This is the sermon Bishop Scott Mayer preached at St. Mary’s, Hillsboro, on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 5, 2021.
St Mary’s Hillsboro 2021 2 Advent December 5
It is a joy to be with you – in person. It is a joy to be with you in this place.
Thank you for your service to God in and through the Episcopal Church. If we are honest, there are easier paths right now – but, none any more fulfilling, or any more joyful, or any more hopeful – not to me, and I suspect that’s true for you.
You are an amazing community of faith. In the last 18 months – during the height of a pandemic, and while being locked out of your church home – you have nearly doubled in size. You have moved with grace into this new space. You have received generous offerings and gifts from around this diocese, the Diocese of West Texas, and your own community of Hillsboro. You are looking forward to celebrating your 150th year.
You are blessed with deeply committed, talented, and thoughtful lay leadership. And you are served by clergy who are privileged to a part of your lives – myself included. Many thanks go to Paula Jefferson for her pastoral care and leadership – and for your occasional visiting priest, Joseph Chillington.
Thursday night, I watched the opening of “Annie” live on NBC, admittedly before switching to the Cowboys game. But, I wanted to see the opening act. Annie is played beautifully and movingly by a 12 year old actress, Celina Smith. Early in the act, the orphans sing, “It’s a hard-knock life for us!”
“It’s a hard-knock life! Don’t it feel like the wind is always howl’n? Don’t it seem like there’s never any light! Once a day, don’t you wanna throw the towel in? It’s easier than puttin’ up a fight.”
“Empty belly life! Rotten smelly life! Full of sorrow life! No tomorrow life! Santa Claus we never see. Santa Claus, what’s that? Who’s he?” “It’s a hard-knock life for us!”
And then, in that context – during the harshness of the Great Depression – Annie sings: “The sun’ll come out tomorrow.” That’s like Advent Hope. In the context of, “it’s a hard-knocks life,” the “sun’ll come out tomorrow.”
At the Commendation in our Burial Office, the presider says: “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: “Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!” That’s Advent Hope. It’s the song you sing at St Mary’s. The sun is coming out. Advent has many inter-related themes, such as hope, waiting, preparation, repentance, wake up, pregnancy, and the meaning of the word “advent” itself, coming.
Perhaps you are familiar with the author, Barbara Kingsolver. She is the author of a number of novels and short stories which reveal her love for nature. Her deep appreciation for God’s creation is apparent in everything she writes, particularly conveying that all of nature is pregnant with the creative action of God.
She may write of the explosion of desert wildflowers in the surroundings of her southern Arizona home, or the courtship ritual of the scarlet macaw in Costa Rica, or the hummingbird building a nest outside her kitchen window, which is the story that captures my attention this morning. [“Small Wonder”]
She begins by telling us how the hummingbird built up her nest with spiderwebbing until some genetic trigger in her brain told her to stop. She then inspected the nest, measured it again, fortified it, and licked it to solidify it – all described in Kingsolver’s artful detail.
She tells us: “If you had been standing with me at my kitchen sink to witness all this, you would likely have breathed softly, as I did, ‘My God.’ The spectacular perfection of that nest, that tiny tongue, that beak calibrated perfectly to the length of the tubular red flowers from which she sucks her nectar and takes away pollen to commit the essential act of copulation for the plant that feeds her – every piece of this thing and all of it – my God.” – she says.
We owe a great debt to those who raise such an awareness, whether Thoreau, or John Muir, or Mary Oliver, or John Graves in Texas, or Barbara Kingsolver in Arizona. They are prophets who point us to God’s action in and through creation. If we want evidence of God we can open the door and step outside. Or just as truly, we can step inside the concert hall, or the art museum, or the public library to sense the creativity of God’s Spirit. We can hear the voices of these prophets, saying, “Turn around and look!” or “Wake up!” (another way of saying, “Repent!”)
If we are honest, however, there are places on earth where it’s harder to see. Step outside in some places, and you’re more likely to see destruction than creation: disease, poverty, violence, war. I will spare us the long litany of what we have witnessed just during the last week.
It’s into such a barren world that John the Baptist steps, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It’s into a world ruled by Emperor Tiberius, and Pontius Pilate, and Herod, and his brother Philip, and Lysanias that a voice cries from the wilderness, proclaiming the coming of God, the Advent of God.
And the way Luke tells the story, it’s been a long pregnancy. The story begins when the angel Gabriel appears to … John’s father, Zechariah. Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, have no children, for Elizabeth is barren, and both are advanced in years. The angel says to Zechariah, “Do not be afraid, for your prayer is heard and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.”
“And you will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth, … he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb,” … and ultimately, Gabriel tells Zechariah, he will “make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
Six months later the same angel appears in Nazareth to a virgin engaged to Joseph, of the House of David. Her name is Mary. Gabriel says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.”
“How can this be, since I have no husband?” she wants to know. And after the angel says, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” the angel adds, “Your cousin Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Two impossible pregnancies lead us – thirty years later – to today’s Gospel: John’s proclamation of the Advent of God. One impossible birth, paving the way for the next, preparing the world for the One who brings life to the barren, and hope to the hopeless.
Peter Gomes, the late preacher at Harvard, says that “any god can make something good out of the exceptional and extraordinary. It is our God who makes out of nothing something; who takes nowhere and makes it somewhere; who takes nobody and makes him or her somebody … .”
The hope of Advent is our hope for the birth of God in the most barren of lands, in the harshest of conditions, and in the hardest of hearts.
John the Baptist calls those in today’s story to prepare for this seemingly impossible birth. That’s true. He calls these seekers to prepare for the advent of God into their own hearts.
But perhaps he calls the Church to something more – takes us a step further, beyond preparing our SELVES for the coming of Christ. Maybe he calls us to HIS vocation, as well. Maybe he calls us to prepare the WORLD for the advent (the coming) of Christ. After all, we are the Christians, the Christ bearers, the God bearers.
Meister Eckhart, a medieval mystic and theologian, compared all Christians to Mary, the Mother of God, the God bearer, when he wrote the following:
“We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place in myself? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in US.”
The angel Gabriel says to Elizabeth, and says to Mary: “Do not be afraid.” “Nothing is impossible with God.” The hope of Advent is hope for the seemingly impossible: the birth of God in the most barren of lands, in the harshest conditions, in the hardest of hearts.
Perhaps the angel Gabriel says the same to us – the Christians, the Christ bearers – called to serve God’s mission to bring life to the barren and hope to the hopeless: “Do not be afraid.” “Nothing is impossible with God.”
You can testify to that here at St Mary’s – not simply because you read about it in the scriptures, but because you experience and live it. By your presence and your proclamation you bear witness to it: nothing is impossible with God.