Sunday, December 12, 2022
By: Amelia McDaniel, Lay Associate for Christian Formation
A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
Sunday, December 12, 2022
Sunday, December 12, 2022
By: Amelia McDaniel, Lay Associate for Christian Formation
Sunday, November 27, 2022
By: Kilpy Singer, Associate Rector
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Okay, I’m about to ask a series of highly fraught and contested questions, so just be assured that this is a judgement free zone, alright?
Raise your hand if you’ve started listening to Christmas music.
Raise your hand if you’ve already put up and decorated your Christmas tree.
Has anyone here purchased, wrapped, and placed gifts under that Christmas tree?
In my mind, there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of that. The Christmas season starts when you need it to start. If tinsel and jingle bell rock and Fraser firs bring you cheer, then why not? Life’s too short to put off these simple things that bring us a little extra joy.
And, and, here in this place, the weeks leading up to Christmas mean something different than they do out there. In this place, we observe Advent, and Advent is not just a Christmas pre-game. Once again, nothing wrong with decorating our homes and participating in the lovely culture of Christmas all December long. However, we as followers of Jesus are also called to participate in this season, these four weeks of Advent, with intentionality, in the way that our Christian ancestors have year after year since the 5th century.
Advent is this time when we are to remember and prepare. We remember when Jesus came to our world as a baby in a manger, and we prepare for that day when he will come again. Now, remembrance we do pretty well. The church universal has mastered the telling of this miraculous story through pageants, nativity scenes, Christmas hymns, the Jesse Tree, and scripture countdown calendars. We have built tools for people of all ages to relive and remember that first coming of Christ on that holy night.
And the other half of Advent, the part about preparation, well, what do we do to intentionally prepare for the final Advent, the second and final coming of Christ, in these four weeks? The more I thought about this over the last few days, the more I realized that we as Christians are brilliant at retelling the story of how Christ came down to us, but it’s harder for us to talk about preparing and watching and waiting for Him to come again.
It’s hard for us to live it out, even. To know how to exist in this already-and-not-yet sort of placeholder that we are in, in which the redeeming and salvific work of Christ has been already done, but the fullness of his perfect and eternal kingdom has not yet been made complete here on earth.
And perhaps it’s hard to talk about and even harder to live out this watching and waiting for Christ to come again, because maybe we’ve lost sight of it in the first place. Not due to any fault of our own, but because of the fact that it’s been a long time since Jesus was here on earth, and it’s been a long time that we’ve been waiting, and it’s hard to prepare and keep ready for something that, frankly, we may have lost hope in anyway. We remember that Jesus came to us once before, and we will retell the story with gladness in our hearts, yet we’ve forgotten, I have forgotten, how to prepare for his coming again.
Looking at our gospel passage today, this text is taken from Jesus’ final sermon to his disciples in which he talks to them about the time he will come again, and how they might live faithfully until then. It comes from the Gospel according to Matthew, which, as a reminder, is one of four accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings. This Gospel which is attributed to the disciple Matthew was written later in the first century, after the writing of Mark and Luke, maybe around the year 80, and so the community that it was written for was living 50 years after Jesus’s time on earth.
Many first century folks really expected Jesus to come back soon after he ascended, like any day now. And as each day passed, they got a little more concerned and a little more anxious. And Matthew is writing his account of Jesus’s life for that community, this people that has been waiting and waiting and waiting for Jesus to come again, a people who had forgotten how to prepare for his coming again, a community that had lost hope in His return, having watched half a century go by since he last left them.
Like any good author, Matthew wrote with his audience in mind, and so this portion of Jesus’s final teaching, his final sermon, is tailored to them. Matthew’s account that we read here has its own spin… is unique to this Gospel….because Matthew was focused on giving a word of hope to a congregation that had lost hope. He emphasizes that Christ will come again, he is coming, and at a totally unexpected time, thereby pacifying their anxiety that if it hadn’t happened now, it wasn’t going to happen at all. And he also encourages them to keep working and keep watch. Keep living faithfully in this in between time, the already and not yet, even when you can’t see the end.
At the end of his time on earth, Jesus wanted to prepare his disciples in his final sermon, for the time when he’d be gone and the time when he’d come back again, and Matthew wanted to reignite the hope of the later generations of believers by reminding them that Jesus’ promise was true and encouraging them to shape their lives around this expectation of Christ’s coming kingdom.
And Matthew’s poignant take on Jesus’ sermon is a word for us, still today. Because even all these years later, even though we’ve lost hope or simply lost interest, Jesus’ promise that he would come again to bring about the fullness of his Kingdom is as real and true as ever. Some 2000 years later, Jesus’ promise has not run dry. And in the meantime, in this already-and-not-yet, we are invited to shape our lives around this expectation, to keep watching and keep working to prepare our world for this reality. We are called by God to be a part of the preparation of the world for Jesus’s return. As scholar Wesley Allen says, Having already been transformed by the first coming of Christ to this world, the church is invited to participate in the transformation of this world yet still in process.
And in no uncertain terms, Jesus gives us an idea of what this preparation, this transformation, might look like. In this very same sermon, just a chapter later, he tells the famous parable that demonstrates how, when his followers served the world in need, the least of these, they served him, and in serving him, they were partaking in the work of the Kingdom. “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
So, these next four weeks, as we continue our really good work of remembering the first Advent story, when Jesus came to us as that humble baby boy, and as we lean into the challenge of preparing the world for that final Advent when he comes again, keep hope that Jesus’s word is true and he will arrive one day, once more to be with us. And keep watching, and keep working, for the service of all God’s people, so that we can prepare ourselves, and prepare this place, a world that is still becoming, to be more and more like the perfect, radical, life-giving Kingdom that Christ promises it will one day be. Amen.
Sunday, November 20, 2022
By: David May, Rector
I ran across a book in my library at home the other day that may have one of my favorite book titles of all time. The book is called, ‘Where Do You Go To Give Up?’. It’s author is Baptist preacher and scholar Welton Gaddy, a generous and good soul. I like the title so much because it makes me laugh at myself for all those times where I feel like I’ve finally just had it with the ‘rat race’ that life too often feels like. So that, you know, frankly, if some other rats really wants to win so badly, well fine, count me out, I give up. Because as they say, even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.
But as true as that feeling of just wanting to give up sometimes is, it runs crosswise with something we also know is true: you can’t just give up. You can’t. You have to ‘keeping going’ no matter what; we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and keep going. You can’t just ‘give up’ when life is hard or heartbreaking or perplexing or exhausting, can you?
Well, no…. But that’s not quite the kind of ‘giving up’ that Gaddy wants us to think about. Remember, he’s a Baptist preacher and this is a book for church folks. So Gaddy is talking about giving up in a different way. Here’s a searing quote from Episcopal priest and New Testament scholar Robert Farrar Capon that gets at the kind of ‘giving up’ that Gaddy wants us to think about. Capon writes: “The gospel of grace is the end of religion, the final posting of the CLOSED sign on the sweatshop of the human race’s perpetual struggle to think well of itself.”
In other words, giving up means giving up on the endless effort to get yourself spruced up enough in the eyes of, well whomever, with the hope that that will be enough, some day, to be ok, acceptable, loved for who you are by others and by God.
The Apostle Paul’s great teaching that we are justified by grace through faith shows us that there is no arithmetic involved in tallying our deeds done or left undone that leads to earning God’s favor and blessing. We know that. We say that. Except that, sometimes, I wonder do we really buy it in our heart of hearts where a voice sometimes says, “yes, but if you really knew me….”
So just in case, you find yourself keeping score on yourself, and running a tally of the good and bad of who you, and the virtues and vices, and successes and failures, and kindnesess and cruelties, and winning and losing, and what’s loveable and what’s not, what’s praiseworthy and what’s not. If you’re anything like me, it can become a pretty long list. It’s a lot to keep up with: all those different ways that the human race struggles to think well of itself. All those ways, to use Capon’s words, that the human race tries to save itself, to save ourselves.
Which is a familiar refrain in this gospel reading where the dying King of Heaven speaks his last words to another human being. And with these words shows us the answer to the question “where do you go to give up?”.
First the religious leaders taunt Jesus to save himself if he is the high and mighty Messiah of God. Then the soldiers detailed to carry out the day’s execution mock him by saying if you are the King of the Jews, well then save yourself. That’s the only way they understand the power of a ruler and a leader, a King – someone who saves himself.
That’s what Kings do, they save themselves. Everybody knows that – the religious leaders know that, the soldiers know that. Even one of the thieves dying beside Jesus knows that. He cries out, “Save yourself,” and then adds in desperation: “and us!”
We come to the conclusion of the Church Year today, the 24th Sunday after the Day of Pentecost and where things end up is important. For about a hundred year, this Sunday has been known as Christ the King Sunday for many Christians. And this picture of the King of Kings dying between two criminals is heartbreaking and shocking. Because what are we to say about a King like this whose life ends like this? King’s exercise power, command others to fight and die for them. Kings save themselves, as those taunting Jesus know. Before anyone else, they think, surely the King’s life will be preserved. But this is a serious flaw in their understanding of what it means to lead as Jesus leads us.
The Queen Mum (Queen Elizabeth II’s mother) during the Battle of Britain understood it better. “I’m glad we’ve been bombed”, she said bluntly after Buckingham Palace was hit during the London blitz. “It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.” The East End of London at that time was a misery of poverty and violence and sickness, and the home of desperate people and criminals. The little lady in the big hats trudged with her royal husband through the rubble of bombed-out apartment buildings, clasping the hands and looking into the eyes of the people who had called them home.
Her own bombed out home earned her the right to look criminals and skinny children in the eye. She could’ve been spirited away from the horror to the safety of some idyllic palace, far from human suffering. But she wouldn’t go. She wouldn’t leave her place beside those in misery and suffering. And she lived to tell a story that inspires us. “It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face,” she said.
And as moving as that story is, it doesn’t do for us / what the story Jesus couldn’t live to tell for himself / does for us. The picture of Jesus between two dying criminals, side by side, face to face, dying himself, is the picture of the whole Gospel in miniature. As he has always done, he will not let us – any of us the loved and the hated, the privileged and the forgotten – be anywhere where he is not also. No good deed of our own doing can make this possible. No upright behavior, no inspiring character, no virtue.
Because this is the place beside dying criminals where Jesus goes ‘to give up’, to give up his life for the sake of love for you that overcomes through his forgiveness the sin of the world and saves it.
Where is the place you go to give up? Well, first, consider for yourself, what do you want to give up? Whatever it is, the place to go to give up is the Lord’s Table, side by side by one another, by the side of the King of Glory with the words of a dying criminal upon the lips of your heart, saying: ‘Lord, remember me, when you come into your kingdom?’ And be fed by his words, “Today you will be with me….” Amen.
Sunday, November 13, 2022
By: Kilpy Singer, Associate Rector
The other week, I got home from work and saw my neighbor in their front yard with his kids. I went over to say hello and ask the usual “How are things,” but our relationship is beyond the evasive, “fine thanks, how are you”. We usually cut straight to it, the good and the bad, wasting no time on pleasantries. So, I asked, “How are things,” and he said “Ehhh, not great. I don’t really know what my relationship with Christianity is anymore…” Huh. I figured I had two options. Lean in, or lean out. Ask the follow up question, or pretend to suddenly get an important phone call and scurry away. I love this neighbor so much, and am invested in their general wellbeing, so I leaned in with a gentle “Tell me more,” a phrase I learned from the brilliant author Kelly Corrigan.
He went on to share that he was so overwhelmed with life, the constant grind of paying the bills and raising the kids and keeping food on the table and balancing a demanding job with a difficult personal life. And when he tried to look outside himself for some signs that things weren’t all that bad, all he saw was a world at war, mistreatment of immigrants and refugees, continued refusal to acknowledge that our society treats people differently based on how they look or where they live, and this deeply unsettling division growing between political parties.
He said, Why does it feel like the world is getting worse? And how can I believe in a God that lets this all happen?
On the one hand, some of you might be thinking “How depressing. Life’s not that bad.” On the other hand, others of you might be thinking “How wonderful. I’m not the only one!” Whether you are in that place right now or not, I think we’ve all asked these same questions. I know I have. Most days we might be able to push through and focus on the here and now, but every once and while, we all reach that point of overwhelm with our own circumstances or the condition of our nation and our world, and, like my neighbor, are left with the paralyzing question: God, how could you let this happen? Is the world really going to hell in a handbasket, as grandma always said? Do you even care?
With these questions and that conversation with my neighbor in the back of my head, I’ve sort of stumbled around the past ten days, beginning to wonder if we are a part of some crazy new phase in the world’s timeline. Are things are finally getting so bad that Jesus is like, “Alright alright, alright, I’ll come back now.” I joked about it with a wise, old friend, and she responded “Oh honey, we’re not all that special. This isn’t anything that hasn’t happened before”
At first I was like “you’re not hearing my pain or being attentive to my truth and you’re really just making excuses so you don’t have to be a part of the work to make this world a better place”. Why yes, I am a millennial, if that sentence didn’t give it away. But in all seriousness, I did keep thinking about her response, it challenged me in some unexpected way, and then I fell into the gospel passage for today in which Jesus essentially just says to some of his followers “Bad things are coming”.
He goes on to describe what that might look like. For instance, wars, and uprisings, and divisions, and widespread sickness, and natural disasters, and hate. Sounds familiar. And on the one hand, that could seem unsettling, Jesus sort of listing the exact calamities ahead, like he’s predicting them. But it actually felt like a huge comfort to me, and maybe to his followers, to see Jesus acknowledging that life comes with some big, scary things, to hear him naming that reality, and moreover, that he wasn’t all that surprised.
And with my friend’s comment and Jesus’s words I realized the profound gift of remembering that no, we are not special and no, the things we’re facing aren’t anything new. God has seen everything under the sun. There’s literally nothing that could shock God.
And there is such relief in this, because we can acknowledge that yes, life can get hard. Bad things happen. But while we might be largely unprepared to handle them, God is not. God is a seasoned pro, at the ready, sincere in his understanding of us and unwavering in his presence with us, right? God can relate to us in our difficulties with solidarity, because God actually lived a life as one of us. God came to us as Jesus and took on flesh, and in doing so God also took on pain, and suffering, and a human death, God lived a life and in doing so said,, “I’m experiencing this with you, and I understand you. And I will always be here with you.”
There is this video by Brene Brown that I just love and sent around to our pastoral care teams recently. Brene talks about the difference between having sympathy versus empathy. At one point she says empathy is when someone’s kind of in a deep hole, and they shout out from the bottom and they say “I’m stuck, it’s dark, I’m overwhelmed,” and then we look and we say “Hey, I’ll come down, I know what it’s like down here and you’re not alone”. Whereas sympathy is like peering over the edge of the hole and saying “oh its bad. Yeah, no. you want sandwich?
This is such a helpful way of orienting how we approach others who are in hard times. As I spoke with my neighbor, I tried to channel Brene and remember to climb down in the hole, not peer from the outside with unhelpful and distanced comments. And the more I’ve thought about Brene’s video this week, and her genius perspective on how we can orient ourselves to others, the more I’ve realized that it’s not all that unlike how God orients Godself to us. Instead of peering at us from above, thinking “oh yeah, that’s bad. I’m out.” God climbed down to us, breaching the distance between us, by becoming a vulnerable human like us.
So when we are faced with life’s tragedies, and we reach the point of overwhelm, and we question if God even cares, we can rest assured that God is with us. That is the mystery and the beauty of the incarnation. And maybe it’s not only about how God is oriented towards us, but it can serve as a model for how we are oriented towards one another. Leaning in, not out. Climbing down into that hole, not simply peering from above.
Now is there more going on here than just God being with us in hard times? Absolutely. Don’t hear me wrong and think I’m limiting God’s involvement in our lives to just that of a good friend. And we are turning the corner towards Advent and will get to cover lots more about all the implications of God coming to us as a baby and that baby being Jesus, the savior of the world. But for today, maybe it’s enough rest in the simple yet radical reality that we have a God who fully understands us, fully loves us, and promises that we never have to be alone.
Sunday, November 6, 2022
By: David May, Rector
Maybe a week and a half ago and I was standing in the parking lot where we had outdoor church during the pandemic reading the gospel passage for this morning. There was a wonderful breeze blowing and the pin oak out there was releasing its leaves into the wind in swirls and waves. And the funniest thing happened. This passage from Matthew is one of the best-known and best-loved passages in the Bible: the Beatitudes, Blessings for God’s happy ones by Jesus. But as I stood there reading the words, it was like I had somehow forgotten about these words, like I was finding something that I hadn’t realized I’d lost.
It reminded me of a day when I was up in the attic in our home in White Stone. I was packing to move up here. And I found a box that I discovered had several letters and notes from years ago that I had forgotten had been saved. There was a breathless love-letter from middle school. How could I have forgotten that? How could I have forgotten her?! And a letter of encouragement from my grandmother she wrote when I was going through a rough patch written in her perfect school teacher cursive handwriting.
It was like that as I read this passage from Matthew. Like a letter that has been saved, that I had forgotten about – is that possible?! Like a love-letter from God you find, a word of encouragement to hear and remember that God knows there is hardship in this world—we grieve, we feel left out, we feel empty. We feel powerless in our righteous indignation over a world that seems hell bent on being, well, hell bent. But, not forever. God’s best hopes for us will come to be. Our trust in him will not be in vain. We will know mercy, we will know his peace, and we will see him. Hold onto that. Keep the faith. And as you do, you are already the happy ones, upon whom God’s blessings rest.
On the Feast of All Saints that we celebrate today, we remember all those happy ones, all those blessed ones who held onto their faith in God’s faithfulness to his promises. We remember all those who have gone before us who remained dissatisfied with a world that is less than God will have it, and who reached for the virtues of the kingdom: mercy, righteousness, and a whole-hearted love for God. Maybe they didn’t reach those virtues in this world, but they didn’t stop reaching out to make them their own.
And we do more than just remember on this day. Because all those happy ones who have gone before are alive to God, and so are surely alive to us too. We are a communion, a family, a holy fellowship. And every time we break the bread of life and drink from the cup of salvation, we are surrounded at that feast by all the saints gathered by the Great Shepherd of his flock. It is not only the presence of Christ that is real at the Holy Eucharist, but all the faithful gathered are a real presence. They are ours and we are theirs in him, a great cloud of witnesses gathered around the Table of Jesus.
This holy fellowship of the Spirit, this blessed Communion of Saints is like a miracle of nature we see this time of the year. All over North America these days: the geese are heading south. They’re traveling from as far away as the Arctic Circle to places like Florida and Louisiana, and even further south to Mexico.
Last week, I heard them coming before I saw them. I heard them honking. And then the honking was overlaid with the sound of rushing wind. Finally, when they passed low overhead, you could even hear the sound of their powerful wings beating. I always imagine their honking is goose-talk urging each other on: keep it up, you can do it!
They are surprisingly large birds, upwards of 18 pounds. And though the normal cruising speed is about 40 miles per hour, if alarmed, they can top out at about 60 miles an hour. This group was low-flying, but they’ve been spotted at altitudes approaching 9,000 feet.
One of the most beautiful things about geese in flight is the way they form up into a distinctive flying-V. Any NACAR fan knows why they do it. The same reason cars race bumper to bumper at Talladega or Daytona. They are drafting off each other.
The lead bird breaks up the air ahead, and the following bird tucks into a kind of vacuum and doesn’t have to battle so much air resistance and can move ahead with less effort. But unlike racing at Talladega, geese don’t line up, they fly slightly to the side, so they all can still see forward.
The lead bird is usually a large experienced old bird. Pretty regularly, though, the lead bird lets out a distinctive honk, and switches places with a goose further back for a rest. The new lead bird takes a turn breaking through the air. They are able to do this without losing speed or time. In this way, geese journey safely together, sometimes for distances as great as 4,000 miles.
It’s probably much further than that between this hell-bent world and the coming of Christ’s peaceable Kingdom. But we travel, surrounded by a flock of saints who go before us. The living experience of their faithfulness going before, breaking up the heavy air, and giving us lift. The witness of their lives lifts us to see from a great height, to see the big picture. We are not merely one small church or one shrinking denomination or even one worldwide ecumenical body. We are surrounded by a great cloud—a mighty flock of witnesses which includes Mary and Martha and Peter and Andrew and Dietrich and Rosa and Martin and every unknown, unsung saint who ever gathered around the Table of Jesus clinging to hope. And every one yet to come…
We are a part of such a great holy family. One quick story like the honking of a goose in flight to encourage us on.
In November of 2021, one of the saints of this parish, Jan Betts, was in Scotland visiting her sister Elizabeth. Jan was working on knitting a baby blanket for a new life in this parish who was soon to be baptized. One of Elizabeth’s neighbor’s heard about this and decided she’d join in and crocheted a baptismal baby blanket for Jan to take home. At Easter time the next year, Elizabeth was at a luncheon where she talked about these baptismal blankets knitted here at St. Mary’s. A Presbyterian minister was at that luncheon who passed word about this to their church’s knitting group (called the Knitters and Knatters) who took up their knitting needles with a special purpose. So that, in September, eight baptismal baby blankets arrived here, the work of a group of saints in Scotland for us to have for this morning. The card that goes with these blankets reads: We welcome you, precious child, as the newest member of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. Knitted by hand and threaded with prayers of love and hope, this shawl is a gift for you. May it bring blessings of comfort, gifts of warmth, and the knowledge that you are loved.
In just a few minutes, (at 9AM: Lucie and Jack; at 11AM: Miles and Brian and Jimmy) will be baptized and will take their place in the flock, tucking neatly beneath the wings of the Lord Jesus whose mighty life goes before them and whose great wings of grace will pull them forward. They will become heirs of God’s promised Kingdom.
On this day, the great Feast of All the Saints, it is not honking we hear, perhaps, but it is the cry of all the saints urging us on, whether it is ladies in Scotland or the saints in glory, reminding us that they were never alone and neither shall we be, it is the cry of their voices and the rush of the wind of the Holy Spirit that we hear crying out to us: Keep the faith, we are with you. Hold onto your hope in God’s promises. Dear People, you are the blessed ones. You are the happy ones of God. Amen.