Bethlehem would have been anything but a peaceful, idyllic village. Rather, it would have been crowded; homes overflowing with distant relatives; friends reuniting over small outdoor fires with food and spirits. I think it's safe to cross off the word ‘quiet’ as a descriptor for that night.
I also wonder if Luke ever met a woman in childbirth. We’re not exactly quiet. While giving birth is beautiful, it is also loud, messy, and painful.
Mary does not seem to have anyone at her side to help deliver this little one beyond Joseph and a handful of domesticated animals. Animals that would have been rather noisy, smelly, and messy. Sheep baaing, donkey’s braying, cows mooing, and for all we know-- cats meowing, dogs barking, and chickens clucking. This manger was anything but peaceful, clean, or idyllic- so let’s cross those descriptors off too.
Meanwhile, there is an actual chorus of angels singing beyond the village limits, proclaiming this good news, not to the busy village, but to those who lived on the margins. Inviting those outsiders in, foreshadowing the heart of Jesus’ ministry, where again and again Jesus stood first and foremost with those his culture cast aside. This beautiful, beloved, and motley crew of shepherds and their sheep overwhelmed the streets of Bethlehem to go meet the Christ-child.
This scene is anything but serene, peaceful, clean, quiet, and beautiful- at least not in the traditional sense. Rather, the night that Christ was born was complete and utter, holy chaos. And here is why that’s Good News.
The image popular culture lifts up of the night Christ was born has been carefully curated, much like our family photos on Christmas cards or our posts on social media. We have a tendency to put forth the image of ourselves and families that we believe others are expecting, even if behind those images and posts are something much more fragile. We keep hidden to ourselves the depth of our loneliness, the strain in our marriages, the weariness of caregiving, the uncertainty of illness, the exhaustion of depression, the lack of satisfaction and meaning in our work, and so much more. We tuck away in some far off corner of our souls the devastating pain of our world’s brokenness, stunned into stillness as we struggle with the pandemics of economic, racial, and environmental injustice, let alone whatever covid may be doing to upend our lives. We do not know what to do or how to be, as we grapple with our many different weights and burdens. So, we post a beautiful photo on instagram and get a moment of peace; when a friend asks how we are, we say ‘I’m fine, it’s fine, everything is fine.’
Similarly, we often turn to God attempting to be ‘fully put together’. We wait to mindfully engage with God until we are in the right place--whether that be a particular chair in our home, in a church sanctuary, or while walking in nature. We wait to talk to God until we are clear on what to say in our prayer--figuring out exactly what it is we are asking, thanking, or praising God for; or waiting until we can pick up our prayer book and say the proper prayer for the occasion. Sometimes we don’t even dare to talk to God on our own, and instead ask others we trust to do it for us. And if we are carrying too much shame or guilt, we might not even dare think about our prayer, let alone ask someone to pray for us.
All this is to say, that the myth that we must be ‘put together’ in order to approach God, to get real about whatever is happening in our lives is complete and utter bs. And the holy chaos of the night Christ was born is an annual reminder that we do not need to wait to encounter God in the clean, quiet, and put together moments of our lives. God broke forth into the world in a night of absolute and utter holy chaos. And thanks be to God!
Our God understands that life can often be messy, smelly, ugly, and broken. The Christ-child was not born into a perfect, idyllic scene. Rather the Christ-child, God’s love in human flesh, was born into our messiness, into the unwieldy chaos that drives our lives.
When our lives and world are on fire, God is with us.
When we can’t find a way forward and are overwhelmed by it all, God is with us.
Our God understands the true depths of every one of our experiences, and knows what we struggle with in every corner of our being. This is Good News.
I have no interest in worshipping a God who does not fully understand my most profound pain or my most life giving joy. I want to worship our God, who sees us in our messiness, and loves us because of it. I want to worship our God because she sees the brokenness of our world and loves us anyways. Seeing and knowing deeply that we are capable of so much more if we are willing to let Love be our guide.
Because Love is the Way. On that messy, beautiful, night that Christ was born, Love came into the world to show us the Way. Amidst the holy chaos.
Dear ones, on this holiest of nights, how do you see God? Are you looking for the idyllic perfection of the nativity scene to deepen your relationship with God or are you learning to find God in the chaos?How do we train ourselves to look for God in that chaos? Where are you already seeing God in the chaos? What does God’s role in the chaos reveal to us about our God?
As we head into the holy chaos of our lives, may we feel God’s presence in each and every challenging and glorious moment, of this one wild, and precious life. Amen.
By Rev. Heather J. Blais & The People of SsJA
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.
When was the last time we felt that kind of joy, hope, and faith?
Mary has every reason in the world to be so moved by our God. She is an unwed, pregnant teen; prepared to face incredible hardships. Yet her path changes when the child is claimed as God’s own. A child who will embody the greatness Mary describes of God. This is Good News.
She hurries off to tell her friend and cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth seems to have her own unexpected news. After years of grappling with the pain and cultural shame of infertility, Elizabeth is pregnant. This, too, is Good News.
In the years to come, Jesus will remind them whenever two or three disciples are gathered, that Christ will be in the midst of them.These two women come together to share their good news and to pray together. We know the Spirit was with them, as John leapt in Elizabeth’s womb.
Today, we are going to take a page out of Mary and Elizabeth’s book. We haven’t done this in over two years, so dear ones, we are overdue. That’s right, you guessed it, we are going to talk to each other.
Wherever you are, for the next five minutes, I want you to share and reflect:
When is a time when you have experienced Good News?
I wonder if 2 or 3 folks might be willing to say in a few words something they took out of their conversation of sharing their good news?
From in-person adults:
“One of the things that I got from my conversation was the growth of people, and how folks can better themselves over time.”
“We talked about babies being born, how joyful it is when babies are born, whether they are our children’s, someone else’s children, grandchildren. It’s such a delightful time, when that happens.”
“I would say a theme in both of our conversations was sharing the news with someone else.”
“Something I noticed is that joy is something that can be very simple, it doesn’t have to be a baby being born- it’s amazing. But also that we can find joy in something that is ordinary.”
From in-person kiddos:
“She’s feeling shy, but Lily drew a rainbow.”
-Reynolds & Lily Whalen
“Me and Eliza drew a Christmas tree.”
From virtual adults & kiddos:
“When my son was born and when my grandchildren were born.”
“Clark says Fitz makes him the happiest (the dog). My happiest moments are when our little family spends quiet time together.”
“I received Good News when I was approved for disability, and could know I'd be financially stable and able to better manage my illness.”
“When I was able to celebrate my birthday with my family at the home for the aged. We shared our food and a little program with the elders. That's my happiest moment. That became my birthday celebration every year. God bless all the people who joined us in the mission.”
-Jantel Theresa Young
“When my surgeon told me my cancer had not spread!”
I invite us to keep being in conservation with one another and taking chances to share the Good News in our lives, even the stuff that feels a little more vulnerable with one another. Amen.
*The idea for this kind of sermon dialogue arose from listening to Prophetic Voice Podcast
The scripture readings we hear throughout Advent focus on this theme of anticipation and preparation. Through all three years of the lectionary cycle we hear the prophets of Hebrew scripture promising God’s salvation through a messiah to come, and during these two middle weeks of Advent, our gospel readings recount the ministry and preaching of John the Baptizer.
The gospel writers tell us about his odd garb – camels’ hair - and his peculiar diet – locusts and wild honey - but mostly they recall the dramatic phenomenon of crowds going out from the towns and cities into the countryside to hear John, and to receive the ritual of baptism that he offered.
John didn’t go into the towns to get attention and spread his message. Luke tells us that “the word of God came to John in the wilderness”, and he traveled throughout the region around the Jordan in his preaching.
Many scholars believe that John’s spiritual awareness may have been formed by time spent among the Essenes, a sect of monastic and mystic Jews whose theology focused on anticipation of God’s Messiah. (The Essnes, who lived in isolated communities and lived an ascetic lifestyle produced the Dead Sea Scrolls that have been so useful in modern times in helping us to understand the biblical world.)
This morning’s reading from Luke gives us a summary of John’s teaching. The first thing I always find striking is the harshness of his critique of his listeners. “You brood of vipers”, he begins, speaking to the crowds. Other gospel writers have John directing this invective toward the Pharisees and Sadducees, but Luke tells us John addressed it to his listeners as a whole.
Would you have stuck around to hear more, if the preacher you had traveled a good distance to hear started out this way? Clearly, there was something very compelling in John’s person and his message. There was something going on that caused John’s listeners to pause rather than either arguing or turning their backs, some readiness in the people – perhaps even some longing – for the words he offered.
John’s words to the crowd stood very much within the tradition of the prophets of Israel, who for generations had called their communities to accountability, and who foresaw judgement on the horizon.
As had his prophetic predecessors, John called for repentance, for turning around and re-orienting, metanoia in Greek, turning away from a life orientation that reflected the values of a culture that was not in keeping with the call and the commands of God. John warned against the complacent self-delusion that because we belong to the right club, because we have the right credentials on our resumes, we will escape being held to account.
In, again, longstanding prophetic tradition, John called for right action, and not just right words. “Fruits worthy of repentance”, he told them, will still the axe that waits to cut down the barren tree.
And this is where the interaction between John and his listeners takes a turn. “What shall we do?”, they ask him.
And John’s answer is pretty wonderful. He offers the advice that what they need to do is not so very difficult, that it is well within their grasp.
“Share”, he says to those who presumably do not have much.
“Be fair”, he tells the tax collectors: don’t use your position to take advantage of others’ vulnerability.
“Don’t bully”, he directs the soldiers: don’t use your position of power to better your own lot. “Be satisfied with what you have been given.”
John’s counsel sounds like it comes from the Robert Fulghum school of thought – you remember his book, “All I really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”. It also echoes Moses final exhortation to the people of Israel before his death, knowing that he would not enter the Promised Land with them: Choose life. (Dt. 30:19 Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. (Dt 30:11)
In helping them to understand the repentance they needed to practice, John did not tell the tax collectors that they needed to abandon their responsibilities to Rome. He didn’t demand that the soldiers become pacifists. Let’s note that Jesus sometimes did make just such extreme demands – “Leave your nets”, or “Sell all that you have”. John, in fleshing out what it means to “bear fruits worthy of repentance”, simply asked his listeners to serve as decent human beings in the contexts in which they find themselves.*
As I work at being faithful, I can generally remember that Jesus’ commands are ideals, practices “to be aspired to”, and that I am never going to achieve them. It is easy to feel dispirited by the conclusion that I will never measure up, however. This may be why I find John’s teaching as we hear it today from Luke so appealing, so conforting: he offers a “bloom where you are planted” message.
Pastor David Lose (whom you have heard me quote many times) summarizes John’s advice this way:
“Fidelity does not have to be heroic. There are opportunities to do God’s will, to be God’s people, all around us. These opportunities are shaped by our context: the roles in which we find ourselves and the needs of the neighbor with which we are confronted. But make no mistake, opportunities abound. John may have come from the wilderness, but the crowds — and we — live in the towns, villages, and marketplace, and these, too, can be places of testing and the arenas in which we offer our fidelity to God through service to neighbor.”
Unlike many who came before him, but foreshadowing the one who way he prepared, John’s message applied to everyone who had ears to hear, and it certainly speaks to us.
As we pause and practice quiet waiting, quiet listening during this Advent season, may we receive John’s words with open hearts. May we take seriously the call to live our lives bearing fruits of repentance. May we each find ways to do our parts in preparing the way for the inbreaking of the Holy One among us, and for the building up of God’s Realm.
I closing, I wanted to share one more reflection on Advent that I read and found inspiration in this week. These are the words of Howard Thurman, twentieth century pastor and theologian. They were posted this week by my colleague Anna Woofenden.
In the stillness of the quiet, if we listen,
we can hear the whisper of the heart
giving strength to weakness,
courage to fear,
hope to despair.
Listen to the long stillness:
New life is stirring
New dreams are on the wing
New hopes are being readied:
Humankind is fashioning a new heart
Humankind is forging a new mind
God is at work.
This is the season of Promise.
Howard Thurman, posted by Rev. Anna Woofenden
One church in Virginia created a visual of how the Church marks time, and they made the image widely available for other communities.3
You’ll see in this image that the church year is a circle, ever in motion. At the heart of the circle are two halves:
The Story of Jesus and The Story of the People of God. We spend roughly six months in each.
You’ll notice the ring around the inner circle reflects secular time, beginning in December and ending in November. While we might find it unusual that the Church calendar is at odds with our secular calendar, I think it is another reminder about who we are. As followers of Christ walking the way of love, our priorities are coming together to proclaim God’s dream for this world by being the hands and feet of Christ in our communities. On a daily basis, striving to turn this world upside down and right side up again by loving ourselves and our neighbors, as God loves us. This often puts us at odds with the priorities of the wider culture--which place a high value on productivity, consumerism, and individualism. The Church calendar being out of sync with the secular calendar reminds us that being a follower of Christ is going to put us out of sync with the wider culture. And that’s just as it ought to be.
You’ll notice the next ring of the circle marks the liturgical seasons. There are six short seasons during the first half of the year when we focus on the story of Jesus. Then just outside the circle, on the top half, is one word describing each season.
The year begins with Advent; a season of anticipation. During these four weeks, we watch the shadows lengthen, eagerly awaiting and remembering when a bright light burst into our troubled world, all those years ago, as a newborn child, and will come again someday in glory. We shift to the color blue in our vestments and frontals, and use an advent wreath to mark our time; lighting an additional candle each week. The readings assigned from the Hebrew Bible are drawn from Isaiah, foreshadowing the coming Messiah, while the Gospel readings emphasize the work of John the Baptist, preparing the way for the coming Christ.
Here again we find the church calendar at odds with the secular calendar. As the wider culture goes into overdrive consuming more food, alcohol, presents, parties, and countless other ways of over functioning, the Church is asked to slow down. To be still; to wait mindfully for the Christ-child. As followers journeying the way of love, we seek to live into the tension of these competing priorities.
Following Advent are the twelve days of Christmas, where the colors shift to a bright gold or white. Starting with the Feast of the Nativity we begin a celebration of God’s incarnation. The magnificent and humbling reality that the Creator of the cosmos was also willing to be born as one of us; to live, suffer, love and die as one of us.I once heard a theologian describe how different denominations seem to find one aspect of the story of Jesus more meaningful than others. He argued that for Episcopalians, it was the act of the incarnation itself that mattered most-- the very fact that our God would embody love for us in human flesh. If God did nothing else, this one act was enough to change everything.
Christmas is followed by Epiphany, a season of revelation. On the Feast of the Epiphany, we remember the arrival of the magi, who travelled from a distant land following a star to find the Christ-child. Throughout the season, the readings recall the many ways Jesus was revealed to people-- from his baptism, to the calling of the disciples, to the transfiguration. The season emphasizes Jesus’ mission to bring God’s dream to the whole of creation. We use gold or white for the Feast of Epiphany, and green throughout the rest of the season.
Next is the season of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday. We are marked with ashes, reminding us of our mortality. From there we spend the next forty days tending to our relationship with God. We practice greater self-discipline than we might ordinarily, attempt to live simpler lives, and spend more time in prayer and devotion. Another season of feeling the tension between the priorities of the wider culture and the priorities for followers of the way of love. It is a season of remembering that sometimes we lose our way, yet God is always there with us, ready to continue the journey. We see this theme in the readings, as God and the Israelites wander together in the wilderness, and with Jesus during his own wilderness time.
Purple is the color for the season, which you’ll notice in the clergy’s vestments. Though here at James and Andrew, we have a dark red and creme frontal, which were once the colors of Lent. Then on Palm Sunday we begin our journey through Holy Week, remembering Jesus' final days. During that week we use red on Palm Sunday, white on Maundy Thursday, and on Good Friday we simply let the bare wood of the altar speak for itself.
Yet the very next evening a new season begins with the Great Vigil of Easter, where we rejoice in the news of an empty tomb and the resurrected Christ. We proclaim the good news that love will always conquer death. Our worship begins in darkness, until the new fire is lit and we recall the sacred story of God’s relationship with humanity, which culminates in the story of Jesus’ resurrection and the return of light into our world. Throughout the fifty days of the season we use gold or white, and the readings remind us of the disciples' various encounters with the resurrected Christ and what all this meant for followers of the way of love. All of this leads up to Christ’s ascension on the Feast of the Ascension, and the arrival of the Holy Spirit on the Feast Day of Pentecost. We wear red, and celebrate the birth of the Church.
From there we enter the second half of the year, Ordinary Time. The very long season of green. Ordinary Time is our response to the story of Jesus. In scripture, we hear story after story of the people of God, as we navigate the ins and outs of walking the way of love. In some of the stories we get it right, and embody the very best of God’s love and are engaging in the work of transforming the world into what God always knew we could be. Other times, we get sidetracked or self-involved, and are given growth opportunities that we may or may not have asked for. This is our story of doing our best to walk the way of love.
During ordinary time there are two principal feasts: Trinity Sunday, where we recognize the threefold nature of God; and All Saints Day, where we honor the multitude of saints whose lives inspire and encourage us in our journey of faith. Trinity Sunday is the first Sunday after Pentecost, and All Saints falls near the end of ordinary time in November. Yet the rest of the season is rather flat and, well, ordinary. There are no great spiritual highs and lows. This is important because it reminds us that the work of faith is an everyday kind of thing, not just for those special seasons and days.
You’ve heard me mention some feast days. These are known as Principal Feasts-- Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, and All Saints. There are also regular feast days. Do you know when these days are? If you guessed every Sunday of the year, you guessed correctly.
There are many other holy days throughout the year: special days in the life of Jesus, remembering the apostles, and days of fasting, such as Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. In addition to this there are also a great many other special commemorations in Lesser Feasts and Fasts and A Great Cloud of Witnesses, if you are interested in learning more about holy days.
This was rather a birds eye view of the church calendar and liturgical year, and if you are interested in learning more about a particular aspect, please be sure to let me know and we’ll keep it in mind for a future topic.
If there is one thing you take away from today, I hope it is that our liturgy, our work of bringing about God’s dream in this world is centered and grounded in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We mark time with the story of Jesus and our response to it.
As we head into the week before us, I’d encourage us each to consider:
When in the church year do you find your life most in tension with the priorities of the wider culture?
What is your favorite liturgical season and why?4
How do these special seasons and holy days deepen our relationship with God?5
We are blessed to have a diversity of preaching voices in our parish. Our guild of preachers is a mixture of lay and clergy. We hope you enjoy the varied voices.
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