A Sermon for The First Sunday after Christmas Day – December 27, 2015
by Louise Browner Blanchard, Associate Rector
This year, at the 10:00 hour during Advent, we spent some time looking at the stories of Jesus’ birth in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. There are some striking differences between the two gospels, but the highlight of the story in each is the birth of the baby Jesus, and if you were lucky enough to be here on Christmas Eve at 5:00, you saw the best parts of both stories rolled into one glorious mashup in the Children’s Service of Lessons and Carols. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, angels and animals, shepherds and wise men, the manger and a star–they were all right here to usher in Christmas in a way that left us with smiles on our faces and love in our hearts.
Jesus comes into the world in an altogether different way in John’s gospel. In fact, according to John, the person who came to be known as Jesus has been with God from the very beginning, before the creation of the heavens and the earth, and indeed is inseparable from God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In John’s gospel, the person who came to be known as Jesus comes into being not as a baby, but as life itself. Life, and also light, and glory, and grace, and truth. Everything that is good in our lives–challenging, comforting and inspiring, and available to all people at all times.
That’s a far cry from a baby in a manger. But in his own way, the writer of the gospel of John is telling us a similar story—that God cares so much about us that he came to live among us, as one of us, to be both a profound presence in our lives and a provocative example for how to live them. As the gospel of John proclaims expressly, and all the gospels proclaim by example, Jesus is the light of all people, the light that shines in the darkness and cannot be overcome by it. Perhaps that is why his life and message are of particular comfort to those who are grieving, hungry, imprisoned, persecuted, poor, or sick–because he reminds us that there is not a single circumstance that can extinguish the power of God’s loving presence or the promise of God’s redemption.
Today’s gospel from John tells us about another John whose role it was to testify to that inextinguishable light. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” John the Gospeller is, of course, talking about John the Baptist, and in John’s gospel, the primary role of John the Baptist is to testify to the presence of Jesus, the Son of God, the light of God, and the salvation of all people.
For the people of St. Mary’s, however, John the Gospeller could just as easily be talking about yet another John. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” John Miller has testified to the light of Christ to the people of St. Mary’s for 38 years. He first arrived here as a young doctoral candidate at what is now Union Presbyterian Seminary and as the husband of Margie, the St. Mary’s organist. Although he and Margie weren’t yet Episcopalian, John impressed her boss and his soon-to-be predecessor, mentor, and friend Holt Souder as just what St. Mary’s needed.
He started here as minister to arguably the toughest crowd there is—youth—while, under Holt’s tutelage, he and Margie were confirmed as Episcopalians. The people of St. Mary’s affirmed Holt’s intuition that John was meant to serve the Episcopal church and them, and he was ordained a deacon and became Holt’s assistant. Six months later, he was ordained a priest, already admired for his pastoral presence, his preaching and teaching, and his love for the people of St. Mary’s—all of which led an ever-growing number of people to think, “I’ll have what he’s having.” John became rector upon Holt’s retirement, and St. Mary’s grew and grew.
Which brings us back to today’s gospel, because throughout these many years, as a pastor, preacher, presider, and especially as a person, John Miller has testified to the light, continuously fulfilling the words of the prayer of consecration from the Book of Common Prayer service of The Ordination of a Priest:
May he exalt you, O Lord, in the midst of your people; offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to you; boldly proclaim the gospel of salvation; and rightly administer the sacraments of the New Covenant. Make him a faithful pastor, a patient teacher, and a wise councilor. Grant that in all things he may serve without reproach, so that your people may be strengthened and your Name glorified in all the world.
It hasn’t always been easy. Many of you have known hardship, heartbreak, and loss, times when the light of Christ seemed like a bad joke or a promise cruelly snatched away. John was there. He consoled and reassured you, and prayed, and most of all, he showed up, and he stayed. His very presence was testimony to the light, a glimmer of hope that you weren’t alone after all, that somebody was with you, and God was, too. And you, the people of St. Mary’s, did the same for John. Your prayers and presence have been the light of Christ for him.
And for much of the past 38 years, that light has shined brightly at St. Mary’s under John’s leadership, starting with the hundreds of babies who have been born and baptized, gone through St. Mary’s Sunday School, and been confirmed and served as acolytes…continuing with the number of people of all ages who have been married..the love of liturgy that celebrates the incarnation at the heart of our faith…trust in the spirit of God’s kingdom to build everything under this roof and the building behind us…an adult choir that began as a dream and, with the Children’s Choir, now reminds us every week and then some that, as St. Augustine said, “He who sings, prays twice.” A devoted and loyal staff. Teaching that informs and inspires. Outreach partnerships that change the lives of those we serve–and ours, as well. Fellowship that celebrates food and friendship. Active, dedicated volunteers in every aspect of our common life. Fondness and respect for the history of St. Mary’s and enthusiasm for what lies ahead… as we celebrate John’s ministry at St. Mary’s and the life that lies ahead for him and Deborah, I know that I have barely scratched the surface of what John has meant to St. Mary’s.
Perhaps my favorite concrete legacy of John’s leadership are the bells of St. Mary’s, part of the building campaigns that profoundly changed the face of St. Mary’s without altering its essential character. They toll the hours of every day, and ring joyfully at baptisms, confirmations, and weddings and mournfully at funerals. They remind not only us, but those who surround us, of nothing less than the presence of God in whatever life brings our way, of something constant and graceful and true. Forever more, they will remind me of John Miller and what he has meant to this community.
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John…”