Tag Archives: Advent

With Mary, Rejoice!

A Sermon for 17 December 2017 – Third Sunday of Advent

 

A reading from the gospel of Luke 1:26-55.  I trust these verses will sound familiar to most of us.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.  The virgin’s name was Mary.  28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.”   29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.  30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.  36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.  37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”  38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  Then the angel departed from her.  39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.  41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.  And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.  45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”  46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.  54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

 

Today is Gaudete Sunday.  Maybe you know all about it.  How until the fifth century, Lent was the primary preparation season of what would become the liturgical calendar.  When the early church finally decided that the feast of Christmas, like Easter, needed a similar period to prepare; Advent became a forty day fast beginning the day after the feast of St. Martin in November (November 12).  Imagine in the 21st century in the United States, starting an Advent fast two weeks into November through to the eve of Christmas!  . . .  Like Lent, Advent was meant to be a time of penitence.  Hence in the lectionary readings, all the pleas from John the Baptist to repent of any wrongdoing in preparation for the Way of the Lord!  And like Lent, Advent was more somber.  Evidence exists to show that, like Lent, no organ music and no flowers were to be included in worship.  Except for one special Sunday mid-way through the season.  As Advent, until the ninth century, wasn’t shortened from five to the four Sundays we know of it now; Gaudete Sunday falls on the third Sunday of Advent.  . . .  We can consider it a mini-break from the serious examination of the rest of the sorrowful season – which, like Lent, is supposed to be the time in which we are searching our hearts to be cleansed of that which keeps us from living God’s ways in the world.  . . .  But on Gaudete Sunday – mid-way through the season of Advent – clergy marched in in pink.  Rose-colored vestments really.  The organ hit its first chord in weeks as the procession began with the mighty imperative to rejoice!  In the words of Philippians 4:4 -5, the priest implored the people to “Rejoice!  In the Lord always!  Again, I say:  rejoice!  Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near!”  No longer was the church merely invited to adore “‘The Lord who is to come.’”  On Gaudete Sunday, the people were called upon to “worship and hail with joy ‘The Lord who is now nigh and close at hand’” (www.newadvent.org/cathen/06394b.htm).  Legend has it that the Pope himself broke the flower fast to hand out pink roses on Gaudete Sunday – making it a festive celebration mid-way through the season.  Everyone was called upon to lift up their hearts in exceeding joy – not just for the remembrance of the birth that is almost here.  But also for the coming again of Christ in glory.  Ready to return to restore all creation.  “Gaudete in Domino semper” the priest would sing as the mass began:  Rejoice in the Lord always!!! (Ibid.).

It’s part of why every third Sunday of Advent the lectionary always allows for the reading of mother Mary’s song.  “My soul cries out, with a joyful shout that the God of my heart is great,” proclaims the hymn we’ll sing in a few minutes.  The Magnificat!  A young girl’s response to the work of God in her life – and for the life of her people.  Imagine being a teenage-girl whose marriage already has been arranged.  When suddenly you find out you’re pregnant, which is something you’re smart enough to know cannot be since you’ve hardly even seen your husband-to-be, let alone been left alone to be intimate with him or any other boy.  As a good Jewish girl, you’ve been taught the stories of your people.  You know the promise of one to come from the throne of David.  A Prince of Peace who would restore the fortunes of your nation.  Bring back the dignity of freedom to your people.  Save ya’ll from the bitterness of foreign rule.  The shame of endless armies having their way with whoever, whatever, and however they want.  You’ve heard the ancestors say the Holy would intervene – could intervene to make a way where no way seemed possible.  But what sort of craziness does this one called Gabriel speak?  How in the world could it ever be?

When I was young, Mary didn’t have a great reputation for me.  It’s mid-way into life that I’ve come to appreciate her – more so since visiting the honored sites in the Holy Land of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and Mary’s Well and the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth.  I’m not sure if it’s some sort of anti-Catholic thing for a lot of Protestants, or just a primary focus on the child to be born.  As if the Christ child provides the only inspiration during Advent, the heroism of Mary often is overlooked.  Joseph sometimes gets a little more credit, but that’s another sermon.

About the endless depictions of this scene, beloved preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes:  “Somewhere in the annunciation scene you can usually find a dove, a sign that what is happening is under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  But down below, everything depends on Mary.  Gabriel is not standing over her; he is kneeling in front of the girl upon whose answer he, and God, and the whole creation depend” (Gospel Medicine, 1995, p. 151).  . . .  Thanks be to God she said:  yes!  It might seem as if she had no choice, but we all have choice about the circumstances that crop up in life.  We can’t control what will happen to us – any more than Mary could have run away from the emissary or wrestled herself away from the Holy Spirit when the power of the Most High overshadowed her.  . . .  Events in life take place.  Happenings we can choose to fight against or to embrace.   . .  In a post entitled “More like Mary . . . and Joseph,” blogger Jane Hugo Davis encourages:  “Don’t ever underestimate the importance of being still, listening to God’s messengers, following (the) guidance even when it doesn’t make sense or doesn’t fit into our plan.  The joy that’s experienced when we live and love as God has called us to will overcome any fear or question or doubt in our minds.  It may not be easy, but it’s worth it” (https://thesoulinthecity.com/2017/12/11/more-like-mary-and-joseph/).

Mary shows us that it is well worth it to say yes to God.  To take hold of the unknown unfoldings in our lives.  To open ourselves to whatever’s yet to come.  . . .  Of Mary’s yes to the unanticipated work of God in her life, one preacher writes:  “You can decide to say yes.  You can decide to be a daredevil, a test pilot, a gambler.  You can . . . listen to a strange creature’s strange idea.  You can decide to take part in a plan you did not choose, doing things you do not know how to do for reasons you do not entirely understand.  You can take part in a thrilling, dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees.  You can agree to smuggle God into the world inside your own body.  Deciding to say yes does not mean that you are not afraid . . .  It just means that you are not willing to let your fear stop you” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, 1995, p. 153).  . . .  Then, it seems life becomes a great adventure.  An opportunity to be a part of something much larger than we ever could orchestrate.  A reason, daily, to rejoice!  To lift up our voices in great thanksgiving!  To proclaim the marvelous movement of God’s Spirit in all of our lives.

Today is Gaudete Sunday.  We light the pink candle.  We hear mother Mary’s famous song.  We take a mini-break from preparing ourselves to allow the Way of Christ to be re-born in us.  We gather with exceeding joy for the ways we see God working to restore the Way in the world – through every last one of our responses:  yes!  . . .  Gaudete in Domino semper, brothers and sisters of Christ!  Rejoice in the Lord Always!  Let your life be a yes!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

Again?

A Hanging of the Greens Homily for 27 November 2016 – 1st Sunday of Advent

It’s hard to believe it’s that time again! Wasn’t it just yesterday Advent 2015 began? . . . Some of us might be ready to put this year behind us, what with health challenges and loss and not always the best news coming to us this year about happenings around our nation and world. Some of us want to linger awhile in the past – sad to be entering this season again with the beginning of a new church year and soon the start of a new calendar year too. If you’ve had the kind of year that can take a toll on you physically, emotionally, and maybe even spiritually with whatever you’ve had to face; then maybe it’s a little be harder to be merry this season. Perhaps you dread what too often becomes over-loaded weeks in a sprint to absolutely perfect Christmases. Or maybe you’re one of those who are 100% excited, giddy with anticipation each morning – ready to jump out of bed to tackle whatever comes this Advent! Either way, here we go again. Time flying by whether or not we’ve stopped enough to enjoy our lives! Whether or not we’ve accomplished the goals we’ve had for ourselves as a community of faith and as individuals. Whether or not we’ve learned what we’ve wanted to, experienced all we’d hoped, or noticed anything much different with each passing day. It’s Advent again with Christmas creeping right around the corner.

Again. . . . Sooner or later we learn in life that this journey is a spiral, not a straight line. We don’t move through time – at least not as liturgical Christians – from point A to point B to point C all the way at last to Z. Instead we move from point A to B to C to point A to B to C and again to point A to B to C over and over again. Some might think the approach rather boring. But with every turn around the circle, we get a chance to go a little deeper. Get a chance to notice what we missed last time. We get to experience the anticipation, longing, hope of this season again and again and again. . . . Have you ever stopped to wonder why so many of us do the same things each Advent season? Why we get the tree from the same place – or at least put it in the same spot. Why we host the same parties and give gifts to the same people and gather for the same traditions this time of year? I think we do it all again and again and again because no matter what’s happening in our lives, such traditions become our anchors. The reminders that this season of our lives won’t last – literally: this season after this year’s loss, or this season after this year’s high will NOT last forever. . . . Like the seasons of nature: winter doesn’t last forever. Neither does spring – or even summer in Tennessee. Life is the endless spiral of life, death, new life. Life, death, new life. . . . No matter in which place we find ourselves standing today, again a new season will come.

Remember that as we adorn this sanctuary today. As we sing the songs of Advent and hear the ancient prophecies. As we take in the sights and ponder the meaning of the same things we use each year: candles expanding in the dark of winter. Wreaths that never end. Red, red leaves that signify so much. Even trees that sparkle and glisten to remind us we’re here in this world but a few decades to do so as well! . . . Again we come to this season and my prayer is that the traditions we love during Advent will wake up any spirits that are slumbering. AND will allow those already ablaze to burn more fervently with the love of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . Again Advent begins. Let these moments fill you with all you need!

Turning to God, let us pray. (Hanging of the Greens liturgy followed.)

 

And so Advent begins again! Beauty abounds as these symbols of this sanctuary ring out with good tidings of great joy: a Savior born for us. This Advent, let the truth sink into you again. Let the traditions hold you again. Let everything of this season teach you again. . . . Keep the sights and sounds of the season before you that you might receive all you need once again. . . .

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2016 (All rights reserved.)

Guide Our Feet Into the Way of Peace

A Sermon for 6 December 2015 – 2nd Sunday of Advent

A reading from the gospel of Luke 1:68-79. Listen for God’s word to us as we hear this proclamation from the priest Zechariah on the birth of his son John the Baptist. Listen.

“”Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. God has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus God has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness before God all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.””

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

 

A Washington Post article appeared early this week that I found very disturbing. (The Washington Post, Christopher Ingraham, “There have been 334 days and 351 mass shootings so far this Year,” 30 Nov. 2015). It came out Monday, before the event at the special needs facility in San Bernardino, California. The article was a piece on mass shootings in America in 2015. The article defined mass shootings as “incidents in which four or more people, including the gunman, are killed or injured by gunfire.” According to the article, it’s a definition a bit broader than some sources that reduce the definition of mass shootings to incidents that only count deaths and not injuries by shooters. And while I’m sure there are good reasons why the difference is delineated, four or more killed or injured, versus four or more killed seems unnecessary hairsplitting really when we’re talking about such unacceptable degradation of human life. You probably remember the shooting at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs Thanksgiving week. And maybe you remember the shooting at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June when nine people were ruthlessly killed while at a Wednesday night prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. Maybe you even remember the last school shooting this year on October 1 at a small community college in Roseburg, Oregon where ten people were killed and seven others injured before the shooter killed himself. If you remember only those, then you might be shocked to learn that according to the article in The Washington Post, as of November 30; there have been 351 mass shootings in America in 2015’s 334 days. That’s an average of more than one a day – a number that already has surpassed the total number of shootings in 2014 and is well above how many took place in 2013. Though we only may have heard of the one shooting in Colorado Springs the day after Thanksgiving, the article reported that there actually were twelve mass shootings in our country during the week of Thanksgiving. . . . Could the poetry of Zechariah have fallen upon us at a more opportune time, so that we might join our prayers with his words in calling out to God: “Guide our feet into the way of Peace!” (Luke 1:79).

Peace.

Ten years ago, one pastor sent me these words and since receiving them, I have kept them close: “Peace. It’s not the absence of conflict or an enemy threatened or pummeled into submission. Not a boot squarely and securely placed on the neck slowly squeezing life from a hostile windpipe. It is the overwhelming desire for and commitment to overcoming violent differences via communication, risk, trust. A reciprocal recognition of inherent worth and mutuality; the bell that tolls for the demise of ego, pride, greed, and, most of all, fear” (“Peace,” by Todd Jenkins, 2005). Peace.

Might it be possible that the opposite of peace isn’t violence but ego, pride, greed, and most of all, fear? . . . Zechariah gave great thanks to God for a history of rescuing the people from the hands of their enemies in order to serve God without fear. In other words, in peace. More than once, according to the long history of their people which we come to know in Scripture as our own history too. God sets us free in order to serve the LORD without fear – in peace. The prophet Isaiah long ago spoke for God to the people reminding of the way we are to be repairers of the breach, restorers of streets to live in (Isaiah 58:12). Healing springs up quickly, the prophet proclaims (Isaiah 58:8), when we live in ways that bear our name: repairs of the breach – those broken places. Restorers of streets to live in. . . . We are to be people who live peace – that overwhelming desire for and commitment to overcoming violent differences via communication, risk, and trust. It is like that beloved Christmas carol charges: Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with us!

But how? We can’t storm into everyone’s homes and take away weapons. We can’t round up all the troubled young men – as seems to be the profile of those who commit these mass shootings – we can’t round up anyone we might suspect as a potential threat and suddenly fix whatever’s broken in them that would conceive such destructive violence. What can we – a little ban of followers of the Prince of Peace do as we seek to serve God without fear? What can we do that all feet might be guided into the way of Peace?

I think the first thing all of us must do is pray –because prayer changes things – it has the power to change the very energy in the atmosphere around us. . . . Sometimes I wonder if the world around us is getting more violent because the world inside us all is becoming more violent. It is as if the very air we breathe has become toxic. It seeps into our bodies, minds, and spirits until we don’t want to talk to those who are different from us. We don’t dare risk and we definitely find it difficult to trust. While twenty minute segments work best, even five minutes a day seeking to cultivate interior quiet allows the Spirit of God to work in us. To pull out the negativity that gets in from outside and pops up from inside too. It’s like the silence just rakes that all away for the beautiful calm of God to pervade us instead. We must start there because we serve the One who started there all the time. According to the gospels, all the time, Jesus was out somewhere communing in quiet with God. Some churches have begun weekly centering prayer groups as part of their peacemaking ministry efforts. The groups cultivate inner peace as a first step in affecting any sort of peace between families and communities and countries. Anyone can do this – this simple act of peace through quiet, centering prayer. And if you want to give it a try but don’t know how, or feel like you haven’t been successful at it in the past, then let me know and we’ll learn and practice together.

From such a place of inner peace, we can begin praying for others who need peace. 351 mass shootings, and a few more this week too –if it’s just the minimum number of people killed or injured in each shooting, that means that at least 1,500 families all across this nation this year are trying to figure out how to go through these holidays for the first time since losing their loved one to the unspeakable violence done to them at the hand of another person. That’s a lot of grieving parents – a lot of hurting siblings – a lot of grandparents whose hearts are breaking this year over the loss of their loved one.

You know the story of the peace crane, I’m sure. Tomorrow marks the anniversary of our nation being bombed at Pearl Harbor. Well, the peace crane is a paper crane one little girl in Hiroshima, Japan lifted up on her deathbed as a way to work for peace in the world. She started out hoping to make 1,000 of them to bring about her own wish for healing from the cancer she developed, which was believed to be a result of her exposure to the atomic bomb. Upon her death, her classmates took up her cause. The children collected enough money to build a statue in her honor that reads: “This is our cry, this is our prayer: Peace in the world” (www.budddhistcouncil.org). . . . What child doesn’t want to grow up in a world free from violence? There are easy instructions online of how to make the origami peace cranes and wouldn’t it be an interesting Advent practice to make a crane each day as you pray for peace and for those reeling from the loss these mass murders have brought? You even might consider making a paper peace crane each day with the name of a child you know on it – maybe even with the name of one of the children of this church or of the children of the community who are coming to be with us on Wednesday nights – as you pray for their daily safety and self-esteem as they seek to grow in the world we’re giving them.

I know not everyone gets excited about peacemaking – because after all, memories of “peace protests” in our nation’s history can leave a bitter taste. But did you know that the Presbyterian Church has a long history of peacemaking ministries? Since 1983, more than 4,500 PCUSA congregations around the United States have signed the Commitment to Peacemaking. Because, as a denomination, we believe that “peacemaking is not a peripheral issue but a central declaration of the gospel” of Jesus Christ (www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/peacemaking/pdf/commitment.pdf; p. 3). Congregations commitment to everything from worship expressing God’s desire for our peace, to peacemaking pledges offered to families as guides for how to live together at home, to study of global issues that affect human rights, to being a part of local peacemaking ministries however the church chooses to define such efforts. Congregations who take the pledge begin to see that everything they do to build relationships and uplift the needs of the downtrodden and learn about living together is done as ways of making peace. As ones praying to God to guide our feet into the way of peace.

It’s not enough for us to turn off the news. Or helplessly wring our hands when we hear of another shooting. Or shake our heads naively believing it could never happen here. It is our call to join our best efforts – to use our hearts and minds and creative imaginations as we call out to God to guide our feet into the way of Peace! Guide our feet into the way of Peace. Teach us, LORD, show us this Advent the way we are to walk as the ones who follow the great gift of Peace. . . . Let peace be our prayer, our commitment, our overwhelming desire.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)

A Compelling Vision

If I understood the commas correctly in a post today on achurchforstarvingartists.wordpress.com, then over $26 million was given to 4000 nonprofits in one day last week. It was called Giving Tuesday. I had never heard of it, until I received an email that morning from a nonprofit urging me to get in on the excitement. I guess it’s a take off from Black Friday, followed by Cyber Monday, followed by Green Monday which I received information about this morning. When will it all end???!!! The advertising world is doing a phenomenal job at getting our attention. At reminding us that we must have this one perfect thing at this amazing, great deal. Hurry don’t let this discount pass you by! Today is the day, so: charge! Charge! Charge! (And free shipping too!)

It’s really more than ironic this week when the Advent gospel text turns us to John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness to get ready for a whole different way. He’s trying to get our attention. To get us ready for something more than just buying and selling. Buying that which too often goes forgotten the day after it finally arrives. And selling our souls to that which will never satisfy.

The blog post I read this morning spoke of a compelling vision. It asked the question: does the organization which you represent present a compelling vision? As the author quoted the statistical figures from Giving Tuesday, she concluded that people obviously want to give. I realize that it may not be everybody in this world. I’m guessing we all can tell stories of some very selfish people. Still, I think about people I’ve observed in the past few months alone. I truly can say I often have been amazed by remarkable generosity. Just today I was sent from the church among whom I serve with four large bundles full of goodies and comforts. I was to deliver this amazingly thoughtful, unexpected gift to a husband who faithfully is caring for his dying wife of 68 years while she continues under hospice care. Is there a more compelling vision than being part of a community that seeks to be present to the dying and those whose hearts are breaking as they tend the failing body of their loved one? This is the same community that showed up last week for ones they just are beginning to know whose father died suddenly. The same community that gathers together to worship and learn and enjoy one another each week. All the while waiting for local folks to appear who might be in need of financial assistance or a bag of groceries from the food pantry. If you ask me that’s a pretty compelling vision!

It’s actually called the church – one representation of a body that too often gaines very bad press these days. Don’t get me wrong: in many ways, we’ve earned what we’ve gotten. I think a wise One once said that you reap what you sow. But in so many other ways, we have gone about amazing work. It’s time that we better market our compelling vision: we are the community that does our best to embody the One that is Pure Love. If you’re looking for somewhere to give, I urge you to start there.

Wishing you wonderfully nourishing bread on your journey!

RevJule