Rector’s Address at the 2021 Annual Parish Meeting, May 16, 2021

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. – BCP, p. 99

One of the many reasons that I am an enthusiastically Anglican Christian is because of the richness of the Common Prayer tradition. We have prayer that is time-tested and well-worn, and raises us into the very throne-room of heaven. This prayer is no exception.

I’d like you to notice the pattern in the Collect: “went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified.” This is the pattern. This is our pattern.

On Sunday, January 12th, 2020, I celebrated my last Mass at St James’, Texarkana. Leaving a church and community after 15 years was a gut-wrenching experience, but I had a hopeful drive across the country to Boston, with excited thoughts of what the first months of our time together as priest and people would bring.

I arrived here four days later. I was met at the apartment at 140 Mount Vernon (the rectory, you recall, was not yet finished) by Peter Madsen, Paul Roberts and Kyriell Palaeologue. Martini-makings were produced. Off to a good start!

My first Sunday here was Candlemas, February 2nd. A few short weeks later, when Covid descended upon the world, we were locked down. I had two times in the pulpit, four Sundays of coffee hour, and precious little time to come to know you, and you to know me. Maybe not such a good start after all.

In many ways, this past year has been one of pain and loss for all of us. Much of what we love and hold dear has been stripped away from us – as individual persons, as a parish, as a wider society. I don’t need to dwell on that, but I do need to acknowledge it. It has been a stressful year, sometimes depressing, always uncertain. Things are not as we would have them, to say the least. It has sometimes been hard to be the positive, resurrection people Jesus calls us to be.

This has been true for you, and it has been so for me. When a new rector comes to a parish, there is a time when both priest and congregation have a blank slate and they enter the relationship hoping and believing the best about each other. It can be a time of great excitement and great creativity. We didn’t have that time together.

Yet there have been moments of joy these past months. Once it became clear that “two weeks to flatten the curve” would turn into a much longer period of time, we moved to carry on a form of parish life online. Mark Dwyer has produced webcasts of the Sunday Mass and Choral Evensong, now totalling many hundreds of hours of material. Our listeners come from all over the world.

The Advent is well-known for the quality of its liturgical music, and the Vestry continued to pay our singers even in that time period when we were completely locked down. As they minister to us each Sunday, this was a tangible way we could support them. The arts and artists, as you well know, have been especially hard-hit during this pandemic.

I am thankful to the Wardens and the Vestry for their wise counsel and faithful service, and especially to Tom Brown, Paul Roberts, Brent Nelson and Amanda Daley, whose terms end today. All have given much, quietly and behind the scenes, to ensure that the work of the Advent continued. On behalf of us all, thank you.

Our finances are in good order. Fran Piscitelli, our stewardship chair, has reported to the Vestry that despite being limited or even shut down for large parts of the year, our pledges for this year are 94% of last year’s pledges. Fifty-four households increased their pledge, and there have been twenty new or renewed pledges – in the middle of a pandemic! I speak to priests all over the Church, and they are completely blown away when I share that statistic with them. Recall that we give not to the Church, but to God through his Church, so it is a remarkable testimony of your conversion. Thank you.

Our Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) remains strong. Given the pandemic, the 2020 parochial report asked only for attendance for the first three months of the year, in which we had an ASA of 231. By way of comparison, our ASA in 2019 was 205, and the year before that was 199. We cannot know how things will shake out going forward, but there is a positive trend.

For many months, the Advent has been one of but five or six parishes in this diocese which were offering public worship on Sundays. At one point, I am told, we were the only congregation meeting on Sunday, and I think we are even still the only parish in the Diocese offering daily Mass. We could not do this without the help of faithful laity and our honorary associate priests, and they have my profound thanks. Speaking of clergy, may I say that we have an excellent clergy team at the Advent! I hope you know that. I likewise thank Fr Jeff Hanson and Fr David Thompson for their dedication, faithfulness, and friendship. Fr Jay James retired at the beginning of June, but is even now available to help out and give his wise counsel to me.

Pastoral care continues. Your priests have continued to marry, bury, baptize, and hear confessions. People are hurting: marriages are in distress, there is depression, anger, confusion. Sometimes a person just needs someone with whom to talk in their isolation. As a parish we have provided this care for one another and those around us. I have experienced that care firsthand. I am thankful for your encouraging notes, emails, and telephone calls. Often they came at just the right time to give me a shot in the arm. And if I have been remiss in my duties in any way, or dropped any balls, I ask your forgiveness.

More joy. Barbara Boles and her able team of helpers have carried on our Tuesday community suppers without interruption. And in case you missed it, we as people and parish have just raised $10,000 for Project Bread, of which a good portion of those funds will be returned to us.

During Covid, Adult Christian education moved online. Before Covid, in-person Entr’acte provided about 180 minutes of education each month; the Advent Chapters (in terms of minutes of Zoom) have more than doubled that. Many of the Zooms provide a time for informal social visiting beforehand, and that has been a boon as well.

Yet, our Lord did not come amongst us in pixels, nor as an avatar, but as a man. He was close to the people. We regret the loss of coffee hours and social events, but these will come back. This will be a large part of ‘re-membering’ this parish family. It is in being present to one another in our bodies, rubbing elbows, reading the other person’s body language, looking into their eyes that our rough edges are sloughed off, that we realize that we are not isolated individuals, but part of the wider people of God. Even now I catch glimpses of what will be. It’s been a great blessing these past few weeks to see happy, laughing people on the sidewalks after Mass, greeting one another, and catching up as friends.

On to glory, and the task before us. My goal for this year, working with our leadership team, will be to both reorient and center our common life around three main themes, which also, not coincidentally, are the mission of the Church: I. The worship of God, II. the spreading of the Gospel–Evangelization, and III. making saints of our members.

I. With respect to worship, we are working hard, within the constraints placed upon us by a public health crisis, to restore the full worship life of this parish, and indeed to deepen it. Everything we do flows to and from this altar, as the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. We might go so far as to say that the Mass makes the Church.

II. In terms of evangelization, there is a critical need to share the saving message and timeless truth of the Gospel with those around us. The world needs Jesus. Covid has laid bare many of the ills of our society. We believe and proclaim that Christ has won the victory, and yet the residual effects of Satan, Sin and Death still very much infect the world. One has only to glance at a newspaper to see this. We have seen unprecedented division in our society. I speak not of the normal variances of opinion that people will invariably have, nor of the clash of ideas that characterize every age. I mean the vilification of the other, a cold hermeneutic of suspicion that sees those who differ from one another, or who have different ideas, as hostiles on a zero-sum field of battle.

The ministry of the Church, the Catechism tells us (BCP, p. 855), “is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” The Church has this unique mission, and we do this by evangelizing the world with the Gospel of the Prince of Peace. Among the acts of the flesh, St Paul mentions discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions. In contrast, we are called to manifest amongst ourselves the fruits of the Holy Spirit: faithfulness, self-control, patience, goodness, gentleness, joy, kindness, peace, and love (Galatians 5). As St Augustine says, “The greater the love that dwells in a person, the greater the person in whom love dwells.”

If we can manifest these fruits of the Spirit in here, we can take them out there! The Church, and this parish, needs to proclaim, loud and clear, in word and deed, that the Kingdom is “not a political strategy, not a philosophy, not a tribe, party or club. The Kingdom is not a worldview or an ethos. The Kingdom is not of this world. The Kingdom is a person, with the face of Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the invisible God” (source unknown). The world needs Jesus, and it is our solemn calling to bring him to others.

As Anglo-Catholics, we are uniquely positioned to do this. Historically we have had great missionary impetus, which needs to be recovered. We must resist at all costs the idea that there is somehow a finite number of people who are interested in Anglican Christianity. Such is the mentality of decline. The task of proclaiming the faith in word and deed is not for “other people,” but for us! We need to draw on our abundant resources to go into all the world as our Lord commands. What if, when the Lord returns, we’ve been too timid to do the things he’s calling us to do?

As Anglo-Catholics, we have been concerned with a just society and the incarnational value of each person. This parish, you recall, was founded on the radical idea that the church should be a house of prayer for all people. And as long as I am rector it shall remain so. All people are welcome here to hear the Gospel message; all people are welcome to repent and return to the Lord; all people are welcome to found their lives on the teaching that comes down to us from the Apostles.

In terms of promoting a just society, I have been working with parishioner Carolyn Shadid-Lewis on hosting Ruby Sales at the Advent, as part of an event sponsored by the Boston Harbor Deanery. Ruby, for those of you who may not know, is the young woman for whom Jonathan Myrick Daniels gave his life during the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s.

Our Anglo-Catholic conference (hereafter to be known as the Grafton Conference) will return at Ascension of 2022, the working title of which is “Covenant Identity and Race: Theological Reflections.” Fr Jeff, on this side of the Atlantic, and our visiting Curate, Fr Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff, with his connections to the wider Anglican Communion, are working on bringing stellar presenters to Boston to consider this timely subject from a theological standpoint. This will be a valuable contribution to our Diocese, the Episcopal Church, and the wider Anglican Communion.

Another priority this year will be the re-establishment of Christian education for both adults and children on Sunday mornings and at other times. Fr David has begun working with stakeholders to renew our Sunday offerings for children and youth, building on the successful ministry of Meg Nelson, who retired as Christian education coordinator at the end of 2020, and indeed all of our teachers and helpers.

With regard to adult education, we have a responsibility to form disciples and make saints of our own members and make a significant contribution to the theological renewal of the church and the world. We live in an age when opinions are strongly held and weakly formed, and the Advent has a vital role in the intellectual formation of the wider Church. Ecclesia semper reformanda! – the Church must always be reformed! As the flagship Anglo-Catholic parish in the Americas, this is a calling we will take up.

III. And making saints. The Ascension, which we observe today, reminds us that heaven is our destiny and our destination, and the third mission of the Church (sanctification of her members) is to make us fit for heaven, so that when we leave this life, and come before the dread judgment seat of Christ, he will recognize something of himself in us, that we will have been more formed into his image and likeness in our earthly course.

This formation-for-sanctification takes place at Mass, it takes place in formal Christian education, it takes place in our time together, as I have already mentioned.

  • There is also great need to cleave to the Scriptures. I mean not reading as exegesis, which is essentially draining all the substance from Scripture by scholarship, but coming to know the Scriptures as the Lively Oracles of God in whom we encounter Jesus. This is part of our reformed and catholic Anglican heritage.
  • There is a need for the renewal of devotional societies like the Society of Mary, the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, and others. Devotional societies are a great blessing to growth in holiness.
  • There is a need for small groups of Christians meeting together as friends in mutual support.
  • There is a need for increased service to the poor and needy, as we serve Christ in his poor.

So going forward, these three: The worship of God, the spreading of the Gospel–Evangelization, and making saints of our members. You will hear more about all of these in the coming months.

These are unprecedented times. None of us, clergy or lay, has been through anything like this before. We cannot know what future God is leading us into, except that it will bring changes, and God will be in those changes. This will mean changes to our membership as well. To be sure, we’ve gained new people during this pandemic, some from churches that have been closed throughout. We will gain people as we obey the Great Commission to evangelize. We will lose people. At different seasons in life, people are in a different spiritual place, and in need of different spiritual food. But, whether here or elsewhere, they no doubt go forth with thanksgiving for the Advent, and for the spiritual nourishment they have received in this place.

As we reboot, we are also going to have to retool. In the coming days, I plan to do a survey of time and talent, asking your assistance with these things. Our goal is that every member of this parish is also a minister. The leadership of the Parish will need your help. I will need your help. Truly, it is going to have to be all hands on deck. We all must lean on one another in this new religious landscape, and harness the many charisms and talents that the Holy Spirit has given us.

Two final thoughts:

I saw, some years ago, a documentary about a small town in the rust belt of Pennsylvania. The mayor said of her town, “Our tomorrows are not as bright as our yesterdays.” I do not believe this about the Advent. No, our best days are still ahead. We have everything we need to do the work of the Gospel in this part of the city of Boston and beyond. The Lord, who has given us the will to do these things, will give us the grace and power to perform them. I believe this with all my heart. In Christ, our best years are to come.

The second is a true story. When I moved to my last parish, I went to the bank to open an account. The teller asked me, “Where are you the pastor?” I mentioned the name of the church, and the standard descriptor, “red doors, across from the courthouse.” “Aah,” she said, “such a beautiful church.” Yes, I said, and the buildings are nice too.

How much human life has passed through here over the last 176 years? How many souls reborn at the font; how many have breathed their vows at these altar rails; how many Christian dead have been sent forth to eternity from here? All those prayers, offered for so many years, their prayers rising to heaven like incense.

And what shall we say of the busy congress between heaven and earth these walls have seen?—the renewals of Calvary in the Mass, of Bethlehem in Holy Communion, the floods of sins that have been absolved in the sacrament of penance, and all the grace that has flowed back to us from God’s heavenly throne.

But, as beautiful as is this temple of stone and glass, it is the people of God which make this place most beautiful – those who have gone before us, those who are here now, and those who will come after us.

This is a wonderful parish, filled with wonderful pilgrims, on their way to becoming saints. Even under less-than-ideal circumstances you have welcomed me. Almost without exception you have been liberal with your compliments and charitable with your criticisms, knowing as you do that our goal is to work together to do something beautiful for God. Together. You are positive, hopeful, supportive and kind people. For all these I am grateful. I am honored to be your priest and pastor.

Fr Douglas Anderson, Rector

Collect for the Third Sunday of Easter

O God, whose blessed Son did manifest himself to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open, we pray thee, the eyes of our  faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Collect for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

O Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men: Grant unto thy people that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Collect for the season:

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Jay C. James at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, November 18, 2018, the Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost

From Saint Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews:  But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and keep their souls.

We can grow closer to Christ even in times of trial and when we come through trials and tribulations, we will know the joy of the Lord. 

What is Jesus talking about when He is warning Peter, James, John, and Andrew to watch for the desolating sacrilege?  It must be pretty bad!  It is a sacrilege and not just a sacrilege, a desolating sacrilege.  On top of that it is going to be, as He describes, …set up where it ought not to be.  This sounds redundant because what kind of sacrilege would ever be where it is supposed to be?  This is a sacrilege that means something of God is made to be completely unholy and profane.  More than this, it is desolating, as if to say it is so bad that anything having to do with holiness is decimated.  We hate to think of something that can be that bad and we certainly would not want to be around to see it.  Yet Jesus tells the disciples they will see it and they should look for it.  The desolating sacrilege will begin the season of great tribulation.  Plan on it. 

The profaning and desolation of sacred things brings to mind a scene from the Maundy Thursday liturgy at the stripping of the Altar.  A number of parishioners complained to the Rector of an Anglo-Catholic parish about the behavior of their sexton during the stripping of the Altar.  It seems that the sexton, a truly devout, practicing Catholic who adored everything about the liturgy, took it upon himself to be the one removing the high Altar Cross as the last dramatic scene in the stripping of the Altar.  In his old age he would take his rickety wooden step ladder and painfully, slowly, place it in the middle of the footpace, climb with his mud-caked work boots up the ladder, crawl onto the Altar, grind dirt into the fine cracks of the marble Altar, grab the three-foot tall Cross and then slowly make his way down the ladder with everyone praying that he and the Cross made it to the footpace, down the Altar steps and barely make it off to the sacristy with him and Cross in one piece.  The parishioners lamented to the Rector that this whole thing was unseemly, disrespectful, and he, the Rector, should stop it.  “Don’t allow him to ruin the whole thing.  We don’t come to Church on this holy day to watch things be destroyed and ruined.”  The Rector said, “But isn’t that what the stripping of the Altar is all about?  It should be complete and utter desecration. There is nothing left, everything is ruined because there is no Godly presence there.”  The Rector was right and that reflects but is not even close to as bad as the desolating sacrilege. 

Jesus has the disciples begin looking for a time when the worship of God is put to an end.  This would be accomplished by a foreign political force that would not only stop the religious sacrifices of the Jews, but would replace their halted religious practices with forced pagan rites and ceremonies. Jesus said, ‘When you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. He then describes the urgency and the severity of the time when it happens and gives examples of how immediate and intense the desecration will be. He concludes with a stern warning, But take heed; I have told you all things beforehand. The community to whom He is preaching and teaching knows well the history and tradition of desecration so powerful that even the worship of God is stopped.  There is a long tradition of this type of desecration in the religious lives of the Jewish people.  Jesus knows about it and the disciples and the people to whom He is teaching know about it. 

A number of times in the history of Israel there have been pagan political powers take over holy places like Jerusalem and made worship impossible.  The armies desecrated holy places of the Jews and made them places of worship to other gods and not theGod of Israel.  The first desolating sacrilege was in 167 BC when Antiochus Epiphanes took over the Temple in Jerusalem and placed an altar to Zeus over the altar intended for the offerings of the Jews.  This is the abomination of desolation we read about in the twelfth chapter of Daniel.  And from the time that the continual burnt offering is taken away, and the abomination that makes desolate is set up, there shall be a thousand two hundred and ninety days. In His teaching on Mount Olivet Jesus is privately warning Peter, James, John, and Andrew of yet another desolating sacrilege that will take place as part of the great tribulation at the end of time.  Whatever shape this coming abomination takes is not revealed but Jesus warns them to be ready because when it happens it will be a sign that the Christ is soon coming again. 

There are times when some of us wonder whether we are seeing signs of this great tribulation before Christ says he will come again.  Every time there is a big event that has monumental proportions, with the backdrop of the battle between good and evil, some will wonder whether this is part of the great tribulation and that encourages us to look for an accompanying desolating sacrilege.  In retrospect none of these signs or events has turned out to be a sign of the end of time. Most recently, the turning of the annual calendar from 1999 to 2000 was supposed to result in chaos and the beginning of the end.  Eighteen years have brought us here safely, so we know that it was not the beginning of the end.  The Hale-Bopp Comet passing so closely to us in 1997 was to trigger massive occurrences in nature and societies around the world that some predicted the end on its arrival.  Nothing happened except great glee for some amateur and professional astronomers over never-before-seen pictures.  I suspect some other 20th century events like the two World Wars with their battle of evil political and ideological forces and the enormous scale of armies involved gave rise to predictions of the Great Tribulation. Again, we are still looking for and attempting to interpret signs of a sacrilege that will leave us desolate and put us at the beginning of Jesus’ predicted tribulation.

Going through a predicted tribulation or enduring a present form of tribulation does not sound inviting.  No one looks forward to disaster, or struggle, or destruction of anything; materially or spiritually.  We should want always to have the joy and privilege of worshipping our God and we do not want that taken away. We do not like to think of calamitous or destructive times.  For the Christian, though, we know from Jesus there will be those times.  They may be at the end of time or even through times of struggle in our lives here in the world.  When we look at these predictions from the Bible; apocalypses they are called in Biblical language (a word that simply means revealed or uncovered) we find that there is always the good triumphing over the forces of evil.  It takes a trial, a tribulation, to be lived through or overcome, but in the end there is great joy, even exultation. 

The trial is there for the Christian and the tribulation is always worth the reward that comes after the endurance.  It’s much like the trial of exercising our muscles to get them fit and stronger especially if we are to achieve a goal.  The pain and strain of the body must be endured in order to achieve the desired goal. We might not like the trial of exercising but we find joy and delight in the results. 

Notice that we have this building to a great crescendo even in the Church Year.  The readings for today are intended, I think, to be a preparation for celebrating The Feast of Christ the King next week. The liturgical calendar parallels the course of our lives.  We end the Church Year with Christ being honored and praised and exalted as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  He is Resurrected, Ascended, and Glorified and seated at the right hand of the Father at the end of our Church Year.  Today our Scripture readings purposely cover the warning by Jesus to be ready for Him to come again, because He will keepHis promise to return.  Our lives here in the world are intended to be a preparation, a trying out, a tempering and forging of a life hid with Christ so that we can be ready to meet Jesus when we die or when He comes again in all His glory. 

So what do we do in the meantime?  We heed Jesus’ warning.  We move forward through any trials and tribulations given us.  The good news is that progress can be made in our lives even through times of trial.  This is why Saint Paul is so encouraging to the Hebrews.  There is a reward for the faithful who endure and remain steadfast followers of Christ here in the world.  Saint Paul knows the hardships they have endured and encourages them with these words, But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and keep their souls.

Continue to be faithful to the Church while we are waiting.  This is a place that will prepare us for eternity.  We are given the Word of God written to reveal to us what God expects of us and to show us the love and grace He has for us.  It is here that we have the graceful Sacraments to aid us and sustain us through the tribulations and, yes, in fact, also the joys of this life.  In Thomas Cranmer’s brilliance he wrote our opening collect as a thanksgiving for the salvation that comes to us even in the Bible.  The Word of God in the Bible has the saving knowledge for our souls. According to that prayer if we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest God’s Holy Word, we can hold fast (endure) the hope of everlasting life.  So it is indeed God’s Word that we have to be about through this world, but that’s not all the Church has for us. 

The grace of the Sacraments is there for us too and we use this time well to avail ourselves of them.  Think of the Sacraments as kinds of crutches, supports, aids to make it through this world of trials to get to the next world.   We do not need the Sacraments in heaven.  We need them here.  We need to be sustained daily by God’s grace so Holy Communion is offered daily.  We need healing and in the Sacraments Jesus is healing us according to His will.  We need all the means of grace the Sacraments have to offer and when we receive it faithfully we will be making good use of this time of tribulation before Christ comes again.  We will be well prepared for that Second Coming.

Christians look forward to Christ coming.  We may have to look forward with fear and trembling because we are in a time of trial, but we know and rely on Christ’s promise to come again.  We could not have a better dedication for our parish church than The Church of the Advent.  Our Church dedicated to Christ coming reminds us every time we say the title, every time we enter here, that our hope for the end of time, and our reason even to make it through each day is the Coming of Christ.  We will be kept strong and faithful by God’s Grace in His Word and Sacraments so we will not be those, in the words of Saint Paul who shrink back and are destroyed.  We will be of those who have faith and keep their soulsSo Come Lord Jesus

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Jeffrey A. Hanson at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, February 4, 2018, the Solemnity of the Feast of the Presentation

I realize this is not going to sound very priestly of me, but one of my favorite films of all time is Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction; I saw the first show on opening day in 1994 and I don’t know how many times after that; it was a hugely important pop cultural moment in my youth. It is not recommended for all audiences—it’s full of violence and profanity.

But one reason I like Pulp Fiction is that it perfectly captures something important about what we mean by an epiphany. It still is Epiphany season, but what does that mean? What is an epiphany anyway?

An epiphany is a revelation of God’s work in the world—it’s the shock of recognition that attends divine intervention. And the season of epiphany is about the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles, the shocking recognition that this man is the Messiah of Israel but not just the Messiah of Israel but also the king of the universe and the savior of the entire world.

Incredibly, Pulp Fiction features a smaller-scale but nevertheless very obvious epiphany. The Pulp Fiction epiphany happens to two characters in the film: Jules (played by Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (played by John Travolta). Jules and Vincent are violent depraved hit men, and on orders from their mob boss they execute three small-time criminals that have ripped off their employer. But Jules and Vincent have been careless—unbeknownst to them there is a fourth criminal hiding in the bathroom, and he bursts out, firing a hall of bullets from a .357 Magnum at point-blank range. To no effect. Defying all logic, Jules and Vincent are totally unharmed by the barrage. The baffled criminal has just long enough to register total incomprehension before Jules and Vincent nonchalantly execute him too, their fourth and final victim. But their reactions to what has happened could not be more different.

Jules immediately insists that what has just taken place is a miracle, but Vincent shrugs it off as just lucky. Jules says no, it wasn’t luck, it was “divine intervention. You know what divine intervention is?” “Yeah, I think so,” says Vincent, rather cynically, “That means God came down from Heaven and stopped the bullets.” Jules is sure, “Yeah, man, that’s what it means. That’s exactly what it means! God came down from Heaven and stopped the bullets.” But Vincent won’t believe it; he is sure it’s just something that sometimes happens, a lucky break, not a miracle but a big whatever. And indeed nothing about the film so far has even hinted at the presence of God or any openness to the miraculous. Everything about Pulp Fiction suggests a gritty fallen world, so maybe it’s not surprising that Vincent does not believe. But Jules does believe, and because he believes he is transformed, and he forsakes his life of violence.

This is actually an important point about any epiphany. To one person, with the readiness to see, with the eyes of faith, an epiphany is a miraculous and life-changing divine intervention. But to someone else it might look like nothing at all, just an ordinary, everyday happening. Without the eyes of faith, an epiphany will look like a big whatever. An epiphany then isn’t just about revelation. Epiphany is also about division.

Consider today’s reading from Luke’s gospel. The celebration of our Lord’s presentation at the temple is a perfect epiphany passage, because Christ’s revelation to the Gentiles is spelled out plainly by Simeon: Jesus Christ, even as a one-month-old baby, is the glory of Israel and the light for revelation to the Gentiles. Jesus Christ is now proclaimed by Simeon to be the salvation that is meant for “all peoples.”

The presentation though also features not just revelation but division. Because everything about this situation is outwardly ordinary. Mary and Joseph are fulfilling the demands of the law, observing the prescribed ritual sacrifices. Such a thing would have happened every day. That they offer two doves indicates that they don’t have the money for a lamb, so they are poor, ordinary folk. Nothing about the circumstances suggests anything miraculous in the offing.

But here in this mundane setting Jesus’s parents meet two remarkable witnesses to who their infant son is: the saintly Simeon and the prophetess Anna. They are devout people who have something in common. They are waiting and actively looking out for the salvation of Israel. Simeon we are told is “looking for the consolation of Israel,” and Anna is an evangelist to all those who, like herself presumably, were “looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

So Simeon and Anna are lookers. They are seers. They are on the lookout so they see the epiphany for what it is. It is none other than the Holy Spirit has led Simeon in to the temple, and Anna too has come “at that very hour” to see here and now God’s revelation of God’s own self in the divine intervention that is the infant Jesus. Because after all this time, after the decades of prayer and self-discipline, for these two elderly holy people, the wait is over. It has been 400 years since Malachi the prophet spoke the words that we read today. Yet Anna is a prophet too, and to her it is given to witness the fulfillment of what Malachi said in his day so long before as we heard today in chapter 3, verse 1: “the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” Anna and Simeon have been seeking the Lord for a long time. And now suddenly he has come to his temple. Here he is. It’s him. The one who has been promised. It’s an epiphany. And they can see it for what it is because they have been faithfully preparing themselves for this moment.

Even when the wait is long and lonely, God gifts us from time to time with just such an epiphany, as long as we are prepared to see it. Simeon has been graced to know that he will live to see the Christ, but now he is an old man. It has been a long time, long enough to lose heart, but still he is faithful and alert, and when the promise is fulfilled he is ready for it. It’s unfortunate perhaps that our translation puts the word “Lord” first in Simeon’s justly famous hymn of praise, which as you know is an unchanging feature of the rite of evening prayer. The first word in Greek is “Now,” as in—“Now Lord lettest thou thy servant depart”—and that is fitting, for now is the lead ideas here, now is the moment that Simeon has been waiting for and for which he is fully prepared. The implication in the Greek term for “depart” is not just to leave but indeed to die, because Simeon is now ready to die in peace, for the one thing in the world worth seeing—Christ’s divine intervention into the world—the one thing in the world worth seeing he has at last seen. Or think of Anna. Her marriage was all too brief, certainly not what she expected from her life. But her many years of widowhood have been spent in worship and spiritual discipline. She too is prepared to give thanks to God and to testify to all the others like her to what she has now at last, at last seen.

I said though that epiphany brings division along with revelation. That this epiphany brings totally divergent reactions is something Simeon himself foretells to Joseph and Mary. This child, your child, he says will provoke wildly different responses. Some will fall, and some will rise. Some will leap for joy at the recognition of who he is; some will be scandalized and recoil from him. Some will fall to the ground in reverence and love and wash his feet with their very tears; some will jeer in hatred and spit in his face.

Some will call him a miracle and some will shrug it off.

And all this Simeon says will wound you too, Mary. What about this terrifying private aside to Our Lord’s blessed mother? What could it mean that a sword will pierce her own soul also? Could it mean that she too will be tempted (as any of us would be) with the thought that it was nothing after all? The angel, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna, what if it wasn’t a miracle but just happenstance? Don’t forget that Mary sees her son die alone on the cross.

In that moment, at what looks like the end of the story, could you still believe in the epiphany here at the beginning of the story, or would you be tempted to say it was nothing after all?

This temptation to despair, to fail to see, is built into every epiphany. It is always possible that the miracle will go unnoticed or ignored. An unbelieving witness to the presentation would say that all he sees is an ordinary baby in the arms of his impoverished parents and a pair of delusional old people.

It is the virtue of great artists like Tarantino that they leave the epiphany open to the viewer to decide. Did God really come down from heaven to stop the bullets that should have killed Jules and Vincent? Jules decides “yes,” it’s a miracle, and his life is changed, while Vincent decides “no,” it’s nothing special, and ultimately he is doomed for his lack of vision. We have to decide too, whether as viewers of the film or readers of Luke’s Gospel. No one can be forced to believe in an epiphany; we must either affirm it as a revelation of God or write it off as nothing at all. And these are really the only two choices. The presentation of our Lord in the temple really is an epiphany, and if that’s true then this is not an ordinary baby but the greatest case of divine intervention the world has ever seen. But to see it for ourselves, we will need to be like Simeon and like Anna, ready, waiting, and looking. Amen.

“Back to School: Paul’s Syllabus” // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood

The Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Year A, Proper 18)
“Back to School: Paul’s Syllabus” // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood
Ezekiel 33.7-11
Psalm 119.33-40
Romans 12.9-21
Matthew 18.15-20

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Welcome back! Our program year at the Advent officially/unofficially kicks off with the feast of St. Michael and All Angels on Sept. 29, but with Labor Day as the unofficial end of summer, lots of us are streaming back to our normal lives after a packed few months. Today as we commission our church school teachers and our register for their classes, there’s a palpable sense that things are beginning again. There’s a little chill in the air at night, football is back (someone should tell the Pats), school buses are rolling again. From first grade through grad school, I went back to school every fall for a quarter century. I love going back to school! Everything is potential; anything’s possible. One specific thing I love that may be lost on you: I love syllabi! I love getting the list of what we’ll read this semester, what topics we’ll study, what my professor expects of me. This week my oldest daughter, Ellie, brought me a paper to sign from her her 9th grade theology teacher — an outline of the teacher’s expectations of Ellie in the class. Made me feel all warm and tingly just to hold it!

In Romans 12, Paul gives us a “syllabus” — a list of his expectations for the Roman church and, in turn, for us. In the 13 verses we read today, he gives us 26 (!) imperatives, 26 commands, 26 behaviors that should mark the life of every Christian. Let me assure you: I don’t have a sermon with 26 points. What I want to do is pick out just two of these commands to look more closely at, and then look at our motivation for living how Paul exhorts us to live. So two points — First, the marks of a Christian, and second, the motive of a Christian.

First: The Marks

Verse 9: Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection . . . . [And skipping to verse 13:] Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality. (12.9-10, 13)

If you read the first 11 chapters of Romans, whenever Paul talks about “love,” it’s about God’s love for us. But here in chapter 12, he pivots to talking about our loves. Paul says “Let love be genuine,” and then he takes 12 verses to list what genuine love looks like. So these 26 imperatives aren’t just a jumble of miscellaneous commands; they’re all about how we are to love. As one commentator says, “each staccato imperative adds a fresh ingredient to [Paul] the apostle’s recipe for love.”

Now look closely at that recipe — Paul has in mind two different kinds of love. The first kind is philadelphia, the word for “brotherly love” or “sibling love.” That’s the love we are to have for one another, the love we practice in here. Real Christian community is to be marked by the love family members share inside the family. What’s that mean? Well — Look to your right; now look to your left; look back at me; even if you can’t stand one of those people, you have to love them. That’s how families work. Siblings don’t pick their siblings, but they love each other because they’re family. In this room there are republicans and democrats, rich and poor, gay and straight, young and old . . . . Somebody in this room believes what you believe; others in this room don’t. But we’re a family, so we go all out to love each other no matter what.

  • Share your resources with each other. You got a car? Somebody else here needs a ride to mass.
  • Serve at coffee hour or Compline.
  • Host a neighborhood group in your home.
  • Give generously to support our life together.

That’s philadelphia.

But two verses later there’s another kind of love, and you it’s hidden in your English bibles — Practice “hospitality.” The word for hospitality is philoxenia. “Xenos” means “stranger.” Philadelphia is family love; philoxenia is “stranger love.” Not love in here, but love out there. I heard a pastor preach on these words one time, and he said we have to:

work like crazy at loving the insiders, people with your same beliefs, people that you know. [At the same time] work incredibly hard at loving outsiders. There is intensity and openness . . . . The word xenia . . . means a stranger, but as a verb it means ‘to take in a guest,’ so philaxenia is an incredibly strong word and a very gospel word. Philaxenia means to love, to open your living space, to open your wallet, to open your resources to people who otherwise you’d be suspicious of.”

If we aren’t doing that all the time as a community of faith here on Beacon Hill, then we are dying. As a church, we’re dying. Jean Varnier is a Canadian theologian who, back in 1964, decided God wanted him to welcome two men with developmental disabilities into his home. That’s what philoxenia meant for him. Today, the community he founded, called L’Arche, is actually 147 communities, in 35 countries, on all 5 continents. This is what he says about hospitality or love of the outsider:

Welcome is one of the signs that a community is alive. To invite others to live with us is a sign that we aren’t afraid, that we have a treasure of truth and of peace to share . . . . A community which refuses to welcome — whether through fear, weariness, insecurity, a desire to cling to comfort, or just because it is fed up with visitors — is dying spiritually.

  • Volunteer to serve at our Community Supper on Tuesdays.
  • Serve at Common Cathedral.
  • Come join our Mission + Outreach Team.
  • Volunteer to be part of a team that travels to Texas or Florida to help those communities rebuild after these devastating storms.
  • Be an evangelist — share your faith with a neighbor over a cup of coffee.

Paul commands: Love each other like crazy in here, at the same time that you love the stranger like crazy out there.

Second: Our Motive

Paul gives 26 commands, but can you love on command? I can’t. That’s why it’s always important, whenever we see a command in scripture, a “what” we are supposed to do, remember to look very closely for the “why.” Because every time St. Paul give us an imperative, it follows an indicative.

Put it another way: Our duty follows our doctrine.

This is classic Paul — only now, after eleven chapters of doctrine in Romans, does he start to lay out his ethics. For Paul, the imperative (he compels us to do) always follows the indicative (what God has done for us). Romans 12.1: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God . . . .” Everything goes back to having experienced mercy.

Brennan Manning, in Christianity Today (

One last little example. Brennan Manning died in 2013. He’s on my Mt. Rushmore of people I wish I’d have had dinner with. Describing himself, Manning once said: “Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.” In his memoir, All is Grace, he wrote this:

My life is a witness to vulgar grace — a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wages as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten till five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party no ifs, ands, or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request — “Please, remember me” — and assures him, “You bet!” A grace that it the pleasure of the Father, fleshed out in the carpenter Messiah, Jesus the Christ, who left His Father’s side not for heaven’s sake but for our sakes, yours and mine. This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion.

In a word, this vulgar grace is mercy. That’s the gospel — God showed us mercy — therefore, we should be marked by mercy. God loved us, therefore we go and love and return. Mercy is the motive, the only motive, for the love that marks our lives.

What’s a better time than the beginning of another church year together for us to recommit ourselves to loving each other and then, together, loving the world? Paul gave us the syllabus. Let the classes begin.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Go Deeper:

  • John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1994): 330.
  • Sermon by Dr. Timothy J. Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian Church on 24 April 2005.  An .mp3 of the sermon is downloadable from
  • “L’Arche,” (last visited 8 September 2017).
  • Jean Varnier, Community and Growth (New York: Paulist, 1989): 266-67 (quoted in Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999): 160).
  • Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah, 2000): 26. See Agnieszka Tenant, “Ragamuffin: The Patched-up Life and Unshabby Message of Brennan Manning,” in Christianity Today, 15 April 2013 (
  • Brennan Manning, All is Grace (quoted in William McDavid et al., Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) (Charlottesville, Va.: Mockingbird, 2015): 53).
  • An audio file of a version of this sermon is available at

“Prisms” — A Sermon for Epiphany by Fr. Sammy Wood

The First Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A)
“Prisms” // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood
Isaiah 41.1-9
Psalm 89
Acts 10.34-38
Matthew 3.13-17

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

Look around — All the decorations are down; the Advent is back to looking like she looks most of the year long. The chronological calendar turned to 2017, and the liturgical calendar turned to the season of Epiphany — a word that means “manifestation” or “appearance” of Christ to the Gentiles in the person of the Magi (who, you may have noticed, made their circuit of the church from just to my right all the way around to the creche). Now on this first Sunday of Epiphanytide, we read the first of four songs from Isaiah about a mysterious figure called “the Servant” (42.1), a figure God will send to bring justice (42.1), to bring back ethnic Israel from the exile caused by their disobedience (49.5-6), and ultimately to suffer vicariously to redeem those he came to save (53.4-6).

Let me say this up front — Barrels and barrels of ink have spilled debating the identity of this “servant.” But there is a Christian consensus about the issue. Simeon in the temple recited the nunc dimittis, saying the child he held was “a light for revelation to the Gentiles,” (Luke 2.32), language directly from Isaiah 42.6 — Somehow he knew the infant Jesus was the long awaited servant of God. And the ancient church fathers agreed. Eusebius of Caesarea, writing in the 4th century, said:

Although this very great person is not the one who was in the mind of those hearing the prophecy the first time . . . clearly the Christ of God is meant here.

So let us assume, for the sake of this sermon, that Jesus Christ is the messiah, the ultimate embodiment of the “servant” in Isaiah. If he is that servant, then what do we learn from Isaiah 42? I believe that it tells us: (1) Jesus’ kingdom brings justice; (2) his kingdom crosses boundaries; and (3) Jesus wins his kingdom by losing.

First: Jesus’ kingdom brings justice

Behold my servant whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations. (42.1) He will bring forth “justice.”

How many flavors of Law & Order are there on TV? That’s what we think when we hear “justice” — finding out whodunnit. This word mishpat, or justice, occurs some 400x in the OT, and it does mean to judge fairly on the merits of every case, not out of prejudice or preference, regardless of race, class, or anything else.. But more than that, it means giving people their rights under law. That’s why over and over again mishpat shows up connected to orphans, widows, immigrants and the poor — people sometimes called “the quartet of the vulnerable.” In Generous Justice, Tim Keller says:

In premodern, agrarian societies, these four groups had no social power. They lived at subsistence level and were only days from starvation if there as any famine, invasion, or even minor social unrest. Today this quartet would be expanded to include the refugee, the migrant worker, the homeless, and many single parents and elderly people. The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups. Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity, but a violation of justice, of mishpat.

This tells us that Jesus’ messianic kingdom is about more, much more, than just forgiveness and going to heaven when you die. God sent Jesus his servant to do justice to restore dignity to every human being, to deal with all the effects of sin in the world, to bring about absolute flourishing for every creature under heaven. That is biblical justice.

Hold that thought. Point two: Jesus’ kingdom crosses boundaries

“I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations . . . . (42.6)

Israel’s destiny, as God’s chosen people, had always been for blessing to overflow through them into the ends of the earth. In Genesis 12, God told Abraham “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Leave all that behind, and I will do three things: I will make you a great nation, I’ll give you a great name, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Gen. 12.1-3) That’s why God chose Abraham — not for his sake alone, some special privilege just for Abraham’s family, but in order that God could bless the whole world using Abraham as his channel of blessing. That’s why we make so much of the magi making their way around the church finally to arrive at the crèche — the Epiphany is the manifestation, the dawning, the appearance of salvation not just to Israel but to the goyim, the Gentiles the whole world.

And that’s why Lesslie Newbigin calls the gospel, the message of God’s kingdom, “public truth.” In Truth to Tell, Newbigin writes:

The church lives by the faith that . . . Jesus is Lord. That means that he is Lord not only of the Church but of the world, not only in the religious life but in all life, not merely over some peoples but over all peoples. He is not just my savior, but the savior of the world . . . . If it is true, it is true for all and must not be concealed from any.

Point three: Jesus’ kingdom is a just kingdom, it crosses every racial and national boundary, and he gains his kingdom in the strangest way — Jesus wins his kingdom by losing

He will not cry aloud of lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth . . . . (42.2-3)

This is only hinted at here, but it’s clearer in the other Servant Songs in chapters 49-53, — notice this king doesn’t become king the way normal kings do. Normal kings field armies to conquer through force or coercion; bending the enemy to their will and plundering their lands. But look at this king — he is gentle: He won’t break even the slenderest reed; he won’t snuff out the faintest candle. We are in a position to understand better what Isaiah only hinted at — that Jesus the servant of God didn’t save us by force; he saved us by weakness. Isa. 53.10 says “It was the will of the Lord to crush him.” In other words: Jesus came not to bruise us but to be bruised; not to snuff us out but to be extinguished. That’s why he won his kingdom not on the field of battle but on the cross.

One last point: We’ve covered a lot of theology. But what about application? What about us? Well, every Epiphany I think of a song. Richard Shindell is my favorite songwriter, and my favorite song of his is called “Transit,” a long song about a nun named Sister Maria. Sister Maria often drives to the state penitentiary to direct a choir of convicts, a motley crew of “car thieves and crack dealers, mobsters and murderers.” And here’s how Shindell describes their song:

And so it began in glorious harmony
Softly and Tenderly, calling for you and me
With the interstate whining way off in the distance
And the sun going down through the bars of the prison
They poured out their souls, they poured out their memories
They poured out their hopes for whats left of eternity
To sister Maria, her soul like a prism
For the light of forgiveness on all of their faces

. . . her soul like a prism . . . .

Epiphany is about light dawning in a dark world. And here’s the application: First — Let that light come to you. Maybe you feel like a bruised reed, like your light is almost flickered out. Come to Jesus — he is the medicine your soul most desperately needs. And second — Be prisms.

  • Be prisms and refract God’s justice into the world everywhere you can. Stand with the vulnerable — widows, orphans, immigrants, refugees, the poor, anyone with little or no social power.
  • Be prisms and cross every boundary with the gospel — Be evangelists. Don’t let the postmodern spirit of our pluralistic age dampen your zeal to take the gospel to the whole world.
  • Be prisms and advance God kingdom in the world not from a position of strength but weakness. The church must be a place that is loving and kind and welcoming to the most broken among us. “Christ disarmed his enemies with love and grace and gentleness.” We must do the same.

God manifested his son to the Magi, and he did so to you. Now be prisms for the light of Christ’s star. Make him manifest for all the world to see.

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

Go Deeper //

  • For Eusebius of Caesarea, see Ancient Christian Cmt. on Scripture, Mark W. Elliott, ed., vol. OT XI, p. 32ff.
  • Shaphat,” in Theological Wordbook of the OT, Harris et al., eds. (Chicago: Moody, 1980): Vol. II, p. 2443-44.
  • Tim Keller, “What is Biblical Justice?”, Relevant, 23 Aug. 2012 ( (last visited 6 January 2017).
  • Timothy J. Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York: Dutton, 2010): 4.5.
  • John N. Oswalt, Isaiah, NIVAC (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2003): 474.
  • Lesslie Newbigin, Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991): 33-34. Nor can we continue to accept the security which is offered in an agnostic pluralism where we are free to have our own opinions provided we agree that they are only personal opinions.  We are called, I think, to bring our faith into the public arena, to publish it, to put it at risk in the encounter with other faiths and ideologies in open debate and argument, and in the risky business of discovering what Christian obedience means in radically new circumstances and in radically different human cultures. Ibid., 59-60.
  • Tim Keller, Gospel Christianity (2003) (“Christ wins our salvation through losing, achieves power through weakness and service, comes to wealth via giving all away. And those who receive his salvation are not the strong and accomplished but those who admit they are weak and lost.”).
  • For audio of this sermon:

#AdventFail: A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood

The Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A)

“#AdventFail” // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood
Isaiah 7.10-17

Psalm 24

Romans 1.1-7

Matthew 1.18-25

☩ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

There are six — count ’em, six — more shopping days until Christmas! How did that happen?!

I think I’ve mentioned before — every year when I get to the end of Advent, I’m never ready for Christmas. Every year I make Advent plans — to pray as our family lights the candles in our wreath every night; one Jesse tree ornament every day; stamp and send the Christmas cards (which I never even got around to ordering this year); cross every name off my shopping list; all while setting aside extra time for prayer and reflection. Making time to grow, to do good. But work gets in the way. Family issues demand my attention. There are Christmas parties, choir concerts, papers or exams or projects.

By this Sunday every year, I admit: I failed at Advent.

This week I wondered whether anybody else felt this way, so I searched hashtag #AdventFail on Twitter. Here’s what came up:

  • @hashtagCatholic said “Eek! I don’t have my purple and pink candles. #AdventFail”
  • @JordanTrumble (who describes himself as an Episcopalian, West Virginian, and snark aficionado) said, rather snarkily I thought: “Pastor at my aunt’s church began the service by saying ‘Merry Christmas.’ #AdventFail”
  • @LeighLem said — and this is good advice — “This Advent, I’d like to remind church-goers there may be some new candles in unexpected places — watch ur hair. #AdventFail”
  • @ReedsTweets1 said “Ate entire Advent calendar in 12 minutes. Apparently that’s not how you do it. #AdventFail”

Failure can be a common feeling in Advent.

There’s no way you can see this from where you’re sitting, but just imagine that you can — This is Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Nativity, and I want to introduce it as exhibit A for this homily. See Mary is in the center? She reclines beside the baby she’s wrapped tightly in swaddling clothes, and she captures our attention. In the gospel narratives Jesus’ birth, Mary is a paradigm of readiness for God. Gabriel tells her she will have God’s child; she says “Let it be unto me according to your word.”

But there’s another figure in the narratives. This figure, in Rublev’s icon, is not in the center — he sits off in the bottom left corner, and he’s not alone. Joseph, the human foster father of Jesus, sits with a troubled look on his face talking to a bent and wizened old man. Tradition says Rublev painted the devil whispering to Joseph — giving voice to all Joseph’s doubts about this event and his role in it:

  • Joseph, how can you be sure this baby’s yours?
  • This is not how you planned for this to go!
  • How could you not feel like a failure?”

This morning, if you’re like I am, if Advent hasn’t gone as planned, may I suggest three practices in Matthew’s story that we can emulate? Three things to do when we fail at Advent: (1) Dream, (2) Let Go, and (3) Obey.

First — DreamJoseph, being a just man and unwilling to put [Mary] to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid . . . .”

I don’t know how Joesph could sleep, but he did, and when he slept, he dreamed. That’s when his angel appeared and told him another story. Not just the story of his reputation in shambles, of his dashed hopes and spoiled plans. And when Joseph woke, he must’ve thought, “What if that’s really true?”

For Joseph, and for us — what if the dream was really true? What if this baby was really God’s son and really Joseph’s son? God and man? Dorothy Sayers, in Letters to a Diminished Church, says this:

One thing is certain: if he were God and nothing else, his immortality means nothing to us; if he was man and no more, his death is no more important than yours or mine. But if he really was both God and man, then when the man Jesus died, God died too; and when the God Jesus rose from the dead, man rose too, because they were one and the same person.

Do you see? If the angel told the truth in the dream, everything changes! How can we doubt God loves us when he dies for us to prove it? And why be afraid of anything? Even death can’t keep us because it couldn’t keep him. We’re free to risk everything for a God like that without ever being afraid we’ll come up short and he’ll find us wanting. Let that be our dream. Dare to dream the angel told the truth.

Practice number two: Let goJoseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.

I had a plan. When Renee and I got married, I had a plan. I wanted 6 kids, she wanted 1. We had Ellie, and Renee moved her target up to 2, and I came down to 4 (it was harder than it looked). Then we had Paddy, and we both said “Change of plans — let’s stop at three.” And that was Flannery.

What were Joseph’s plans for his life with Mary? They certainly didn’t involve a suspicious and very public pregnancy, two years on the run from King Herod, and a son who even his own family would come to believe was mad. But God said: Don’t be afraid; let go or your plans; let me set the course of your life.

Our Advent plan is to be good — to live better lives. And we make Advent all about what we will do for God, like he’s some kind of celestial bookkeeper marking deposits and withdrawals. But the gospel says that’s just not what God’s like at all! If you’ve prayed the collects for these past Sundays, maybe you noticed something. Listen:

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness (Advent I)
Give us grace to heed the prophets’ warnings and forsake our sins (Advent II)
And because we are sorely hindered by our sins (Advent III)
Purify our consciences by thy daily visitation (today)

Those aren’t prayers to a God who’s surprised we fail. Who’s surprised we’re still sinners, even if we’ve praying those prayers for 50 years. God sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows when you’ve been bad or good — and he loves you anyway! No Advent discipline will ever make God love us any more, and no amount of Advent failure will ever make God love us any less.

You’re free to let go — Let go of your best-laid plans. Let go of your false image of yourself, or the false image you broadcast to those around you, that you’ve got it all together. Just let go, then . . .

Practice number three — Obey. Once you’ve dared to dream Jesus was who the angel said he was, once you’ve let go of the illusion you need to dress yourself up in good works for God, then, and only then, begin to obey. When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.

Notice the order: God didn’t bless Mary because she obeyed; he didn’t bless Joseph because he obeyed; the angels announced the blessing, then the couple said “let it be as you say,” and they began moving obediently toward Bethlehem.

Do we dare to dream of a world where we are not under law but under grace? The only problem with a glorious season like Advent is we’re prone to make Advent into something we do, not something that’s being done for us. It’s our default position — to plan more, do better, work harder, and to forget we’re on the cusp of Christmas, the day we celebrate the birth of the One who was born into the world to do all the things we couldn’t do to make ourselves ready for God. All we must do to get ready for God is open our eyes, our hands, our mouths — and let him come to us. Only then will our obedience really be free.

Let me close with a quote from a friend of mine, an internet friend at least. Sarah Condon is a priest in Houston, TX (and a graduate of Ole Miss, by damn), and she closed an Advent sermon of hers with these words:

This sounds crazy, because I have a Christmas to-do list that will not get to done, but we are already ready . . . because Jesus is ready for us . . . . So I’m not in a big hurry to start the manic exercises of what we seem to culturally call “Getting into the Xmas spirit.” I am thrilled at the idea of not feeling like I should control all of it. I am joyful at the thought that nothing I do this season, nothing, will improve upon the Christ child who will come into our midst to save us . . . . We are here to get ready for Jesus, and the incredibly good news this morning and every morning is that Jesus, in all of his mercy, has always and forever been ready for us.

☩ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


Go Deeper //

“The Choice,” A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 18, Year C)
“The Choice” // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood
Deuteronomy 30.15-20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1-20
Luke 14.25-33

☩ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

How many of you — show of hands — are aware it’s an election year? Front page of every paper; lead of every newscast. And it seems like it’s already lasted forever. The real question is: When is it not an election year? This week in the Globe, Jeff Jacoby wrote a piece called “Our long national nightmare,” which I thought was pretty dead on:

Why do we do this to ourselves?
In no other nation on earth do candidates for national leadership devote as much time to running for office. Political ambition and a taste for power exist in every society and era. But the insanity of marathons for the White House that last nearly two years is uniquely, humiliatingly American.

the choiceWhatever you think of our candidates for national office, nothing’s as pervasive, as ubiquitous, as ever-present as “The Coice.”

In today’s reading from Deuteronomy, there’s another choice to consider. And as important as the presidential election may seem, the other choice matters infinitely more. So let’s look at it.

Deuteronomy, you may know, is sort a sermon series. Moses is now an old man, 120 years old, he’s led Israel for four decades since their exodus from Egypt — 40 years since crossing the Red Sea, 40 years since Sinai, 40 years of wilderness — and now Israel is finally poised to cross into the promised land. But Moses won’t go with them, so he preaches a series of farewell sermons to remind them of everything that’s happened, of all God’s done, and to sear into their minds one thing: They have to choose.

See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey . . . then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land . . . . But if your heart turns away and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods . . . you will perish.

Life and death. Good and evil. They can’t have both, and they can’t opt out. There was a right way and a wrong way to understand God. When Israel crossed the river into the promised land, with all their new neighbors, each with different gods, the pressure to run after those gods would be immense. So they had to choose now: Good or evil. Life of death. No third way. That’s the substance of the choice.

What about the mechanism? When you think about it, the mechanism wasn’t complicated. All that mattered was whether they would obey. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land . . . .

Obey — love the Lord, walk in his ways, keep his commands. If you obey, then you’ll live; if you don’t, then you’ll die. That’s how the choice worked.

So here’s the jump — They had a choice; so do we. This story isn’t just history about Israel. It still says something true to our experience in 2016. So let me leave you with three quick application points to take away —

1: We do have to choose. Modern Americans have made doubt into almost a “zen” thing, an art form. The fastest growing group in all the studies of religious preference in the West is the “Nones” — not Mother Teresa (now St. Teresa after her canonization today), not Sally Field with wings on the headpiece of her habit, “None” is shorthand for a significant and growing segment of the population, as much as 25% of Americans, who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, or who practice no particular religion. Many of that 25% have a curious fascination with doubt.

I wasn’t a huge fan of Jann Martel’s novel Life of Pi, but one part always stuck with me. The narrator says this:

I’ll be honest about it. It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the Garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.

Doubt and faith aren’t mutually inconsistent, not incompatible. I think doubt is irreducibly a part of the religious life. But at what point does doubt become just a choice, a “choosing not to choose?” Struggling with doubt is different from reveling in it, from making it a way of life. Choosing doesn’t mean absolute certainty, at least not for me; it means at least we are moving toward the God who calls us.

2: We don’t choose our direction just once. I quote this all the time, but in Mere Christianity C. S. Lewis said this:

[E]very time you make a choice, you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with another creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.

We don’t just choose once and we’re all set. We course correct a thousand times a day. God graciously maneuvers almost every moment of every day to where it’s a choice — another chance to move toward God. To choose love over indifference; choose obedience over rebellion; choose God over ourselves.

And the last point — 3: The choice starts right now, today. The verses right before what we read in Deuteronomy 30 today say “This commandment that I command you today . . . it’s not too hard, neither is it far off . . . It is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” (Deut. 30.11-14)

Today, Moses says — Today, as we ready for a new program year at the Advent, as kids go back to school and we turn our calendars over to fall (thanks be to God). Today our choice begins. There are a thousand pagan gods around for us to chase after — gods of success and wealth and pleasure and self. A first step towards God is repentance for all our bad choices. Turn around, then move toward God by coming to the altar for forgiveness and communion.

As it was with Israel, so it is with us — we have before us life and good, death and evil.

Now choose life.

☩ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Go Deeper ::

  • Jeff Jacoby, “Our long national nightmare,” Boston Globe, 31 August 2016, p. A8.
  • Jann Martel, Life of Pi (New York:  Harcourt, 2003), 28.
  • C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Collier, 1960): 72.
  • Audio of this sermon available at