In Advent we light the Advent Wreath both here in the sanctuary and in our homes, adding one more candle each week. We put away the green of “ordinary time”, clothing ourselves in blue, the color we associate with anticipation.
In “Year B” of the lectionary cycle we bid farewell to Matthew and his focus on prophecy and parable, turning to immerse ourselves in the Gospel story as Mark understood it, an earlier, simpler, more action-focused narrative.
Advent is a time of anticipating, of getting ready. As Christians, as followers of Jesus, we await the inbreaking of God’s Presence -
Our Hebrew ancestors looked eagerly forward to the days when God would intervene in history ushering in realm of peace and righteousness. They understood all that was terrifying in their world as punishment from God for human sin. They looked for a final judgment with the hope that their enemies would perish and that they would be spared.
We heard this fearful-and-yet-hopeful anticipation in the prophesy of Isaiah and the words of the psalmist this morning:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence--
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.
Jesus, too, anticipated a time of God’s judgement AND GOD’S REDEMPTION OF THE WORLD; his emphasis in the teaching we hear this morning is on the experience of uncertainty, on our inability to know when these things will take place, and on the importance of remaining watchful and ready.
Well, we know all about worry and about waiting in 2020, as I have observed before. We know about fearful-and-yet-hopeful anticipation.
And on this first Sunday of Advent, we have the blessing of a symbol of hope in our midst. In just a few minutes we are going to baptize Justin Thomas Chabot, welcoming him into the Body of Christ.
It is always uplifting to witness the lively energy of a very small person, and to be with a family gathered to celebrate a new beginning – it reminds us of the promise and potential in every life. It feels especially joyful to celebrate the promise of baptism in a time when we’ve been surrounded by so much separation, so much isolation, such difficulty in maintaining hope.
It is, moreover, a particular joy to witness new generations of families with longterm ties to this congregation – it renews our sense of continuity and hope, and reminds us of God’s ongoing presence and love, supporting families and supporting this parish family through times of change and challenge in the larger world.
We speak of baptism as covenant – a word we’ll hear repeatedly in this morning’s liturgy. Covenants involve agreement and mutuality. Baptism involves both receiving and committing.
When I talk with a family bringing child for baptism, I always ask why baptism is important to them. I pretty much always hear some version of same answer –
We want this child to be in relationship with God – to have God as a fundamental part of his (or her) life.
This answer, this choice to baptize, reflects recognition and desire that the child be connected to something larger, something grounding and life-giving.
In his baptism and the early years of his life, Justin will experience the receiving-and-accepting side of baptismal covenant –
Receiving God’s grace and blessing as he is named as a child of God, not because of anything he has accomplished or earned, but because it is God’s nature to love and bless God’s children.
As he grows, Justin will be nurtured in G’s love – through the family, caregivers, teachers, and community who support and shape him.
Over time, he will grow into the responsibility-and-commitment side of baptismal covenant – that of being not only a child of God, but a disciple of Jesus.
Justin will eventually move into adult capabilities, into the capacity to make an impact on the world around him. Because of baptismal covenants we speak this morning, he will have the opportunity to make God’s love known in the world, to make God’s love make a difference in the world, through his choices.
Indeed, one of the blessings all of us receive in witnessing and participating in Justin’s baptism today is the reminder of our own baptism,
In the anticipation of God’s redemption of the world that we look for on this first Advent Sunday, we know that we are part of the process.
We know that God’s redeeming work takes place through the love of families and members of community who support one another, who do not lose hope, who choose to look beyond themselves and see God’s hand at work, bringing about something new. God’s redeeming work takes place in our choices to reach out and care for God’s children, in our choices to work for justice.
Our call in Advent is to wait and watch: recognizing the signs of God at work and joining in. Amen.
The name Andrew is a strong name, you might say full of testosterone, as it literally means manly, and takes on courageous and warrior characteristics. Andrew is considered the first disciple of Jesus, and so he’s also given the name Pró-to-clé-tus – “Proto” in Greek meaning “first” and “cletus” meaning “called.”
Our reading today about Andrew is from Matthew, where Jesus is walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and he sees two fishermen casting their net into the sea, and he calls to them saying, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” We really don’t know why Jesus chose them first or, for that matter, even why he chose them at all.
Of course, if we consider the versions in the other Gospels as well, we might say that Jesus’s early disciples were not really his at all, but were John the Baptist’s, as we see in John 1:35-37. After John’s testimony about Jesus’s baptism, it says: “The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God!’ When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.”
Andrew doesn’t enter into a discussion with Jesus about the meaning of life; they do not debate future plans; he just wants to be with Jesus, be where Jesus is. And Jesus invites him to do just that: “Come and you will see!” And he doesn’t have to be asked twice. And being with Jesus, in his presence, likely having fellowship with him at his table, was enough for Andrew to joyfully tell his brother: “We have found the Messiah!”
Traditionally, on St. Andrew’s Day, there are two major themes that churches generally talk about:
#1 is Discipleship. Andrew was the first to follow Jesus. We, too, then should follow Jesus. And
#2 is Evangelism. Andrew was instrumental in spreading the Gospel to far-off lands after the death and resurrection of Jesus. We, too, then should spread the Gospel.
Not all of the story of Andrew comes strictly from the four different versions in the Bible. Some of what we know, or what we think we know, comes from church tradition in the centuries after Andrew’s death.
Andrew was born in Bethsaida, which is on the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee. He and his brother, Simon Peter, both lived in Capernaum and worked as fishermen. Because they were fishermen, they were at the very bottom of the socio-economic scale in the society. In the Roman Empire, all fish were considered to belong to the Emperor. So if one wanted to make a living by fishing, one had to pay for a special license, and then pay a special “tax” of a portion from every haul. It was a grueling, difficult life. A fisherman in the first century would have had all of his worldly possessions invested in the boats, nets, and license to fish. He would have lived a rather humble life. And Andrew lived this life.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, according to tradition, Andrew rescued the apostle Matthias from cannibals, and then went on to spread the gospel throughout Greece and Asia Minor, where he performed miracles in the name of Jesus. The early church said he carried the gospel as far as the lands that became Russia and even Poland. He was martyred in Pátras [Páhtras], Greece, being crucified on a cross shaped like an “X.” This cross, of course, would take on the name “St. Andrew’s Cross.”
St. Andrew is considered the Patron saint of Greece and Russia to this day, as he spread the gospel in both of those places before he was martyred. But he is also the patron saint of Scotland, and nobody has ever suggested that Andrew made it to the far northern reaches of Scotland.
That’s where a guy named Regulus fits into the story. Regulus, whose name means “Rule” in Latin, was a Christian monk who lived in Patras, Greece, in the fourth century. According to legend, he was visited by an angel who told him that the Emperor Constantine wanted to move St. Andrew’s bones from Patras to his new capital, Constantinople. Regulus did not trust Constantine’s motives, so he gathered up as many of the saint’s bones as he could and headed north to hide them “at the ends of the earth” for safekeeping. Well, to add to the story, of course, Regulus was shipwrecked off the coast of Fife, Scotland. He took the bones ashore, and the place became known as St. Andrew’s, Scotland – a place of pilgrimage (not just for golfers) and a place of healing. Scotland eventually incorporated the St. Andrew’s cross into their National flag, and they officially named Andrew their patron saint in 1320.
So here we are, members of the Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew, on St. Andrew’s Day. What are we supposed to get out of this story? I’ve already mentioned the themes of Discipleship and Evangelism. Does hearing Andrew’s story make you want to go out and follow his example? Probably not. I think it’s a little hard for us to connect to it, frankly. But I am fascinated by the image of someone who literally dropped everything he owned in an instant at the words, “Follow me.”
So today, let’s focus on another of Andrew’s remarkable qualities: his readiness to respond to Jesus Christ’s call to follow him. In Matthew today, at the Sea of Galilee, Jesus calls to Andrew & Peter to, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people!”
This call certainly would have caught the brothers’ attention if only because of how preposterous it sounds – what can it mean to fish for people? However odd the call sounds to us today, we know that Andrew responded wholeheartedly to Jesus. Andrew followed Jesus – without reservation or hesitation – with lots of curiosity & devotion – immediately leaving his nets, perhaps letting them sink in the seashore’s shallow water.
Andrew’s heart seemed to be prepared to hear & to heed Jesus’ call, with all that he had & all that he was. Because Andrew’s heart was prepared for Jesus, he did not have to be in a particularly holy place or going about particularly holy work to understand Jesus’ call to him. Andrew heard Jesus call to him in the middle of his ordinary life, his routine day, at a moment when he is casting a fishing net out into open water.
Andrew’s heart was prepared because he lived the truth of which Moses speaks in our lesson today from Deuteronomy: It says, “The word is very near to you. It is in your mouth & in your heart for you to observe.” This word that was very near to Andrew was the word of the Lord – all the law & commandments God gave to God’s people through Moses.
In calling, Jesus doesn’t give a big speech; no arguments about his cause or about what’s right and wrong with the world. He doesn’t promise eternal life or even a better life. He simply says: “Follow me, and I will make you fisher of people.”
Imagine giving up everything to go with him.
How can they do this? What do they see in this man that prompts such a bold action? It’s as if they’ve been waiting their entire lives for THIS moment to come, but they don’t know it. Now they’re seeing, in this moment, that for which they had been created.
When they saw Jesus, they didn’t just see some random teacher with potential. In the first century, the countryside was astonishingly full of itinerant doomsday preachers and healers, normally charging a substantial fee for their services.
But in Jesus, they saw something that tapped into the core of their being. They did not drop their nets for just anyone. Andrew hadn’t given up fishing for John the Baptist. But when they heard “Follow me,” I think they heard the voice of God.
Andrew did not have any special talent. But within his capacity, he did his duty for the work of God. He worked silently and led people to Christ. He, with a humble, calm and modest spirit, being loyal to his call became an obedient and courageous witness for Christ.
There are many voices out there calling us. There are many pulls on our time and our attention every day. How do we know when we are called to a particular ministry or a specific path in life? How do we know if we are supposed to drop our nets for this purpose, but not that one?
God created us. God loves us. God calls each of us. But, if we listen, in the middle of all the competing voices we hear, God is calling us to be Loving, Life-giving, and Liberating.
Christ came into our world to teach us the ways of love, the path of forgiveness and reconciliation. He mandated us to love our enemies, to show compassion, and that true meaning and purpose is to be found in laying down our lives for others. The God of compassion and peace calls us to himself. He calls us to reach across our divisions, and to listen to his voice calling us to live a better way. That same voice which called St Andrew into a life of service and out-poured love.
That’s the voice we must follow.
Like Andrew, that’s the path we must blaze. Amen.
Just about everything was in order, except for the presence of the bridegroom. No one was sure exactly when he would arrive. Some of the wedding party went out to wait for the bridegroom’s approach and greet him. Because it had turned to evening, the ten bridesmaids who decided to wait on the road, watching for the groom’s arrival, brought along their lamps.
The hours dragged by: to the bridesmaids’ disappointment, there was no sign of the one they awaited, and eventually, their eyes closed in sleep.
When they heard a cry announcing the approach of the bridegroom and his friends, they startled awake and prepared their words of welcome. As their lamps were flickering with the last of the oil that fueled them, those of the young women who had come prepared with additional flasks of oil topped up their lamps, and they burned brightly.
Half of the young women had not had such foresight, however, and they watched in horror as the last of their lamps’ light sputtered and died.
You know the rest of the story: the wise bridesmaids did share their oil with their friends whose oil had run out, but instead, proceeded with the bridegroom’s party to the wedding hall, where the door was shut behind them. When the other young women finally arrived, having replenished their oil, they were denied entrance.
We know all about waiting in the dark.
Way too much waiting, not knowing when what we wait for will come.
Today’s parable from Matthew is largely about judgement, about the sad consequences that befall the ones who do not prepare for the challenges they might face. Jesus’ words to the disciples to whom he tells the parable are cautionary: Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour, referring to God’s judgement at the end times.
As I’ve suggested, however, it’s also a parable about the difficult experience of uncertainty, of hoping and waiting without knowing when we’ll have what we seek.
It is, as well, a parable about the need for light in the darkness, when the way ahead is uncertain and unclear, a light that shows the road so that we can move forward with confidence.
And it’s this powerful metaphor of light and darkness that I’d like to pause to dig into a bit this morning.
Light and darkness are a recurring metaphor in the biblical tradition; when you look it up, you find that there are more than 40 instances, between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, in which light and darkness are compared, as well as 335 times when “light” is used on its own.
Light and darkness are both recognized as “good” as God separates the two in the act of creation.
And the Psalmist cries out to God (in words that are echoed in our final hymn this morning) –
The darkness and the light are both alike to You.
Jesus is never quoted as contrasting light and darkness, but he did frequently make use of light as a metaphor, about knowledge of God’s love as illumination to the human community, urging disciples, for example, to “let your light so shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
In John’s gospel, Jesus actually refers to himself as “the light of the world” (John 8:12 and 9:5), clearly building on the image of light as illuminating the way.
Unfortunately, the biblical tradition has also provided a foundation that human beings, in our frailty, have used to reinforce the sin of racism.
Many times when light and darkness are used together in scripture, the light represents that which is good, and the darkness represents that which is dangerous, which needs to be overcome.
Lutheran Pastor Lenny Duncan, in Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S., makes this observation about the way black and white, light and darkness are used as symbols in the Christian tradition:
Over and over again, in our music, liturgies, displayed artwork, and language and word choices, we have reinforced the idea that white is holy and black equals sin. These passive suggestions have created an entire subconscious theology of race….
Duncan goes on observe that “these powerful symbols”, our continual association of white and light with holiness and black and darkness with evil, have “ill effects on our community that we have yet to explore”. The power of these symbols has impacted both the oppressed and the oppressors.
So are we to entirely jettison all imagery, all use of this language and these symbols in our faith life? I don’t think so: images of light and darkness are deeply woven into our faith tradition, both biblical and liturgical. As theologian Paul Tillich observed, symbols cannot be intentionally stripped of their power.
Pastor Duncan suggests that we broaden the vocabulary of our symbols, and turn our focus away from exclusive (or even primary) emphasis on symbols that have been used to reinforce racist ideologies.
We need to think and pray and talk about these challenges. As we do so, it also seems imperative to me that as we continue to use (and pray and sing) symbols that are deeply embedded in our tradition but that have contributed to oppression, we do so with penitence for the ways and times that we have been thoughtless, complicit, and complacent, and that we be intentional in our work to transform the way we understand them, to work toward bringing an end to all that causes suffering.
And so here we find ourselves, bridesmaids waiting in the darkness for the sound of the bridegroom’s approach. We wait because we live in this world of viruses and climate change, of injustice, distrust and animosity, and God’s realm has not yet come, and too often we just don’t know what to do.
As we wait, we are the laborers in the vineyard, to call on another of Jesus’ metaphors. The bridegroom’s approach is ours to hasten. Our lamps must light the way to the wedding banquet. And Jesus shows us the way.
Our call is to stick together, to lift one another up, to remind each other of the love of God that surrounds us, even in those moments when it is hard to discern.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to exercise resilience and hope. We are called to roll up our sleeves and do the work we have been given to do. It’s work that we know and understand – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger and visiting the prisoner.
The oil that will keep our lamps burning is the strength we draw from our sacred stories, our worship, and our fellowship with one another; it is the presence of God’s Spirit.
Let us keep watch. Let us do the work. Let us those lamps burning, with hope. Amen.
By Rev. Heather Blais.
While I am a lifelong member of the Episcopal church, the first time I remember hearing a minister talk about faith and money I was 22 years old. Jason and I were newlyweds. I had just started seminary and was working part time as one of the Diocesan Youth Ministers. We attended a small, family sized church in Hallowell, Maine.
During the church’s annual pledge drive, the priest did the craziest thing. He actually talked about the tithe. This biblical idea that we are called to return our first fruits to God as an act of thanksgiving. It is typically defined as ten percent of one’s annual income. Even more startling than the fact he was talking about money during the sermon time, was that he ended his sermon by asking each of us to prayerfully reflect on whether we could strive to tithe.
I am sure some folks were annoyed or tuned out, particularly given the Episcopal Church’s history in recent memory to function more like a country club than a branch of the Jesus Movement. Yet his sermon piqued my curiosity. Some of you may have picked up on the fact that anything considered taboo for the Church to talk about tends to be what I am most interested in exploring. Because if our faith is who we are when we are fully alive, then surely it must influence our understanding of money, politics, sex, climate change, and so on.
That Sunday, Jason and I took our pledge card home and we started a conversation about our understanding of how our faith and our money intersected. We talked about what our minister had to say. We prayed about it. We talked about what we wanted to do, and then we looked at our incredibly tight budget. We realized we could only spare 2% of our annual income if we wanted to responsibly fulfill our other obligations. And yet, it was a defining moment for us. We made a commitment to one another and to God, that we would actively strive to tithe.
Each Sunday, we gave what we could, always offering that gift to God before paying our other bills or other discretionary spending. There were times the math should not have worked. For all intents and purposes, our bank account should have been in the red. Yet somehow, we found that whenever we began with our thanksgiving offering, our pledge, there was always enough to fill the gas tank, to pay for groceries, and even to pay the unexpected bills that arose. Every year since, we have reexamined our commitment and increased our giving little by little.
It has taken thirteen years, with many highs and lows--which have ranged from managing medical, consumer, and student debt; to career changes and job losses; to pay cuts and pay raises-- but in 2020 we were finally about to reach a tithe. Our giving continues to be sacrificial giving, and it still comes first and foremost when we handle our monthly expenses. Yet somewhere along the way, our giving has shifted from living into a biblical expectation to truly joy filled giving. It was almost as though the more we gave, the more we sacrificed; the more peace we found within ourselves and our relationship with God.
The reason our giving has become a joy, is because with each passing year we’ve come closer to realizing nothing is actually ours. Everything that our culture might define as belonging to us, in reality, belongs to God. Our thanksgiving offering, our pledge, is one small way we can thank God for the abundance of blessings in our lives. Along the way, we’ve taught our children the same values; and part of the practice of receiving an allowance in our family is that they offer their first fruits to God, too.
Now, there are a lot of avenues where one could offer God their thanksgiving offering, but we have always started with our local church. Then we make extra gifts above and beyond to other organizations that are important to us.
Here is why we give our tithe to the church we belong to:
Because the local church understands that those the world cares about the least, are those whom God favors the most. Just as Matthew articulates in today’s gospel--God favors the poor in spirit, those who are mourning, and the meek. God stands alongside those who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness. God blesses those who are merciful and pure in heart. God’s attention is on the peacemakers and those who are persecuted.
There are a lot of organizations in our community and beyond that do good and important work. Yet for us, it is our local church- it is Saints James and Andrew that aligns with all our values and we want to offer our tithe to ensure that work can continue for as long as possible. We give to our local church because you are doing the counter cultural work of bringing about God’s dream here on earth. We want to be a part of making God’s dream come to fruition, and we believe when we give to our local church, to you Saints James and Andrew, that we can be a part of a movement unlike anything else in human history.
For next year, we longed to give more, to go above and beyond a tithe. Yet we were also faced with the reality that if we wanted to responsibility fulfill our other obligations, we needed to keep our giving level at ten percent. So we have committed to trying something that Bishop Fisher introduced several years ago. In addition to our regular pledge, we have promised to offer ten percent of any unexpected money we might receive--whether that be a gift from a loved one, payment for an odd job done, stimulus funds, an inheritance, whatever it might be.
Because nothing belongs to us. It is all a gift. And we want to thank God for the generosity and blessing that we have experienced in this life--particularly in this strange season of coronatide.
So, I want to follow the example of my minister all those years ago. I want to invite everyone to spend some time reflecting on the relationship between our faith and our money. How might God be inviting you to shift or grow at this season in your life? What might it look like for you to strive to tithe? Amen.
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