be a little upset with him. The story did say that Jesus returned with his parents and was obedient to them but also said that Mary treasured all of these things in her heart. Apparently in the midst of her worry and Jesus’ response to her worry, Mary sensed that something profound was going on here, so much so that she took it into her heart and pondered the meaning of it all.

The stage is set for the next chapters in Samuel’s and Jesus’ life and ministry. What can we make of all this, and how did what happened to them in their youth affect our lives? These lessons for today say two important things: (1) the signs of God’s activity are prevalent in children; and (2) children can be given opportunities to grow, question, and flourish in ways that will benefit them and us for a lifetime.

In the baptismal service we pray that the baptized person might have an inquiring and discerning mind, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works. These are gifts that ultimately both Samuel and Jesus possessed, but they began possessing them when they were very young. So on this last Sunday in the calendar year and the first Sunday after Christmas when we still hear the wailing of a new born babe in a manger as well as his changing voice throughout his life, on this day we are invited to consider again how important children and child-rearing are.

Samuel and Jesus, in his full humanity, were both able to see what others did not, in part, because of their connection with others who cared about them at a very early age. What we know about child development is that the time before the age of 6 is critical in forming a person’s identity, an identity that will be able to carry them, healthily, into later years of life.

There is a wonderful photograph of a granddad taking a picture of his granddaughter. The picture shows the shadow on a sidewalk of the granddad taking the picture of his granddaughter who had just turned over a rock to seek a bug that had gone under it. The discovery of the bug was a pearl of great price. The particularity of the search was, and is, a reminder of treasures in life being unearthed in minute forms or in hidden places. God is not only available to us in obvious ways but also in the still, small voice; the quiet wisdom from the lips of a friend or stranger; the example of courage and faithfulness of the frail and infirm; in a drop of wine and a small morsel of bread; and in the gaze of a child making a new discovery.

Children not only need to be welcomed to our church, but we need them in our church. We need their inquisitiveness, energy, restlessness, forthrightness, sense of awe and wonder, playfulness and laughter. We need children amongst us not only because they are significant and important and have wonderful abilities to show God’s love, but also because they can help unlock the child that is still in us, the children that Jesus, as an older man, welcomed into his midst and into the new kingdom that was evolving around him.

We gather around Holy Table to remember, to be reminded, and to be surprised. Like Samuel gathering with Eli or Jesus with his parents, family, and friends in Jerusalem at the time of Passover, we gather to remember the stories of our tradition. As we remember them, we are reminded of who we are, whose we are, who is the “we” that we yearn to be, and the work that lies ahead. And all along the way surprises come to us, often in people and circumstances we would least expect. And in this rhythm of life, this rhythm of remembering, being reminded, and being surprised we can realize that it is never too late to dig wells of future memories for another person. For Samuel and Jesus, their early years of observation were of great value to them in their ministries. We obviously can’t help people recoup their early years but we can do something. To help dig wells of future memories for others helps them remember that they are – and have been – treasured by another human being and by God. It reminds them that they have gifts and an identity as a child of God that can never be taken away from them, as well as an ability to dance with life so that they can, like the writer C.S. Lewis, be surprised by joy. When this happens, that person and us are never the same again.

So here we are at the precipice of a new year, looking back at what was, looking forward to what might be, and invited to look around and within to see what we might do and be in the here and now.

We gather around stories from our tradition and expressions of prayer and song. We gather to exchange peace, which can be an entry way, a foyer, to digging wells for future memories. When we exchange peace we realize three things: (1) we don’t gather here alone; (2) the Eucharist or other worship service is not just about any of us individually or what we can get out of it, but rather what God can do through the worship and through us for God’s work of reconciliation and love; and (3) we realize that the greatest gift we can give one another and the stranger about to come into our midst is to offer the peace of God.

These were gifts given to Samuel and to Jesus of Nazareth. These were gifts they gave the world, and the world has never been the same since. We are called to do the same. May it be so on this special day of the year and in the year to follow. Shalom.

 

— Bud Holland is coordinator of the Office for Ministry Development at the Episcopal Church Center, which is involved in a number of initiatives related to education, lifelong learning, leadership and ministry development. He has previously served in congregations and other diocesan positions.

The Word became flesh and dwelt with us, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2006

December 25, 2006

Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12); John 1:1-14

We are all used to party political agendas. We’ve just survived an election season and although there’s two years to go before the next general election, the television networks daily parade possible candidates before us and we hear their plans to transform America. We can count on their plans being expensive. To get them enacted takes a great deal of powerful persuasion. The more power and influence a politician can recruit, the better the chance of success.

Even then, transforming a nation, and more so transforming a world, isn’t easy. Some of us remember the ’60s. We were sure that the Civil Rights Movement would liberate African Americans, women and minorities. Much wonderful work was done. Yet drive through the inner cities today and one soon sees what was not done. It’s almost as if legislators, secular and religious, get their enthusiasms, struggle to get them enacted and then forget about them and go on to something more exciting. It’s easy to become cynical.

On the wider stage, we look at the world as it is. We see wars, civil disturbances, bigotry, tribalism, disease, and starvation. Nothing seems to change. Countries promise aid and then don’t give it. We can look at the most frightful things on television while eating dinner. It’s easy to become cynical.

“Wait a minute” you say. “This is Christmas.”

So it is. The great gospel lesson from St. John echoes in our ears. It has just been read to us. We may not understand the profundity of its theology, but in these mysterious words, “In the beginning was the Word,” we reflect on the extraordinary truth about Jesus. To the Greeks of his time, or some of them, the idea of the Word was a philosophical theory. Scholars suggested that there was a source of eternal truth and this source they termed The Logos: “The Word.” There was nothing personal about the idea. It was assumed that only an educated elite would be able to contemplate truth.

The idea of an eternal Word tells us two things. The first is that there’s a truth, an eternal truth to which we have access. The second idea is that this truth is communicated to us by God. “The Word became flesh and dwelt with us.” St. John here says something extraordinary. The eternal truth of God, God communicating to us, is not a philosophical ideal for scholars, but a Person for us all. Jesus is the Truth, Jesus is God communicating. Jesus embodies God’s agenda for the Church and for the world.

“The Word became Flesh.” God entered into a human body. A young unmarried woman became God’s Tent, God’s Temple, God’s presence. In the Old Testament we read about the Tabernacle or tent in which the presence of God dwelt. Later Solomon builds the Temple in which, in the Holy of Holies, God’s Presence was to be found in a special manner. But now, through teenager Mary, God became human in obscurity and weakness, in a stable, surrounded by farm animals and filth. God became vulnerable and powerless.

It is easy for us to look at the crèche and see glory. In reality the crèche is an extraordinary symbol of God’s identity with those who have nothing. The Holy Family, tired, homeless, Mary in labor, stumble into an abandoned, dirty cave. The floor is covered with animal droppings; the manger with old food. It’s one of those cold Middle Eastern nights. Perhaps Joseph takes off his coat and puts it in the manger. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

God intends an end to all wars, bigotry, famine, and disease. God has started the process. True, God uses politicians and the powerful, often without their knowing it. But God uses you and me, for as God became human in Mary’s womb, so God the Son, the babe in the manger, enters our humanity, changes us and sends us to change the nation and the world. That is what Baptism is all about. The transforming future is God at work in frail, powerless human beings who risk death, even the Cross in order to be reborn into hope.

We are those human beings. We become agents of God’s purpose as we do as God wants us to do. We tell the gospel story to others. We love one another. We work to transform the world by caring for the sick, the outcast, the starving, those in the midst of war and civil disturbances, those who know not God, and the drunk in the street, and the single mother abandoned by her parents. On this Christmas Day, accept with gratitude the abiding presence of the Christ child in your flesh and then, in him, go into the world to love and serve the Lord.

 

— The Very Rev. Anthony F.M. Clavier, who has most recently served in France in the Convocation of American Churches in Europe, has returned to the United States and is interim rector of St. Thomas a Becket Episcopal Church in Morgantown, W. Va.

4 Advent (C) – 2006

The Song of Divine Triumph

December 24, 2006

Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:47-55 or Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

This morning may we reflect with open hearts on the words we just heard from the song of triumph. In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

As Jack Kornfield recounts in the book “How, Then, Shall We Live?” it is the custom in one African tribe that when a woman decides to have a child, she goes and sits alone under a tree, and she listens. She listens until she hears the song of the child who wants to come.

Once she hears the song, she returns to the man who will be the child’s father and teaches the song to him. When they make love to conceive the child, they sing the song to call the child to them.

When the woman is pregnant, she teaches the child’s song to the midwives and old women of the village so that when the birth time arrives, the people surrounding the mother sing the song to welcome the child among them.

Then as the child grows up, the other villagers learn the song. If the child falls or hurts his knee someone picks him up and sings the song. When the child does something wonderful, the people of the village sing this song. When the child goes through the rites of puberty and becomes an adult, the villagers sing the song.

It goes this way through life. At a wedding, the songs of husband and wife are sung together. Finally, when this child grows old, and lies in bed ready to die, all the villagers know the song, and they sing it for the last time.

Today’s gospel tells us of a pregnant woman who sings a song – a song about her child, who he is, and who he will become.

Mary’s song is her response to her cousin Elizabeth’s spirited greeting, but it is more than that. It comes from deep inside her. It knits together in a new way the sacred experience and language and hope of her people like pieces of a quilt transformed from scraps to splendor.

Nowhere in this song do we hear the name of her child, but somehow he is there in every phrase. Mary’s song is not hers alone; it is the song of the child who wants to come, who comes to do the will of God. This song echoes in the events of her son’s life, his death, and his exaltation. The song celebrates the God who keeps promises – not only to Abraham, but also to us.

The church has picked up this song and sung it often, particularly in daily evening worship. Mary’s song, The Magnificat, is a central text in the liturgy of the historic church. Who knows what number of settings musicians have composed for it through the years? Who knows how many voices have joined with Mary’s in singing her song through the centuries?

This is the song about Jesus sung by the human being who knew him best, influenced him most, and remained faithful to him always.

With his mother singing these words from her heart, does it surprise us that Jesus grows up to preach the Beatitudes?

The Magnificat announces that God scatters the prideful, dethrones the powerful, and drives away the rich. The God of the Magnificat takes sides, lifting up the lowly, providing a feast for the destitute.

Like mother, like son! The Beatitudes call happy those in need, those who hunger, those who weep. Only for the humble is there hope. The doorway to the kingdom has a low lintel; all must bow to enter. Jesus calls happy those who do not find that hard.

The Magnificat echoes through the lifetime of Jesus and through the lives we live as well. It points to a redemption achieved once for all, but that continues to unfold wherever the Good News takes root. The overthrow of oppression that Mary’s song proclaims turns out to be a continuing revolution. The battleground is every community of people and every human heart.

Each of us sings a song from deep inside, a song about the future.

If we are a mother or a father, that song may be about our child, because for a parent there’s a way the future appears embodied in a child.

But whether or not we are parents, each of us sings a song about the future. It’s about hope, it comes from the heart, it reveals who we are, and it shapes the time ahead. What we sing with our lives becomes our legacy to those who follow after us.

Just what will our song be?

Perhaps a commercial jingle that incites us to spend ourselves on what can never satisfy. That could be our song.

Perhaps a pop tune that steps aside from deep sorrow and true joy. That could be our song.

The problem is not with classics or pop tunes or commercial jingles. The problem is when we ignore how The Magnificat is not just Mary’s song and it is not only about Jesus; somehow it proclaims God’s hope and purpose for us.

Mary’s song is our song. We can live in a way that magnifies and rejoices in the Lord. We can do this by the grace of her Son, our Brother. The song that turned out true in his life can turn out true in ours as well.

May we sing The Magnificat with our lives. May it become our legacy to our children and all who come after us. When our final hour arrives, may we hear this song of divine triumph sounding in our hearts and ringing all around us and know it as our own. For the God who kept faith with Abraham, and Mary, and Jesus, and every past generation keeps faith with us as well.

I have spoken to you in the name of this God about whom Mary sings: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2002).

3 Advent (C) – 2006

Are we there yet?

December 17, 2006

Isaiah 12:2-6; Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

When was the last time that you were filled with so much anticipation that you actually thought you might burst before the anticipated event arrived? Maybe it was a time when you were expecting a visit from an old friend or a present from someone special. Or maybe it was a time when you were so very proud of your keen selection of the perfect gift for that very special person and you wanted the time to arrive when you would present the gift. These experiences often describe time as slowing or standing almost still – far from the reality of time continuing forward. The best example of this for some of you might be the time you had a child traveling with you or remembering what it felt like when you were a child on a trip somewhere. The inevitable “Are we there yet?” was sure to be a part of the journey.

Then there are those who have chosen to stuff so many things into a given space in time (or maybe even place) that there is barely room to breath let alone notice the details of life surrounding them. These might be the same people whose experience of time is that it flies – often suggesting that it is out of control and passes by barely noticing what is contained in the space. I imagine their experience of time might be that time is the enemy that prevents things from happening at their desired pace or prevents them from doing all the things they would like to do. Time might also be the reason or excuse for things left undone.

And yet time does pass every day with the rising and setting of the sun, the moon, and the stars. Seasons, in their cycles of life and death, growth and rest, find their way into our lives through the clothes we wear and the athletic games on television rather than through a real connection to the earth’s cycles, which contain the signs of the awesome nature of creation and our Creator.

Then there are the church seasons marked by biblical and liturgical events that provide us with a sense of connection to a deeper life – our spiritual life and relationship to God and our communities. The seasons of the church are times of remembering and reliving with acute awareness the events of our tradition and history – our identity. It is the fabric of our nature as Christians and people of God. But even the church shares the danger of methodically moving through time in such a way that the wonder of the season is removed or replaced by things that do not necessarily bring notice to the season or God’s presence.

We are in the season of Advent, which literally means waiting. This is the season that marks the beginning of the liturgical year in the church and anticipates the birth of Jesus. How do we know it is the season of Advent? Is it in the addition of the Advent wreath into the church décor or the prayers said around it at the beginning of the week at our Sunday service? Or maybe it is the music we sing in this season or the liturgical colors that have changed. Well, for some, that may be the only sign that the season has changed or that today is the third week of our waiting period. Unfortunately, it is probably not enough to give us a sense of anticipation of the great event, the birth of Jesus. Instead, we are most likely distracted by or caught up in the spirit of Christmas that includes decorations, shopping malls, and holiday parties.

Our lessons today and each week during Advent remind us that God is with us and that what we are waiting for is the renewal of the relationship with God through Jesus. We might be able to learn something about this waiting from women, or husbands and fathers expecting the birth of a child. Their journey begins nine months before the birth but each day they are conscious and aware of the life already present. They know because there are changes in moods and attitudes about important things, like where they live and how they will create a calm and welcoming environment for the child. They experience changes in clothes and sizes as their bodies accommodate the developing child – a very real presence. They begin to examine their lives and their priorities considering the life changes that they are facing, and they compensate for those changes as they prepare for their new roles and identities.

But during the whole pregnancy, their wait includes a real knowledge of the life that they are bringing into the world. It is they who need to change to make room for this child. It is their identity and life that is being examined and molded. It is a perfect image of what Advent is: waiting for the time when we have prepared for the birth of Jesus into our lives. And it may help us to understand the lessons today.

Just in case you think these lessons are harsh and apocalyptic, I hope the context of time and waiting leads you into a different place.

Maybe like the people in our gospel you are ready to ask, “What then should we do?”

Maybe you will consider that the readings over the last three weeks are actually inviting us to use this time to let go of the things that keep us from knowing God in every moment, to see “forgiveness of sins” and repentance as the removal of those encumbrances bringing us more closely to the new birth, new knowledge of the saving grace which accompanies the birth of Jesus.

If we are willing to go there, then we have no choice but to acknowledge that repentance is more than feeling sorrow for our sins; we are called to action – action that is the path to renewing our covenant with God through each other. We are being called to shed the blinders that come from a busy world, a busy life, a busy attitude and replace it with NOTHING. Nothing but the space to see the world as God would have us see it.

We can be assured that this exercise will transform the way we hear the Christmas music already playing on the radio, the way we see the people we pass on the street or in the mall, the content of our prayers, and the focus of what is really important: Jesus is coming, “Are we there yet?”

 

— The Rev Debbie Royals is the regional missioner for Native American Ministry Development for the Dioceses of Northern California and Los Angeles. She also chairs the Indigenous People’s Network for Province VIII. Debbie is Pascua Yaqui from Tucson, Ariz.,  and has been involved in Native Ministry in the Episcopal Church for 12 years.

2 Advent (C) – 2006

Treasure the child

December 10, 2006

Luke 1:68-79; Baruch 5 or Malachi 3:1-4; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” (Luke 1:76)

Imagine for a moment a world and society in which our worth and wages were not determined by our work but rather by an entirely different standard. Suppose we were not assessed for our adult skills, but for our childlike abilities – our capacity to be vulnerable and spontaneous, to show our feelings, and to live fully in each moment given to us. Suppose further that our annual performance appraisal was done not by our supervisor at work but by our children – or grandchildren – at home, or perhaps even by “children gathered from west to east,” to borrow words found in our first reading today.

It opens up all sorts of possibilities. Those of us who do not have children of our own would not be let off the hook. A child would be assigned to us for the occasion – preferably one not of our own choosing – just to make the evaluation fair and equitable.

Rather than a rating for promptness, we would probably have a scale reflecting the ability to lose all sense of time and place for hours on end. For the ability to lay carpet or hang wallpaper in a straight line, we would substitute skill with Legos or Tinker Toys or the latest video games. And original contributions to high-quality academic publications would be replaced by interesting bed-time stories, peer-reviewed and assessed by panels of children from the neighborhood. The talent for making tasty tacos, pizza, and hamburgers that taste like Big Macs – preferably seven days a week – would merit extra points on our performance assessment scale.

Our world would certainly be a different place. Some of us would be in serious trouble and would have a lot of catching up to do. However, instead of being encouraged to sign up for remedial courses in graduate school, we would probably be required to enroll in the neighborhood Head Start program for a couple of semesters. For all of us, priorities would change in a hurry as we came to terms with the new values and norms. After all, our livelihood would depend on it.

Perhaps we could even try this new way of doing things in the world of politics and high finance. There might be a little confusion at first, but it would be worth it. “No hitting” and “plays well with others” would take on new meaning as we appraised global leaders. And the world would be a more sensible place as Matchbox cars were substituted for BMWs as status symbols, Barbie-doll fashions replaced Prada and Armani, and baseball cards became the new coin of the realm.

Alas, the world has a long way to go in learning to cherish the child. Child-care workers are still among the lowest paid professionals in the country. According to some experts, they rank just below casual farm laborers and assistant zoo snake-handlers. As African professor, Lamin Sanneh, writes, “When I think how my own children, raised in the U.S., have their routine dictated by school and violin, piano, and ballet lessons, and how they move fluently from baby-sitting for hire to video for rent and then to microwave popcorn and hot pockets, I realize how our society has learned to dispense with child-inspired patterns of living.”

“Child-inspired patterns of living.” What an apt way of summing up what we seek to discover during this holy Advent season. It probably does take a child to lead us back to that which is precious and holy – to the kingdom of heaven itself. A child, after all, would understand about the kingdom of heaven – at least until an adult tried to explain it.

Perhaps this is on Zechariah’s mind in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke as he encounters his neighbors gathered in the temple for the circumcision of his child. “What then will this child become?” the neighbors ask, as they reflect on the events surrounding the birth of John, who is to become the Baptist. But they are not so much thinking of “child-inspired patterns of living” as they are the destiny and future of the extraordinary child before them.

For the aged Zechariah the answer to their question comes easily as he is “filled with the Holy Spirit” and speaks. “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High;” he proclaims, “for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” His words are an allusion no doubt to the traditional understanding of John’s future role as precursor of the Christ. Yet in some sense it is the child himself who is the prophet of the Most High because every child is an image of the loving and blameless God who sent his Son to be born among us in humble circumstance. Only a child can call us back to the simplicity and fullness of divine love.

If, in our contemporary world, we have “learned to dispense with child-inspired patterns of living,” we have also all too often learned to dispense with children themselves. Their images haunt us in scenes of famine in faraway lands. We read with horror of their abuse in our own country and elsewhere. In some quarters, children have even become as disposable as holiday wrappings and tinsel, lovely in their festive attire but otherwise nonessentials, neither profit centers nor revenue enhancers.

This Advent season we must learn again to treasure the child, whether it be children of our own families and neighborhoods or those “gathered from east to west” throughout the world. But we can only do this by first rediscovering and cherishing the child still within each of us – hidden beneath layers of needless complexity and sophistication. Midway through this Advent season of preparation and wonder, we open ourselves to the child who approaches our doorstep in the cold and dark of our winter hearts. Let us welcome that infant visitor and become what John – and we ourselves – are called to be: prophets of the Most High.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is priest-in-charge at Saint Alban’s Episcopal Church in El Cajon, California.

1 Advent (C) – 2006

God redeems messes

December 3, 2006

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

Advent, this season on which we embark today, these few short weeks of repentance, preparation, and expectation, begins with a picture of the end of the world. Jesus, already well aware of the likelihood of his own demise, is preaching prophetically about the destruction of the world people knew. And indeed, just a short 40 years later, in about A.D. 70, the Romans put down the last Jewish uprising, destroyed the temple, and the world for many ended. The Temple was the center of the world for Jews, who still mourn its loss.

Jesus’ prophetic words give us a chill down the spine as we hear them today. There has been a lot of “distress among nations” for some time now, and people do “faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” Trying to explain this passage as fixed in time is not a helpful exercise. In our context today it is just as relevant.

Sometimes you have to say things in a prophetic way to get people’s attention. Sometimes you have to tell people the awful truth: that things are a mess and we are all somehow responsible for it. Sometimes you have to say disturbing things to get people agitated enough to change their behavior.

Not long ago a couple went to a church, a large and prosperous one, for the first time. As they walked down a corridor they smiled at a number of people, but no one greeted them. Everyone was preoccupied with herding the choir and acolytes, getting business attended to about the coming bazaar, and depositing their children in Sunday school. As they entered the church, an usher in the back handed them a bulletin while engaged in earnest conversation with someone else, his face turned away from them. Afterward, the couple agreed the congregation was too preoccupied to engage in the simple act of hospitality.

And so are we, too preoccupied. Eugene Peterson translates part of this passage from Luke today, “Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping.”  A season of preparation and expectation should permeate all that we do, from expecting and welcoming visitors, to focusing on what’s really important: our relationship with God and the Messiah who is to come.

So, are there any tools offered in this Sunday’s readings, any hope we can grasp, any piece of advice we can take home and dwell upon? Let’s start with the collect, today’s opening prayer in the liturgy. “Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

This is a gracious prayer in which we ask God to give us what we most need: abiding grace. We can’t do it ourselves. A wise bishop one said, “People fix problems, God redeems messes!” So our first request is to have the grace to set aside darkness and think of ourselves clothed with the armor of light.

Let’s play that scene from the church again: It’s Sunday morning. A couple arrives for the first time and they are greeted at the door by someone who says, “Welcome. May I sit with you this morning?” After church, they are taken to the coffee hour and introduced to the clergy, and others. It’s all about them, and suddenly they’re not strangers, but part of a new community of welcome and light instead of the preoccupied one above.

In Jeremiah, we get a short and pithy message: “God keeps his promises.” Nobody has to wonder about that. Jeremiah had to tell his wealthy friends and others that things weren’t right between them and God. But he also got to say that God was going to do something about that, even if they weren’t. He was going to re-establish righteousness, a right relationship between God and God’s people. In this brief passage one has the feeling it’s a done deal, so you might as well enjoy the show! The passage also proclaims God’s intention of justice and righteousness in the land – a hope that has sustained faithful people through many faithless times, and continues to do so. God redeems messes.

In the passage from First Thessalonians the writer prays that the people who are the beloved believers will be blameless before God at the coming of the Lord Jesus with all the saints. And it all comes out of the boundless love that they share with one another. They have imitated Christ, and their reward will be Christ’s sustaining love forever.

So, we have the tools of grace, faith (promises kept), and our capacity to imitate Christ to use in our Advent journey. We can still shop, maybe even go to a party or two, but they’re not the main thing. The main thing is that even when the news is bad, and it’s not very good right now, even when terrible things are happening and we get them flashed live into our homes, they are not God’s message. God’s message is a response. “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

 

— Ben Helmer is a retired priest in the Episcopal Church. He and his wife just completed a year helping with relief efforts in the Diocese of Louisiana. They recently returned to their home in west Missouri.