By Sheila Heffernon & Bill Hattendorf
We were inspired last week by Kathryn Aubry-McAvoy’s reflection. Through the historic words of Julian of Norwich, she reminded us that “All will be well.” We found solace in her words, which in turn, gave us some hope. It seems fitting to follow her reflection with one about just that, Hope.
In an opinion piece in the New York Times this week, Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof titled his essay, “We Interrupt this Gloom to offer . . . (wait for it). . Hope. The subtitle is “Yes, America is suffering needlessly. That may save us.” His opening paragraph is: “Just one in six Americans in a poll last month was “proud” of the state of the country, and about two out of three were actually “fearful” about it. So let me introduce a new thought: “hope.” Yes, our nation is a mess, but overlapping catastrophes have also created conditions that may finally let us extricate ourselves from the mire. The grim awareness of national failures — on the coronavirus, racism, health care and jobs — may be a necessary prelude to fixing our country.”
We are in a critical time in our country, a time that none of us has ever experienced. The collision of COVID19, the worst economic downturn of any of our lifetimes, the disastrous climate change, and the majority of Americans favoring social justice and racial equality, according to recent polls, have created a critical vortex. It seems that most of the country would like to avoid being sucked into the maelstrom and is ready to work together to begin the difficult climb out. Anger and the desire for change is fueling the collaborative work of many to build some bridges and ladders, in order to climb out of the eye of the hurricane to fix our country.
All will be well, as Julian espoused during the Medieval period. It won’t just happen, though, no matter how hard we pray, unless we hang on to our hope and find the inspiration to do the work. Earlier this week Molly shared with us that tomorrow, in the Episcopal Church, is the Feast day of some very important lesser Saints (imagine that as a title!). They are Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Amelia Bloomer and Eizabeth Cady Stanton. It seems fitting to reach back in time to hear their voices. They remind us that these changes have been desired for hundreds of years.
Amelia Bloomer was a women’s rights and Temperance Advocate, and was the first woman to own and operate a newspaper for women called “The Lily.” Even though she did not create the pantaloons known as bloomers, she was a strong advocate for women to be able to wear them, so they were named after her.
Amelia wrote, “It will not do to say that it is out of a woman’s sphere to assist in making laws, for if that were so, then it should be also out of her sphere to submit to them.” She also wrote, “When you find a burden in belief or apparel, cast it off.” Isabella Baumfree was born into slavery, but she escaped with her infant daughter in 1826.
In 1828 she went to court to recover her son; she became the first black woman to win a case like this against a white man. In 1843 she was convinced that God had called her to go to the country to testify that “hope was in her,” and she renamed herself Sojourner Truth. She was a powerful voice for abolition and women’s rights.
She once said “Let others say what they will of the efficacy of prayer, I believe in it, and I shall pray. Thank God! Yes, I shall always pray.”
Regarding hope, Sojourner said, “We have all been thrown down so that nobody thought we’d ever get up again; but we have been long enough trodden now; we will come up again.
And now I am here.”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a suffragist, social activist and an abolitionist. She wrote “The Declaration of Sentiments,” which was presented at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, the first women’s rights convention. Her document and the convention itself helped launch the Women’s Rights and Women’s Suffrage movements in the US.
She said, “We hold these truths: that all men and women are created equal.” About political equality she wrote, “To throw obstacles in the way of a complete education is like putting out the eyes; to deny the rights of property is like cutting off the hands. To refuse political equality is to rob the ostracized of all self respect, of credit in the marketplace, of recompense in the world of work, of a voice in choosing those who make and administer the law, a choice in the jury before whom they are tried, and in the judge who decides their punishment.”
Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and then rescued about 70 enslaved people through
the Underground Railroad, went on to serve in the Union Army and became an avid worker
for women’s suffrage. She said, “Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom,
keep going. I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to,
liberty or death; if I could not have one, I could have the other; for no man should take me
Harriet Tubman also said, “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember,
you have within you the strength, the patience and the passion to reach for the stars and to
change the world.”
Harriet reminds us that we are all able to change the world. History has taught us that approaching change with hope will lead us to a stronger and more unified place. Noel Paul Stookey reminded us, in his song, “Our Lives are Connected,” that the past is the present through which the future looks. This is the moment that history will look back on and either praise our ability to formulate the change needed to create a just and equitable future for all humans, or judge us harshly for once again, failing at the task.
How will we define ourselves in this moment? What will we do? Can we live in the hope that Marian Wright Edelman feels? As the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, she has been battling for a more just society for six decades. She recently said, “I’m very optimistic. I think we have a chance of getting something done.”
Can we find hope in the words of John Lewis, a giant in the Civil Rights movement, who worked for equity until his death on Friday? He said: “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Yes, All will be well, but only if we make it so, through our prayers and our work to a better future, sustaining our perseverance by hope. Amen.
Today’s lesson is part of Jesus’ Farewell discourse, preparing his disciples for his departure and for their reception of the Holy Spirit. These sorts of formal farewell speeches seemed to be traditional in Bible times (in and out of the Bible), offering flowery rhetoric and words of comfort and instructions to survivors of a departing leader or teacher. It’s still a rather long goodbye, filling five chapters of John, but not as long Moses ́ good-bye to the Hebrews, that took the whole book of Deuteronomy.
In his farewell, Jesus both reassures and directs his disciples about how to carry on after his death, not that talk of his departure is anything they want to hear. He also promises the Holy Spirit, and he emphasizes the intimate unity of Jesus, God, the Spirit, and the Believer. basically throwing in another layer to the Trinity.
It’s interesting that the longer he talks, the more confused and anxious his friends seem to be. But then when were the disciples ever portrayed otherwise? But maybe in this case, why not?
They’d left their old lives behind to follow Jesus, and now he was going to leave them? They’d taken all kinds of risks, breaking Jewish law and offending religious officials. He had taught them, walked with them, blessed and broken bread with them, and they’d come to rely pretty heavily upon him. They’d even recognized him as the Messiah ... And now he was going away, and they weren’t invited, and he was leaving them in charge. What sense would any of this made to them?
Talk about separation anxiety! But it turns out that they were not being left alone to fend for themselves exactly, and, John suggests, nor are we! No, part of the good news of Jesus’ departure was that it would make way for the arrival of another advocate, the Holy Spirit, who would be with them always, not only when Jesus was physically present ... which means that even for us, who were born far too late to encounter the earthly historical Jesus, this Holy Spirit was and is present, active, and available, even to us now.
I think for most of us, the Spirit is the hardest part of the Trinity. I remember growing up with images of Jesus hanging on the Sunday School walls (even if he was rather blond-haired and blue-eyed for a middle-easterner). And the image of God wasn’t too hard – we saw images of him from up there on the Sistene Chapel ceiling with Adam. But the Holy Spirit is tougher, less tangible. Some people equate the Holy Spirit with a particular kind of experience, like talking in tongues or something. But most of us are probably content with a sense of something “out there” that we cannot name.
In our Gospel today, Jesus declares that if his disciples love him, they will keep his commandments. “What commandments?" they might ask. Because unlike, say, Matthew, nowhere in John does Jesus command us to go the second mile, turn the other cheek, render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's. Famously, John’s Jesus gives only a single commandment and it occurs in the chapter just before ours:
"I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
From our Gospel writer John, at the end of each day, and during each moment of each day, there's only one question to ask yourself: “In what ways did I or did I not love today?”
This idea reminds me of an aspect of Benjamin Franklin (one of our nation’s founders and self-proclaimed sage). Franklin famously kept a journal on a form that he had printed. (Perhaps you’ve used something similar from the Franklin Planner company or an equivalent.) At the top of every page of Franklin’s original was the question, “What good shall I do today?” (sort of like “In what way can I love someone today?” At the bottom of page was a final check-in question for end of the day that said, “What good have I done today?”
Remember according to John, Jesus’ one commandment is to love. So we could ask, “In what ways should I – or did I or did I not love today?”
Jesus constantly asks the Bible characters questions that help them understand their own lives and motives more clearly. He asks questions not because he doesn't know the answers, of course (and John assures us that Jesus already knew everything); rather, he asks so that we might know, and therefore move forward with clear vision into the truth, and light, and glory, and love, – all abundant for which God has created us. It's all of a piece.
John’s Gospel is different from the other three in so many ways, of course. In Luke, for example, the Holy Spirit is heavily active in the lives of the characters from the beginning of his Gospel through the end of Acts. But John insists that the Holy Spirit will come only after Jesus departs.
I’ve kind of wrestled with why this is? I think a clue lies in John’s Jesus referring to the Holy Spirit as Another Advocate. Not as The Advocate but as Another Advocate. Which can only imply then that Jesus himself was the first Advocate.
Advocate is the word used in this translation. The original Greek is “Paraclete,” ( perə - klēt ) which is a combination of “beside” and “to call.” The word Paraclete has a range of meanings in Greek that includes Comforter, Advocate, Counselor, Helper, and more. The word occurs only five times in the Bible, four in John 14-16 and once in 1 John.
So, Jesus was the first Paraclete; For the Spirit to be active among them while Jesus was there (like the Luke version) would have seemed sort of redundant since they each serve the same kind of revelatory function. What appeared to be bad news to the disciples in one sense – that is, Jesus' departure from them – turned out to be the best of news in another sense.
While Jesus walked the earth, his ministry was limited to one locale and one person, himself. But on his departure, his disciples are given the Spirit and moved from the status of apprentices to full, mature revealers of God's love. And this happens not just to the first disciples, but to all those who would come later, those who never saw the
The evangelist insists that present believers are at no disadvantage in comparison to the first believers. John suggests that everything they were taught and everything they experienced is available to the same degree and with equally rich texture, even to us.
We Christians are reminded at least every Sunday in our worship about the Trinity, so I think maybe the most stunning or surprising feature about this Gospel is the concept of the Quattrinity according to a professor at Southern Methodist University, or, probably more properly, from my hierarchical dictionary, a Quaternity.
In John’s particular version of the Good News, Jesus insists that the intimate relationship that exists between him, and God, and the Spirit also includes believers. The believer does not stand there just admiring the the majestry of the Trinity; rather, the believer is an equal part of it. I think I like that. Maybe one of the most intriging parts of John’s Gospel
John’s believers don't “imitate” Jesus; they participate in him wholly. If we read the next couple of verses, Jesus was asked, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” And Jesus answers, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
The word “home” is used only one other time in John, in verse 2, “In my Father’s house are many rooms [which is the same word as “home” in verse 23]. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” Which means: If you love me and keep my word, my Father and I will come to you and – in all your suffering and trials – give you heaven on earth.
So if God and Christ have made their home with us, how can we imagine there to be any distance between us and God? It seems that John is saying that ultimate intimacy with God and Christ and with the Holy Spirit, is available now. What might one hope for beyond that? God is not currently holding out on us in any way – Love God and Jesus, and life, abundant life, is available for living – Now and to eternity.
The Common Lectionary has brought together for us an interesting group of readings for us today, starting with our Old Testament lesson from Genesis that takes us back to “the fall,” the Bible’s first temptation story, starring Adam and Eve and the Serpent.
God didn’t create a “perfect” world in the Garden of Eden, but rather a “good” one. Six times in Genesis we hear, “It was good.” But Eden is no Caribbean vacation in paradise. God places Adam in the garden “to till it and keep it.” From the beginning, humans are made for a regular rhythm of doing work with periods of Sabbath rest. God says they may eat from any tree, but he places the tree of knowledge off limits.
Enter the serpent: He’s a clever and talkative animal who provides what we’d call today some “alternative facts.” The serpent is not alone with Eve, as often pictured; Adam is quietly standing right there, probably hearing every word. After the serpent and Eve talk, she takes and eats the fruit, and she gives the fruit to “her husband, who was with her.” Adam and Eve both yielded to temptation, and God kicked them both out of the Garden. And the serpent? He was condemned to crawl on his belly and eat dust all the days of its life.
Just an aside here that’s always bothered me: First, possibly because they shed their skin, serpents and snakes have historically been symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing. Somewhat like the phoenix from the ashes, yet the serpent here seems to be the bad guy; he gets a bum rap. Also, the serpent is cursed to crawl on its belly and eat dust all the days of ts life – yet nowhere in the Bible does it mention exactly how the serpent moved around before the curse – Did it walk upright on its tale or what? But neither phoenix nor snake is our focus for today.
So our first heroes in the Bible (Adam and Eve) failed, if you will, in the original temptation story. This Genesis tale is what we might call a theological metaphor describing what it means to belong to a humanity in a broken relationship with God and with the rest of the world. When we get to today’s Gospel of Christ, it doesn’t really depend on a literal “first couple” and original sin, or on the claim that there was no death in the world before humans and their “original sin.” The billions of years of life’s evolution would pretty well argue against this.
Our second lesson today, Psalm 32, is a Psalm of penitence, but it is also the song of a ransomed soulrejoicing in the wonders of the grace of God. We don’t know exactly what occasion in David’s life prompted this song, although we do know it was after David’s giving in to temptation after seeing Bathsheba bathing on a rooftop. In the psalm, sin is dealt with; sorrow is comforted; ignorance is instructed.
In the Psalm, David gives a word of caution to sinners that the way of sin will certainly end in sorrow. At the same time, it’s a word of comfort to saints. Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord; Shout for joy, all who are true of heart!
Our reading from Romans takes Paul back to Eden. He holds onto the paradox that we cannot escape sin since we are connected to Adam and Eve, stuck under sin’s tyranny, with the reign of sin’s ally, death, over us. But even if one agrees with that idea (and I personally agree with Paul on not a lot), Adam’s act of disobedience has been overcome by the more powerful obedience of Jesus with his faithful death on the cross.
Finally, for the Gospel lesson here in Matthew, it’s no accident that Jesus winds up in the wilderness after his baptism. As the saying goes, “Not all who wander are lost.” Jesus is not lost, and he is not being punished for something he has done. He’s been led by the Holy Spirit for a purpose: to be tempted or tested by the devil (the original Greek here means either tempted or tested). His scriptural debate with the Devil functions as an assessment (or a proof) of his readiness as God’s beloved Son for the mission that’s being entrusted to him. As shown in Matthew’s Gospel by the genealogy and birth narratives, Jesus has both the credentials and the authority for this mission. Now, through this wilderness test, Jesus stands squarely in the long history of the people of God even as his encounter with the devil points him ahead to a future still unfolding.
Throughout scripture, the wilderness represents a place of preparation, a place of waiting for God’s next move, a place of learning to trust in God’s mercy. For 40 days and nights Jesus remains in the wilderness, without food, getting ready for what comes next.
The Bible seems full of the number 40, as well as both physical and metaphoric wildernesses:
What happens here in the wilderness doesn’t stay in the wilderness (No Las Vegas mentality here of thngs staying) – rather, it plays again in Jesus’ life and ministry. The answers are different on different occasions, but the choices are very much the same:
The wilderness temptations are not a one-time ordeal to get through, but they’re tests of preparation for the choices Jesus makes in his earthly ministry. Here in Matthew, we have an opportunity to see how the wilderness experience is replayed in Jesus’ encounters
Our story suggests that if Christ had followed any one of these temptations, he’d have been a sinner another fallen human like us, unable to redeem anyone, and the mission would have been ruined by the devil. But he was sent into the world to redeem us, and to do that, he had to conquer Satan.
I look at this Wilderness tale as a sort of vision quest, where the temptations are strong. Jesus is tempted with riches and power, and the only requirement is that he make these temporal purposes his God – that is worship “the tempter” instead of God.
Shortly after his Wilderness experience, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explains that we ought to focus our worship on God: He says, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”
Rather than take advantage of his unique awareness, Jesus sets about a ministry devoted to awakening that same awareness in all people.
“And it was good.” Amen.
What an interesting Gospel reading for today, the first Sunday in Advent. We’ve roasted our turkeys, we’ve listened to Christmas carols in the stores for a couple of months now, we lit the first of the Advent candles this morning. We just sang about the spirit of the watchers. So now we watch and wait for the birth of Jesus. That’s what Advent is all about. Isn’t it?
Advent is a season of the Church calendar that marks a three- to four-week period before Christmas. It is the beginning of the new year in the Western Church calendar. The word “advent” comes from the Latin word adventus meaning “presence” or “arrival.”
The world has become darker (especially when we moved our clocks back a few weeks ago), and Advent looks toward the coming light. I suspect it’s no accident that we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the “Light of the World,” just after the winter solstice when the light
begins its increase, when (as my dad loved to quote from poetry) each day lingers a little longer the western sun.
Today’s collect begins asking God to “give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.” So we await for Christ to come among us.
But if we look to the lectionary for this Sunday or the next two Sundays for any hint of Bethlehem or wise men or miraculous births, we’ll be a bit disappointed. Of course if we look to either the first or last Gospel written, Mark or John, we won’t find any story at all about the birth of Jesus. Those birth stories we have, in Matthew and Luke, were created a couple of decades after Mark’s Gospel came along, and the two offer quite different, if not conflicting, accounts about what might have happened.
For example, the Gospel that we’re reading for these four Advent Sundays, Matthew, begins with a genealogy to show Jesus’ heritage from Abraham to David down to Joseph, the husband of Mary, and then tells of Jesus’ miraculous conception and birth without any reference to a journey to Bethlehem, just that after Jesus was born there, the Magi came to “the house” after their fateful visit to Herod in Jerusalem. Matthew makes no reference to a stable, manger, shepherds or donkeys.
Luke on the other hand provides no genealogy and instead focuses heavily not on Jesus but on John the Baptist as a foil to Jesus. The author goes to considerable length to explain the background and circumstances around John's birth before ever coming to the subject of Jesus. Mary is much more central to the story there than in Matthew with her visit to Elizabeth and her Magnificat. There’s a heavy focus on the naming of John before we’re ever told of Jesus’ birth.
Back in Matthew, I think the emphasis there on Jesus’ ancestry reflects the author’s desire to show Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel's story. He highlights Jesus as the new David with his birthplace in Bethlehem and his links as a direct descendent through Joseph. Joseph hears from angels about Old Testament prophecies that are shown to be fulfilled in Jesus. The whole Matthew account is littered with references to the Old Testament, again highlighting Jesus’ Jewish roots. Finally, the Magi's role shows the importance of Jesus and his prominence as “King of the Jews.”
So why does the Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent focus on Christ’s second coming? A second coming that we cannot anticipate the where or when of. As I read the lines about not knowing when Something’s Coming, I couldn’t get Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics out of my head from West Side Story:
There’s something’ due any day;
I will know right away
Soon as it shows
It may come cannonballin’
Down through the sky
Gleam in its eye
Bright as a rose!
So here on first day of the church’s new year, just when it feels there should be a little Good News about the coming of hope and peace and life this Advent, our friend Matthew strongly suggests that we are at risk. He says “…until the day Noah entered the ark, Noah’s neighbors knew nothing… until the flood came and swept them all away. So too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”
For a post-9/11 world, his is a difficult passage for 21st century Americans. How can we make sense of it? How can we find good news in the prediction that “one will be taken and one will be left” when the Son of Man comes? How can we, who live in a culture of fear and regularly updated threat levels, hear Jesus’ words except through our fear?
You’ve probably heard of a series of books called Left Behind, where a “rapture” occurs. In this so-called “rapture,” Christians are suddenly taken away from the earth leaving their clothes behind. Both in Chapel Hill on the UNC campus and at Wesleyan down in
Connecticut, I’ve come across stagings of clothing “left behind.” They were probably placed there by some group of students making fun of the whole idea of the “Rapture” and “left behind,” a movement that sprang up in 1833 from an unusual Bible translation by John Nelson Darby. Most Christian churches don’t subscribe to rapture-oriented theological views, of course, but it’s out there.
Matthew does have a rather end-time – or apocalyptic – orientation, dividing history into a present, evil age and a new age (or Realm of Heaven). The older age seems to be all about Satan and demons, about idolatry, sin, injustice, exploitation, violence, and death. The new age will be characterized by the complete rule of God and angels, by authentic worship, forgiveness, mutual support, health, and eternal life.
I think most of us tend to take this apocalyptic language as figurative and as tied to a first-century world view (when most of the population was illiterate) that doesn’t make much sense to us today. Nearly 2,000 years have passed without the Apocalypse, and we don’t anticipate some singular event that will instantly transform the world.
In the season of Advent we anticipate the arrival of the Messiah on two levels. First, we seek to place ourselves in the historical shoes of Israel as they waited for centuries for the arrival of the Messiah. When we sing songs like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” with its lyrics about “ransoming captive Israel” who “mourns in lonely exile here” we are remembering our forebears as they awaited the arrival of God’s Anointed.
On the second level, we’re told to anticipate Christ’s Second Coming, what the New Testament writers like Matthew and Paul refer to as His parousia [pa-ra-see-ya or pare-rau-zi-a]; His “arrival.” That word, parousia, is actually the Greek word that gets translated to Adventus in Latin. So it’s the original word for Advent.
A problem with this Gospel lesson is that it calls for readiness without telling us how to get ready. What must we do? In the next chapter of Matthew, Jesus gives two answers. First, the Parable of the Talents tells us to use our God-given resources for God’s benefit. Second, Jesus says that feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the prisoner are activities that will be credited to us as if we had done them for Christ.
This two-fold emphasis is consistent with Jesus’ answer to the lawyer who asked Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” You remember Jesus gave a two-fold answer:
He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. A second likewise is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.
So my takeaway from today’s lesson is that we can prepare for Christ’s coming by (first) loving and serving God and (second) by loving and serving our neighbor.
I think the message is that simple and that universal.
So Happy New Year.
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