Advent 4(B): Everyday Annunciations

Advent 4(B): Everyday Annunciations

Luke 1:26-38

The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

Several years ago I came across Denise Levertov’s stunning poem, Annunciation. You can read the full poem here. Her portrayal of Mary struck a deep chord in me, mostly because the vision of Mary that I was raised with was very different. In the circles I grew up in, Mary’s name was synonymous with the “ideal woman”—one who was soft-spoken, submissive, meek. In all the Sunday school lessons on the Nativity or studies about women of the Bible, never did I resonate with Mary as a model for my own womanhood, perhaps because I tend to be headstrong, opinionated, independent. Far from the “ideal,” I had little hope of ever being like Mary. Meek obedience wasn’t for me.

But to think of Mary as a model of “unparalleled courage” is far more intriguing. There really was nothing special about Mary, nothing to mark her as particularly worthy of God’s notice or favor. In fact, she was rather ordinary—a young girl about to be married to a mere carpenter, living in an insignificant town in a backwater province. Nothing about her life suggested that she would play an integral role in God’s plan for salvation. Yet Mary’s very ordinariness, rather than being a discouragement, is encouraging. Luke’s Gospel is distinct in its insistence that God invites ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Few people can live up to an “ideal,” but everyone can make a choice. Mary’s courage, her choice to say yes to God’s call, opened her to a life utterly illumined by God’s grace.

God’s grace in Mary’s life was a strange kind of blessing. Gabriel greets her as “highly favored” and yet, by our standards, her life is anything but. None of the goals we associate with favor—namely, social stature and wealth—came her way. Instead, she faced shame, dishonor, and public disgrace as she bore a child out of wedlock (Mt. 1:19). As a child, Simeon warns her that Jesus will bring judgment and division, and that a sword will pierce her own soul, too—she too will know the pain of rejection and division (Lk. 2:34-35). She will be forced to flee her home and live as a refugee (Mt. 2:13-23). She bears the gossip and stigma of speculations about Jesus’s mental sanity as he begins his ministry (Mk. 3:21). Ultimately, she will see her son executed as a criminal (Jn. 19). But, as R. Alan Culpepper so aptly reminds us, “acceptability, prosperity, and comfort have never been the essence of God’s blessing.” Were they so, Mary may have despaired. Her life was not marked by these things. The promise of the great king to come did not turn out as Mary may have initially expected. But over and over again we see the same courage that marked her first “yes” as she steadfastly faces disruption, discouragement, and pain throughout her life. She trusts in God’s promise. Her obedience stems from that trust, and her blessing came from the fellowship shared with God as a partner in God’s mission of redemption.

Levertov’s question makes me wonder: Aren’t there annunciations of one sort or another in most lives? Moments when roads of light and storm open from darkness in a man or woman? Moments when God invites us to partner in God’s mission of redemption, to partner in building up God’s kingdom? The poet suggests that more often those moments are turned away from in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair and with relief. Ordinary lives continue. But I wonder: is ordinary life not the place where we see the greatest courage at work?

I think of the people who embody the courage of Mary, who embody the hope and trust in God’s promise of redemption despite the everyday suffering of life that would seem to belay that promise. I think of the survivor of sexual assault who refuses to give in to despair at the horror she has lived through and instead asks what she can do to minister to others. I think of the young adult who lives her days lobbying for refugee relief and support, despite overwhelming odds against her cause. I think of the man who lost his job, ended up on the streets, wound up in prison, and as a last ditch effort went to a nonprofit hiring agency where he discovered ordinary people who reminded him that he was valuable, a person of great worth, and how he now works every day to bring the same hope to others in the situation he found himself in. I think of the wives, husbands, sons, and daughters who care every day for loved ones experiencing illness and disease, for whom there is no cure in sight, who give the gift of dignity at the end of life. I think of the social workers, and teachers, and guardians ad litem who give their time, effort, and energy to care and advocate for children who have no one who cares for them. I think of all those who offer their time and ability to take care of the “least of these.” I think of the people in our congregations who are willing to risk entering into relationship with someone who is completely unlike them, in order to share the love of God. I think of ordinary people who are willing to obey God’s claim on their lives, who say yes to the seemingly impossible, who open themselves to a life utterly illumined and undergirded by God’s own grace.

There are annunciations of one sort or another in most lives. The grace of God, and the ability to partner with God, is offered to us in everyday moments, in everyday situations. Like Mary, we are each offered the choice integral to humanness. May we be as courageous as Mary in our response to God’s call: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

 

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The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is Priest-in-Charge of Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Wilmington, North Carolina. Her greatest joy as a priest is walking with people who seek and follow Christ in deep relationship with each other. Chana believes that God’s grace is extended to all, and that nothing is impossible when we truly seek and attend to God’s call to us! In her spare time, Chana can be found dancing Lindy Hop and teaching basic swing, enjoying conversation and caffeine at a coffee house, or exploring local attractions and foodie hangouts. Chana, her husband, TJ, and their two dogs, Molly and Momo, live in Wilmington.

Christmas Eve (B): Living Christmas

Christmas Eve (B): Living Christmas

Luke 2:1-20

By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

Tonight, the Church dispersed throughout the world gathers in vigil and prayer, emerging from weeks of expectant and hope-filled Advent waiting. The faithful do what Christians have done for millennia—singing joyful songs and carols, praying prayers of thanksgiving, and hearing again the age-old story from Bethlehem. God’s incarnate Son, born this night, bringing peace, joy, and love into the world!

The story of this night is perhaps the best-known story of all time.

We sing our songs and say our prayers and tell our stories, and we are assured that since that marvelous night all those years ago in which God came down to Earth and took on our humanity, our universe—our very existence—has been changed forever! But once our singing and praying and storytelling is over tonight, we’ll all go home. Although many will continue the Christmas celebration in the coming days, eventually, business-as-usual will return. The Christmas decorations will come down, the cards will get recycled, and all of that delicious food will get eaten.

And then, reality sets in.

Wars still rage, violence still plagues our streets, hunger and poverty still ravages our communities, and atrocities are still committed by supposed people of faith. So I can’t help but wonder: is it really Christmas or are we still in Advent? Has Christ really come or are we still waiting?

I live in a small town in rural Western North Carolina—the Eastern edge of Appalachia. Last month at our small local hospital, 18 infants were born addicted to opioids. 97.6% of students at our neighborhood elementary school are at or below the poverty line. My county—far from the largest county in the state—ranks third in North Carolina in the rate of drug overdoses. All of that is to say nothing of our social and political realities, where new peaks of “shocking” and “unprecedented” are reached with each passing week. Misunderstandings and misdeeds cause neighbor to fight neighbor. Spouses are suspicious of one another, siblings despise one another, and the political mantra of our time seems to be, “I’m gonna get mine.”

I see all of that and wonder: is this it? Is this the reign of peace and joy and love that Jesus was talking about? In all of our festive worshipping and singing and storytelling, have we missed something?

The 20th century German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner wasn’t afraid to ask tough questions of Christ or his followers. In his essay, “The Divine Dawning,” he asks of God, “Is your humble human existence from Bethlehem to Calvary really the coming that was to redeem wretched humanity from its misery? Is our grief taken from us, simply because you wept too? Is our surrender to finiteness no longer a terrible act of despair, simply because you also capitulated? Does our road, which doesn’t want to end, have a happy ending despite itself, just because you are traveling with us?”[1]

These are hard questions for us to hear—especially on Christmas Eve. But you know, the more I think about it, the more I have come to believe that we may be getting Christmas wrong. Instead of celebrating Christmas—recalling what happened so long ago—perhaps we are called to live Christmas as something that began long ago, but continues today.

Christ’s coming as a child in Bethlehem, his life and ministry on earth, and even his death on a cross at Calvary, are only the beginning of the great drama of our life as faithful servants of the Most High God! Novelist Nancy Mairs was right when she wrote, “God is not a White Knight who charges into the world to pluck us like distressed damsels from the jaws of dragons, or diseases. God chooses to become present to and through us.”[2]

So while we gather here to remember the birth of Christ, recalling stables and angels and shepherds, let us leave this place knowing that Christ’s birth is not the end of the story…

If we truly want to live Christmas, then the birth of Christ must take place within us.

But first, we must create a place within our hearts for Christ to dwell. For as long as we cling tightly to our wealth or our status or our power or anything that re-enforces the misguided notion that we can somehow save ourselves, there is no place for Christ.

No, it is only when we do as the Blessed Virgin Mary did and surrender ourselves to a strength that is not our own—a strength that works in us and shines through us, bringing the bright light of God’s love to the desperate and waiting world!

So what will your story be?

Will it be one of forgiveness?

Perhaps a story of generosity…

Maybe a story of hope…

Whatever it is, may you find a place in your heart so that Christ can be born in you this Christmas; and may you share the miracle of His Divine birth with all whom you meet.

Merry Christmas!

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The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina, and is the editor of ModernMetanoia.org. Marshall is also an amateur runner, a voracious reader, and a budding chef. He holds degrees from Transylvania University (BA, American Studies) and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (Master of Divinity), where he is  also completing doctoral work. Most important and life-giving of all, he’s Elizabeth’s husband.

 

 

 

[1] Karl Rahner, “The Divine Dawning” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2014), 67-75.

[2] Nancy Mairs, Ordinary Time: Cycles in Marriage, Faith, and Renewal (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994).

Christmas Day (B): The Frustrating Child

Christmas Day (B): The Frustrating Child

John 1:1-14

By: Ryan Young

A friend of mine once told me that it is impossible for a parent to view Christmas through any other lens than that of parenthood. Until recently I didn’t understand what she meant, but now that I am the parent of a 2-month-old, I get it. So I have to apologize for writing another parent’s view of Christmas—these sorts of articles used to drive me mad—but after weeks and weeks of trying to write something else, I found that I can only see through the lens of my own parenthood right now.

Last year we only hung three of our four stockings. My wife and I had been trying to conceive for some months and had been met with nothing but frustration. The stocking we had bought and hoped to use as a pregnancy announcement went painfully unused. All the traditions surrounding Advent and Christmas—all our language about anticipating the long-awaited Christ child—took on new and painful meanings. It was difficult to celebrate the remembrance of Christ’s birth when we were unsure whether we would get to experience our own. We were parents aching for our child.

John’s prologue lays out a neat thesis of the gospel that follows, and it begins with an introduction of the Christ to whom it witnesses. In the beginning was the Word—the very Word which existed from the beginning and which created all that is. But there was a problem: darkness. Creation had been broken and pain, sin, death, and all manner of evil had come into existence because of it. Creation was aching for reconciliation with its Creator.

Shortly after Christmas, we found out that we were expecting a child in September. The pain was replaced with anticipation. The first time I saw my daughter on an ultrasound and heard her heart beat, I was struck with the gravity of the situation. The event that we have hoped and prayed for was being realized. Every week was met with a new milestone in our daughter’s development; always measuring her size relative to some sort of fruit or vegetable, a practice which I think we should continue for adults (your author is as big as 408 avocados!) All along the way, my wife and I would play a game where we would try and predict what our daughter would be like. What would her sense of humor be like? Whose smile would she have? Would she play soccer or dance ballet? Most importantly, in a world where the special editions are all that exist of the original trilogy, would she accept that Han shot first? Each day the thing that we understood in theory became more and more a reality. Everything was about to change.

But then, news! A man named John is sent from God to prepare the way for the Word. John comes to the people of God to testify to the arrival of the Christ, and suddenly there is something new: anticipation. What form will the Word take? What will this Christ be like and what will it require of us? There is anticipation and excitement in the realization that God is doing something new and everything is about to change.

I’m sure that every new parent has some variation on the same story, but the panic that set in when we were discharged from the hospital was unlike anything I have ever experienced. How could responsible medical professionals release a newborn into my care? Surely this was some sort of malpractice. Since we got home our world has become a gauntlet of exhaustion. It’s not what we had expected—I don’t mean that we came into it without the knowledge that there would be lost sleep, crying, and mountains of dirty diapers, but that there is nothing that could have prepared us for the difficulty and rewards of parenthood. This child was unexpected.

Christ finally appears in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and not everyone is pleased. Having anticipated his coming, many had begun to develop their own ideas of what the Word was to be—perhaps a military or political leader like David, perhaps a high priest like Aaron, perhaps a revolutionary like the zealots—whatever they had thought, Jesus of Nazareth was not it. Jesus with his questions and parables; Jesus who associated with tax collectors and sinners; Jesus with the audacity to work on the Sabbath and claim authority to forgive sins; Jesus who was too weak to raise a hand against the Roman oppressors. This Christ was unexpected.

Our daughter, Iris, is wonderful and terribly frustrating. Young children’s stages of development come and go so rapidly that, just when we get a handle on how to handle her in her current stage, she changes again. Parenthood seems to be about learning to live in a world where the child you wished and hoped for is a reality, but may not be the reality you imagined. She is her own person, beyond our control, and that makes this so much more difficult. But it also means that we get to learn together and grow together; it means that we relate in a way that is real and beautiful.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word who gives life and shines light into our darkest hurts. On Christmas we remember that the Word came to us in our brokenness. Advent speaks to us about reconciliation; it tells us that, although creation has been broken, God is doing something new. Advent asks us to sit in anticipation, imagining the world made new. Christmas is about learning how to exist in a world where Christ is a reality that we cannot control; a reality that is always moving beyond our expectations. This makes Christianity much more difficult, but it also means that we get to relate to the Word which has existed from the very beginning in a way that is real and beautiful.

Thanks be to the wonderful and terribly frustrating Christ child.

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Ryan Young

Ryan Young was raised in Charleston, South Carolina and grew up in The Episcopal Church. He joined the Methodist Church while he was a student at Clemson University (Go Tigers!). He earned my Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology in 2012 and has been in student ministry ever since. He currently resides in Roswell, Georgia with his wife Rachael, their daughter Iris, and their dog Zooey.

Advent 3(B): Something to Rejoice About

Advent 3(B): Something to Rejoice About

John 1:6-8; 19-28

By: The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

Writing this just after Halloween, I can’t help but think that John the Baptist is the original David S. Pumpkins: you feel like you should know who he is and why he’s here, but, along with the Pharisees, you’re kind of in the weeds on John T. Baptist. Is he the Messiah? No. Is he Elijah? Nah. Is he some kind of prophet you just can’t place…? Nope. He’s his own thing.

Indeed, John denies being a prophet, but as a hermit living in the wilderness (v. 23) who embraced an ascetic lifestyle and was sent by God (v. 6), he bears the marks of archetypical prophethood. If you look like a prophet, sound like a prophet, and smell like a prophet (the camel’s hair get up mentioned in Mark had to be a little rank)…. you’re a prophet.

So why does John deny it? Why is he so evasive, especially given that this is the gospel most explicit about his successor’s identity? And why are the Pharisees sending a committee of priests and Levites to vet this guy?

Prophets in ancient Judaism had great importance; as the mouthpiece of God, much attention was focused on them and their message (often times to their detriment; remember Elijah running for his life?). John, of course, wanted the attention focused on Jesus.

But I wonder whether he might also have realized that Jesus was going to break the mold; that he was announcing not just another mouthpiece delivering messages from a higher power, but rather the Messiah (3:28), the Son of God (1:34) who embodies divine love and grace in his very person. God’s new way of being in the world wasn’t going to be like anything the Pharisees had expected; refusing to play into their preconceived categories, as Jesus would later repeatedly do, might have been John’s way of signaling that this was a whole different ballgame.

Prophets also challenged those in power by condemning the way political and religious leaders and the people in their charge were behaving. The Pharisees’ questioning of John shows the institutional elite trying to get a handle on this outsider whose following threatened their authority. Though we don’t hear much about its contents in this gospel, John’s message must have resonated with people; they flocked from the city to be baptized by him.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about baptism. In ancient Judaism, tvilah – immersion in naturally sourced water for purification purposes – was quite common, particularly after coming into contact with a dead body, blood, or other uncleanliness; it was also used when someone converted to Judaism. In both cases, it indicated that the one who had been immersed could now participate fully in the life of the faith community.

There’s lots of good symbolism here – spiritual cleansing, new beginnings, etc. – that fits the synoptic gospel accounts describing John as proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But in this gospel, John has a different agenda: he is baptizing “that [Jesus] might be revealed to Israel.” (1:31) Baptism, then, is no holy rite focused on ritual purification, but rather a spiritual version of  “build it and they” – or rather he – “will come.”

This approach is emphasized in verse 33, where we hear echoes of the prophet Samuel passing in front of each of Jesse’s sons to discern whom he should anoint as king. John, too, is looking for divine confirmation: “‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” Jesus is the fruit of that same tree of Jesse – the son of David; the ultimate Anointed One.

Perhaps surprisingly, John continues baptizing even after Jesus has begun his own baptismal ministry. (3:22) But when his disciples confront him about it, John uses it as another opportunity to clarify that Jesus is the star attraction, that Jesus “must increase” while John “must decrease.” (3:30)

Later, John is described essentially as the best man at Jesus’ wedding to Israel. (3:29) We’ve all heard a best man focus his toast a little too much on himself while everyone awkwardly waits for it to be over; but not on John the Baptist’s watch! Everything John says and does turns the spotlight on Jesus.

To wit, there’s the bit of prologue included in today’s lectionary passage: John “came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” (1:7-8)

This is, of course, the gospel of John’s underlying message: everything points to Jesus. The gospel writer’s main concern is to convince us that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, and to help us begin to apprehend the mystical, cosmic significance of that role.

Even so, I hope John’s motive for baptizing struck you as odd.

Odd because we are used to experiencing baptism as a moment centered on the believer: it’s their official entrance into the body of the church, when they receive fully the grace and new life God has bestowed on everyone who believes. All eyes are on the one being baptized: the name of the baptized person, inscribed in large font, is the focal point of the certificate we sign, and we hold a celebratory reception, complete with flowers and personalized cake commemorating the occasion.

But what if baptism looked more in line with John the Baptist’s M.O.: baptism that points not to us, but to Jesus?

I have a rather higher anthropology-to-christology ratio than this proposition suggests. Yet the idea of baptism not as an event that glorifies us, but rather as a sort of spiritual dragnet meant to help us find the Messiah fits perfectly with Advent. It is, after all, the liturgical season during which all signs point to Jesus.
If you’re inclined to preach a sermon about keeping Christ in Christmas, here’s your entry point. But we can go broader than that – and deeper. What does it mean to recognize that we’re not the light, but that we’re meant to witness to it? How do we keep from being the self-centered best man at a party that’s not about us? How do we avoid the pull to perform; to enjoy accolades more than service; to be concerned with optics and success more than substance; to center ourselves around our own agendas rather than God’s inbreaking presence? We as humans (and particularly as clergy) all face these temptations.

In chapter three, John’s disciples want to know what’s up with this Jesus guy horning in on John’s territory. John replies with the bridegroom imagery, which, despite my earlier comment about awkward toasts, is deeply moving: “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled.” (3:29)

The main event, the One whose presence thrills us with the kind of profound happiness we feel at seeing our best friend happily married, has arrived. For a moment, we forget our own agendas and lose ourselves in joy. As we celebrate Gaudete Sunday, that is true reason to rejoice.

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The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron is the pastor at Park Avenue Congregational Church UCC in Arlington, Massachusetts. A self-proclaimed thriftvangelist, her ideal day involves an outdoor run; some good thrift shopping; a dance party with her 3-year-old; and cooking something stupidly easy and delicious for dinner with her husband, Chris.

Advent 2(B): A Wierdo Appears in the Desert

A Weirdo Appears in the Desert

Mark 1:1-8

By: Jerrod McCormack

I was a pastor in the United Methodist Church for many years. In all of those years I can’t begin to tell you how many times this passage or one very similar to it popped up in the lectionary. Suffice it to say that I have preached this text so many times that the first question that came to my mind was, “how in the world will I find some new word to share from this?” One of the things that stood out to me while I was reflecting on this passage is the ring of the prophetic voice in the midst of God’s people.

There’s no time for pleasantries or background in Mark’s characteristic style. He just jumps right in with a simple one sentence introduction: “This is the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) Mark admits that the purpose of his relating these stories is so that we too might know the good news of Jesus Christ whom Mark is convinced is the Son of God… But then the first story Mark tells us isn’t specifically about Jesus. It’s about a John the Baptist, the messenger who prepares the way for the messiah.

John the Baptist is a very interesting character in the narrative of Jesus’s ministry. Mostly because John is a total weirdo. We meet John in the wilderness wearing clothes made of camels hair and eating locusts and wild honey. He is an ascetic. That means that he practices a radical level of self-discipline and denial. That has led some scholars to wonder whether he belonged to an ancient community of religious, i.e. monastics. His practice of monk-like rigor makes him even more of a weirdo in our day and culture. Self-discipline and denial are not popular Google searches. The rigorous and devout life that John leads also brings this gospel into connection with the ancient prophets of Israel.

Like those prophets of old, John calls the people to return to the Lord by receiving a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4) And we are told that people came from all around the surrounding region to be baptized and to confess their sins. The prophetic role has often been associated with calling people to return to God. I am reminded of the many voices that called Israel back from idolatry and waywardness to return to the God their ancestors knew. The prophet Isaiah speaks to the wayward Israelites saying,

“Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth;

for the Lord has spoken:

I reared children and brought them up,

but they have rebelled against me.

The ox knows its owner,

and the donkey its master’s crib;

but Israel does not know,

my people do not understand.” (Isaiah 1:2-3)

Moses, Elijah, and Isaiah have all lived into the prophetic role and have called God’s people back to relationship with God. The prophetic role is one that speaks truth to a people who have strayed from the ways of God or from their responsibilities in the world. It is almost impossible to separate the prophetic call to repentance from the call to a more just, caring, and whole society because our inner spiritual lives shape the way we interact with the world and the way we interact with the world shapes our inner spiritual lives. Jesus says, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (Mark 7:14-15) It is from the overflow of God’s goodness in our hearts that we construct this new kingdom of Jesus in the world.

John appears in the desert calling the people of the day and us as well to receive the baptism of repentance that we might live into a new vision of what God is doing in the present age. John takes a remarkably humble position as he describes the one who is coming. He says, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John points us towards Jesus as the one who comes after who will baptize his followers not with water but with the Holy Spirit and it points us towards the second role of the prophet and that is to proclaim a truth that the world has yet to realize.

Walter Brueggemann calls this the Prophetic Imagination. In his book bearing the same title he says, “The alternative consciousness is to be nurtured on the one hand, [and] serves to criticize in dismantling the dominant consciousness…[and] to live in fervent anticipation of the newness that God has promised and will surely give.” Brueggemann further acknowledges that the role of the prophetic imagination is to energize the community with the promise of a new vision and a new place to which God’s people can move.[1]  Moving towards a new vision is exactly what Advent is all about. It is about acknowledging all that God has done before, accepting our waywardness, and yearning to move boldly into the new kingdom that comes to light in Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, and his coming again.

Jesus gives us a common vision into which both liberal and conservative can move together. Our tendency to sometimes forget that for the sake of our own ideology. We are all working towards that day when, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24) We are invited to be the prophetic voice to the world decrying that which is wrong, acknowledging and uplifting that which is good and right and true. Just as John prepared the way of the Lord we too get to participate in preparing the world to receive the messiah once again. We do it every day in our interactions with each other and the world. Advent invites us to participate in the prophetic task and speak truth to power.

[1] Walter Brueggemann. Prophetic Imagination: Revised Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001).

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Jerrod McCormack

Jerrod McCormack is the Youth Leader at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is also a Spiritual Care Provider for the Alberta Health Services. He earned an A.Sc. in Pre-Medical Studies from Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tennessee, a B.Sc. in Biology from Tennessee Wesleyan College, Athens, Tennessee, and a Master of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky. He is married to Ali and in their spare time they love to drive through the rockies and stop for random photo opportunities.

Advent 1(B): Waking Up to Those Around Us

Advent 1(B): Waking Up to Those Around Us

Mark 13:24-37

By: The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

 

Confession: I really like my sleep.

It’s true. I am an early to bed kind of person and can even appreciate a short nap in the afternoon, every now and then. I really like my sleep. So, this passage from Mark’s Gospel appointed for the First Sunday of Advent is difficult for me.

“Keep awake,” Jesus says. Not once, but twice. Keep awake! Stay alert! For you do not know when the master of the house will come and you do not want to be found asleep.

Events surrounding sleep figure prominently in the Jesus story. In Matthew’s telling of the gospel, Joseph experiences an angelic visitation in his sleep, foretelling the birth of the one with whom his wife to be was pregnant and by what name the child should be called.

When a man named Jairus approaches Jesus to tell him of his daughter who is ill and at the point of death, Jesus is delayed in arriving at the home by the woman who touched the fringe of his cloak. When Jesus does arrive, the girl is reported to be dead; but he responds to the cries of lament, “The child is not dead but sleeping.” And she is raised to life.

In the garden of agony, on the night of betrayal, Jesus found his disciples drifting off to sleep, not once, not twice, but three times, while he prayed in distress over what lay ahead.  To Simon Peter and the others he says, “Could you not keep awake one hour?” No, they could not.

Wakefulness and sleepiness, dozing off and remaining alert—these themes appear over and over again in the Gospel story, in each of the four accounts.

On this first Sunday of Advent, the first day of the Church year, we read this passage from Mark’s Gospel that takes place near an end, not at the beginning. We begin at the end.  Before Jesus is betrayed, handed over to suffering and death, he is in Jerusalem, around the Temple. No doubt, Jesus is teaching his disciples those most important truths, that which he wishes them to know most when he is longer with them.

In teaching about the hope of a hope-filled and glorious coming, with angels sent out to gather the faithful from every corner of creation, to the ends of the earth, Jesus issues a firm admonition: remain attentive. One does not know when this immense moment will arrive and does not want to be caught unaware, unprepared. So, keep awake, stay alert, remain vigilant.

So often I have heard this passage offered as a call to repentance and prayer, lest the hour of such a return arrive and one be found with unconfessed sin or an unprepared heart.  Seeking forgiveness and drawing nearer to God in petition and praise are rooted in the Christian tradition, to be sure. But, I wonder if there might be more for us to consider in this passage?

What might remaining awake and staying alert look like in our various contexts?

A few weeks ago, I sat in a circle of colleagues and pondered this question. There are a group of clergy in Lexington, Kentucky whose congregations band together to organize for just solutions to problems in our community.

Together we talked about the propensity toward dozing off as the people of God, not in our prayers or in our devotion to God, but in our concern for all God’s people. Keeping awake and remaining alert requires us, each as individuals and collectively as a community of faith, to see the needs of the world around us. And, even more, these needs, varied and great, call us as a people to not doze off.

In each of our communities, wherever we live, there are enormous challenges: inadequate access to direly needed healthcare, students who are not receiving the education they need because the myth of scarcity has proclaimed there are not enough resources, and lives ripped apart by epidemic of opioid addiction. There is hunger and homelessness.

At every turn, there is a world wondering, is anyone awake? Individuals cry aloud. Can anyone feel the burden that weighs me down? Does anyone see? Will anyone respond?

On this first Sunday in the season of Advent, as the church turns the page on a new year, as our eyes begin to turn toward the Christmas miracle, the invitation on this day, in this Gospel reading, is to wake up. When we, as the people of God, are awake, we are reminded that this Jesus whose coming we anticipate at Christmas and in the culmination of time is the One who entered into the fullness of our humanity, who knows the suffering of the human condition, and the weight of its pain.

He is the One who calls us to wake up, to be alert, not only in our hearts and souls, but in the world around us, where the cries for healing and wholeness have not quieted. Rather, they are often overlooked, cast aside, too easily forgotten.

This new season of Advent invites us into days of preparation, for Christ who comes as the Bethlehem baby and as great Redeemer of all creation. Might these days stir us to wake up from sleep and remain alert to the needs of the world around us?

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The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

The Reverend Andrew J. Hege serves as the Assistant to the Rector at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Lexington, Kentucky.   Born and raised in Thomasville, North Carolina, he is a graduate of Montreat College, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Andrew is an ardent golfer, occasional runner, and an avid reader of historical fiction. Ordained a priest in January 2015, Andrew is married to Amanda Schroeder Hege.

 

Thanksgiving Day (A): Living the “Thank You”

Thanksgiving Day (A): Living the “Thank You”

Luke 17:11-19

By: The Rev. Ben Day

As a child, whenever I received a gift, I was not allowed to play with it until a thank you note was written, signed, addressed, and mailed. My parents wanted to instill in my siblings and me the practice of expressing gratitude to those who offered something to us, and it has served me well throughout my adult life and ministry. I am grateful for this practice that my parents instilled.

That was not always true, though. Around the second grade, I was not yet reading, so my parents had me tested by an educational psychologist and discovered that I am dyslexic. There are degrees of dyslexia which gauge the severity of one’s learning disability, and on the scale used at the time, I was a 6 of a possible 7 on the scale. The psychologist told my parents I would be functionally illiterate unless they intervened immediately. Even with intensive intervention and a plethora of supplemental resources and instruction time, I spent most of my primary and secondary education trying to “catch up” to my grade level in reading and writing skills.

On Christmas or after a birthday party, as I opened gifts, with every rip into the wrapping paper, I dreaded the thank you notes that must follow. My family’s tradition back then was to open all the gifts together, and then immediately retire to a table or comfortable chair with a hard-bound book in our laps to write out all the necessary thank you notes.

Sometimes it would take me 20 minutes to get through one note because I had to keep stopping to ask my family how to spell words like “grateful” or “lovely” or “sincerely.”

My family always tried to be cheerful in helping me. But it got on their nerves, I am sure—especially my older siblings. I found out just a few years ago that they were threatened within an inch of their lives by our parents if there were ever caught teasing me about my dyslexia, or refusing to help when I asked. Despite their coerced but helpful attitudes, it was a struggle and embarrassment nonetheless. I wanted not to need so much help. I wanted to be “normal.”

That brings us to the gospel appointed for Thanksgiving. St. Luke’s gospel tells the story of ten lepers who begged for mercy and were made clean of their ailment, but only one returns to show gratitude to Jesus after realizing the miracle of his healing.

Often we hear this text preached as a call to gratitude and praise for the gifts of our lives. Those include the the primary gifts for sustaining life: food, shelter, clothing; along with other material gifts: cars, homes, and boats; and even the sentimental gifts: family, friends, and loved ones. In sermons like these, we are usually led to consider some active application of the text like how to “live thanksgiving every day” or “embrace gratitude as a new spiritual praxis,” or maybe something even more saccharine or cliché.

As I attempted the read the text with fresh eyes, I began to wonder about those other nine who didn’t return, more than I had before. Why didn’t they return? Were they ungrateful, or did they just not know a return to say “thanks” was an expectation? Were they careless, or were they carried away in a mad fury to show their newly healed skin to those they were separated from by that dreadful bacteria? Were they distracted by the celebration with one another? Were they ungrateful, or were they swept up in the possibility of their new lives given in healing, and maybe even forgetful?

Those questions led me to a more graceful reading of this story than I’ve heard or even proclaimed previously. Jesus’ response to the lone returner, a Samaritan “foreigner” at that, may lead the preacher to highlight how we can forget to express gratitude, even though we experience it. The power of it is not the private emotion, but the offering. We uplift the Kingdom of God and therefore the world, not in feeling grateful but by BEING grateful—expressing it!

As we enter a season filled giving and receiving, let us commit ourselves to the graceful proclamation of the power of gratitude as an expressed element. Let us avoid drawing a false dichotomy of the grateful one, versus an ungrateful nine, but instead preach the power of expressive and bold gratitude offered to one another.

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The Rev. Ben Day

The Rev. Ben Day is Rector of Christ Church Episcopal, Kennesaw, Georgia.