Advent 4 Sermon by Linda Anderson

FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Year A

December 18, 2016

 

Babies and gifts

 

My nephew, Dan and his wife, Lauren, are expecting their first baby in April.  This will be the first grandson for my brother and his wife, the first great-grandson for my mother.   Lauren’s side of the family already has a little one.  Her sister has a little girl named Grace, who is a toddler.  Lauren has posted a photograph on Facebook that beautifully captures the wonder of pregnancy.  Lauren is standing, smiling down at Grace, who is reaching up to place her tiny hand on Lauren’s round belly.   She has been told that Lauren is expecting a baby, and soon she will have a cousin!   How does Grace try to understand this?  She reaches up to feel the round place where the baby will come from.  She wants to feel this place to grasp the meaning of the idea that a baby is in there!   A baby is coming!

Lauren and Dan are deep into the baby-naming selection process.  They don’t want to know whether the baby is a boy or girl until birth, so they have compiled a short list of boys names and a short list of girls names.  They talk about this one or that one.  Can they go with Maggie as the name, or should it be Margaret?  Oliver is a name they like, but what might that nickname be?  Is Ollie a name that they like, too?   They are waiting to see the new baby to bestow upon it the name that suits it best.

Personally I love this part of pregnancy!  I love being the aunt who gets to propose this name or that.  What is the meaning of this name?  Does it carry the cherished memory of a family member or hold certain promise?   Currently one of their approved names is also the name of one of my cats.  I told Dan that this cat is a super sweet, mush of a cat.  And Dan said, “Well, that’s gonna be our kid, obviously!”    And I said, “Obviously!”

Dan and Lauren have conceived this child together, with immense love and contagious happiness.  They have wanted to have a family and this is their dream come true.  They are expecting a baby under the best of circumstances, glowing with love and support from their family and friends.  They will wait until the baby is born to bestow upon it the name that suits him or her best, with great hope and anticipation for the future.

What must it have been like for Mary and Joseph?  In today’s gospel, Matthew focuses on Joseph.  What must it have been like for Joseph, to find out that Mary, his bride-to-be, was pregnant?  This was not part of his plan.  His bride-to-be, pregnant?  A baby?  Not his own?  I imagine he was feeling great shame and probably anger and betrayal, too.   And fear.   This was not a culture kind to women who conceived out of wedlock.  In fact, Mary could lawfully have been stoned to death.  This was not the marriage Joseph had envisioned, certainly not the family he had hoped to have and not the best of circumstances.  But God had a different plan.  Joseph had decided to quietly disentangle himself from his betrothed.

But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, 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.”

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

 

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Matthew 1:20-25

 

This baby was going to come with a God-given name and a historic lineage.  This baby was going to come as the fulfillment of a prophetic promise and with a divine mission.  In fact, this baby would be Divine.  And Joseph and Mary signed up for the job of parenting this child.   I don’t know about you, but I am fairly certain that I would not be up to the challenge of mothering a child conceived by the Holy Spirit, in a culture where I might have been killed for being pregnant before my wedding took place.

In fact, I find I have a hard time just celebrating the birth of this baby, Jesus.  Somehow I get so bogged down in the expectation and ritual and “doing it right” that the baby gets lost in the gift wrap.  No matter how hard I try to keep the baby in mind, I get caught up in trying to make the holiday one of Norman Rockwellian perfection.   This year is no exception.

Last week I invited three of my clients to a Christmas lunch at my house.  I am fortunate to work for some wonderful people.  I have enjoyed getting to know them and I thought it would be a really nice gift to them to prepare a meal to share and have some time enjoy each other’s company.   Did I mention that the idea of being a hostess comes so much more naturally to me than the reality?  That I am not the most regular housekeeper?   And then there’s the whole thing about cooking, not my forte, really.   Fortunately I have a neighbor whose heart is so big and generous that he can’t contain it, and he offered to do all the cooking for this lunch.

Monday morning I was up at 4 am, trying to clean my house and oh yes, paint the kitchen.   My neighbor was leaving with bags of ingredients and returning with trays of cooked food, saying, “Yes, you are insane.  You must not paint more than one coat.  What else do you need?  Coffee?  Ice melt for the path to your house?  Rugs for the entryway?  I’ve got it covered.”  Back and forth he went, bringing what I needed for my lunch as I worked furiously to pull it all together.  When my guests arrived, the fire was going in the woodstove, the kitchen had one coat of lovely new yellow paint and miraculously, delicious food was warming in the oven.  I was so nervous and exhausted that I could barely process what was going on.  I found it a challenge just to serve the food he had prepared.   But my guests, who were all friends, seemed to be enjoying themselves.  I thought things were going okay.  Until I remembered the dog.  Where was my dog?  My troublesome not-quite-two-year-old pupteen?  He was awfully quiet and come to think of it, I hadn’t seen him in some time.  I found him on the bed, enjoying this party immensely and happily chewing a nice big hole in my client’s leather boot.   [sigh]  My client, after her initial shock wore off, told me not to worry about it.    Yeah, so it’s pretty clear that I could not handle the task that was set before Mary.  But let me share a quote for you by Nadia Bolz-Weber from her book Accidental Saints, Finding God in All the Wrong People:

 “Let me tell you about this God.  I told them that this was a God who always used imperfect people.  That this was a God who walked among us and who ate with all the wrong people and kissed lepers.  I told them that this was a God who rose from the dead and grilled fish on the beach with his friends and then ascended to heaven and is especially present to us in the most ordinary things: wheat, wine, water, words.  I told them that this God has never made sense.  And you don’t need to either, because this God will use you, this God will use all of you, and not just your strengths but your failures and your failings.  Your weakness is fertile ground for a forgiving God to make something new and to make something beautiful, so don’t ever think that all you have to offer are your gifts. 

We celebrate the birth of this baby, Jesus, more than 2000 years after his birth.  We do our best to relive the excitement and hope of his birth by sharing gifts.   We celebrate the coming of this baby, “God is with us,” by doing our best to practice what he taught us – to love.  And we may find, like I did, that sometimes when we are busy trying to give love perfectly, we find that we are receiving love, unexpectedly, generously, wonderfully.

Chirstmas Eve Service at 5 PM

We will hold our Christmas Eve service at 5:00 PM. Mother Nancy Betz will officiate. We will indeed have a children’s pageant! Many thanks to all who are participating and to all who organized! We will sing as many carols as possible during the service. We look forward to seeing you!

All Saints’ Day Sermon 2016 Fr. Ray Donohue

illustration-for-fr-ray-sermon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can think of only two instances in our everyday speech in which the word HALLOW is used. The first in The Lord’s Prayer: “hallowed be thy name”. (Children are often thrown by the word and change it to “Harold” to make better sense to them.) The other common use of HALLOW is in Halloween, which is a contraction of All Hallows’ Eve, or the Eve of All Hallows’ Day or All Saints’ Day. The hallowed ones are the blessed ones or the saints.

All Saints’ Day is one of the seven feast days of our church. Though All Saints’ Day is on November 1st, our present Book of Common Prayer gives permission for its celebration on the Sunday following, as we are doing today. [This sermon was delivered on 6 November.]

In the Northern Hemisphere, we are in the midst of the season of Autumn. It is a time when the growing season ends, and the foliage and flowers of summer disappear. The days become noticeably shorter. The warmth of summer is being replaced by the chill of winter, and the landscape becomes barren and bleak. The Japanese poet, Issa, captures the feeling of the season in a haiku:

No lightsome thing it is
to be born a man
Now autumn closes.

It is in this time when nature seems to be dying that the Feast of All Saints brings us hope. It turns our attention back to that day in spring we call Easter and to its celebration of resurrection, new birth and eternal life, and most of all to the risen Christ. During the great 50 days of Easter, we see again and again in our risen Lord what human nature can be: something wonderful and glorious. And on the last day of Easter, on the feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came, doing his characteristic work of making Christ present. That is what makes Pentecost a major feast day, outshone only by Easter itself. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the Risen Christ is made present in the lives of his people. From Pentecost on, we know absolutely that Christ lives in his people. It is one of the major ways he comes to us – in the lives of others. That was the meaning of what the priest in my parish said in these closing words to his acolytes: “Blessed be Jesus Christ on His throne of glory in heaven, in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the altar, and in the hearts of his faithful people.”

For me, All Saints’ Day is an integral part of the Paschal Mystery – the Easter Mystery. Not only is Christ alive in his physical and risen body in heaven where he is the cosmic Christ; not only is Christ present in the blessed sacrament of his body and blood; he is also present in his people. That is what Passing the Peace is all about: not to visit, but to recognize the presence of Christ in others and to let that presence of Christ in us be recognized.

In the past, Christ made Himself known in the apostles, the martyrs, and all the holy men and women of those times. I can’t help but think how clearly the light of Christ was visible in Mother Theresa of Calcutta. You and I are the saints on Earth. The blessed ones. The holy ones. The hallowed ones. What a season of hope it is, because the hallowed ones share in the eternal life of God. Perhaps I would change the first word of Issa’s haiku from “No” to “A”:

A lightsome thing it is
To be born a man
Now autumn closes.

 

All because there is great hope in our life in Christ who now lives in us.

Sermon by Linda Anderson 2 October 2016

churchphoto

Finding Faith amidst Violence

 

 

 

 

 

 

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?

Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?

Why do you make me see wrong-doing
and look at trouble?

Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.

So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.

The wicked surround the righteous–
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

Hab1: 2-4

I am in the formal process of discernment to the priesthood, which basically means that I am trying to figure out, with the help of a committee, whether God is calling me to be a priest.  Yesterday I met with this committee for the second time.  It has been more than a year since I started this formal process.  At first I thought the long process of discernment annoying and unnecessary.  I chafed at its slow pace.  Now I am beginning to see the wisdom in the process.   In these past four months I have been pinging and bouncing like a pinball, careening from one strong feeling to another.   I am beginning to understand that time allows doubts to surface, and time provides space for questions … and answers.

Our book group at Christ Church in Greenville has been reading a Spanish novel entitled, “The Heretic, A Novel of the Spanish Inquisition.”  I had been looking forward to reading this book, winner of Spain’s most prestigious literary prize. I thought I could learn something about the Reformation and the Spanish Inquisition, both things I know little about.  I was not prepared for it to challenge my faith.   I could not believe the horror perpetrated by the Church, against people who dared to challenge its teachings.   At the end of the book, a man has been imprisoned, encouraged to denounce his reformed beliefs, and paraded before a vast crowd of chanting townspeople, robed in a garment painted with the flames of hell.  He is asked by a priest (a PRIEST!) if he believes in the Roman Catholic Church.  He answers that he believes in the “apostolic church”.  The priest turns away with sadness and despair.  With that, the man’s refusal to include the word “Roman” in his answer, the fire is lit beneath him.  His body, alive, is consumed by the real flames of an earthly hell.  The Church (the CHURCH!) wielding its earthly power and mighty control, perpetrated this horror in the name of God.

We have read other books that recount the evil that humans inflict upon each other.  But this book, this horror, was personal.  This was the church in which I was raised, whose catechism I memorized as a child and whose creed I recited dutifully, every Sunday, year after year.  This was MY church that perpetrated this horror.  MY people.   And though now I count myself an Episcopalian, I recoiled at the idea of becoming a priest.  I didn’t want to be anywhere near religion or count myself among those who could in any way be connected to such depravity and senseless carnage.  For a week or two I struggled with the intensity of these feelings.  To be in the formal process of discernment and be disgusted by the whole idea of priesthood was unsettling, to say the least.

And then I went on a retreat.  This retreat was run by the group, “Healing a Woman’s Soul.”   Their mission is to provide spiritual and emotional support for those traumatized by domestic violence.  I only knew one person at the retreat, Mother Ann Curtin, the priest who founded the organization.   I was okay with that.  I was looking forward to some silence, for personal healing from my own abusive past and hoping for spiritual guidance.  I am an incest survivor and like many suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, I grapple with its effect on my life.  Last week I met with my therapist.  Sometimes therapy work is painful.  Other times, surprisingly, it is hilarious.  I want to share one of those funny moments. We were talking about how long it has been that I have been dealing with fallout from the abuse.  I said to her, “I have been in therapy for a long time. YEARS and YEARS!”  At which point her phone(!), which was resting on the bookshelf across the room, replied, “That sounds like a VERY long time!”  We just looked at each other and cracked up!  She said, “That has never happened before!  I don’t even know how it did that!  My phone is not usually involved in the therapeutic process!”

Back to the retreat.  I prayed to God, “Could You please help me, guide me on my personal journey?  Please show me where you want me to be.”

I spoke to a few people.  I listened to their stories.  I was deeply touched by their courage and their strength.  These women have suffered through violence and addiction.  Some have lost their children.  One woman, as I spoke to her about my life, nodded in agreement and identification.  Her affirmation of my struggle gave me hope!  To know that I am not alone brings tremendous relief!  At the end of the retreat, I went to speak to Mother Ann.  She said, “Linda, Linda, come in.  We have been talking about you.”  And she told me that one of the retreatants had come to her and pointed me out.  “See that woman?  That one?  Over there?”  Ann said, “Yes.”  And the woman said, “Well.  I talked to her.  And she really helped me.  You have to have her come back next year.  She’s really good.  And she helped me a lot.”  I was speechless.  I tried to remember how I might have helped anyone.  I only talked to two people, one of whom helped me.  I wasn’t aware of helping anyone.  I just listened.  Ann said, “I was told very directly to make sure you come next year.  So you will be here next year!”  The Holy Spirit was clearly at work and I was given a gift.  An affirmation to build my faith and enough information to take one more step in my journey.

In today’s reading of 2 Timothy, Paul writes:

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.

2 Timothy 1:8-9

Last week I met my friend for breakfast.  She drove up from North Carolina to visit her mother.   One morning we were able to find a few hours for a private conversation.  For several years she has been fighting for custody of her daughter and son.  This past summer she could no longer fight the court system or her ex-husband and surrendered her 16 year old daughter.  She had already lost her son a few years ago.  If I did not witness her incredibly painful, expensive and unsuccessful journey through the legal system, I would never have believed it.  I would never have believed that a mother, trying to protect her children, would eventually lose them to the abuser.

In the book, A Mother’s Nightmare – Incest: A Practical Legal Guide for Parents and Professionals, John E.B. Myers writes:

“When parents – usually mothers – try to protect their children from sexual abuse, they can be devastated to find that support from the legal system is not always there. Suspecting their husbands or partners of the abuse, mothers may seek a divorce and custody or, if already divorced, request withdrawal of visitation rights. However, if unable to prove abuse, a mother can be labeled `hysterical’ and her desperate efforts to secure her child’s safety may jeopardize her case – and even result in the suspected perpetrator being granted custody of the child.”

John E.B. Myers, Sage Publications, Inc 1997

This is exactly what happened to my friend.

My friend’s life was – from the outside – very comfortable and upper middle class.  Her children were bright and athletic.  They went to private school, played soccer, basketball.  They studied violin.  She and her husband looked to be doting parents, coaching the sports teams, throwing parties with elaborate games for the children.  Behind the doors of their 3 story, manicured home, domestic abuse reigned.    My friend was emotionally battered.  My niece and nephew sexually abused.  My friend, college valedictorian, who had had a successful career with IBM, stayed home to take care of her kids.  She told me that in her home the word “Mom” was rarely used, frowned upon by her husband.  She was not given gifts for birthday, mother’s day, Christmas.  Her husband stripped her of her innate worth, her vivacity, her relationship with her children and her friends.  So far, he has won the court battle for custody of her two children.  But he has not succeeded in killing my friend’s spirit or her faith.    Her faith is so strong!  She told me recently that her favorite bible verse over the past years has been Habakkuk 3:17-19:

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.

19 The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.

                                                 Hab 3:17-19

My friend’s faith has sustained her.  She now plans to share her strength and faith and work with mothers and daughters who have suffered tragic loss.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  One in four women will suffer from domestic violence in their lifetime.  They are all around us.  Watch for them.  Listen for their stories.  If you are one of them, there is hope and help for you.

I will stand at my watchpost,
and station myself on the rampart;

I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what he will answer concerning my complaint.

Then the Lord answered me and said:

Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.

For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.

If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.

Hab 2:1-3

 I would like to end with a prayer.

Gracious God,

If those among us suffer behind the walls of their homes and are battered by violence or other abuse, we pray that our church walls provide a safe haven for them, and that our church family brings them healing, healthy relationships.  That we take the time to listen to their stories, affirm their worth, and share the good news that you are ever with us and will never leave us to face our trials alone.  Let us guard the good treasure entrusted to us, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.   Amen.