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.

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Out of the Emptiness, Life will Come

Advent Reflection, Friday, December 18

By: David H. May, Rector

Sometimes when I am in the great empty space in New St. Mary’s, it seems like it will always be like this. Empty. Thoughts like that, I think, are the work of nine long months of shutdowns and physical distancing and all the rest. I remember how we gathered here Sunday after Sunday; I do. But sometimes, if I’m honest, just barely.

But something is changing. For myself, I’ve decided that it’s time to look forward and stop trying to remember what was. And, of course, it’s taken grace to do that. Unearned and unmerited, two things have happened. Here is the first one. Earlier this week I saw a picture that is staying so clearly in my mind. It’s a picture taken outside the Pfizer plant in Michigan that is manufacturing the first-approved COVID-19 vaccine. In the picture is a great, huge tractor trailer full of the first shipment of the vaccine leaving the plant. And there along the road, people are lined up clapping and cheering them on. You can tell that those dear, dear people are all filled up! Oh thank you God! It makes me so glad that we’ve begun immunizing health care workers and vulnerable residents and staff in continuing care residences. This is so encouraging for all of us. There is light at the end of the tunnel!

There is. And we just have to get there. From where we are right now, I think the special goodness and joy of Christmas coming will carry us through until the new year. I am so excited for what we have planned here at St. Mary’s for Christmas!

And then will come January and February. These are long, dark months every year, but I am afraid they may feel especially so this year. My sense is that making it through January and February are going to be a big part of coming near to the light at the end of the tunnel. So, for those two months, I am hoping for an outbreak of compassion where people are especially mindful of giving others plenty of grace, and I hope people will be sure to save a little grace for themselves too. We are going to get there.

So, it is time to look forward with renewed hope and – for me at least – to stop trying to look back at what was.

And here is the second gift of grace that has set me on a new path. A few weeks ago, just before Advent, I recorded my sermon in empty New St. Mary’s. A dear, dear old friend of mine, a retired Episcopal priest in South Carolina, watched the service and emailed me later in the week. Here is what he wrote:

“It was good being with you in your space. As we approach Advent, as your church is empty, so was the womb of Mary. When she said yes it changed her life, filling her with Jesus and the Spirit. Unsure of the future, but blessed. Lives were and will be changed out of that emptiness.”

It is time to look forward; to celebrate Christmas with joy; to give and receive grace through the winter months. And to say ‘yes’, like Mary, that out of this emptiness, new life will come.

Fill your Reservoirs with Joy

Advent Reflection, Friday, December 11

By: Emily Bruch

Many of our daily lives have been altered in 2020. Our large family gatherings at Thanksgiving were met with Zoom calls. Graduations were in small groups or virtual. And Sunday morning worship has shifted to tuning in online in your pajama pants with a cup of coffee. While these daily changes and losses have been difficult for us all, it is the anticipation that can produce the most anxiety and fear. Sometimes it is this act of foreshadowing that can hurt us more than the loss itself.

This year has been filled with a lot of waiting and anticipation. Waiting to see when kids may or may not go back to school in-person. Wondering if summer camps and vacations would be canceled. Anticipating when we would be able to visit a beloved and very missed family member. Watching to see who the next leaders of our country may be. And wishing to be able to gather together with our church family once again.

All of this uneasiness throughout the year has been emotionally demanding. And quite honestly, it has been absolutely exhausting. One thing that we have learned from this new kind of burn-out is how to truly find joy in the small things. Afternoon walks, extra family time, a hand-written card in the mail, and youth group bonfires are just a few of the many joys that have blessed this year.

We have now reached the season of Advent. This is a time filled with hope, peace, joy, and love. This is also a time of waiting and anticipation, much unlike the anticipation we have been facing this year. We are anticipating, preparing, and longing for the celebration of Christ’s birth. This preparation is not like the preparations we have been making throughout this year. We are not rushing out to the grocery store to grab a freezer full of food and crossing our fingers that we get the last container of Clorox wipes. Instead, we are taking a moment to stop and breathe as we prepare our hearts and spirits to be met with good news of great joy!

While the Advent season may seem a bit different to us all in 2020, I encourage you to continue to seek out those small joys. The joy that comes from our daily, mundane tasks. The joy that comes from thanking God for what has been provided to us. The joy that gives us a little more space to breathe. The joy that can be surprising and unexpecting.

Brene Brown once said, “Joy, collected over time, fuels resilience, ensuring we’ll have reservoirs of emotional strength when the hard things do happen.” Let this time of readiness fill your reservoirs with joy in the little things, for it is joy that reminds us why love, hope, and faith are so important.

What Shall Be?

Advent Reflection, Friday, December 4

By: David H. May, Rector

I was standing in New St. Mary’s not long ago. It was late afternoon, and the sun was already low, already turning everything golden. The church, as you know, is open and empty. The dozens of pews are still stored in the parish hall, waiting to be returned and bolted into the floor. But for now, it’s still empty.

That afternoon, I was wondering what it will be like for all of us to be gathered there again. I know it will happen and will happen in this coming year. But what will it be like? I’m not quite sure. Will it be a process of coming back together little by little? Probably. After so many months of communicating indirectly and distantly on social media, or indirectly in-person from behind masks, will it be awkward, weird, maybe overwhelming? For some of us it will be. What will it be like to come back together to sing and pray and come to the altar with our hands stretched out and empty before God? I don’t know.

But then a thought occurred to me. In some ways, I still think of myself as new to St. Mary’s I don’t know all the stories and all the names that go with those stories. I don’t know all the deaths and resurrections that have shaped this congregation. But I have been here long enough to remember where a lot of you sit on Sunday mornings.

So, that late afternoon, I began to look around that big empty space and think about you. ‘Ok’, I thought, ‘that’s where Andy sits. And the Howletts. And the McCoys. And over there, right up front is where Jane and Sam sat. And when I look up, that’s where Beth stands in the choir loft, singing. And over there Cammy and Charlie. And Isabel.

And over there in the west transept is Bob with a look like he’s up to something. And the Newmans nearby, beaming. And on the other side the Trices, along with the comings and goings at almost any given moment that is the life of the east transept which I adore. And way at the back, Staige, and hearing her voice clearly calling out, praying.

And, I think, every one of us is changed now, by what we are all going through. I suppose it’s possible to make your way through these days and stay unchanged. Theoretically. But my guess is that that would require a kind of effort that would be just too hard to pull off month after month.

So, what will it be like when the Spirit of God calls us back together? For starters, I for one will treasure the grounding and long-absent familiarity of worshipping together. But even more, I wonder what such a gathering of changed people will be like. We’ll be back in ‘our pew’ but changed.

When John the Baptist begins preaching in the wilderness, he calls for people to change, to turn away from an old life that (whether they realized it or not) is over and done with, and turn to the Living God. That’s what John means by repentance: turning away from what was and turning toward God for what shall be.

What shall be? How will we be available to the Spirit of God in ways that never would have been possible before? I don’t know. But I am filled with hope for what shall be in the new year that is coming and seeing us back in ‘our pews’ but changed.

Mary had a Baby

Weekly Reflection, Sunday, December 29, 2019

By: Eleanor Wellford

Mary had a baby (O Lord), Mary had a baby (O My Lord), Mary had a baby (O Lord) The people keep coming but the train has gone. (Bruce Cockburn)

These are words of a classic spiritual. Historian John Lovell, Jr. states that “the genius of those who created over 6,000 existing African American spirituals was their ability to weave together complex ideas and make them appear simple.”

The questions and responses in this spiritual are certainly simple. Mary had a baby as the focal point is followed by the practicalities of: Where did she lay him? She laid him in a manger. What did she name him? She named him King Jesus. Who came to see him? Shepherds came to see him.

The simple statement of the event masks the complexity of how the baby was conceived, of Joseph’s shame over Mary’s pregnancy, and of the danger surrounding Jesus’ birth in a barn and later by Herod’s threat to exterminate newborn baby boys causing Joseph and Mary to flee to Egypt.

The most complex issue of all has to be how this baby represented any hope among an impoverished and oppressed people during the 1800s. But it did. It can be heard in each refrain of “O My Lord” which represented a deep spiritual understanding of God with them in the midst of challenge and misery. It’s a response of gratitude, reverence, and awe not only for the miracle of birth and for the eventual freedom for all people that this birth represented.

And what about that train that’s mentioned so many times in the spiritual. What did that represent? During the 1800s, trains were emerging as a new method of transportation. For many people, trains represented a new way of connecting to people and places. For African Americans, they represented an eventual way out – to freedom. The train may have gone as the spiritual says, but what’s understood is that because of the nature of trains, there’ll be another one comin’.

Mary had a baby. The simplicity of the event was that it was like any other birth in changing the lives of Mary and Joseph. The complexity of it was that it was like no other birth in changing the lives of us all.