When I lived in Atlanta, I have a wonderful garden with many old garden roses that bloomed nearly year round, thanks to the warm (and probably getting warmer) climate. Four or so years ago, this was my advent wreath, filled with these beauties from my front yard. It only lasted the first two weeks, but they were a lovely two weeks.
Among these are Duchesse de Brabant, Pearl d'or, Mme Joseph Schwartz, Souvenir de St. Anne's, Sombreuil, Blush Noisette and Old Blush.
Today we enter the season of Advent, four weeks of holy waiting for God to come to us again. We are called to sit in the place of anticipation, to be alive to the present moment of the season of not yet. But I have to confess: waiting makes me crazy.
All my life, I have had difficulty with waiting. When I’m hungry, I want to eat right then. When I’m ready to leave the house, I’m standing at the door in my coat, impatient because everyone else is checking phones or still putting on shoes. Sometimes my difficulty with waiting plays out in my body. My legs get twitchy and I can’t sit still.
And more serious waiting - to see how things are going to turn out - for an acceptance letter or test result, to see how someone is going to recover from trauma or how the country is going to fare under a new administration - can be excruciating.
I want to be present to the present, but when I am really anxious, my instinct is to withdraw and agonize alone.
A few days ago, I came across a newspaper story about Sherman the Donkey. Sherman had been kept pent up in a small mucky stall without much care and was in danger of dying when a Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, man took him in with the idea of rehabbing Sherman into a running partner. (Apparently, running with donkeys is a thing.)
When Sherman arrived, however, he could hardly even walk. His hooves had grown so long that they resembled elf shoes. He had parasites and rotten teeth and matted fur. According to the vet, he was 8, but he seemed to be 80.
Sherman’s anxious new owners called around for help from neighbors who knew more about animals than they, who are Philadelphia folks only a couple of years into their new rural life. Someone came with a hacksaw to trim Sherman’s hooves. Another came to pull rotten teeth and another to bathe him and cut or curry out the matted fur and parasites. Still another attended to raw skin and bloated belly.
His bodily needs taken care of, it was time to wait and see if Sherman would respond. He needed to walk and to eat if he was going to even live, so his owner put all the other animals out to pasture, leaving Sherman alone, hoping he would want to explore his new home. But instead, all Sherman did on his first day was stand still beside the barn, head hanging, as if, the writer said, he was waiting for execution. He needed something else.
That something else turned out to be a goofy goat named Lawrence, himself a rescue with ears malformed from frostbite, who came in with the sheep from the pasture at the end of that anxious first day and immediately noticed poor, sad Sherman. Lawrence went right to the donkey, sniffed him all over, and then lay down at his feet. He stayed there all night.
By the end of the following day, Sherman was walking and then eating with his new friend. Before long he was even running. He was going to live - and more than that, he was going to thrive in his new community.
Of course, I got to find out that Sherman was going to be ok in a matter of minutes, but the lesson from this story could not be more clear to me: waiting is best done with a friend.
I have always tried to do all my serious waiting alone, fighting my twitchy anxiety under the cover of darkness. I have not wanted to be accompanied in my darkness, choosing instead to withdraw or to be reactive in such a way that keeps others at a distance. I have not wanted to need someone to really sit with me in hope. But that is exactly what I do need.
Someone to just sit with me in hope.
At the end of all our waiting, God says, comes new life. This is the Advent story. And it can be my story, too, if I will but believe. Whatever my worry, even dread, I do not need to live in that place alone.
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
We're eating our big Thanksgiving meal today, so I'm headed to the kitchen to cook. Meanwhile, here's some fiddle music. Enjoy! (This is from A Prairie Home Companion last week. Chris Thile, Stuart Duncan, Chris Eldridge, Greg Garrison, and Roy Wooten, play a medley of fiddle tunes — "Brushy Fork of John's Creek," "Angelina Baker," and "The Mason's Apron")
Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
I'm going to two (count 'em!) Celebrations of New Ministry (i.e., installation of a new rector) this week, which reminded me of this 6th century mosaic in the Basilica of Sant' Apollinare in Classe (near Ravenna, Italy). Presiding over the altar is Melchisedek, along with Abel on the left and Abraham/Isaac on the right. The hand of God directs all things from the heavens.
Melchizedek was, in Genesis 14:18, the "King of Salem" and "Priest of the Most High God" who offered bread and wine to Abraham as he was returning from battle after defeating four kings. The early Roman Christian church referred to this as a Eucharistic offering.
Melchizedek is also mentioned in Psalm 110 and in the Letter to the Hebrews.
O God, you unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other's toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP 134)
In my Bible study class, we have been reading from the Old Testament prophets. It’s is pretty tough stuff, filled with images of unrelenting warfare, destruction and desolation; stories of people streaming away from smoking cities, seeking refuge; of people being rounded up and led away into exile, with hooks around their necks. Amid all this, the prophets were engaged with an existential question: If God is on our side, then why was the the center of our life together (the Temple) destroyed and God’s people scattered or taken captive?
Various prophets voice various “reasons” for the destruction. Some cite wrongful worship: You have bowed down to idols, they say, and have been unfaithful to your God. Others cite political maneuverings: You put your trust in, and made alliances with, Egypt or Assyria instead of trusting your God. Still others point to injustice in society: your leaders push aside the people they are supposed to be caring for to get to the food and water first; and you yourselves, like heedless animals going to the river to drink, thoughtlessly foul everyone else’s water with your feet. You trample the poor and the needy and do not care for the widow and orphan or show hospitality to the alien in your land, and therefore God is turning the Divine face away from you, they say.
It’s a complicated mix of religion, politics, governance, and morality.
For me, this election season has been something of a parallel to my study. It’s felt like a long siege, rife with accusations, dire predictions, handwringing, and angry blaming. On occasion I have participated in all of the above, and on occasion I’ve just tried to keep my head down, hoping that once the election was over, the anger and fear would abate.
But it has not.
Many of us are not comfortable with this level is discord and wish to move past it quickly. We are polite Virginia Episcopalians and there’s a certain veneer under which we place our differences. But Tuesday’s election results made this perfectly clear: we the people are not united, and calls to national unity right now, while no doubt made in good faith, are like rushing to put a band-aid on a broken heart, like asking a still-shaking victim to gloss over abuse to make an abuser feel better. Some among us are truly grieving. And some among us - some of your own fellow parishioners who have gotten in touch with me and other staff here - feel unsafe and afraid, for themselves, their children, their friends. And some among us may be very surprised and frankly bewildered by the feelings of others. We do not all see things from the same vantage point and perhaps have not yet learned to truly hear one another.
But here we are in church together, listening for the word of God, wondering what are we called to now, as the people of God, in this divided nation?
Today Jesus says this: In times of upheaval, you will be given an opportunity to testify. And by your endurance, you will gain your soul.
This is a time for us to testify to our faith. And here is the testimony I believe we - you and I - are called to give, no matter which political side we are on: That God is love. That God says the outcast, the poor, the alien, the lost are precious. That we - you and I - denounce hateful language, bullying, threats, intimidation, bigotry of every kind, harassment, contempt, vandalism and violence. That we - you and I - stand up for the powerless and marginalized and take their situations seriously. And I mean that literally - if you see someone being talked to or treated badly, say something. But say it directly to the person who is being hateful, without resorting to hate yourself.
Testifying is not just about using words. We - you and I - are called to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick and imprisoned, to welcome the stranger. We are called to work for their welfare as well as our own. We may have to think pretty hard, and get way outside our comfort zones, to determine exactly who are neighbors are and how exactly we are needed to love them. We are called to sometimes actually go stand beside someone who needs protection - even to go out and find them so we can stand beside them, remembering that perhaps we do not know them and so need to develop relationship with them - and to teach our children to do so, too.
We always are called to do these things, of course. This is our work for life as followers of Jesus. But our testimony to and in the world as faithful witnesses of the Gospel is crucial now, in the wake of such obvious division. This is a time for the Church to be the Church - as a body and for us as individual Christians - and shine the light of Christ as brightly as we possibly can, by our words and our deeds. And by our endurance, we will gain our souls.
Most of the prophets spoke not only of destruction, but also of reconciliation and restoration. And of course eventually that’s what we all hope for. God is going to bring good out of chaos, in God’s time. Swords will be beaten into plowshares and we will not study war any more. God will return the people from captivity. There will be no more weeping or children born for calamity, and the people will live in peace. The vision of the new Jerusalem, where there is no more hurt or destruction, is a vision we desperately need to hold on to. God will have a beautiful new song for us to sing, some day, a song of delight to which even the rivers will clap their hands.
Some day. But right now, with God’s help, we the people of God together have work to do.
I first heard this song in 1968 by the folk rock band Spanky (Elaine McFarlane) and Our Gang on their album "Like to Get to Know You." It was a long time before I heard Leonard Cohen sing it himself.
The Our Gang recording was an interesting and more layered production, and it's always the one I think of when I think of the song (you always do that, don't you? remember the way you heard or saw something first), but in the end, it feels right to post Cohen singing it himself at the Isle of Wight, his first tour.
My favorite verse is the second one:
And Jesus was a sailor When he walked upon the water And he spent a long time watching From his lonely wooden tower And when he knew for certain Only drowning men could see him He said, "All men will be sailors then Until the sea shall free them" But he himself was broken Long before the sky would open Forsaken, almost human He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone And you want to travel with him And you want to travel blind And you think maybe you'll trust him For he's touched your perfect body with his mind.
Cohen died this week at the age of 82. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.
Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United States in the election of officials and representatives; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage: We humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favor and glad to do thy will. Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to thy law, we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP 820)
Today we celebrated the Feast of All Saints' and baptized twelve children between two services. At the later service, I was the celebrant and we invited all the children in the congregation who wanted to come help me bless the water in our beautiful new font. As you can see, there was a big crowd (eight were baptized at this service) yet was plenty of room all around!
This little guy was pretty excited about the water, so I tipped him toward the bowl and he immediately put his hand in.
What a joy to welcome these little ones into the household of God. And no better day to do that than All Saints' Sunday! Thanks to our communications director, Sarah Bartenstein, for the photos!
P.S. To those who worry about our celebrating on November 6, we also held a service on
November 1, which, in our parish, is a service held especially for those who have had a death in their family or among their friends during the past year. It is a contemplative, candle lit service during which all who wish to do so light a votive candle that is placed on the altar and remains there during the Eucharist, a visible sign of the great cloud of witnesses who surround the throne of God. Our Sunday All Saints' celebration is where we sing For All the Saints and baptize children.
Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.