Catching People: The Rector’s 2019 Annual Report

John ChristmasAs is his custom, the rector gave his annual report as the sermon at the worship service on the Sunday of the Annual Meeting of the Parish, January 26, 2020.  The scripture readings are Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 5-13, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, and Matthew 4:12-23.

Listen to the report HERE

At the very beginning of today’s Gospel, we hear news that John the Baptist has been arrested. Jesus and his disciples must sense that these are dangerous times. Events are moving quickly and each day brings new challenges.

For us, living so many years later, we hear news that makes us anxious. Whether we devour every word of the latest news or try to avoid it or filter it—there’s no getting around a certain sense of anxiety, of trouble brewing, perhaps of a world out of control.

And so, in the context of what scripture calls “wars and rumors of wars,” we find ourselves a part of a church—of this church. And like the people described in today’s Gospel, rather than despair because of bad news (John the Baptist has been arrested), or give up, we’re called to follow Jesus and go fishing—to be a part of the whole sharing of Good News which “catches people.” News about Jesus—his life, his way, his freedom—can catch some off guard, it might catch others who feel like they’re in the middle of a freefall, and it might even catch our breath as we realize anew the depth of God’s love for us and our world.

This spirit of helping others get caught up in the love and life of Christ, of “sharing what we’ve got,” and not holding on to it too tightly for ourselves, is a good spirit in which to celebrate the Annual Meeting of the Church of the Holy Trinity.

As most of you know, on this Annual Meeting Sunday every January, it’s my practice to make my annual report in the context of the sermon. I will make it slightly shorter than in the past because so much of our review of 2019 is told by other people in the hard copy Annual Report you’ll receive after our worship service. Though a lot of my energy is spent managing our building, you can read about that in the Buildings & Grounds report. I will thank some people by name in this report, but please know how grateful I am to each person here for all that you have done in the past year to make Holy Trinity such a special place.

And so, with regard to “catching people,” in 2019, more people got caught up in our worship. Attendance has been slowly increasing, which helped us begin to really feel like we are forming communities around the Sunday 8 AM service, the Sunday night 6 PM service, and the Wednesday night service. We regularly have four to seven people for Morning Prayer at 8:30 AM, Mondays through Thursdays. Especially in 2019, whenever I needed to be away for a meeting, an appointment, or vacation, volunteers from the community stepped up to lead Morning Prayer or lead Wednesday Evening Prayer. This is as it should be, as the community takes leadership for the worship and is less dependent on a clergy person to always be the leader.

In 2019, we began the complicated and laborious work of migrating from an older database system to a new, cloud-based, secure, and versatile information management system. Some of you have created logins and given online or updated your own information, and we are grateful. Already, the new system helps us to be better stewards of our financial resources, but even more important, it helps us keep track of people—to know who is part of the church family and who has moved elsewhere, to be able to know a person’s spouse, whether that person may be of another faith or no faith, and to be able to establish groups and ways of helping people get more involved, as they wish. The new database, called Realm, makes for better fishing—it allows us to catch and minister with the people God sends our way.

Again, in 2019, a lot of people got caught up in the work of God through Holy Trinity Neighborhood Center. David Liston, our president, and the entire HTNC Board guide the programs with humor, persistence, and competence. As you’ll hear in the Church Treasurer’s report, in 2019, we began more careful accounting with costs incurred by HTNC. Last year, HTNC actually had no fundraisers, but will do more fundraising for program costs in 2020 and later in 2020, we may even have a plan for an updated kitchen, and can move toward more serious fundraising around that issue.

The programs of Holy Trinity Neighborhood Center were blessed with volunteers. The Tuesday senior lunch community continued to be robust and well-fed, thanks to the cooking of Emma Sebbane and her team. Even though the various cooking teams for the Saturday neighborhood supper began to change their configuration and perhaps will need some new volunteers in 2020, last year was a great success. The Thanksgiving Dinner program again fed almost 300 people, thanks to efforts coordinated by Suzanne Julig, Lydia Colón, and volunteers from St. Joseph’s Church. The HTNC homeless shelter struggled with some of the practical aspects of our serving as a respite site for the Main Chance Drop-in Center (getting linens on time, not getting as many referrals as we thought we should), but our volunteers were amazing and we continued to be one of the only religious respite sites that continued year-long. This is largely because of the oversight by our neighbor Mark Roshkind, and our amazing volunteer coordinator, Melanie Hill. In 2019, our shelter was still closed on Wednesday and Thursday nights, but if we had more volunteers, we might be able to be open seven nights a week.

Though we took a year off from MayFair (given street and rectory construction and the very late date of Easter), we were especially “evangelical” during the last week of June, as we did our part to be the church while New York City welcomed millions of people for World Pride. LGBTQ people from all over the world read about us on the World Pride website and in publications that targeted the occasion. On Tuesday night of that week, we offered an opportunity for people to meet our own assistant bishop in New York, the Rt. Rev. Mary Glasspool, the first openly lesbian bishop in the Anglican Communion. That night, we had a full church, with people from all over the country, many of whom named our event as the highlight of their plans for World Pride Week. On Wednesday night of that week, we showed the film, “Saint of 9/11” about the life of Father Mychal Judge. On Sunday, we offered special music during worship, had a pre-parade party in the social hall, and then joined the Diocese of New York for the Pride March. For months afterwards, I received thank you emails and notes from people who were grateful that our parish was so publicly offering the love and welcome of Christ to all people.

My own skills as a fisherman for Christ are sharpened as I learn from the community and from colleagues. Last year, I continued to celebrate a monthly Eucharist at Carnegie East House for Senior Living, served on the Advisory Board of Health Advocates for Older People, the board of the St. Hilda and St. Hugh School on the West Side, and as the Community Pastor to the Community of St. John Baptist, an Episcopal order of nuns in New Jersey. My own spirit was nurtured and sustained by my involvement with the Third Order Society of St. Francis, and Holy Trinity was blessed to host the Society of St. Francis (the Episcopal Franciscan friars) for their service of the Transitus of St. Francis in October and for a Day of Reflection they offered here on All Souls’ Day. In the Diocese of New York, I served on the Global Mission Commission, and continued participating in the midtown clericus and the Manhattan Rector’s group.

Sigo aprendiendo y practicando español, aunque hablo mal. Estudio porque desafía mi cerebro, me ayuda a ser más útil en el ministerio y porque ayuda a nuestra iglesia a dar la bienvenida a los vecinos cercanos y lejanos. Para aquellos hablantes nativos de español: gracias por su paciencia.

(I continue learning and practicing Spanish, even though I speak badly. I study in order to challenge my brain, to be more helpful in ministry, and because it helps our church welcome neighbors from close by and far away.)

Speaking of engaging the wider world, last week, we again enjoyed a visit from Father Graham Buckle, the vicar of St. Stephen’s Church, our sister parish in the London-NY Link program. Graham visited in January of 2019, I visited and preached in London in March, and members of both parishes have visited throughout the year. Some of you participated in our Sunday morning education hour in April, as we used the Internet technology of “Facetime” to join the people of St. Stephen’s for a session of art and spirituality.

Jesus says we should be catching people, and I’ve lamented that sometimes the Episcopal Church works more like a lobster trap. We open one hidden door and hope people will wander in. And while Holy Trinity is not yet able to be open during the daytime (there are too many unsafe dark corners and hidden places for mischief-makers) visitors and friends move through this space almost every day of the week. Thanks to Liz Poole, and her dedication to teaching Wednesday night yoga, some people who ordinarily would never come inside are able to experience the presence of God here. Again, in 2019, we welcomed the Taiko Japanese Drumming group, and in September, we celebrated a Michaelmas Evensong with our neighbors from St. Joseph’s (Roman Catholic) Church. And almost every week, there are choral groups, or recovery groups, or community meetings that use our space.

Yesterday, as people arrived to remember the life of Connie George, beloved Board Member of Triangle Theatre, many went first to Draesel Hall because that’s the space they know, from attending Triangle Theatre events. When they figured out the service was in the church, and they saw the church—many for the first time—they were gob smacked. Many were even more surprised when they saw how Holy Trinity welcomed with a light touch, in no way compromising the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but being open to other traditions and experiences of the Holy. The productions, the teaching, and the fun of Triangle Theatre touch a lot of lives, and I’m confident it will continue to do so in the future.

As every child knows, the church is not building or the steeple, but you have to open the door for all the people. Again in 2019, I was blessed with volunteers and staff. I’m always grateful for the support and help from the Rev. Richard Smith, who is in some ways retired from active ministry, but in other ways, busy almost every Sunday. I continue to work towards our possibly having a deacon at Holy Trinity, and things look good for later this year.

Rarely, is there a week that someone does not compliment me on some member of our church staff. Often, it’s to say how amazing the music is, and to express gratitude for Cleveland Kersh, our director of music and organist. Yesterday was another example of his kindness, his versatility, and his selfless service to the occasion, as he helped others hear and experience “the beauty of holiness.” Calvin du Toit, our Sunday night musician, does the same thing each week, as he sings and plays and teaches us music that truly allows us to “pray twice.” I’m grateful to our sextons, Arold Dorsinvil, Ozel Ryant, and José Cornier. They work and work and work.

Erlinda Brent identifies herself as the “church secretary,” but we all know she’s much more than that—helping to coordinate sextons, building use, calendars, special events, those who rent our space for programs, and for holding and filming. It’s because of Erlinda that we benefited again in 2019 from the CBS television series “God Friended Me,” and we were used for filming by the series, “Evil,” and several other shorter segments for television and film. A Latin America superstar named Romeo Santos filmed one of his music videos here last year, and that song (“El beso que no le di,” “The kiss I didn’t give her,”) has remained on the Billboard charts ever since.

Though few churches function with committees the way they might have 20 years ago, we have several strong boards and committees that help us be faithful and keep us on track. The Investment Committee and the Budget and Finance Committee continued to help us keep track of our resources, but also to be better stewards and to put into place systems that protect us and guide us for the future. Jean Geater and Christine du Toit have been hugely helpful with this. As you’ll see at our meeting to follow this worship service, Christine’s service as our volunteer Treasurer is invaluable and continues to strengthen us for long years of service and mission in the future.

I want to thank Jim Synk for his coordination of our 2019 Stewardship Campaign, which he has done for some 13 years. Jim will probably join me in being enormously thankful that we went beyond our goal for 2020, while also pointing out that a few small number of people give very generously. We can all grow in how we support the mission and ministry of Holy Trinity.

The Vestry meets monthly for most of the year, and is filled with people who serve in just about every aspect of our church life. Alden Prouty and Yvonne O’Neal again led us with grace and energy. We thank Bea Tompkins and Leona Fredericks, who both complete their terms on Vestry this year and are taking a rest. But we won’t let them rest too much—we need their wisdom and input. We are slowly getting over our denial that Alexandra Barker has indeed gone to Scotland for law school, but we were grateful for all her service on Vestry in 2019.

Our Gospel today begins with news of the arrest of John the Baptist. But even in the midst of a complicated and challenging world, the disciples and Jesus kept telling people about the Good News of the Kingdom and their love and life in the Spirit brough healing and renewal.

May God help us to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ in this new year.

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Washed and Renewed

baptism-of-jesusA sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, January 12, 2020.  The scripture readings are Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, and Matthew 3:13-17.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Today we remember the baptism of Jesus and we recall our own baptisms, when we underwent the sacrament and symbol of new birth. Especially today, the scriptures invite us to ask what part of our lives God may be trying to expand or enlarge; to break down or build up? What part needs to be washed clean and made new? Are there places in our lives where we continue to hold prejudice or harbor assumptions? Are there places where we continue to show partiality and exclusion to any of God’s children?

Before we think about the Gospel, I’d like us to look at the second scripture reading, from the Acts of the Apostles. Unfortunately, it begins in the middle of a story. It’s a story about Simon Peter and Peter’s conversion to openness. The story begins earlier in Acts, chapter 10 with the introduction of a character named Cornelius. Cornelius is a Roman soldier. He’s not a Jew; he’s a Gentile. But God begins working on Cornelius, preparing him to meet Peter.

Meanwhile, God begins to work on Peter. Peter, like Jesus himself at the beginning of his ministry, and like many of the early Jewish followers of Jesus, was hesitant to embrace non-Jews. It was unclear how the election of the people Israel might be expanded to include others. But in a vision to Peter, God makes it very clear that all are welcome, all are included, there should be no partiality.

Peter goes to sleep and has a dream. In the vision he’s hungry, and then he sees a sheet lowered down from heaven, a sheet filled with animals and reptiles and birds. And Peter hears a voice that tells him to stand up, kill, and eat. Peter responds to the voice, explaining that he’s religious, he never eats anything that is common or unclean, according to Jewish law. But the voice says to him, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.” And then Peter wakes up.

It’s only later, when God brings Peter and Cornelius together, that Peter connects the dream about clean and unclean food, with his prior understanding of people—the false separations between clean and unclean, between those included and those excluded, between those whom God loves, and those who (for whatever reason) are thought not to be loved so much by God.

And so, in today’s reading from Acts, we hear a wiser and enlightened Peter—“I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

Peter’s new understanding that God does not play favorites, that God shows no partiality, that God chooses whoever and whenever God desires—all of these ideas related directly to the understanding of holy baptism, which we celebrate on this day, The Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Catechism in the back of our Prayer Books reminds us that “Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.” The birth child and the adopted child are indistinguishable, since in God’s sight, we are all adopted as children in our baptism. The water makes us one, and as though we were looking at the world through water, when we look out through the perspective of baptism, any distinctions we might have seen before, are blurred; edges are smoothed; difficulties go out of focus. Or at least, that’s the potential offered to us by baptism. Like regular water, it washes us. Though we are baptized only once, we partially re-live our baptism whenever another is baptized; whenever we affirm our own baptismal vows; whenever we touch holy water or are blessed by it being hurled through the air at us.

God gave Saint Peter a vision that helped him to move beyond the confines of his upbringing, his experience and his religion. Even Jesus was shaken out of his own ethnic assumptions by the Samaritan woman, the Canaanite, the Syro-Phoenician, the tax collector and many others.

The great southern writer Flannery O’Connor often includes characters who stumble upon this issue of where they should be in the great “pecking order” of life. In her story, “Revelation,” a lady named Mrs. Turpin has a vision like St. Peter, but for Mrs. Turpin, it may have come too late. When she’s in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, we get a sense of how she notices people. O’Connor writes,

Without appearing to, Mrs. Turpin always noticed people’s feet. The well-dressed lady had on red and grey suede shoes to match her dress. Mrs. Turpin had on her good black patent leather pumps. The ugly girl had on Girl Scout shoes and heavy socks. The old woman had on tennis shoes and the white-trashy mother had on what appeared to be bedroom slippers, black straw with gold braid threaded through them—exactly what you would have expected her to have on.

The story continues as Mrs. Turpin decides that one person in the room is suitable for conversation, and so the two talk in front of the others as they basically agree on the ways of the world as they see them. At one point, there’s a dramatic altercation with the girl Mrs. Turpin thinks is unattractive. It’s as though all the rage and anger of everyone and everything Mrs. Turpin has ever criticized or looked down on rises up and takes its vengeance.

An ambulance came, the “crazy girl” was taken off and order was restored to Mrs. Turpin’s world…. almost. As she tries to take in all that’s happened, Mrs. Turpin steps outside and looks across the yard. There she has a vision.

A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black[s] . . . in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was.

For Mrs. Turpin, the vision comes late—perhaps too late. For St. Peter, the vision of God’s love for everyone comes just in time, in time to change his life and help him to be a force for change in the church and the world.

May God fill us with visions and dreams and a right reckoning of who we are and who’s we are. May we be washed and forgiven. May we be renewed, may God grant us visions that help us to extend the kingdom of God to ever corner and to every person. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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What will you bring?

magi squaredA sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, observed on January 5, 2020. The scripture readings are Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7,10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, and Matthew 2:1-12.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Today we basically complete this year’s celebration of Christmas on this 12th Day of Christmas. This is the day for twelve drummers drumming, (as well as eleven pipers piping, and all the rest, if you follow the old carol.) Most of us know that Christmas is more than a day, that it’s a full 12 days and officially ends with tomorrow’s celebration of The Epiphany. Epiphany is about “the showing forth” of Christ, the Day of the Three Kings, or Tres Reyes Magos.

Enjoying Christmas as a season (more than a day) can be a great gift, a gift that reminds us that no matter what, God is among us. No matter how we may observe the days of Christmas ourselves—whether quiet or loud, whether alone or with lots of people—Christmas is a liturgical and spiritual reality, observed and celebrated in churches throughout the world, running like a great undercurrent of living water beneath busy lives.

Christmastide (these Twelve Days of Christmas) is a rollercoaster of spirituality if we let ourselves hang on for the ride. On Christmas Eve, God is here, close and breathing, offering the possibility of peace on earth, and goodwill among all. But no sooner than we are reminded of God’s Incarnation, we are confronted with the results of having faith in such a God. The last few days of December show us the cost of faith, as they are martyr’s days: St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, remembers a deacon in the early church who became the first Christian martyr. The 27th is St. John’s Day, and even though John the apostle and evangelist is thought to have lived to a very old age, he suffered for his faith, and was beaten and imprisoned. On the 28th, the Feast of the Holy Innocents reminds us of the lengths to which King Herod was willing to go in order to protect his own grasp of power, as he sought to have all the male babies killed, to wipe out any future competition. The 29th is well-known to Anglophiles and those who know T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral”—it’s the day to remember Thomas Beckett, the medieval archbishop of Canterbury who was killed by the king’s thugs.

Faith in the Christ-child is put to the test very early.

Some of you were here on Wednesday, New Year’s Day, as we observed the Feast of the Holy Name. We recalled how that special name, that holy name, the name of Jesus, means “savior,” and that day reminds us that in the name of Jesus—in the name of all that flows out of it, all that it invokes and gathers– there is saving power, there is the way for our salvation.

All of this brings us to this day, the eve of the Epiphany, the manifestation, or the showing forth, of Jesus as God with us, the revelation of Jesus as King of our hearts—but not only ours, but also the hearts of all the world that would follow him. We celebrate God’s love for all people, all languages, all colors and shades, all backgrounds and diversities, everyone and anyone is included.

And we pray that we might be like the Wise Men who were led by a star. We pray that we might have the strength and the faith and the tenacity of those three, to follow wherever God leads us, whether it’s through a star, an angel, the word of a loved one, or a God-informed feeling of the gut.

In our Gospel we read that King Herod has heard from his astrologers that a special child has been born. He has probably also heard from his political advisers that the people are getting restless and wanting change. And so he is suspicious. But the Wise Men follow the star, even at great risk to themselves. They move forward, following where they feel God is pointing.

In the part of Matthew’s Gospel that immediately follows what we’ve read today, an angel appears to Mary and Joseph and warns them about King Herod, and so instead of going home to Nazareth, they go to Egypt. They become resident aliens, refugees, until it’s safe to return home.

Following so quickly after the joy of Christmas, at Epiphany we are met with all the complications of faith—of having to make decisions, of having to leave the familiar, of being urged by God to leave comfort and calm, and to move ahead—sometimes with people we don’t even know very well, sometimes with little to go on in the way of provisions or supplies.

The Star doesn’t hang in the sky the same way for us as it did for the Wise Men. And the angels may not have given us our travel plans the way they did Mary and Joseph. But we, too, are filled with God and empowered to move forward. And we can follow like they did.

In Matthew’s Gospel, the three wise men bring Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh. While some commentators have suggested that these are simply gifts that wealthy folks might bring, others have suggested that each of these gifts has a prophetic overlay. The gold looks forward to the kingship of Christ, to Jesus as king of the Jews, as king of our hearts. Frankincense, like incense, is the stuff that priests use to make things holy and call down visual and physical prayers upon things, and so the frankincense looks forward to the priesthood of Christ. And myrrh–myrrh which was used as an anointment at death–foreshadows the suffering and death of Christ.

Through the days of Christmas, we have given and received gifts. We have received in Christ the gift of life, of eternal life. And so today might be a good day to take a cue from the wise men and imagine what we might bring Christ? What will we give more to God in this new year?

There’s a wonderful Epiphany hymn (“Bring we the Frankincense of our Love,” H. Kenn Carmichael, 1976) that encourages us with the words

Bring we the frankincense of our love
To the feet of the holy Child,
Ever remembering God’s great gift
Of a love that is undefiled.

Bring we the myrrh of humility
To the throne of the Son of God,
Ever recalling the purity
Of His life when the earth He trod.

Bring we the gold of our faithfulness
To the King who is Lord of all.

What do you bring, this new season?

Listening closely to God, holding on tightly to one another, and moving ahead with strength and confidence, we step into a new year. May the joy of Christmas strengthen us through the reality of the season after the Epiphany, so that Christ’s joy might resound throughout the New Year.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Outside In

christmas-tree-store
A sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas Day, December 29, 2019. The scripture readings are Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Psalm 147, Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7, and John 1:1-18.

Listen to the sermon HERE

If you think about it, we do a strange thing to our houses, apartments and churches at this time of the year. We bring inside things that usually belong outside: trees and wreaths, pine cones and branches.

In addition to the greens, the typical crèche, or nativity scene brings in even more of the outdoors. There are often a few sheep. There is of course an ox and a donkey. The shepherds are there, and the wise men usually ride in on a camel or even an elephant—all inside the church or home where a crèche is placed.

Bringing things from the outside in is really at the heart of Christmas, because that’s exactly what God has been doing since the beginning of time.

Remember Adam and Eve began as the ultimate insiders. They were inside the garden of Eden, paradise, a magical place and state of being. But their curiosity got the best of them and before they knew it, they had stepped outside the garden. It’s as though they lost their way, they forgot who they were, they forgot where they lived. And so, God began a plan to bring them, and us their children, back inside. This movement of outside-in would take place through the directional sense of the second Eve’s “yes.” It would take place through the cry of the second Adam—first as a baby, then as a man, and finally as God-returning-to-God, as God-in-Trinity.

In the early days of Advent we heard the words of the Prophet Isaiah assuring people that their outdoor days were numbered. One day they would be welcomed back in, back into Jerusalem. In today’s reading, Isaiah celebrates not only the return, but even the herald who brings good news of return. God has returned to Jerusalem and now his people are returning, too. The Lord has brought comfort, the Lord has brought redemption, he has brought healing. The Lord God has brought his beloved people home.

In John’s Gospel the homecoming is bathed in light. Even when Adam and Eve first stepped into darkness, the light was there (John tells us), already shining, but they couldn’t quite make it out yet. The light has been growing. The darkness has never overcome it, not in the suburbs of Eden, not in the slavery of Egypt, not in the desert, not in a succession of faithless kings and clueless priests. The darkness has not overcome the light, even though the prophets were silent for a time, even though Jerusalem killed its prophets and stoned those who were sent. Even though sin, even though the cross, even though unimaginable separation and death, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome.”

In order to bring the outside in, God himself went outside. Jesus was born outside the conventions of an ordinary family. He was born outside the warmth of home or security or extended family. Soon after his birth, Mary and Joseph took him out even further.

Before long, King Herod would begin his effort to kill the outsider, to try to keep out the light, to try to keep out the life of God in the world. In Jesus, God brought the outside in.

He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.

Jesus knew what it was to be an outsider. His own family seems to have had trouble from time to time understanding him. The disciples didn’t always catch on. The religious authorities found him threatening and were in the middle of the scheme to have him killed. Jesus even died outside the city limits of Jerusalem. But he rose again, he stepped out of death and back into life and in so doing, folded creation in upon itself, outside in. The normal course of things is reversed, barriers are broken and walls knocked down. God has come to us and so we don’t get to God by moving along a straight line.

We don’t reach God through good deeds or good works or even good living. We can’t buy our way to God, we can’t please our way to God, and we can’t drink or eeat our way to God. We cannot think our way to God.

We can only receive. We can apprehend. We can accept. We can allow God to be born anew in each one of us. “[T]he Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”

Ephrem the Syrian, a 4th century theologian, suggests that we decorate not just our churches, but that we also decorate our hearts. “On this feast,” he sings, “let everyone garland the door of [their] heart. May the Holy Spirit desire to enter in its door to dwell and sanctify. For behold, She moves about to all the doors to see where She may dwell.” (Hymn 5)

May our hearts be so decked as to woo the Holy Spirit, that we may allow God in even as God bring us more closely into his light, into his laughter and into his life everlasting.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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What would Jesus want?

nativity-birth-of-jesus by Giotto
A sermon for Christmas Day 2019.  The scripture readings are Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-4,(5-12), and John 1:1-14.

(Because of Christmas exhaustion and the need to hit the road quickly after church, today’s sermon is not recorded. Merry Christmas, all! 🙂

I guess it was in the early 1990s that the four letters WWJD began appearing all over the place. It might be on a banner at a football game. Or on a wall of graffiti. But especially, you could see it on wristbands: WWJD.

It stands, of course, for “What would Jesus do?” Almost as soon as it became popular, people pointed out its shortcomings. “What would Jesus do?” — well, how would we possibly know? How could we know what a first-century Palestinian Jew with minimal formal education, who only lived 30-some years, and seems to have preached publicly for about three and half years. He didn’t write anything down, sometimes misquoted the Hebrew scriptures, and left instructions for his disciples that we a tad vague.

But I think the question, “What would Jesus do?” and the associated questions of “how would he do it, when would he do it, what would he use— all of these really do go to the heart of faith, if our faith is to be living and active. If we say we follow God, with no focus for that following, chances are that before long, we’ll be following an exaggerated image of ourselves, justifying whatever we might do or think according to some deep, “gut sense” of things.

The Gospel for Christmas Day says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” This Christmas, as I think about our world desperately lurching in any direction for hope, for purpose, for direction, I’m reflecting on those words from the Gospel, “All things came into being through him.” And later in the Gospel, this idea is repeated, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him.” Christ shows us the way to light, to the Creator, and in following Christ, we are adopted and claimed, loved and named, as God’s very own children. And so, somehow, who Christ is and what he does is a part of the design and pattern for creation. And so it becomes the essence of faith to discern WWJD, “What would Jesus do?”

Of course, the question can sound facile and arrogant, if we suppose for a second that Christ’s will is always clear and evident. But especially in Christmas, that question “What would Jesus do” sounds a lot like another question: “What would Jesus want?” And to begin to discover the answer might be a lot like the process we’ve gone through to ask that question about a friend or loved one. We’ve asked it at malls and online sites: “What would this person want? What would make them smile?” Perhaps we ask, “What do they need?” Or if you have a lot of people in your life who are fortunate and have few material needs, we ask, “What might honor or please this person?”

To answer the question, we might do at least three things. We might first look closely at the person, study him or her. And then we might try to walk in their shoes for a time, to see what the world might look like them. And finally, we might simply ask them what they want.

To approach the question, “What would Jesus do?” which is to explore today’s Gospel about the purpose, meaning, and pattern of life as it leads us into God.

We would begin by looking closely at Jesus, at his life, his teaching, the way he moved through this world. This means reading scripture, listening to scripture, noticing the images and stories that come out of music and hymnody, and looking for traces of Christ in creation.

Just like I might try to figure out what a friend might like as a gift by imagining what it’s like to walk in her shoes, I might imagine what it would be like to be with Jesus, to look at the world as he seems to have looked at it. I’m not Christ—nowhere near. But at my baptism, I was given his Holy Spirit and that Spirit will guide me to conform more to his image and likeness.

To know what Jesus might do we might study his life, we might walk in his shoes for time, but finally, when all else fails, or even alongside other ways of getting to know him, we might simply ask him. This is prayer. The Christmas prayers of the people we sometimes use are using in our worship come from the Church of England’s Common Worship, and I love them for their simplicity and directness. The refrain is, “Jesus, Savior, hear our prayer.” How much better would my day, my week, my life go if I simply said that prayer more? When I’m trying to make a decision about speaking a hard truth to someone, I can ask Christ for help, “Jesus, Savior, hear my prayer.” As I’m worried about friends and parishioners who are in the hospital or facing questions about their health, I can ask Christ to heal them and carry them, ““Jesus, Savior, hear my prayer.” When I feel like never reading the newspaper again or ever hearing the world news because it seems like people are mostly filled with hatred and violence and pettiness, I can ask Christ to intercede, “Jesus, Savior, hear my prayer.”

The question Christmas gives us is not so much “What would Jesus do?” but more, “What would John or Hal or George do?” “What would Elizabeth or Sarah or Lydia do?” “What would any of us do?”

“To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of human will,” but born of God. We are born and reborn of God. This Christmas, may the Spirit guide so that we might more nearly and clearly know the will of God in Christ Jesus our Savior.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Shepherds Bedeviled but Never Overcome

El_Greco_Adoration of the Shepherds

“Adoration of the Shepherds” (1612-1614) by El Greco.

A sermon for Christmas Eve, Midnight Mass, December 24, 2019.  The scriptures are Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, and Luke 2:1-20.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Two Sundays ago, I was treated to a special Children’s Christmas pageant.  Originating from Franciscan missionaries in Mexico in the 1500’s, these particular Christmas pageants are called Pastorelas, because the pastores, or shepherds figure prominently in the story.  Some of the Franciscan missionaries sought to work around the heavy-handedness of the conquistadors and to be more creative in “wooing” people to Christianity. But not only do the pastorelas give a major role to the shepherds, they also include a character not specifically showing up in any of the Biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus.   The pastorela also includes the devil!

You see, following in the tradition of St. Francis himself, who probably created the first creche or nativity scene, the Franciscan missionaries were careful to make the Bible story fun.  What happens in the pastorela is that the devil, or the devil and his partners, do everything they can to try to prevent the shepherds from making their way to Bethlehem.  They think that by keeping the shepherds away, and really, by keeping everyone away from Bethlehem, then this so-called “birth of a savior” (to the devils) will go unnoticed and just fizzle out.

The pastorela I saw was comprised of the children from the Centro Infantil San Pablo a ministry of St. Paul’s Church in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.  The Center provides free pre-school education for children from very poor backgrounds. The school director played the chief devil and, with her assistant devils, lit the Advent wreath in church, and then almost stole the show after worship as the Christmas pageant played out on the church lawn.   The children representing Mary and Joseph rode across the lawn on a read donkey, so the devils tried to pull the donkey’s tale and lead it astray.  But they failed, and Mary and Joseph made their way to shelter.  When the angels tried to make their way to Mary and Joseph, again, the devils did everything they could to ground the angels. The failed.  And then the shepherds—some of the smallest children—came along. Again, the devils did everything they could (and almost succeeded with a couple of the kid-shepherds), but failed.  By the time the three kings made their way (a little early), the devils could only sit on the sidelines and make faces, furious in their defeat.

I love the way the pastorela injects the real world into the beauty of the Christmas story.  Whether we imagine the devil as a silly little red person with a tail and a pitchfork, something frightening-beyond-belief from film or literature, or just that little voice inside ourselves that would lead us astray; too often, the devil is all too real.

Like the shepherds, we want to see God. We perceive a light in the distance, maybe as clear as a star, or maybe murkier, and even thought we don’t really know where we’re headed, we go.  We go by faith, or something like faith.  But then there are roadblocks, devils that try to change our focus, raise complications, and throw us off course.

But the good news of Christmas is that God has come into the world in the form of Jesus to be like us, to show us the way, to walk beside us, and never to leave us alone.  Through his death and resurrection, Jesus has already defeated the devil, and so even when it seems like we’re being tested and taunted, the best the devil can really ever do is to sit on the sidelines and make faces—because evil and death have been defeated; once and for all.

Tomorrow’s Gospel puts this poetically, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  The Word has become flesh and lives among us, full of grace and truth.

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God Calling

Juan Diego and GuadalupeA brief reflection offered in the Christmas Eve Service of Lessons and Carols, December 24, 2019 at 7 PM.  

Listen tot he sermon HERE.

The week before last, I was in Mexico City for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, joining as estimated 9.8 million pilgrims this year. The celebration commemorates the appearance of Virgin Mary in 1531 to an indigenous Mexican named Juan Diego. As one might imagine, the Spanish bishop of Mexico was skeptical of this story, so he asked for some proof. Juan Diego went back to the hill where the image had appeared to him and there, she appeared again. When he told her his problem—that the bishop wanted proof—she told Juan to come back to the hill the next day and he would have his proof. When he returned, he found roses in full bloom, roses such as would never had grown on a dusty hill in Mexico. He gathered them in his tilma, or outer garment, and ran to show the bishop. When he unfastened the garment, roses fell out all over the place. And even more, on the tilma itself was the image of the Virgin Mary that ever since, has been recognized as The Virgin of Guadalupe. Because of her timing, the encouragement from the official church, and especially because her image blends aspects from the Spanish Virgin Mary with aspects of an indigenous Mexican girl, the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe went a long way in reconciling Aztec religious beliefs with Christian beliefs.

Many may quibble about the facts—is the Virgin of Guadalupe simply a revision of a similar image found in Extremadura, Spain, where many of the conquistadors came from? Was the image of the tilma really just painted by a first-generation Mexican convert to Christianity? Etc, etc.

Books are written about such questions, but the point I take from the story—and the point that millions of other people pick up either consciously or unconsciously—is that God (through his messenger, the Virgin Mary) spoke to a simple, ordinary man like Juan Diego. And that means that God might just speak to you and me.

But then, God has been pulling people aside and whispering in their ears since the beginning of time. It may not happen the way we expect, or by the means we might prefer, but God continues to speak.

In today’s readings and music, we’ve heard about this—how God tried again and again to get humanity’s attention—in the Garden of Eden, in the Wilderness, through rulers and priests and institutions, and means official and unofficial. And then, finally, God spoke to the Virgin Mary.

A young woman named Shannon Kubiak wrote a great little book a few years ago, in which she connects Mary’s calling from God and ours. She points out

Mary was a nobody, yet she found favor and blessing with God. How many times do we look in the mirror and find a nobody staring back at us? We often limit what God can do with our lives because we think our upbringing, our appearance, or our life is not a sufficient tool for the hands of God to use….[But] if Mary really was a nobody, all it took for God to make her “somebody” was one miracle on a lonely day when she was just going about her daily business… God called a girl. And that girl changed the world. The same God is calling again, and this time He’s calling you.” (God Called a Girl, p. 14-19, passim)

God called Mary. God called Juan Diego. I think God calls people like Greta Thunberg and Banksy. And God calls you and me. God calls us to continue to “make the word flesh,” to put God’s love into human form.

The wonderful Poulenc anthem we heard earlier asks of the shepherds,

Whom did you see, shepherds, say, Tell us: who has appeared on earth? . . . Say, what did you see? (“Quem vidistis, pastores, dicite?” by Francis Poulenc, 1899-1963)

After returning from Bethlehem, when people asked, I’m sure the shepherds tried to use words and gestures to explain what they had seen. Maybe they even quoted scripture. But what convinced (in their day and in ours) was whether their lives had changed because of what they had seen.

People will believe in a God of love when they see one—not in the scriptures or the skies—but in the way we act and speak and sin and forgive and continue to love. May we do our part God’s ongoing Incarnation.

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Dancing like Joseph

San_Jose_y_JesusA sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 22, 2019.  The scripture readings are Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18, Romans 1:1-7, and Matthew 1:18-25.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

For some reason, this year, I’ve been seeing Nutcrackers everywhere (the performance, not the tool). From school assemblies to Lincoln Center, they seem to be everywhere. The Yorkville Nutcracker, which played at the Kaye Theater at Hunter College, is staged in 1890 and dances the familiar story against a backdrop old New York. There’s also the abbreviated 1-Hour Nutcracker, a Hip-Hop Nutcracker, a puppet version and even the bawdy, burlesque version called the Nutcracker Rouge.

I think I’ve noticed so many Nutcrackers—the creative retelling of a story of a little girl, an evil mouse-king, and a nutcracker who becomes a handsome prince—in part, because I’ve been wishing the REAL Christmas story could be portrayed, enacted, sung, or danced more fully.

I think OUR Christmas story makes for great ballet or other dance, and especially with today’s Gospel reading, I think of Joseph, the father of Jesus, as entering the story, serving his role, and then exiting with the grace and precision of a gifted dancer.

Joseph comes on stage. He plays his part fully and devotedly. And then he exits, so that others might shine.

While Mary has the leading role, with her “Yes” that reverberates throughout history and makes possible our salvation, Joseph shows up when he doesn’t have to. Scripture tells us that Mary and Joseph were betrothed, and this meant a lot more then than it does now. A betrothal was as good as a marriage, in the eyes of the law. It was just the first part of a two-step marriage agreement. Once betrothed, promises had been made, promises that Joseph could easily have thought Mary might have broken. And so, he could be forgiven for thinking about divorcing her quietly.

But he has a dream. “Do not fear,” the angel says. Do not fear, as God said to Moses; as God says to Gideon, and Ruth, and David, and Isaiah. “Do not fear,” as the angels said to Elizabeth, and eventually to Mary.

And so, Joseph shows up. He dances on stage perhaps a little reluctantly, at first. Perhaps taking his time, as he moves closer. But move closer to Mary, he does—in faith and in love.

And I imagine that Joseph takes Mary in his arms, and they dance. Not much is known about Joseph. Some suggest he was older and had been married previously, so there are step brothers and sisters for Jesus. Joseph was a woodworker, and so had a steady living. He could provide. He could shelter. He could protect. Fill with faith, Joseph was able to lead Mary to Bethlehem, then to Egypt for safety, and eventually to Nazareth. Joseph was certainly nimble on his feet.

But then, except for a few references in the scriptures in which people from Nazareth refer to Jesus as “Joseph and Mary’s son,” Joseph is not heard from again. It’s as though he enters the stage, brilliantly dances his part, and then bows out gracefully, allowing Jesus to shine. Most traditions believe that Joseph must have died before the Crucifixion, since from the Cross, Jesus places his mother Mary into the care of his friend and disciple John.

Though the Christmas story of Mary and Joseph and Jesus is told and retold in many forms, if it were a dance, perhaps we could all learn a little from Joseph’s example.

Joseph shows up when he’s asked to—without regard for fear, without worry of being ridiculed from his community, but with a faith in God’s will and God’s way. Are there tasks or responsibilities or opportunities to which God is calling you, this season or in the New Year?

Joseph provides and cares and offers and supports—careful never to make it all about himself, but to support others in their roles. How might God be calling you to continue to do the hard thing, the unpopular thing, the very thing that you know is holy but might lead to ridicule?

And finally, Joseph knows how and when to bow out gracefully, allowing others to shine and grow and flourish. Is there some area or some other thing that God might be inviting you to release or step back from, so that someone else might shine?

As wonderful as Joseph can seem—as artful a dancer—one of the things that attracts me so deeply to Joseph is his humanity.

W. H. Auden gets at this in his great poem, “For the Time Being,” often referred to as the “Christmas Oratorio.” Auden imagines how Joseph must have been tempted to divorce Mary, the leave town, to refuse to be a part of this, whether God’s plan or not. Auden imagines Joseph hearing the gossip about Mary and beginning to wonder. A chorus whispers in his ear:

Mary may be pure
But, Joseph are you sure?
How is one to tell?
Suppose, for instance… Well…

As Joseph goes off by himself to sit and ponder, he prays,

How then am I to know,
Father, that you are just?
Give me one reason.

But the Angel Gabriel tells Joseph a simple “No.” But Joseph asks again,

All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.

But Gabriel speaks for God again,

No, you must believe;
Be silent and sit still. (from W.H. Auden, “For the time being”)

And so, it ends up that Joseph’s dance is probably not perfectly smooth or overly rehearsed. It is improvised, like ours. The faithful dance of St. Joseph (and Mary the Mother of Jesus) is more like ours than not—lacking perfect choreography, less-than-optimal lighting, never enough time for rehearsal or planning—and yet, faithful to the calling of God.

May we learn to dance (and live) a little more like St. Joseph this season—discerning when to come in, how to help another, and when to step back—all the while, feeling free to improvise, to trip or be clumsy, and perhaps to fall and rise again, so that we too may know the fullness of God’s coming into the world this Christmas.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Hope in the Wilderness

san_juan_bautista_greco_bellas_artes_valencia_c-jpg_1306973099A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2019.  The scriptures are Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, and Matthew 3:1-12.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

This week, there’s been a lot of Handel at Holy Trinity. On Friday night, the Manhattan Choral Ensemble presented Handel’s Messiah in its entirety, with instruments and soloists.  This afternoon, they will present the choruses and other seasonal music.  And there were various rehearsals last week.

One afternoon, I walked by Draesel Hall, and one of the soloists was practicing with the strings.  I sang along quietly, as it was one of my favorite pieces: “Comfort ye.”

It’s from Part I of Messiah as a tenor sings words from Isaiah 40, words of comfort:  “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

But then the music stops. There’s a breath, and the soloist proclaims a shift, a change, something new is about to happen: “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

For Isaiah, God’s word comes from the wilderness, and it must have come as a shock to the people of Israel, because they were in a bad place, what must have felt like a forgotten place.  Most Biblical scholars agree that by the time of Isaiah’s writing, Jerusalem had already been conquered by Assyria. Jerusalem, the city that symbolized God’s presence, the holy city of David, so long imagined impenetrable. Jerusalem, high up on a hill, was compared to a tree, a great tree, that by the time of Isaiah’s writing had been cut down to a stump. This once-great city was now a stump with no life in it, a stump used as firewood for Assyria. For Jerusalem and her inhabitants, it was as though they were in a wilderness—a wilderness of lost wealth, a wilderness of lost confidence and a wilderness of lost faith. And so, they really needed God’s word.

The wilderness is unruly. It is where the demons live. It is a place of chaos and disorder. The wilderness is to be feared. The people of Israel wander for 40 years in the wilderness. Jesus is tempted in the wilderness.

But while the wilderness can be scary and strange, God’s word comes from the wilderness. Isaiah’s message is that new life is ahead, renewal, growth, life with God. Sorrow and affliction will be turned into beauty and glory.

In a similar way, the word of God comes to John the Baptist in the wilderness, and John seems to keep one foot in that wilderness experience even as he preached to the villages and cities. He never forgets where he came from, or from where he originally heard God. John’s is the voice of one “crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.”

It’s in the wild place that John gains strength. He finds clarity and purpose there. He finds God there, in the wild.

That can be a helpful thing to remember when we find ourselves in some kind of wilderness. It can be mean survival—certainly spiritual survival—sometimes simply to remember that God comes to us in those places that seem wild, uncharted, and dangerous.

Especially this time of year, we can encounter the wilderness. It can take many forms. We might be caught in a place of loneliness that feels every bit as desolate as a desert. Or, here at the end of the year, we might feel lost in bills, hitting a goal at work or reaching a quota; or maybe it’s the seemingly endless Christmas list, or the maze of other people’s expectations.  Maybe we find ourselves at one of those holiday gatherings where it seems like everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves, but to us the room just looks barren. Perhaps health makes you feel like you’re in the wilderness—your own or someone else’s.

Who knows what it is that puts us in the wilderness, that makes us feel like we’ve been sent into exile—the death of a friend or loved one, problems at work, problems in a relationship, family dynamics, or just the stress of this time of year—whatever it might be, the wilderness can seem real, remote and removed.

But especially when in the wilderness, the word of God is there—maybe whispering, maybe faint, but faithful, nonetheless.  Recall that the music of Handel begins with “Prepare. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” But the music continues, “prepare because” — “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, the crooked, straight; the rough, smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” All flesh, all people, every one of us—will see the salvation, the saving strength, the saving love, the saving mercy and redemption of God.

Light is coming. Love is coming. God is coming into our world and into our lives in new ways. So get ready. Make some room. Company is coming, and we’ll never be quite the same again.  It is the company of God’s presence in Christ.

The holidays can be difficult… but if we listen carefully, we can always hear the hope.

Advent is a season of hope. It’s a time when we hear again God’s promise and plan for saving the world, and for saving each one of us. Whether we find ourselves in the wilderness only briefly, or for a longer time, may we know a glimmer of God’s grace this season. May we prepare our hearts through turning and turning again toward God—so that we might know God, and know his love for us and for the world.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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Faith like Noah

Noah by LMA sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2019.  The scripture readings are Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, and Matthew 24:36-44.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

On the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum, there’s a gallery of Italian paintings that has a portrait of Noah. It’s one of four Old Testament figures painted in the fifteenth century by an early Gothic/late Renaissance painter named Lorenzo Monaco (c. 1370 – c. 1425). What I like about the four portraits is that each one shows a patriarch, holding an image that gives a clue of his identity. Moses holds the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments—easy enough to identify. Abraham’s symbol makes sense, as it is his son Isaac. King David, who tradition says wrote some of the Psalms and was a musician, is shown holding a harp or zither.

But then, there’s Noah. You might think Noah would be pictures with animals, or at least a dove. Maybe a rainbow, or surely, the Ark.  But instead, Noah is holding a simple building with a door and window.  It’s meant to represent the Church: the ark as church.

In the scriptures, Peter explicitly links Noah’s ark with the Church, noting that just as Noah’s wooden ark saved people by bringing them through water into new life; the Church saves people by the wood of Christ’s Cross and the water of baptism, bringing us to new life. The early Church built on this imagery and many see in architecture such as our own, a ceiling that looks a lot like an inverted ship. In fact, this long section to the church that stretches from the sanctuary (proper) to the back of the church, or narthex, is called the “nave,” from the Latin “navis,” or ship and was meant to portray the reality that the Church is a ship, protecting those inside it from the waves and buffets of the world. Some have even suggested the flying buttresses on a building like Notre Dame, or even the two buttresses at Holy Trinity represent oars, continuing the ship symbolism.

All of this—this talk of Noah, and arks, and ships, and us—is to draw our attention to the Gospel, in which Jesus says points to Noah as an example of someone who had faith. Be like Noah, Jesus suggests: waiting in faith.

Now, I doubt that many people in Jesus’ day really thought much about whether Noah was an actual person, or whether he literally built and ark and filled it with animals. But I bet a lot of people could relate to Noah—those who heard the Hebrew scriptures, those who listened to Jesus, and us. We can relate to Noah as someone who gets a vague that God is nudging him to action. Once Noah comes to terms with this, he gets busy: even in the face of others who might think he’s crazy, preparations are made, things are put into place, and then it’s time to wait. It’s time to wait for God to act, to move, to make things happen, to point to the next step.

I bet a lot of us have been at that place—we weren’t being asked to build an ark, but it might have felt just as insane. Go to that city. Pursue a relationship with that person. Stop working in this field and go in this new direction. If we’ve ever felt God’s “holy nudge,” then there’s been that sense of presence at the beginning, and then it’s time to wait. For Noah, it meant wondering whether the rains would really come. Would there really be floods? Would his preparation and faithfulness really pay off? And then what would life be like after all the drama, when the waters are dried up and the animals are set free?

Jesus points to this waiting place as a kind of “holy waiting room.” It’s that time in-between, after one has felt God’s presence at the beginning, but before one has begun to feel God’s presence moving into the next step. It is a scary place and a vulnerable place. Jesus knows that whether we’re talking about Noah or us, or perhaps even himself, it’s difficult to wait, to watch and to listen for God. But we can practice at it. And we can learn to wait in faith.

Today, we begin the season of Advent, when the Church invites us to practice these spiritual disciplines of waiting, watching and listening. Advent helps us live with the in-between. The Church remembers and retells the story of the coming of a Messiah, the one who was born in the manger, Jesus of Nazareth. But the other aspect of our waiting and watching has to do with the Second and Final coming of Jesus, as is hinted in the prophetic scriptures and especially in the Revelation to John.

The liturgy helps us to recall the first coming of Christ.
Our prayers also help us to stretch forward for the second coming.
But over and over again, Jesus tells us not to live in the past or the future, but in the “holy now.”

Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God as among us. He says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And elsewhere, “The kingdom of God is very near you.” He gets very specific in Luke’s Gospel, saying, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, “Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you!” Jesus invited apostles, disciples, strangers, friends and enemies, to see the kingdom of God that was already around them. And that’s his invitation to us.

In today’s Gospel Jesus cautions that we should be ready, but it’s not for most of us to go up on a hill and wait for God to come. In describing how we are to wait, Jesus describes some in the field (from which one is taken to be with God.) Others are grinding meal or making bread, and again, one is taken to be with God. We could continue the list—one will be teaching, while one is taken away. Another will be in a meeting, one at a store, another watching the children, and another working outside. In short, since we do not know when or how or where, it is for us to do the work God has appointed for us to do, and to carry on with faith, with love and with charity.

Noah carried people and animals to safety in God’s good grace and time. The Blessed Virgin Mary, like an ark, carried Jesus for nine months and delivered him safely. And Jesus, through the church, carries us through the waters of baptism, through desert dry places, through enemy territory, and even through long, slow periods of intense waiting—but Christ carries us through this life and into the next.

In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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