A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Sunday, December 19, 2021

By: Amelia McDaniel, Lay Associate for Christian Formation

 

There are many things that I am proud of when I say that I am from Tennessee. I know there are great people and places in every corner of this earth, but home is home and your people are your people. One of the Nashvillians I am proudest of is Episcopal priest, Becca Stevens, who runs Thistle Farms. She founded Thistle Farms to address the needs of women who are survivors of addiction, trafficking and prostitution. The two-year residential program helps women create new lives through counseling, education and job training. Their motto is Love Heals, and it has been at Thistle Farms for the more than 20 years. And Thistle Farms has grown to serve women around the US and abroad.

Stevens travels frequently and she brings with her women who are about to graduate at Thistle Farms. Their stories are powerful and humbling. Stevens tells of one woman she was traveling with, a survivor of abuse and life on the streets. The woman was so anxious about giving her speech to the group they were visiting she rewrote it multiple times as she was on the plane and in the hotel the night before the event.

The following morning, when Stevens and the woman arrived at the community to speak, Stevens got up and said, “This is making me nervous. I think it will go much better for her and for us if we just go ahead, cut to the chase, and give her a standing ovation now.” Of course, the group complied, and the woman began weeping as did the audience and Stevens says “it was a big love fest without any words.” The woman’s witness to the healing power of love, without one single word being said was enough.

This story reminds me of today’s Gospel reading. A preemptive ovation and witness to what God’s love can do.

As the reading opens Mary has just learned from Gabriel that she has been chosen for some unimaginable work, that she would be bringing the son of God into this world. She “went with haste” to see her cousin Elizabeth who she had learned was also pregnant by the miraculous work of God. I feel like there was some more to this story than Mary simply making “haste” to see Elizabeth. If I were in Mary’s situation, I wouldn’t be “making haste”, I’d be high tailing it to see Elizabeth.

When Mary arrives to see Elizabeth, she called out to her in greeting. And at hearing the sound of Mary’s voice, Elizabeth’s baby leapt in her womb. Elizabeth exclaimed with a loud cry, in part because she gets a wallop from within.

Here it is, a preemptive standing ovation. Before the story of Jesus even really begins, before he is born, before he starts preaching and teaching, before the miracles, the child in Elizabeth’s womb gives his own version of a standing ovation for Jesus. I would guess this ovation was to Elizabeth’s wonder and delight and also probably brought her a little bit of discomfort. Elizabeth’s baby, the boy who will be called John the Baptist, knows exactly who Jesus is, and jumped with joy at the nearness to the son of God.

And then Mary prays the prayer known as the Magnificat. It is the prayer of someone who knows the proximity of the love and grace of God. A prayer that calls out to those who are in need that help is on the way. A prayer that points out to those who live in power and comfort the changes that God’s justice and love will bring.

I love every beautiful word of this prayer.
Mary prays with clarity seeing the work God is already doing, the work this child she is bringing into the world will be a part of. She prays with confidence that God’s grace is meant for all. That all means all y’all, y’all there in the back, not necessarily the ones at the front of the line.

As much as I love this prayer, I find myself in a particularly difficult spot when I read it because of the life I lead today.

I am someone who has had too much to eat, who sleeps in a warm bed in a more than adequate house. I speak to you as someone who has enough power to navigate the world relatively well and when I can’t there are support systems of loved ones who prop me up.

I also know that at any given moment my honestly easy life can be upended. But I do not want to blindly find comfort in this prayer when I am not necessarily the one being comforted.

In this disease that I feel, I am reminded of the prayer I learned in Catholic school, the Hail Mary prayer. It is now a prayer that is on my heart often. It is often the first prayer I turn to in distress or confusion.

Hail Mary, full of grace the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

In a recent newsletter, Lutheran pastor and writer Nadia Bolz Weber, points out that we often forget that that the prayer of Mary does not signal her virtue, but her Grace. Hail Mary, full of Grace. Bolz Weber says…”I think that this is exactly what Mary understood: That what qualifies us for God’s grace isn’t our goodness – what qualifies us for God’s grace is nothing more than our need for God’s grace.”

It is through the offering of God’s grace, I find a place for myself in Mary’s Magnificat. Grace. We are given hope through the Grace of this baby we are waiting on in this season. This baby that Mary carries and John leaps for today.

I do not think I will ever come to a peace about disparities in this life. And if I did I think I would be getting it very wrong.

Each of us is called upon to recognize what Mary is praying, that God is about making things right in this world even if we are not the ones who are in need of the righting. For me there are no easy answers for how I am to respond to living in a life where I know I have more than I need and I know that my neighbors do not.

But I pray that through God’s grace I will learn to respond as God would want me to. And the best place I know is to start by seeing God’s grace at work in the lives of others, just like Mary does. And in doing this I can be reminded when it is NOT MY TURN, knowing that in God’s economy of grace my place at the front of the line is not necessarily where He would have me stay and that getting out of the way for His work to be done is often what is in order.

I can be one ready and waiting to jump up with a preemptive standing ovation by seeing God’s grace in all those around me, like the people in the crowd responding to the woman from Thistle Farms or better yet like John leaping with joy at the nearness of Jesus.

There is grace for each of the women at Thistle Farms today and grace for the women who live on the streets still.
Grace for the one waiting for the medicine to work.
For the one who gives her child the food and goes hungry herself.
For the children being picked up to go into foster care this morning.
And grace for the ones who need to be but aren’t.
Grace for the angsty teenager who lashes out and doesn’t mean to.
For the prisoners, both the innocent and the guilty.
For those whose anger consumes their lives. And grace for those who continue to love them anyway.
Grace for the kid in junior high who never gets picked for the team.
For the one who simply cannot pick up the phone to make that call.
Grace for the college kid who has to tell his parents he’s failed out this semester.
For the father who has been looking for work for a year.
Grace for the couple who want to be parents and can’t find a way to make it happen.
And grace for the parents who have a child for whom they do not know what to do.
Grace for the lonely who do not know how very much they are loved.
Grace for us all.

Hail Mary, full of grace. May we all come to know the nearness of Christ.

He Became One of Us

Advent Reflection, Friday, December 17

By: Harrison Higgins

I like Christmas and parts of it I love: the family gatherings, my wild and wonderful children and grandchildren, sweet memories of Christmases past, my wife’s calming, beautiful presence next to my chaotic all-over-the-placeness. But most of all I love the story that God decided to come to this earth and be with us, Emmanuel, actually to become one of us.

When I look out a plane window, I often wonder what it must be like to be God and know every person down there, to see their lives, their thoughts, their hearts; to see their acts of love and cruelty. Would it be more heart warming or heart breaking? I naturally tend to think the latter, but I don’t know. I hope I am wrong on this. What I am sure of is that I would not want to be one of these people; I would love them, try to help and teach them, forgive them when they repented but I would not want to become one of them. That would be asking too much, going too far. “They need to learn. They need to grow up.” I would be saying to myself.

But that is not the God we believe in. He did become one of us. I believe when He looks down at us, because of Jesus, He now also sees Himself. This gives me hope and sometimes even strength to not give up and to keep working for a better world. Christmas really is good news of great joy, if we can get past all the shopping.

One final thought – in today’s world, what is the equivalent of being born in a stable? A homeless shelter? A refugee camp? Under a bridge? And if God had chosen to become incarnate in 2021, who would He (or She) be? If God can see Himself in humanity, I think He also wants us to see Him in each other too.

This is something beyond my understanding that happened in that stable 2,000 years ago where a man and a woman, some shepherds and animals, and angels gazed in silent, reverent awe as the heart of God revealed itself and found voice in a cry of an infant son.

The Stories of our Shared Family Tree

Advent Reflection, Friday, December 10

By: Amelia McDaniel

Knowing your family tree is a great gift. I love hearing stories about the people who have gone before me, like my great-grandmother who moved west in a covered wagon or my first-generation Lebanese grandfather who made his way in a new country. These are the kind of stories that feed my imagination and my understanding of who I am in this life.

Today, we learn about the genealogy of the people of God, the stories of Jesus’s family tree. We call this the ‘Jesse Tree’ which comes from the scripture that says “out of the stump of Jesse will spring a Savior.” The practice of the Jesse Tree traces the story of God’s people from the beginnings of creation through the birth of Jesus. There are some real characters in there. Some of the stories in this family tree are a little dicey and a little racy, but nevertheless show both the goodness and tom foolery of being a human in this world. All the stories reveal that we are made by a loving God who simply refuses to give up on us no matter how ridiculous we can be.

For the past few weeks, the children and youth have been making Jesse Tree ornaments. We began with the story of Creation and the Fall. Let me tell you: there were some questions. Hard ones. Like “why do people have to die?” and “just where is that serpent now?” When we told the story of Abraham and Sarah being the father and mother of a nation more numerous than the stars, their eyes widened in wonder. Telling the stories of the people we belong to is a way of inviting them into this great, big, grand family tree that we are a part of. And the same invitation is offered to you today.

I hope when you hear the stories from the Jesse Tree you will smile and let your imagination go. What if Noah was your great-great-uncle who came through on a visit every summer and told you crazy tales about the ark? What if sitting around in a family gathering someone told you that you laughed just like your great-great-grandmother Sarah? Or imagine that as a kid struggling to master a skill that required you growing bigger, someone reminded you that your third cousin ten times removed, was David and that small people, with God’s help, can do big things.

It may sound a little wacky to stretch our imaginations that far. But these stories really are the stories of our shared family tree. They remind us how far we have come – by the faith of our mothers and fathers who have gone before us who trusted in God’s promise of love. And they remind us to how we are to carry on – with great hope, love, and trust in God’s never-failing love.

A Matter of Time

Advent Reflection, Friday, December 3

By: Eleanor Wellford

Time marches on! No, time stands still. Time is running out! Actually there’s plenty of time left. The time is now! The time was then. Time means everything! Time means nothing. So, which is it? How can “time” be so many things at once?

It can be that way because we’ve made it that way! We’ve made time really important in our lives. And if you don’t believe that, just think of how often we look at our watches or more likely, our cell phones to see what time it is. And what good does it really do because the more we see what time it is, the more we tend to stress about it – whether we’re running out of it or have too much of it. Rarely is there a feeling of satisfaction after seeing what time it is.

According to the church calendar, we are in the season of Advent which is a time to wait for Jesus’s birth. Yet what we’ve been hearing from our readings recently, is that we are to be prepared for Christ’s second coming at an unknown time.

To say the least, it’s a confusing time! There’s a stretch of time, however, that can be captured in the phrases “in the meantime” or “in between time” which means something hasn’t happened yet but is expected to happen.

The apostle Paul was concerned about this “in between” time. In his letters to the various communities of recently converted Christians, he wrote about the importance of keeping the faith when it was hard to do so. The ground on which those early churches was founded was shaky to say the least; but against all odds, those churches not only survived, but thrived because of their faith.

I believe that faith is the only thing that allows us to live a meaningful life during times of stress and uncertainty – something we’ve all become used to during the past almost two years.

So the next time you look to see what time it is, especially during Advent, try to be aware of the time that marks the beginning of something not yet here. As humans we know how hard it is to live in that time, but as Christians, we have faith that God’s love, incarnate in Jesus Christ, will be the strength we need to see us through whatever time it is.