Sermon Preached on December 1, 2019 – Advent I
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME
Believe and Be Thankful
Dear People of St. Bart’s,
It’s Thanksgiving morning, as I write this sermon the Macy’s Day Parade is going by in the background (though the sound is off). I think my favorite balloon so far is the Grinch, with his dog Max peering over his shoulder (I’ve always had a soft spot for Max, so that’s no surprise!). The balloons are flying lower than I’ve ever seen them – but they’re there, which is a good thing (I personally am in it for the balloons). After this there’s the AKC dog show – much more popular in our house than the parade – and then football, which makes both Ken and I happy, if not the girls. Mind you none of this is full-on watching, more glancing while doing other things – like “talking” to you today.
Why sit and write a sermon while the Macy’s Day Parade is going by? For one, because Sunday is always coming, but mostly because it’s Thanksgiving – and as I consider what I am thankful for, YOU are on my list. I am thankful for: my family – Ken, Mackenzie and Channing; my sister and her family; my parents, my extended family… and YOU, as a community, and as individuals.
As you know, this year I had the opportunity to discern with God and the diocese of Montana if I was called to a different path and place, and, for completely different reasons, it’s also been a difficult year for our family. Through it all, it’s become remarkably clear to me – that the love and support of this community holds me upright; gives me strength; consoles, affirms and sustains me. I’ve been trying to tell you this, to say thank you – when you check in with me; when you are patient with my schedule; when you offer prayers for my family; when you are kind; essentially – when you are YOU, the community of St. Bart’s.
But today I want to be sure you HEAR me – I’m incredibly grateful. Thank you. For your kindness, your generosity of Spirit, your compassion and care. I know it makes many of you uncomfortable to be thanked, to have your generosity recognized. Don’t worry, I think you’re about to be rescued by the parade and none other than Santa. Just behind the dizzying dancing peppermints, I can see the multi- pointed star atop Santa’s sleigh. And there he is, just as we remember him – robust in his plush red suit, waving enthusiastically; Santa meets all of our iconic expectations.
This is the first time I’ve noticed the red balloon stars dancing alongside the sleigh – the writing on the stars says, “Believe.” They match the sign on the front of the building – huge script “Believe,” in glittering letters. I know those crafting the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade mean: Believe in Santa; Believe in the magic of Christmas; (and let’s be honest, Believe in the power of shopping as well).
But I’m a preacher and the word ‘Believe’ holds weightier implications for me. This week as Thanksgiving folds into the first Sunday of Advent – it establishes our theme: Believe and be thankful. Today, we’re at the beginning of the Church’s New Year. We begin with the season of Advent, which is significant in itself. We don’t begin with the trumpets of Easter, or the grace-filled softness of Christmas Eve, or even the flames of Pentecost.¹ Rather, we begin in Advent: We begin by entering the shadows of despair, conflict, sorrow, and hatred; actively looking for Jesus to come – as we light candles of hope, peace, joy and love. We begin in Advent with apocalyptic texts, as hope rings out in the midst of catastrophe.
Once we’ve entered the shadows, we can proclaim the good news – that’s the essence of apocalypse, the point of what is revealed – God is on the way, about to turn the world upside down. Believe and be thankful. God is about to act, to enter our world in ways otherwise unimaginable. We begin in Advent by being watchful and alert, cultivating awareness, being attentive to signs of hope and wonder. Our texts remind us – Keep awake! Be ready!²
Ready for what, exactly? For the world articulated by Isaiah in our first lesson: a world in which God will come to dwell on earth and put an end to war once and for all; Ringing in new era of Shalom – peace. Isaiah’s phrase, “beat their swords into plowshares” is in direct opposition to the call of the prophet Joel, to “beat your ploughshares into swords.”³ Here we have the tension at the heart of human life – which response shall we choose? In our own day and time, in our particular days of despair and conflict, how do we choose to respond? Ploughshares into swords? Or swords into ploughshares? As we begin anew, Isaiah proclaims that the grace of God will bring a great reversal: war transformed into peace, weapons into tools, battlefields into gardens.⁴
Be ready – God’s great reversal is about to happen: have hope, participate in peace, and rejoice in anticipation of all that God will do – the embodiment of God’s love. Hope, Peace, Joy and Love form the stepping-stones of Advent’s path.
In our song of praise this Advent season, we lift our voices with Mary, as she responds to the astonishing news of what God is about to do for the world, through her.⁵Mary’s song is a hymn of praise for apocalypse – revealing how God is turning everything upside down, lifting up the lowly and bringing the mighty down from their thrones. Much more than a military victory – this will be a revolution of love and justice, a revolution of “good news of great joy for all people.”⁶Or as Isaiah puts it, a new day in which “all” will walk in God’s paths of peace:⁷“neither shall they learn war anymore.”⁸
Today we begin again; believe and be thankful – for all that God has done, is doing, and will do in our future. God acts; not just in the glamour and glitz of the best days, the parade days – but more importantly – in the shadows of despair and our times of deep darkness. When we struggle to believe, when it can be most difficult to be thankful – God acts; turning the world upside down to save us. This is who and how God is – as promised through the prophets and embodied by Jesus. Then, now, and in the world to come.
And what is expected of us? To live as God’s beloved community: to believe and be thankful as we prepare for God’s coming. To share God’s light with all those who live in the shadow of darkness. To continue becoming who we were meant to be from before our birth – God’s own; through whom all the families of the earth are blessed.
An Advent Blessing by Jan Richardson, (which our bishop included in the most recent Dio-log):
It is difficult to see it from here,
but trust me when I say
this blessing is inscribed
on the horizon.
Is written on
that far point
you can hardly see.
Is etched into
whose contours you cannot know
All you know
is that it calls you,
pulls you toward
what you have perceived
only in pieces,
in fragments that came to you
or in prayer.
I cannot account for how,
as you draw near,
the blessing embedded in the horizon
begins to blossom
upon the soles of your feet,
shimmers in your two hands.
It is one of the mysteries
of the road,
how the blessing
you have traveled toward,
as if it had been with you
all this time,
as if it simply
needed to know
how far you were willing
to find the lines
that were traced upon you
before the day
that you were born.
My friends, as we begin again, may we believe and be thankful, holding fast to this community, knowing that we enter this Advent darkness together, supporting one another – as we prepare, pay attention, and make ready for all that God is about to do. Waiting, singing, praying anew for God’s light and love to overwhelm the world.10 Amen.
1 Be Ready: SALT’S Lectionary Commentary for Advent Week One, November 26, 2019, SALTproject.org
2 Be Ready: SALT’S Lectionary Commentary for Advent Week One, November 26, 2019, SALTproject.org
3 Isa 2:4; Joel 3:10, NRSV
4 Be Ready: SALT’S Lectionary Commentary for Advent Week One, November 26, 2019, SALTproject.org
5 Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), spoken at 8am, sung at 10am, through the text of Tell out my soul.
6 Luke 2:10.
7 Be Ready: SALT’S Lectionary Commentary for Advent Week One, November 26, 2019, SALTproject.org
8 Isa 2:2-4
9 Jan Richardson, Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons
10 Be Ready: SALT’S Lectionary Commentary for Advent Week One, November 26, 2019, SALTproject.org