“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas just like the ones I used to know.” So the song goes.
Too often at this time of year, we engage in a kind of nostalgia for the way things used to be or should be. And so we set impossible expectations and grow anxious and stressed in reaching for perfection. We are often disappointed with results: the decorations are not perfect, the meal disappointing. If we focus on what is missing or wrong, we are sure to be disappointed.
As Fr. Malone described in today’s sermon on the scripture readings, Joseph has to make a decision about how to handle a painful, complex situation. According to the law and the culture, he has the choice of denouncing Mary either publically or privately. He sees only the two alternatives. Then the angel appears to him and tells him to “fear not to take Mary thy wife.” And Joseph is responsive to the angel’s message.
In his book Crazy Christians, Michael Curry writes: “If we live only in the context of the way things are, we are condemned to live according to the vagaries of the present time and the dictates of the status quo. But if we live in the context of that which is greater than ourselves, we become open to the possibility of action and transformation.”
This season is a time to reflect upon and give great thanks for what we have been given through Christ’s birth. It is a time to let go of our unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others and to grasp the possibilities that can be. I pray for us to rejoice in our many blessings and possibilities, not just at Christmas but throughout our lives.
How might you begin to explore new possibilities in your life?
Ever since I was a little girl I’ve enjoyed waking up at early dawn to watch the sunrise. There is something magical about the appearance of everything, even the most familiar things, bathed in the light of a brand new day. Some mornings things are truly changed; wet from a night of rain or snow showers, frozen in an arctic blast or disturbed by a nocturnal creature. Other times it is like an optical illusion; the new angle of the sun’s rays as earth transitions into a new season, or the deception of a heavy fog. Most times, however, it is my perspective that makes the world transform on a daily basis.
Jesus asks, “What then did you go out to see?” in Matthew 11:2-11. This Gospel reading and Fr. Merrow’s sermon made me consider what it really means to see.
Sight is the sense for which I am probably most grateful. I’ve been able to take in so much beauty – from my mother’s face as a baby to my own children’s faces as an adult and so much more. Still, I know human eyes are easily fooled. The monster I saw in my closet as a 5-year-old was as clear as day. Countless magicians have left me in wonder during their shows. Airbrushing and Photoshop continue to cover the media landscape with a false reality. Eyewitness testimony has repeatedly been proven the least reliable evidence. ‘Seeing is believing’ is simply not often credible, especially these days.
On the [very] rare occasion my children prove me wrong, they love to demand, “See?!” This, of course, underscores understanding the error of my ways. Maybe seeing is collecting all the facts to assemble an informed comprehension then. But as we all know, facts are tricky things. Our personal biases, divergent experiences and now even ‘fake news’ constantly supply us with distortions and fabrications, not to mention the highly variable myriad of ways each one of us interprets the never-ending data.
So what is seeing? Fortunately, as children of God, we do not need to rely solely on our eyes, or the crude data put before us, or even our reasoning to truly see. As Christians, we are given a glimpse of our world through Jesus’ eyes because He came to live as one of us. We have the testimony of the Bible and the Holy Spirit in our hearts. As we fast approach the celebration commemorating His birth, I will continue to seek His light which alone can transform the way I see the world on a daily basis, much like the dawn of a new day.
Have you ever been deceived by something you witnessed?
How has your view of the world been transformed by your faith?
Usually, this week’s reading from Isaiah (11: 1-10), with its promise of the holy mountain and the peaceable kingdom, is a comforting passage during Advent, as we prepare for the birth of Jesus. It is the promise of security and stability, of the glorious resting place where harmony will rule and “the wolf shall live with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid.”
But this year, in our very troubled times, the passage is not so comforting. Mother Kate, in her sermon, said the images in the reading always fill her with a wistfulness, and this year, she feels “the most wistful of all.” Our current world is very far from the peaceable kingdom, she said.
Like Mother Kate, I am feeling wistful too. Indeed, wistful might be an understatement. Despondent doesn’t feel too far off. The vitriol from the recent election; a bitterly divided nation; a casual disregard for the truth; the disdain with which people treat those they don’t even know; the lack of compassion for those who are different from us. And this is just a partial list! All of this makes it so easy to throw up our hands in disgust and further immerse ourselves in our own insular worlds. Or worse, we might feel pulled toward the fear and anger we are witnessing and act in ways that would not be described as our finest moments.
Yes, it is easy to grow increasingly skeptical that the peaceable kingdom is even possible.
But just as pessimism can threaten to slither in and overtake us, God reminds us that the kingdom truly is at hand. At the 9:00 a.m. service, that reminder was in the form of a remarkable testament from Bruce Lyman, our newly baptized adult member of the church. Bruce spoke to the congregation about why he chose to be baptized and his new life in Christ. He reminded us all that we are not really in charge, but God is.
What a remarkable and courageous moment it was. Frankly, it is not the kind of testimony you often hear at an Episcopal Church. But it was so ideal and so needed, on this particular Sunday, in this particular moment. Bruce’s open and moving testimony was a powerful reminder that the promise of the peaceable kingdom is real, even as we try to make our way in this broken and sad world. As Mother Kate said, the glorious kingdom is not ours to build, but it is the Lord’s mighty doing. He will show us signs and graces of the kingdom, she noted.
That grace was evident in the baptism. And I have decided that I want to choose to look for more signs of the kingdom rather than to slide down into the muck of pessimism, fear, and anger. It won’t be easy and I know I will be easily distracted by news and social media updates, and I perhaps will wander into those first few layers of the muck on occasion. But I plan to return to the baptismal prayer for strength: “Give us an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”
“It’s nice when you see lights in the dark,” said Father Merrow in this Sunday’s sermon, as he discussed the secular tradition of bestowing houses with decorations and twinkling garlands. And we may have neighbors like Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, neighbors who are more interested in decking the halls than sitting in a pew. But as Father Merrow moved on to say, we Christians must go further and share “the light that has overcome the darkness, once and for all time.”
Like most of us, I was brought up to believe that Easter Sunday was the most important day in the Church year, the day of Christ’s Resurrection. All of that is true. However, as an adult, I’ve grown to appreciate Advent. While I still know that Easter is the goal, I also know it’s a goal that could not be accomplished without the dark, quiet days of Advent.
Advent contemplation is, in part, about anticipation. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” we sing—it’s one of my favorite hymns for its somber poetry and sinuous melody. But Advent isn’t just about waiting. It’s also about preparing. “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares/And their spears into pruning hooks” reads part of Isaiah’s lesson this past Sunday. If we want to overcome darkness, we have to repurpose tools of war into those of peace.
Since we are human, we have to do this preparation, again and again, year after year.
Most of us turn our minds in Advent to freezing cookie dough, finding the gift tags, and making sure we have enough plates for a big family dinner—all of those tasks that must be done, again and again, year after year. Whether we approach those tasks with frustration or joy is up to us as individuals.
But repurposing tools of war into tools of peace means thinking about other kinds of preparations, the kind that just might make a difference for someone. What do I mean by that? I mean the kind of difference that creates change in the social-justice continuum Father Merrow emphasized in his sermon this week. For example, instead of creating elaborately themed wrapping for your own family’s gifts, you might volunteer to wrap children’s gifts at a family shelter. Rather than spending hours in your kitchen, you could serve Christmas dinner to the homeless. And so on. (I promise not to make a service reflection into a how-to list!)
The point is, repurposing requires action. Wait, didn’t I just say Advent is the season of quiet and contemplation? Absolutely. Perhaps you will choose to spend the four weeks leading up to Christmas in stillness. As you pray, you might ask for guidance into how you can use your resources in the secular New Year. The ways to shine a light into the world are many. The most important thing is to shine a light.
Social justice will always, “once and for all time,” require sacrifice. Any light, be it an oil lamp, a string of electric twinklers, or a LED bulb, takes energy. Prayer takes energy, and so does contemplative planning. Considering how we can each spend our time is important, but Father Merrow reminds us that we must make that consideration as Christians. Our lights must shine with compassion as well as energy; our lights must be filled with love as well as holiday merriment.
Of course, substitute “lives” for “lights,” because that’s really what we’re talking about: Advent is a time for us to re-energize our lives as Christians, to remember that each week brings us closer to a symbolic rebirth, a time in which we can re-dedicate our innermost selves to God’s glory. That’s the light to show us the way to “the mountain of the Lord’s house.” That’s the light where “he may teach us his ways/And we may walk in his paths.” That’s the light to ensure “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
It’s nice to see lights in the dark. It’s much nicer to see love brought to life as we try to do as Christ taught us, in service to those less fortunate. The amazing thing is that Christ never said we can’t have both, that we can’t have our Christmas lights and do good, too. The important thing to remember in this and every Advent season is that the latter takes precedence.
Usually I like to write my Sunday reflection immediately after returning from the service at St. Mary’s while the meaning and feeling of the service is still fresh. This Sunday however, the Washington Nationals game interfered with my schedule (and how convenient; I was already wearing red!) So as I sat a bit disconnected from the experience of worship, my focus and inspiration were a bit lacking, even as I reviewed the readings and Gospel assigned for the Feast of Pentecost. I was easily distracted from the task at hand.
Then I caught a portion of the commencement speech at Catholic University yesterday given by Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan. If you don’t know Jim Gaffigan, he is a stand-up comedian with a refreshingly clean act composed many times of commentary on his family life with his wife and collaborative partner, Jeannie, and their 5 children. They have always been unabashed regarding their Catholic faith (he refers to his wife as a Shiite Catholic for her strict adherence,) and their speech on Saturday was no exception. They spoke in depth of all the impossible things made possible in their lives through, and only through, making God and family the centerpieces of their lives. Despite his surging success, Jim warns. “Remember, true happiness is not found in accomplishments, income or the number of Twitter Followers you have. True happiness is found in family; living for each other, sacrificing together, and enjoying the blessings of fresh guacamole delivered promptly to your door.”
We all belong to many families. Our immediate family, our extended family, our church family, etc. On Sunday, we welcomed Saunders Troha into our church family with his holy baptism. Our connections extend far beyond our bloodlines, diocese and national borders. Today’s Collect asks that we “Shed abroad this gift [of eternal life] throughout the world by preaching the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth;” and I would define ‘preaching’ rather broadly to incorporate our works, not just our words.
This Sunday we were all called to share our gifts and talents in the life of the church. We all have this opportunity to live for one another and sacrifice together by giving of ourselves and receiving blessings from other members of our Christian family. While shedding the gift of eternal life to the ends of the earth may seem an impossible job, God really does make it possible if we utilize the gifts He has already given to us. In today’s Gospel Jesus reminds us that “[those] who believe in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works…” Wow, how empowering! And if Jim Gaffigan is right, we may even find true happiness while we do them.
What special talents/gifts has God given to you?
How can you use your gifts to do great works in His name?
What stands out to you from this weeks service?
I have a confession to make. I haven’t been to church in a while. We all have our challenges. As a full-time writer I often hear my colleagues use the axiom “butt in chair;” you have to spend time at a desk in order to meet your goal. Well, if you will pardon the construction, I have difficulty with “butt in pew.” You have to spend time in communal worship in order to truly meet with God. Unfortunately, I’ve allowed many things to interfere with that time.
However, over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at “butt in chair” as a writer, and each day before I meet the blank page I post “#5Thanks” on Twitter. (Bear with me; this is not a reflection about social media!) Today I wrote thanks for the cool weather, for my Mother’s Day tulips from my daughters, and. . . “2. The Great Confession.”
Until I typed those words into the little text box on Twitter, I’d thought I’d be writing this reflection about being in church on Mother’s Day, or about Father Tim’s sermon on how Jesus focused on prayer and not “strategies” in the Gospel, or even about the fragrance of the lilies around the Paschal candle. But no. God had already focused my subconscious on confession and on how important it is that we make confession together each week.
That’s right. I can make any kind of confession I like to you on this page. I could have a member of our clergy hear my private confession if I so wished. I might confess something to my spouse, or only to God. However, the Lord wishes us to gather in His Name and recite time-honored words together.
Savvy Episcopalians reading this will already have spotted the “turn” I’m about to take. The words we recite together are called “The General Confession,” not “The Great Confession.”
What is called “The Great Confession?” Some would say it is the moment in the Gospel of Matthew when Peter proclaims Jesus as The Christ. Others use the phrase to describe Christianity itself, springing from Peter’s proclamation.
I must have known one or both of these facts. I must have, because where else could my gratitude item have come from? But the truth is I didn’t, at least consciously. After I typed those words, I went and looked them up.
Why did “The Great Confession” spring into my mind? I believe (although you don’t have to) that God was sending me a message—and not the social-media kind. He wanted me to learn something new about the very roots of my Christian faith. There is no Christianity until one person proclaims it and another person hears that proclamation. We hear the Good News from clergy and laypeople, from our fellow humans.
What a glorious gift Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have given us in The Great Confession! We don’t have to be divine in order to know that we are forgiven, that we are loved, that we have a Savior willing to carry the weight of our sins. We can be human and use human means—speech, music, text, symbol, more—to proclaim our faith.
We can also use our language and voices to confess our sins together each week, reminding each other that we start every week with a clean slate, are washed clean of sin anew before every Holy Communion, and are reminded that no one’s sins are greater or lesser than anyone else’s.
Yesterday for the first time in many weeks I recited the General Confession along with my fellow St. Mary’s parishioners. None of them knew my sins; I knew none of theirs. That is not the point of confessing together, of course. The point of confessing together is to know we are cleansed together and may support each other “in newness of life.”
We don’t always know each other’s sins—or each other’s challenges. But we can always know that the person in the pew nearest ours deserves our prayers, peace, and mercy. Our Great Confession, by being together in church, is that none of us goes it alone, that all of us walk with help.
- What did you take away from this week’s service?
- How does confessing affect you? (you don’t like it, you do, it’s challenging, easy)
- How does confessing in a group change you?
At this morning’s sermon, Father Andrew talked about the recent “Rebuilding Together” event where St Mary volunteers got together to do some needed repairs and other work on the home of a couple who could no longer manage the upkeep on their own. In addition to this being an excellent way to give back to our community and help those in need, Father Andrew also said this was a way for all of us to get closer to heaven. He closed with a quote from C.S. Lewis, to the effect that “if you strive for heaven, you will get earth in the deal. But if you strive only for earth, you will probably get nothing.”
I had some trouble absorbing this message at first, probably because it seemed so ambitious and out of reach to me—aiming for heaven seemed to ask too much of me. Why couldn’t I just pursue my own agenda here on earth and not always be challenged to do more and aim higher? After thinking about this some more, however, I felt that maybe I was making this too difficult—
The work of earth and the work of heaven is so heavily intermingled that we do aim for heaven, often without knowing it. When we visit a sick friend—or a stranger—or when we donate a meal to a family in need or when we help repair and restore a house—we are doing a little bit of God’s work here on earth. As the Bible says, God’s work must truly be our own.
- How do we know when we are doing God’s work here on earth?
- What will you do the next time you are offered the opportunity to do God’s work?
- What is an example of you doing the work of heaven?
In his sermon today, Father Merrow shared how he felt a real connection to Bartimaeus, the blind beggar from the Gospel of Mark who called out to Jesus asking for His mercy. Blind since birth, Bartimaeus would have been among the lowliest members of society, understood by the people of that time to be blind because his parents had sinned. So, as Father Merrow noted, it took a great deal of courage for Bartimaeus to ignore both his own internal qualms about calling out to Jesus, as well as the external forces – the many people who “sternly ordered him to be quiet.”
I, too, admire Bartimaeus and I see him as another of what I call the unsung faithful heroes of the Bible. The smaller players, if you will, of the Gospels, but the ones whose faith runs so deep, they end up teaching everyone else a thing or two about faith and love.
But if I am honest – which hopefully is the point of these reflections – I can also relate to the crowd who sternly rebuked Bartimaeus. Some in the crowd perhaps thought they were doing what was best for Jesus. It was a large crowd in Jericho, it was hot, and Jesus and the disciples were trying to leave. He can only bless and speak with so many people. I suppose I recognize that I could easily have been part of a misplaced effort to shield Jesus from a needy vagrant.
But where the crowd got it wrong was in thinking that Jesus would be bothered by a blind beggar and that he would not want to talk to Bartimaeus. People didn’t seem to get it either when Jesus ate with the tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. The people on the very margins of society were the ones He called to himself. It was radical behavior, and perhaps not easily understood by the people of Jesus’ time despite His repeated attempts to show all who followed Him what it truly means to be a child of God. Even with 2,000 years of the message, we continue to struggle with this idea that everyone is equal in God’s eyes and deserving of love and respect.
It is often easier to stand with the crowd, even if it is by way of saying nothing, than it is to shush them. Again, if I’m honest, it might be a little easier to stand up for people who look like us or live near us, or who also oppose that dog park in the neighborhood. But what Jesus asks of us is to stand up for the oppressed, the downtrodden, and those on the margins of society. To be a voice for those who do not have one in our society. We are asked to speak up for the Bartimaeuses of the world.
- What character do you relate to in this lesson?
- Remember a time you stood up for an unpopular cause or position because you felt it was the right thing to do?
- Have you come to a point where you sought God no matter what others thought or how you looked?
…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mark 10:35-45)
Today’s sermon by the Rev. Aidan Rontani and the gospel on which it is based sends a reminder that we, as Christians, must always “check our egos at the door” when we seek to act as God’s servant. In organized religion there is always a hierarchy, and it is easy to make it “all about me” in terms of who is the recipient of favors or attention from that hierarchy. We want and need that special attention that is usually conferred when we are asked or permitted to play a special role in our church life. Sometimes this is normal, like when we prepare food or decorations for a church event—in return for our contribution we receive praise and thanks, an evenhanded arrangement. But in my life I know I have been guilty of self-flattery and ego-boosting when I have been asked by church leaders to perform some service or take a position that seems to set me above the rest of the congregation—“look at me, look at how important and essential I am.” And I have also been disappointed when I have not been asked to do these things—“What’s wrong with me? Why wasn’t I chosen?”
However, as Rev. Rontani said in his sermon, we often derive the most satisfaction over the quieter episodes, where we find ourselves helping someone or performing some service in a spontaneous, unplanned way. Providing directions to someone who is lost or helping somebody to their feet after they’ve slipped on ice can suddenly provide us the good feeling that you have made somebody else’s day a little bit better even though nobody else may know about it. It’s a feeling that you can share with yourself but also with God—and if He knows about it, isn’t that enough?
“We preach not ourselves but the gospel”—what a simple but effective way to keep our priorities straight when our own vanity and self-image loom large before us.
- How do I separate my ego from my service to Christ?
- When do I know I am doing something for my fellow men and women and not for myself?
- When will we know we are walking with Jesus and not ahead of him?