Archives for November 2016

What We Need From Christmas, Christmas Day (II)

[RCL] Isaiah 62:6-12; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-7)8-20; Psalm 97 

For churches across the country, the month of December is devoted to preparation—not only the kind of spiritual preparation that Advent invites; but rather, practical planning: where (and when) to hang the decorations, how to assemble the Christmas liturgies, when to organize the Christmas parties and festivities, and so on. Altar guilds and worship committees across the country are in high gear at this time of year!

And yet, beyond Christmas pageants and church bazaars (that’s daring enough for most of us!), there is a church in just about every community across the country that takes things to the next level and puts on a live Nativity scene!

You know the kind: a makeshift stable is assembled with live animals—a few sheep, a donkey or two, and maybe a camel if the committee started preparing well in advance. Someone dresses as an angel and stands on the rooftop of the makeshift stable, others dress as shepherds or wise men—which we’ll assume arrived a few weeks early. And of course, there are the central figures: Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus—usually portrayed by the youngest child in the parish. For a few nights in the lead-up to Christmas, everyone plays their part, standing as still as possible under the glare of a spotlight.

Most of us have driven by such a scene, and a few of us may have even participated in them. It’s a lovely image because it captures the scene we’ve grown up imagining and brings it to life before our very eyes. It puts us in mind of the Holy Family gathered with the shepherds on that first Christmas, rejoicing in the awesome power of God made flesh in this tiny little child. All is silent as the whole world stops to behold the birth of this child—the birth of God made flesh!

But if you pay careful attention to these scenes, you’ll notice that they are rarely as peaceful and serene as they first appear! For starters, livestock will be livestock: sheep are ornery, donkeys are stubborn, cows are lazy, and camels have a temper! The wind seldom cooperates, costumes fall apart, people fidget, and babies cry!

Despite all of our creative imaginings to the contrary, this unintentional chaos is more similar to the way things actually happened on that first Christmas than the peaceful and serene still-life that we so often imagine.

After all, if you’ve ever visited or worked on a farm, you can imagine the stench that must have accompanied Jesus’ birth; and if you’ve ever been anywhere near a hospital delivery room, you know that there’s no “meek and mild” about the miracle of childbirth! The truth is that the birth of Jesus was anything but silent or peaceful or calm. Mary was a teenager made to grow up way too quickly, Joseph was in way over his head, and the conditions in which Jesus was birthed were less than ideal, even by first-century standards.

And so, why do we dismiss what we know about Christmas: that it was surely a scene of chaos and surprise, in favor of what we imagine about Christmas: that it was a peaceful and serene ode to Jesus meek and mild?

Perhaps the answer has something to do with what we need from Christmas.

In 2016 alone, more than 13,000 Americans have died because of gun violence. Nearly 3,500 of them were children under age 18. There have been more than 300 mass shootings this year, and nearly 300 police officers have been shot and killed.[1]

We have faced the most vitriolic, negative, hate-filled, not to mention expensive, election in modern history. We’re busier than ever, we’re working harder and making less, and the cost of living just keeps going up.

And so, we imagine a peaceful and serene Christmas because that is precisely what we need. We need peace and serenity and beauty; we need a place to worship something pure—something warm and peaceful; something inspiring. We need a Christmas that brings peace and delight, rather than chaos and disorder.

But that’s the paradox of Christmas! On the one hand, we desperately want to believe that Jesus’ birth was a serene, orderly, peaceful moment in which the whole world stood still; but on the other hand, the Gospel stares us in the face and proclaims just the opposite: disruption, disorder, and chaos.

The Christmas of the Gospels reminds us that God in Christ hasn’t come into our lives to make things a little more peaceful or to inspire us to be a little more cheerful. No, God in Christ has come to change everything we thought we knew!

God in Christ hasn’t come to rehabilitate our old lives or to make them a bit more bearable; God in Christ has called us to a new life of redemption and resurrection!

God in Christ comes to us, not in the center of town or in an ornate palace, but in the place where we least expect him: in a tiny little town on the margins of society.

He is born, not in the presence of kings and princes and rulers, but in the presence of dirty shepherds and their even dirtier sheep. He is born, not of a princess or a queen, but of a poor, terrified, teenaged mother who did not ask for this!

This is the true story of Christmas!

And if we listen closely, we can hear God whispering something to us that, deep down we’ve always known but have been afraid to admit: The life we’ve so carefully crafted for ourselves; this world that we work so hard to manage and control, cannot satisfy our souls.

But the promise of God that was born on that first Christmas speaks to us still: God in Christ has come to us, not to give us more of the life we know, but to give us new life! Christmas is not the celebration of what once was a long time ago, it is the celebration of the One who was and is and is to come! It is the inauguration of God’s redemption of the world in Jesus Christ—it is the beginning of our salvation!

And that, dear friends, brings joy to the world indeed!

Merry Christmas!

Written by The Rev. Marshall Jolly (@MarshallJolly). Jolly is the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He earned a BA in American studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. His published work includes essays on Christian social engagement, theology in the public square, and preaching. He is the editor of Modern Metanoia, an ecumenical, international lectionary-based preaching commentary authored exclusively by Millennials. He spends every moment he can exploring the nearby Appalachian foothills with his wife Elizabeth.  

[1] Gun Violence Archive, http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/.

Download the Sermon for Christmas Day (II).

Bulletin Insert: Advent 3(A)

Reflect on the Season with Episcopal Migration Ministries

emm-vintageDuring Advent, we are reminded of God’s abundant love in the mystery of the Incarnation –  that God came to earth and lived among us. We remember also that this Jesus, this One we call Lord, Messiah, and Emmanuel began his life as a refugee, fleeing Egypt when King Herod began his murderous Massacre of the Holy Innocents.

Even as we approach the celebration of Christmas, we must remember the somber reality of today’s refugees. Our world faces the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II with more than 65.3 million refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people worldwide – the highest level ever recorded. Of the 65.3 million displaced, 21.3 million are refugees, over half of whom are children.

For more than 75 years, the Episcopal Church has welcomed and supported refugees in the United States. We trace our heritage back to 1938, when the Diocese of Southern Ohio published this iconic poster, calling the Church to mission with refugees. Today, refugee resettlement continues in The Episcopal Church through Episcopal Migration Ministries. Working in partnership with faith communities and local governments, non-government organizations (NGOs), and a network of 30 affiliate offices, Episcopal Migration Ministries provides safe passage, vital services, hospitality, and friendship for thousands of refugee families resettling in the U.S. every year.

Here are a few ways you can join Episcopal Migration Ministries this Advent in their work to support and welcome refugees:

  • Advent Reflections: Episcopal Migration Ministries is publishing weekly Advent Reflection videos from the Director, The Rev. Canon E. Mark Stevenson. The videos are posted here.
  • Join the Campaign: Be a part of the #SupportRefugees campaign by taking an #Unselfie
  • Donate: Every donation, no matter what size, provides necessary support and resources for the important life-saving ministry. You can make a donation by check or online. Visit www.episcopalmigrationministries.org for more information or to make a donation.

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Here’s How Much I Love You, Christmas Day (III)

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

In the movie “Cool Hand Luke,” Paul Newman plays Luke, a prisoner in a Florida prison camp, who refuses to conform to prison life. In a famous scene, Luke tries to escape, but he is caught and dragged back in shackles and brought to the captain of the prison. In order to make a lesson of him, the captain berates him in front of the other prisoners. When Luke makes a wise remark, the captain lashes out at him and utters the famous line: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.

It’s a great line. It’s also what makes the stuff of both great comedy and tragedy. Remember the comedy routine by Abbott and Costello called “Who’s on First?” Abbott is trying to help Costello out by telling him the names of the players on a mythical baseball team. The lineup is: “who’s on first, what’s on second, I don’t know is on third.” It’s all very funny, and it’s all based on a failure to communicate.

It is also the stuff of great tragedy. Remember the end of Romeo and Juliet? They both end up taking their own lives. And why does this happen? You’ve got it. A failure to communicate. If only Juliet could have texted Romeo rather than relying on a messenger to let him know the plan about taking the potion that made her only appear to be dead, then everything would have worked out. But, alas, it was not so, and never was there a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo. And it was all because there was a failure to communicate.

In our own lives, we know all too well the reality and pain of failing to communicate. One of the leading causes of marriages falling apart is lack of communication. People say, we just drifted apart. We don’t talk anymore. We are leading separate lives. You’ve all probably heard of “the silent treatment.” It’s one of the cruelest things human beings can do to each other. Failure to communicate can cause chasms to open up between us or it can intentionally wound others in the cruelest of ways.

In our collective lives, we also know the pain of failing to communicate. I’ve heard people say that a crowded city is paradoxically one of the loneliest places to live. People don’t know the next door neighbors. People don’t talk to each other on elevators. The difference between being part of a crowd and part of a community is the ability or the failure to communicate. If you communicate with your neighbor, you belong to a community. If you fail to communicate with your neighbor, your just part of a crowd, a lonely crowd.

On the other hand, we all know what a blessing it can be when we really communicate with someone. When we really connect with people we say things like, we had a heart-to-heart talk.

In a Reader’s Digest story, Maureen Macay gives a lovely example of a grace she experienced while traveling in China. She writes, “Traveling by train in China, my son and I shared a sleeping compartment with a Chinese couple. They spoke no English and we knew few Chinese words, so conversation was impossible — until an hour into the trip, when the man called someone on his cell phone. After a few moments, he passed the phone to his wife who also spoke into it. Then, to my surprise, she handed me the phone. Feeling rather foolish, I said, ‘Hello’ into it. The person at the other end was the couple’s daughter, who spoke perfect English. I told her about us and our trip, and she relayed the information to her parents. How delightful that a simple phone call could teach us such a lesson about Chinese graciousness.” And the ability to communicate.

God knows about the struggle to communicate. Our Bible is the story of God’s struggle to get God’s message of love across to humanity. God tried over and over again, to reach us, but we kept turning deaf ears to God’s message of love. We ignored commandments, prophets, and sages, invitations, threats, and promises.

What is the opposite of a failure to communicate? Saying exactly the right thing.

The message of Christmas is this: God found a new way to say exactly the right thing. The letter to the Hebrews says, “Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by a Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2).

A baby. The Son of God, the Word, co-eternal with God from before all time, became incarnate, took on flesh, real flesh, a baby’s flesh. God became one of us, and like us, came into the world as a baby. The one at whose “command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets, in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home”[1] became for us an inarticulate infant.

In the words of today’s psalm, God “sends out his commands to the earth, and his word runs very swiftly.” At Christmas, God chose to let his Word have to learn to crawl first. The one whose “Let there be light,” rang throughout the darkness and set off the spark of creation, became for us a speechless baby, limited to communicating through cooing and crying.

The one used to the praise of countless throngs of angels, singing their unending hymn, “Holy, holy, holy,” surrounded himself with new music: a mother’s “hush, sweet baby, hush,” the ahhing and oohing of shepherds leaning over a manger making baby talk to the baby, cattle lowing, the rustling of straw. God found a whole new way to communicate, a whole new way to say exactly the right thing. The Word took on a whole new language, and it turned out to be—baby talk.

What does a baby say? Actually, not much. Without the power of speech, they are, in fact, rather limited. But they do say two very important things: Here I am, and, I need you.

And God, in God’s love, as the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us as a baby, says this as well: I am here. I need you.

Shocking, isn’t it? The Word becomes flesh, a vulnerable, inarticulate baby. And we don’t say, the message is this: someday, the child will grow, which is true, and become an adult, which is true, and will walk and talk and love and live and say things and do things that will show us just how much God loves us—all of which is true. But even here, even in these days of the Christmas season, what we celebrate is not the potential for communication that a baby has—that someday God will speak through incarnate life. What we celebrate is that this baby, the Word made flesh, was already a completely formed message of love, full of grace and truth toward us. Here I am. I am with you. I am for you. I am trusting myself to you. I need you.

In Graham Greene’s novel, The Heart of the Matter, the character Scobie describes the incarnation, and the amazing risk God took in becoming human in such a vulnerable way, a pattern of openness that would continue throughout Jesus’ life and in the sacraments, as well. The narrator says, “It seemed to him for a moment cruelly unfair of God to have exposed himself in this way, a man, a wafer of bread, first in the Palestinian villages and now here in the hot port, there, everywhere, allowing man to have his will of Him. Christ had told the rich young man to sell all and follow Him, but that was an easy rational step compared with this that God had taken, to put himself at the mercy of men who hardly knew the meaning of the word. How desperately God must love, he thought with shame.”[2]

How desperately God must love. Desperately enough to find a new way to say exactly the right thing, which, even in the cries and coos of an infant, turns out to be: “Here’s how much I love you.”

Written by The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano. Pagano is associate rector at St. Anne’s Church in Annapolis, MD. His ministry at St. Anne’s is focused on Adult Christian Formation, Outreach, and Pastoral Care. He received a Ph.D. in Theology and Ethics from Marquette University. His research interests focus on theology and contemporary society, science and religion, religious pluralism, and the theology and ethics of H. Richard Niebuhr. He holds an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. He previously served parishes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Baltimore, Maryland. He also served as Assistant Professor of Theology at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and currently serves as an Affiliate Faculty Member in the Theology Department at Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. Pagano is married to the Rev. Dr. Amy Richter and is delighted to serve with her at St. Anne’s. They have co-authored two books, A Man, A Woman, A Word of Love, and Love in Flesh and Bone.  

[1] Eucharistic Prayer C, Book of Common Prayer, 370.

[2] Greene, The Heart of the Matter.

Download the Sermon for Christmas Day (III).

Bulletin Insert: Advent 1(A)

Advent Resources

advent-1Today the Episcopal Church celebrates the first Sunday of the season of Advent, which will continue for four Sundays, until Christmas Day. The word “advent” is derived from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming,” and during this season, the church enters a time of preparation and expectation for the coming of Christ “in power and glory” (Mark 13:26).

This year, The Episcopal Church’s Advent campaign will focus on daily themes highlighting cultural practices and traditions around planning, preparing, and enjoying food special to the holiday season. Each day of Advent, recipes will be posted to a new blog, Make Ready the Feast.

This blog will feature recipes offered by members and friends of The Episcopal Church from around the world – Turkey Gumbo and Chicken & Sausage Jambalaya from Louisiana, Roast Buffalo from First Nations’ Kitchen in Minnesota, Buckeye Candy from Ohio, Fried Pork and Plantains from Haiti, Coffee Cake and Leek & Potato Pie from New York, Pralines from Savannah, and many more. Prepare to cook and eat well this Advent season!

Additional Advent Resources:

  • “Liberated by God’s Grace” 2016 Advent devotions prepared by the leaders of the Anglican Church of Canada, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
  • The Episcopal Church maintains an Advent blog.
  • Society of St. John the Evangelist #AdventWord campaign.
  • Episcopal Relief & Development Advent Toolkit.
  • d365.org daily Advent reflections.
  • Advent resources, including books, films, and curriculum from the Resource Center for Churches.

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God is With Us! Advent 4(A)

[RCL] Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80: 1-7, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25

Fourth Sunday in Advent, and one wonders: What remains to be said about the season?

Year after year, preachers and priests must wonder: How can one tell the story of Jesus’ birth without falling into historical and cultural clichés, without being accused of mythologizing? Or: Without being accused of not following the Scriptures word for word? How can we make the familiar exciting again?

It is so difficult to preach on the birth narratives that most pastors and priests find it easier to let the story be told by the children, in their Christmas pageants—something beloved by almost all parishes. Presenting the story of Jesus’ birth dramatically, rather than in a sermon from the pulpit, may be the better solution. Why try to retell the most beautiful story ever told when it is already written so simply and perfectly by Matthew and so masterfully by Luke?

The simple beauty of the story as found in the two gospels cannot be improved upon. Only great artists have found another way – through their works of art – to help us see with new eyes. Centuries later people still flock to the world’s great museums to see depictions of the Birth story by the finest of painters. A few well known artists come to mind: da Vinci, Caravaggio, El Greco and so many others not as well known. Their creations tell the stunning story of God entering the human realm. Nothing proclaims the Christmas news as movingly as some of these works. And it is not only visual artists who accomplish this.

The most evocative poetry has been written about that one night in Bethlehem, while the great composers continue to lift us to a heavenly realm when as they sing of this unique birth. Please, pause for a minute and try to think if any song as exquisite to your ears as the melody and words of “Lo, how a rose e’re blooming on tender stem hath sprung . . .” And now recall the words of Christina Rosetti’s poem, “In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood still as iron, water like a stone . . .” Each word is a jewel.

Now sing it to the melody by Holst and let you heart melt within you. Isn’t that the ultimate Christmas feeling? This is a deliberate question. At Christmas time we want to feel, not to think. This is why children are so happy at Christmas; they allow themselves to feel anticipation and joy without worrying about practical details that ultimately don’t matter.

When we grow up and reach maturity, we tend to examine the words we say and sing. We ask questions about their meaning, questions that in all probability cannot be answered. “If the birth of Jesus really happened as the gospel writers tell us, what happened to the promises of peace on earth, good will toward all human beings?” After we look at the world around us and despair of the answers we do receive, many of us turn to books and theology, and that too is helpful. It is good to examine the questions, but let us admit it: these are at best intellectual exercises.

Let us instead throw ourselves into the music and drama of the story and perhaps then we shall find peace and even joy. It is undeniable that visual art, music, poetry, and drama take us out of ourselves as they communicate the gospel story in ways that bring us peace and even joy. The story of Jesus from his birth to his death and resurrection is the perfect drama.

The great Dorothy L Sayers in her masterpiece, The Man Born to Be King, writes that for the dramatist the theology in the story of Jesus “locks the whole structure into a massive intellectual coherence.” She continues: “It is scarcely possible to build up anything lopsided, trivial, or unsound on that steely and gigantic framework.” And she fulfilled this conviction by writing, in 1943, her twelve radio plays on “The Man Born to Be King.” Very few had attempted a dramatic presentation of the life of Jesus before her. Only medieval plays and the depiction in Oberammergau had done so. Yet, the ancient Greeks worshiped by going to the theater; seeing the great tragedies of their myths was a religious experience. Theater started as a religious expression.

We also, citizens of this already troubled twenty-first century, enjoy the emotional appreciation of the nativity story fully when we see it acted out. But it doesn’t mean much in the long run unless we make the effort to move from the enjoyment and emotion to this “massive intellectual coherence” which is so effective as drama. We cannot remain starry-eyed in the worship of an infant; we must move forward to the ministry of the man Jesus without losing the mystery of the divine drama. How can we possibly tell in ordinary words this stunning, startling event of God’s breaking through in what has been called “the scandal of particularity,” of the Timeless entering Time?

It so troubling to many of us in this season to talk to Christians who speak of the coming of Jesus without trembling at the thought of the Incarnation, of God deliberately taking on flesh! This fearful, truly awesome reality has become so ordinary for us that we mention it without really taking it in. It is such an unprecedented event, this unique event in history, that Matthew and Luke tell it in the simplest terms but with heavenly imagery.

And therein lies the drama. A very pregnant virgin and her husband travel over difficult terrain from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Both the virgin and her future husband are visited by angels. Angels break through and sing of glory after the baby is born, while animals and the poorest of the poor gather around a little baby to sing of peace and good will. How else can something so dramatic be told in order to shake us out of complacency?

St. Paul gives it a try in the opening greeting of his letter to the Romans, the passage we read today, and ends up trying to contain the immense drama in 102 Greek words that form one long sentence. He speaks of “. . . his Son, who descended from David according to the flesh and was declared Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead,” and the sentence is still not finished.

He trips over his words in speaking of this astounding event. But when writing to the Philippians he succeeds fully in utter and profound simplicity: “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,” he says of the eternal, the cosmic Christ. This is what Matthew means when he writes that the angel said to Joseph: “. . . for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” We imagine Joseph hiding his face and thinking, “I don’t understand any of it, but I will do as you say.”

The excellent American folklorist, John Jacob Niles, heard three words sung in the Appalachian town of Murphy, North Carolina and went on to compose the heart-breaking, simple melody and words of “I wonder as I wander right under the sky how Jesus the Savior did come for to die. . .” We must never stop wondering.

To move from drama and simplicity to the greatness and baroque richness of Bach and Handel, is to experience fully the reality that God dwells also in the beauty of sound. The whole drama of the biblical story of the Christ, from the Fall to the song of the angels and beyond, is found in Handel’s masterpiece Messiah. Those of us who have sung this oratorio through many years have memorized, together with the music, the words of the great prophets. Thanks to Handel and his brilliant lyricist, Charles Jennens, who poured over the Authorized Version, countless folks who have never read the Bible have memorized the most beautiful and comforting words of Scripture!

“Comfort ye my people.”

“Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked, straight. . .”

“He shall feed his flock like a shepherd and carry them in his bosom.”

And from today’s lesson: “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel, God with us.”

God with us! What a wondrous promise. What a loving reality. Hold on to that. Hold on to the drama of the Eternal entering Time, of the Invisible becoming Visible in the face of Jesus, a baby in human form who grew up to show us the heart of God. And enter into the season of Christmas with the feelings of a child and the meditations of wise Christians. Immanuel: the mystery and glory of the Incarnation.

Katerina Whitley lives and writes in Boone, NC. She has used drama in her five books published by Morehouse and also in her novel of the first century, A New Love, published by Material Media. For more on her retreats and dramatic presentations visit her website. www.katerinawhitley.net.

Download the sermon for Advent 4(A).

Can You See and Hear God’s Presence in Your Life? Advent 3(A)

[RCL] Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11; Psalm 146:4-9 or Canticle 15

We are well into the third week of the Advent season. Advent is a season of waiting, expectation, and preparation for the coming of the Messiah.

But who is this Messiah? Do we have any preconceived idea how we would like this Messiah to be?

John the Baptist seems to have certain ideas.

In today’s Gospel, after hearing what Jesus did, John sends his question to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

It seems John may have doubts about the identity of Jesus.

But in the Gospel of Luke, we know that John the Baptist jumped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb before both he and Jesus were born when the two mothers met. (Luke 1:41) In last week’s Gospel, John introduces Jesus as, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matt 3:11)

John the Baptist knows perfectly well who Jesus is. So, why is he questioning?

Well, remember, John is in prison! Has his imprisonment has caused him to doubt Jesus?

The Messiah is not saving John from prison, and the one who is supposed to take away the sin from the world is not taking away the sin away from Herod. Would you blame John the Baptist or anybody to doubt in such situation?

After hearing the question, as usual, Jesus does not answer directly but tells John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matthew 11:4-6)

We see that the doubt of John the Baptist gets his disciples to be mindful of what Jesus does. The doubt of John the Baptist is pointing people to pay attention to see and hear Jesus.

Uncertain, scary, and helpless times can shake one up and cause doubts in one’s faith. Today’s Gospel is a good reflection of our spiritual journey. We can be like John the Baptist. When we are moved by the Holy Spirit, we vow to follow God. It is very clear and true. Or when we receive blessings, we are sure Jesus is our Savior.

When we face adversity and disasters, we question if Jesus really is the Savior. We question why bad things happen, why God is not there for us, and doubt even if God really exists. We tend to think God only exists when we are in good times. That is our preconceived idea of our Savior and why we are in doubt when things do not go our way. We are wrapped up in our own world and cannot hear or see God’s presence.

Nevertheless, being in doubt may get us closer to God. John the Baptist may be in doubt but his questioning points people to question God also. Then people pay attention to hear and see, find God’s grace and bring back the good news of Jesus to the doubter.

Doubting is part of our spiritual journey. However, the process may seem unbearable. We need to point each other to hear and see God’s grace to keep our faith. Sometimes we do have to wait in uncertain, and anxious moments before the truth comes out.

Advent is a season of waiting, expectation, and preparation for the coming of the Messiah. We are blessed that we know the certainty of the birth of Jesus. Yet, we are still waiting for the second coming of the Messiah. This time of waiting can be anxious and fearful time.

There is chaos in different parts of the world. We have our fair share of chaos causing disappointment, anxiety, fear, and anger in our own country right now. Enough people question the presence of God.

Will we be able to not be distracted by our own self-centeredness, and anxiety or our own pre-conception about God but look for God, and go and tell people what we see and hear about the presence of God?

As Christians, during Advent we are to slow down, reflect, and pray while waiting for the coming or our Lord. We need to reflect on what it means to be followers of Jesus our Lord, and our seeing and hearing of our Lord.

In a sense, we all have experienced what Jesus said:

The blind receive their sight.

The lame walk.

The lepers are cleansed.

The deaf hear.

The dead are raised.

The poor have good news brought to them.

If we are baptized, aren’t haven’t we experienced these things?

Through baptism, weren’t we once blind and deaf, but now can see and hear God’s good news?

Weren’t we once crooked but now could stand straight?

Weren’t we once uncleaned, but now cleansed by God’s Holy Spirit?

Didn’t we die to our previous life and now live a new life?

Didn’t we, the once poor in spirit, receive good news?

Truly, if we keep our eyes and ears open, we will hear and see plenty of God’s mighty work literally and metaphorically even in bad times. We will be able to go and tell.

It is time for us to share the good news and hope with others especially with those who are in doubt.

Br. Curtis Almquist of Society of Saint John the Evangelist writes in one of his daily meditations that:

“All of that stuff that isn’t right yet in us and in those whom we love will be satisfied and healed, but most likely it won’t all happen in this life. And in the meantime, sometimes a very mean time, we continue to come back to Jesus to be reminded of his real presence with us, and his provision to meet our immediate and ongoing needs.”

We are waiting in uncertainty but we are waiting in hope because of Emmanuel – God’s presence with us.

In the last few weeks, we have been reading from the Prophet Isaiah. He has been bringing the good news of Emmanuel to us.

Today Isaiah says:

“They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’ … And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

Yes, the Lord shall return.

Traditionally the third week of Advent is joy. When we can see and hear God’s presence – Emmanuel, in good times and bad times, and know God is coming again, isn’t that joyful? Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Ada Wong Nagata is Priest in Charge and Director of Jubilee Community Center at Church of Our Savior, Manhattan, a bilingual congregation with English and Cantonese in Chinatown New York. Ada served seven years as Convener of Chinese Convocation of Episcopal Asiamerican Ministries (EAM), recently finished her term. She is a board member of Li Tim-Oi Center, an Asian Ministry Center of The Episcopal Church. Ada earned her Doctor of Ministry from Episcopal Divinity School in 2015. Ada loves hiking and often goes on meditative walks.  

Download the Sermon for Advent 3(A).

Bear Fruit Worthy of the Gift of Repentance – Advent 2(A)

One has to love John the Baptist! Not for his sense of fashion – although camel’s hair clothing is quite trendy. And definitely not his diet. But our fondness for John the Baptist can be rooted in the fact that he is a ‘tell it as it is preacher.’ He doesn’t fit in the box of safe, well-dressed, predictable, comfortable religion. He understands his purpose fully and is living into his calling.

As we read about John the Baptist’s preaching, it’s very clear that he wasn’t concerned about being Mr. Popular. When we read about John the Baptist, we see he was a straight talker, no filler words or smooth talking with John; and he wasn’t afraid to offend people in order to tell them the truth.

We meet John the Baptist at the beginning of each of the gospels – today in Matthew. He is an advance man for Jesus. He comes into the territory and gets people ready to hear what Jesus is going to preach.

He comes bearing news. He comes offering something amazing. But only if one’s heart is in the right place. John wants to see everyone around him benefit from what he has to offer.

We hear John tell his listeners in verse 8, “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” That is, if you repent of your sins, if you confess your sin, say you will turn to God, then there must be something to show for it. It MUST affect the way you live.

It might be helpful in this great season of our Church, to ask ourselves the hard question of what fruits are we bearing? What fruits are we bearing in this Advent season?

“Bearing fruit worthy of repentance” as Chris Surber puts it, is living in such a way, as to outwardly express the reality of what repentance has produced in our lives. In other words, it means that our lives reflect a lifestyle, action, and choice pattern which are consistent with having repented of sin – that is – with having made a declaration against the destructive things of this world in favor of aligning ourselves with the beautiful things of the Kingdom of God.

We are all being called to bear fruits that are worthy of the gift of repentance. The New Living Translation of the Bible breaks it down a little more for us, it says “Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones.” (Luke 3:8)

John the Baptist is telling us to live in such a manner befitting of having repented.

Repentance is an integral part of the Christian life.

Repentance is not a onetime act of confession or a onetime recital of a certain prayer or creedal statement.

Repentance is the declaration of the heart, of the soul, of everything that is in us, in response to the terrible burden of our own sin and the great weight of God’s love for us, in turning from that which is destroying us to that which saves us!

Repentance is more than a deep abiding inward decision to reject this life for the life of Christ! It is the ongoing and living decision to choose Christ and live for Him daily; even more so to allow Him to live in us!

Repentance is the attitude of the heart, which is thankful for the grace of God…

The papaya tree is a fascinating tree because sometimes there will be a papaya tree that didn’t bear fruit at all. It will go as far as flowering, but those flowers never produce fruit. It isn’t until the head is cut off, will it start growing again and produce fruit. There is probably a good scientific explanation for that – however for the purposes of this message, sometimes there are things, situations, people even, that we have to cut away from our lives in order for us to bear fruit.

When it comes to fruit trees, it’s important to know that the quality and quantity each season is largely based on the watering, pruning, fertilizer and care the tree receives.

These analogies beg the questions, How are we the Church preparing ourselves to bear fruit? What is does the quality and quantity of our fruit look like? What are some of the things we have to cut away? And are people rushing into our doors because of our fruit?…

The season of Advent marks a time of preparation and hope for the coming of Christ. Perhaps in this Advent season we individually, as faith communities and as a Church use this time as a time to water, prune and fertilize so that we bear quality fruit in abundance.

Our brother John teaches us in this gospel several things – three things worthy of mentioning today.

The first is The Power of Preparation. In the seasons when we don’t water, prune or fertilize our fruit trees our crop isn’t as big or successful. Alexander Graham Bell got it right when he said “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”

So how do we prepare? Well our brother John has laid the foundation for us. One of the first steps will be to repent. And because God isn’t through with any of us, we might have to do it several times a day.

Preparation takes various forms. Some include praying, staying grounded in the Word of God because you can’t live by it if you don’t know it. One cannot practice what’s not imbedded in them.

The second thing we can learn from this Baptist – is to Seek God. None of us are entitled to God’s grace, favor and mercy. John reminds us ever so profoundly that not because we can point to God’s inheritance as ours does that mean that we don’t have to recognize that God could chose whomever God wants.

We heard in last week’s gospel lesson “That two men 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. And we are charged to keep awake for we do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” If we are seeking God daily, we don’t have to worry whether we are going to be the one taken up or not.

Preparation and continuously seeking God helps with the third thing John teaches us today and that is humility. John was the forerunner for the modern day evangelist as he unapologetically shared the good news of Jesus Christ. He was a man filled with faith and a role model to those of us who wish to share our faith with others.

It was the late Nelson Mandela who described humility as a quality within easy reach of every soul – and among others is the foundation of one’s spiritual life.

Mandela’s life just like John’s are examples to us of the seriousness with which we are to approach the Christian life and our call to ministry, whatever that may be.

John remained humble in his ministry recognizing that he was not Jesus; and that his purpose was significant and different from that of Jesus. John exemplifies humility in the lay leadership he provided as Jesus’ forerunner.

When we prepare ourselves and consistently seek God daily we live lives that reflect a humble attitude of gratefulness to God for God’s love and mercy. And we become more able to bear fruit for the Kingdom of God!

When we in reverence bow our heads, or kneel at the confession we are each offered an opportunity to repent. We are offered the chance to turn back from those thoughts and habits and actions that take us out of step with God. We are invited to move back again in harmony with God’s vision for us and for our world as we remember the savior who died for our sins and rose again and will come again.

During this season of waiting and great preparation, as we seek to find again the one who first called us, to follow him; who still sends messengers like John to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation. May that God, give us grace to heed their warnings and strength to forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ.

Amen!

Written The Rev. Arlette Benoit. Benoit is a graduate of General Theological Seminary in New York City where she earned her Masters in Divinity with a Certificate in Spiritual Direction. She was ordained to the priesthood in June 2013 in the Diocese of Atlanta. While at seminary Benoit interned with The Episcopal Church’s Office of Black Ministries. She continues to be involved with the Office of Black Ministries, and assist and provides consultation for the planning of the S.O.U.L (Spiritual Opportunity to Unity and Learn) Conferences for youth and young adults, in addition to working with a team of clergy and lay leaders to develop The Rising Stars (RISE) Experience — a new initiative aimed at countering the “School-to-Prison Pipeline” where children are pushed out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Benoit was also recently appointed to serve as a Youth Ministry Liaison for the Office of Youth Ministries representing Province Four of The Episcopal Church. She has also served as seminarian at Trinity Wall Street and St. Ann’s Church for the Deaf during her time in New York City. She now serves at St. Paul’s Episcopal Atlanta GA, as Associate to the Rector.

Download the sermon for Advent 2(A).

Bulletin Insert: Advent 2(A)

Applications Now Accepted for YASC

YASCYoung adults (21-30 years old) have an opportunity to transform their own lives while engaging mission and ministry in the Anglican Communion by joining the Young Adult Service Corps.

Applications are now available for 2017-2018 placements in the Young Adult Service Corps, commonly known as YASC.

Currently YASCers are serving throughout the Anglican Communion, working alongside partners in administration, agriculture, communication, development, and education. They are serving in Brazil, Costa Rica, England, France, Haiti, Hong Kong, Japan, Jerusalem, Panama, Philippines, and South Africa.

Among possible placements for 2017-2018 are Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, England, France, Ghana, Haiti, Honduras, Hong Kong, Japan, Jerusalem, Mexico, Panama, Philippines, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, and Tanzania.

“The Young Adult Service Corps offers young adults the opportunity to live out their faith in new ways and different contexts,” commented Elizabeth Boe, Episcopal Church Global Networking Officer. “They commit to spending a year learning from and working, living, and praying with other Episcopal and Anglican communities around the world.”

The application for a 2017-2018 placement with additional information and instructions is available here. The application deadline is Friday, January 6, 2017.

The Rev David Copley, Team Leader Global Partnerships, noted, “YASC builds on the foundation of faith, knowledge, education, and experience that young adults bring with them when they serve and offers opportunities to be challenged and transformed by being fully present in another part of God’s world. Missionary service is first and foremost an act of faith and a way of being Church.”

For more information contact Grace Flint, Staff Officer for YASC Programming, 212-716-6052.

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Bible Study, Advent 4(A) – December 18, 2016

[RCL] Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Isaiah 7:10–16

During this season of Advent, it is easy to read the prophet Isaiah and immediately jump to the birth of Jesus. Isaiah is directly quoted in Matthew’s gospel, which we also read today: Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. While it is not wrong for us to understand who Jesus is in light of this text, we must also recognize that the prophet Isaiah was not predicting a future when Mary would give birth to God incarnate. Isaiah’s project is one that is much more immediate and much more involved.

If you read the fullness of Isaiah’s text beginning at 7:1, you see that the prophet is arguing with King Ahaz who has allied himself with the Assyrian empire. At this time in history, the Jewish people were split between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. As the Assyrian empire expanded, Isaiah was sent by the northern kingdom to call Judah into alliance with Israel against a common enemy. When King Ahaz refuses, Isaiah says that a child—an innocent—will come with a name that means “God with us,” but that child will see the destruction and ruin of Judah.

Isaiah’s prophecy is about how even in the face of atrocities, God is with us. Jesus, who came in love to reconcile humanity to God and one another, is one way we see that prophecy come about, but it was certainly not what Isaiah or Ahaz expected.

  • What ideas or issues split us as people of God today?
  • How does our story as told in scripture lead us to reconcile those differences?
  • Is there an Advent practice that could help foster reconciliation and love in our church/community/world?

Psalm 80:1–7, 16–18

Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

This refrain is repeated in Psalm 80 in verses 2, 7, and 18. It is the cry the psalmist makes on behalf of the people of Israel that shapes the arc of the psalm. The people in darkness and despair cry out for God to bring light into the world. Although our Prayer Book translation of the psalm is beautiful, it does not always capture the subtleties of the Hebrew. In Hebrew, each repetition of this prayer builds upon the last.

v.3 – Restore us O God (elohim)
v.7 – Restore us O God of Hosts (elohim tseva’oth)
v.18 – Restore us O Yahweh, God of Hosts (yahweh elohim tseva’oth)

Try not to get too bogged down in the Hebrew, but do notice that with each cry for help, the psalmist grows in knowledge of God and who God is. The cry moves from the generic word for god to a specific god, God of Hosts, to an actual naming of God, Yahweh, God of Hosts.

Also telling in this prayer is that the psalmist asks for the light of God’s countenance – light from the face of God. We know from Exodus 33:20 that no one can see God’s face and live. That is the gift of Jesus – a God whom we can name, know, and look in the face comes into the world to spread light and life.

  • Where in this world do you see the face of God?
  • What words or modifiers would you use to describe God as you have known God?
  • What prayer would you write for your church/community/self to pray every day this final week of Advent?

Romans 1:1–7

If we break up into parts this opening greeting from Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul basically does three things: he identifies himself as a servant of Jesus, he identifies who Jesus is, and he offers greetings and blessings to Jesus’ people in Rome. It is a passage full of statements of identity—who Paul is, who Jesus is, and who we, the church, are.

Paul first talks about himself in relationship to Jesus. He is a servant of Jesus, he is called by Jesus to be an apostle, and he is set apart for the gospel, or good news, of Jesus. Paul’s identity is completely wrapped up in his relationship to Jesus. In verse 6, that identity is shared with the people in Rome who are also “called to belong to Jesus Christ.”

Sandwiched between these two statements of identity is a rich statement of who Jesus is. Jesus is described as “descended from David,” “flesh,” “Son of God,” “resurrected,” and “Lord.” Even Jesus’ interactions with us are laid out: Jesus gives us grace, establishes our faith, and brings in the Gentiles.

Paul, Jesus, the church in Rome, and even we who are followers of Jesus today are all enmeshed together in God’s creation. Paul is establishing in this salutation that all of us are connected to one another and to God in the person of Jesus.

  • What is your relationship to Jesus? How do you express that?
  • How do you talk to others about the good news of Jesus? Or do you?
  • How can we as a church and as individuals better live into our identity as followers of Jesus?

Matthew 1:18–25

In this passage from Matthew’s gospel, names and relationships are very important. Just prior to this passage, Matthew gives a detailed genealogy that links Jesus to David, the great king of Israel, by naming all of Joseph’s ancestors. Jesus’ mother Mary and father Joseph are named, and the love Joseph has for Mary is revealed when he is unwilling to publically disgrace her for being pregnant. When the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph, the angel calls Joseph by name and notes his lineage from David and his relationship with Mary. Furthermore, the angel tells Joseph to name the child Jesus which means “God saves.” Even in Matthew’s commentary after the story, he recalls the prophecy from Isaiah who speaks of a child who will be named Emmanuel which means “God with us.”

Names mean something here. When we love someone or know someone well, we call them by their name, and our relationship is strengthened. Names also sometimes carry their own meaning. According to Jewish practice, Yahweh, God’s name, is not spoken in order to give it a sense of holiness. When God became one of us, however, he receives a rather common name, Jesus, which is a shortened version of the Hebrew name Joshua. The fact that Jesus has such a normal name and yet it means something tremendous – “God saves” – tells us something about God and how God interacts with us in this world.

Note all the contradictions in this story. Joseph is a simple man, yet descended from King David. Mary is in a situation that could ruin her socially, yet Joseph loves her and she bears the son of God. Jesus is given a simple, common name, yet it lays out God’s plan of salvation for the world. Matthew points out the greatness of this name and this plan through recalling the prophecy of Isaiah where a child will be called Emmanuel – God with us. It is a reminder to look for God’s presence in one another because God is with us in the common and everyday.

  • What names or titles would you give God?
  • Have you ever found God in unexpected or common places?
  • What does your name tell about your story?

Reflections by Charles Lane Cowen, Postulant for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Rhode Island, M.Div. Candidate, Seminary of the Southwest.

Download the Bible Study for Advent 4(A).

Be Awake and Ready – Advent 1(A)

The hippopotamus is an awfully deadly animal. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica hippos are the sixth most deadly mammal to humans on the planet. Hippos follow elephants, horses, deer, tigers, and of course, other humans as the most dangerous mammals to human beings. Most of us, I suppose, think of hippos as cute and cuddly, serene, floating in the waters of Africa. Those who have been on or near those waters know that the hippopotamus is an extraordinarily aggressive and territorial animal that is very prone to attack.

There is an amazing athlete named Juliet Starrett. She is a two-time extreme whitewater canoe champion, she is also a lawyer and a survivor of cancer. A few years ago Juliet was canoeing through the Zambezi River in Eastern Africa. It was on that trip that her canoe was disturbed by a hippopotamus. Not so much disturbed as exploded. The way that Juliet tells it, she was paddling along one second and the next she was ten feet in the air above the water. She says that she looked down and saw the chomping jaws of the hippo turning her performance canoe into splinters. While in the air, Juliet says that she spotted the nearest shore and began swimming – while in the air! She was swimming in mid-air!

That kind of thinking while in the midst of a disorienting and dangerous tragedy, that cool appraisal of the situation and the prioritization of survival, that kind of thinking demonstrates what is sometimes called the “ready-state.” Ready-state is a notion of health in any particular situation or system. A good ready-state in an immune system for example would be the ability to bounce back from an illness quickly and completely. Ready-state can also be used to describe relationships. Ready-state relationships are healthy and resilient.

In a person, a ready-state is characterized by the ability of that person to enter into just about any situation with equanimity and openness. Fragility, on the other hand, is the opposite of ready-state. Ready-state is not about being anxious and hyper-vigilant, but is instead about mindfulness and well…readiness.

Most of all ready-state is due mostly to advance-work, namely: training. Consistent, intentional training, over time, allows for the ready-state. Juliet, the canoer on the Zambezi, was not expecting or planning for the hippo attack, instead she was simply trained and ready; and when the time came, her training and general ready-state kicked in.

In today’s gospel passage, Jesus is reminding us that not even he, nor the angels, know when God will come. Some like to think that God will come in terrible retribution with flames and violence. These people look for signs in international politics and weather patterns that God is coming to judge and destroy the world. This is the Day of the Lord, the great apocalyptic coming of God to be with the creation fully. The reason that so many doom-sayers with signs that say, “The End is Nigh,” say what they say is because the prophets and gospel writers, even Jesus, used language like this: great tribulation, division, floods of fire and water.

The point they are trying to make is that when God comes to be fully wedded to creation, the existing order of things will be reversed. Instead of violence and oppression being used to secure economic and political flourishing for some, the Kingdom of God will be established so that peace and justice will walk hand-in-hand.

These reversals of the worldly ordering of life is a trademark of God’s presence and it always comes as a surprise because that kind of life, one marked with peace, justice, presence and love can be achieved in the here and now.

And Jesus, in today’s reading, is calling us to be awake and prepared for it. Jesus is reminding us of the importance to be in a ready-state for God’s coming. This is part of what Advent is all about. Advent, it turns out is not, is not, a countdown of shopping days until Christmas but a reminder of the ready-state, a call to training our spirits for God’s arrival.

The Christian tradition recognizes that God has come, and will come, to be with us in three distinct ways.

The first coming of God was when God walked with us in Jesus of Nazareth. We will celebrate that coming in a few weeks at the Feast of the Incarnation, otherwise known as Christmas.

Another coming of God is the final coming which Jesus makes mention of in today’s reading, when God and creation will be as they were meant to be, fully united. The strongest image the Bible has for this union is a marriage between God and creation and, make no mistake, heaven is coming to Earth (Rev. 21).

The third coming of God happens between the first coming and the final coming of God, between the coming of Jesus and the final marriage of God and creation. This coming of God is the daily visitation: God with us in our prayers, finding God in our neighbors, seeing God in those we are privileged to serve.

What we see in these three visitations is that all of them are the hoped for Day of the Lord. Each of these visitations carries with it the reversals of the normal, worldly order but also the loving and just presence of God.

How are you in a ready-state for God’s coming? How then can we be awake and watchful for the coming of God, whether in the final coming of the daily visitation of God?

There is a telling portion of Scripture that happens when the disciples have just seen Jesus ascend into Heaven. The disciples are looking up, dumbfounded. Finally, some angels appear and ask, “Why are you looking up, trying to find him?” The implication is, “Don’t look up to find Jesus, look out, look in.”

Jesus is always one step ahead, going into the city, into Galilee, into life, we are meant to seek and find him there. That’s how we stay ready for God’s coming, we daily, hourly stay on the lookout for God, not in the clouds, not in the powerful events of the world, but in the quiet, domestic ways that God visits us. God may indeed someday come in the clouds but it more than likely will come in your life.

Advent is a reminder of the ready-state, be awake and ready for God. This is why Advent tends to be described as preparatory, not just for the great celebration of Christmas but for the final coming of God and also for the ever-present daily visit of God with us in the here and now.

God is not as deadly as the hippo, but God is as disruptive to our normal hard-hearted ways as the hippo was to the canoer on the Zambezi. Be ready, be awake because the love of God will disrupt, explode and turn over our comfortable notions of how things ought to be. God will launch us into the air and into the waters of justice, peace, presence and love. It can be disorienting, but if we have trained ourselves to be ready, then we might work with God to establish God’s Kingdom more deeply in our hurting world.

Let us pray: Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Written by The Rev. Josh Bowron. Bowron is the rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, NC. He holds an M.Div. from The School of Theology at the University of the South and is also currently working on a Masters of Sacred Theology there, with a particular interest in modern Anglican theologians. He enjoys a zesty life with his wife Brittany and their three children.  

Download the sermon for Advent 1A.