Living into the covenant

Readings: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 and Mark 8:31-38

Sunday, Feb. 28

By Rev. Marguerite Sheehan

Have you ever heard the phrase, “the devil is in the details”? That phrase came to me this week when I was praying on the two texts that were given this morning; the ongoing conversation among Abraham and Sarah and God about what covenant God was entering into with them, and the ongoing conversations between Jesus and Peter about Jesus’s mission in the world. 

“The devil is in the details” is a phrase that “refers to the catch or mysterious element hidden in the details, meaning that something might seem simple to do at a first look, but will take more time and effort to complete than expected.”

From the book of Genesis, it seems as if this covenant with God is pretty simple. We heard about it last week, too. God agreed to not send a huge flood to the planet again. To remember that covenant, God tossed a rainbow into the sky reminding God (and us) about it. Sounds pretty simple, but as the story unravels, it gets more risky. This covenant turns out to be not one sided. God calls something forth from human beings and that something is not easy at all. 

God starts by promising not to not wipe out life. God also promises to produce nations —not from a rainbow in the sky, but from an old man and an old woman who will be blessed and give rise to generations of nations! Talk about the overwhelming responsibility that comes with the gift of parenting. Being on the receiving end of God’s promise turns out to be costly. 

The story reminds me of the tender sign we have outside our church. It reads, “Kindness is a road we can all walk on.” It sounds pretty simple. . . until you encounter your own unhappiness with people and the last thing you want to do is be kind. We can all walk on the kindness road, but we have to decide to do the hard work of kindness. That is the detail hidden in the message. 

In come Peter and the disciples, who were pretty happy to tag-team with Jesus. No problem tossing away the fishing nets. Pretty fun, really, traipsing over the countryside with the up-and-coming Messiah. Pretty cool watching him cure the blind and talk back to the Pharisees. It all sounds a lot like rainbows and kind roads. 

But today Jesus gives the details of what is going to happen to him and to us. Claiming our identity as followers — if each one of us, one by one, wants to be his follower — it is going to cost us everything. The new covenant that Jesus is always talking about is not simple or one sided: Love the world as I love you; love your enemies; give your life to receive life. 

Peter stopped listening after the words, “suffered and be killed.” So afraid of facing the pain, he missed the rest of the story, including the “rising again.” This happens to me, too. I hear something distressing and my mind goes wonky and I am not able to hear the rest of what that person is trying to tell me about his or her story. 

“Get behind me, Satan,” might mean also mean, “The devil is in the details.” Jesus rebuked Peter by saying, in effect, “Are you are ashamed of me? Maybe you are not ready to face what I am facing. Maybe you should fall behind me and watch and listen and learn what the details are.” 

Lent is 40 days long for a reason. Abraham and Sarah needed to hear God tell them over and over again about what this life-changing covenant would mean for them. Sometimes they stepped up. Sometimes they messed up. The disciples gave their lives watching Jesus talk the talk and walk the walk. We have to pay attention to these stories — not as though they are just old-time religion, but as teachings directed to each of us. 

During Lent we ask each other pesky questions like, “What do you need to give over when you say ‘yes’ to God? What do I need to give over to be faithful?” We have a huge suitcase set up under the cross [in our sanctuary] to hold our burdens. It can also hold our rebukes and our “no thanks.” 

Lent is a time of reflection and discernment. Are we willing to sign onto this covenant of belonging to God, not knowing the details until we bump against them? Can we accept that our lives, when disconnected from God and our neighbors, is not worth a hill of beans? 

Abram got his named changed to Abraham. Sarai became Sarah. Simon became Peter. They lost what used to define them when they agreed to accept God’s claim on them. 

Abram and Sarai and Simon Peter and all the generations to come, right down to us today, are scared to death when faced with the choice to let God claim us as God’s own, but really, as Jesus so starkly says today, “What will it profit. . .to gain the whole world and forfeit [your] soul?” 

How tender it is to know that God is intent on offering life to every single being. The cost is outrageous, as Jesus confessed. But what a difference it makes when we put our hands in the hand of the One who is walking ahead of us, the One who turns to look back to us and says, “Drop your burdens. Pick up your life. Give it all to me.”

Amen 

A Big Enough Suitcase

Readings: Genesis 9:8-17 and Mark 1:9-15

Feb. 21, 2021

By Rev. Marguerite Sheehan

I love the seasons — winter and spring and summer and fall. Each gives me an opportunity to see and be in the world. I also love the seasons of the church — Advent and Christmastide, Epiphany and Lent and Eastertide and Pentecost and Ordinary Time. These “churchy” ways of marking time help me to see where I am on or falling off the Way of Jesus. 

Our Lenten devotional had a sweet reflection for the first day of Lent. There was a picture of a hiker wearing a backpack and starting off on a trek. The chosen text was from the Gospel of Mar:”  “See I am sending my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way.” 

The author said this: “The Gospel of Mark begins with a call to prepare, but this preparation looks different than the kind we are used to. Often our preparations begin with loading up – packing for a trip, shopping back-to-school sales, or cramming for a test, but this is not the sort of preparation the gospel calls us today. Instead this preparation looks a lot like shedding – shedding what we think we know, confessing our shortcomings and owning up to what we have and haven’t done. We shed and shed until we are capable of a wild indifference (which is different from apathy), releasing our personal agendas and letting go of hoped-for outcomes until we feel quite bare. There, in that stripped down state, with empty hands, we are ready and open to receive Christ.” 

The author ended with prayer: “God, take what you must from me until I am unburdened and therefore ready to receive what you have for me. Amen.”

Did you see that our Lenten wooden cross is back? Every year we bring it out to help us see that we are being taken through suffering on to a resurrected life. Last year at the start of the pandemic, I set out a small backpack under the cross and invited everyone who was even then worshipping from home to fill that backpack with disappointments and anxieties, expectations, and agendas, so we could, as they say in 12-step programs, “let go and let God” in. 

It was a long year. We shed and shed and shed and here we are again. I was dismayed and delighted to read the first Lenten message this year about the need to again shed our stuff, but I get the message and I know you do, too. 

The world has suffered and is still suffering. Clearly, we needed something larger than a little backpack, so this year I brought out a pretty big suitcase and am once again inviting you to drop your burdens. Don’t worry, it is large enough to take everything. Drop them at the foot of the cross. At the end of Lent, if you want to pick them up, they will be here for you, but maybe by then you will be ready to move on, a little emptier and a little more open. 

In our time and day it seems like even the sky has opened and emptied. The whole world, including Jesus and us, is being given visions of God’s presence deep and rich enough to keep us steadily moving through the pandemic. Think now just for a moment of the kinds of shedding you’re seeing in these times of pandemic and natural disasters – unexpected and random or planned acts of generosity in the midst of loss. The sky is no longer the limit to how much we can shed and spread around. 

Back in the day Noah and his family survived the flood, but survival is not enough. God wants more for us and so placed a rainbow in the clouds as a reminder of a heavenly covenant where God continues, in every season, to be steadfast with every living creature. Noah’s family lost just about everything, but the flood, devastating as it was for the world, was not the end of the story. It was the beginning of a new season where they would have more chances to be renewed. 

The sky is no longer a limit. When Jesus was coming from the Jordan, he saw the heavens split open and the Spirit named him Beloved. This vision lasted but a moment and that very Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness where he shed everything except the vision of the rent-open sky and the trust that whatever was going to happen, he was held in God’s steady presence. 

Jesus stayed in the wilderness for 40 days, the same amount of days (plus Sundays) that we walk and pray through Lent. He hungered and was tired. He encountered wild beasts and temptations and the Devil itself. But Mark’s Gospel also tells us that angels cared for Jesus, maybe holding him in his fears or whispering in his ear, helping him shed what he did not need for his journey. 

If you feel swamped like Noah, or in a wilderness like Jesus, or dismayed that here we are again, still in the pandemic, or if you are standing at the start of your Lenten journey ready to drop whatever is weighing you down, remember this: God knows our suffering and has made a covenant with every living creature to bear with us, to take what we have done and not done and to make us new. This is more than a good winter-to-spring cleaning. It is a complete overhaul. 

So friends, during these 40-plus days use your time well. Open your hearts and minds and join me in filling this suitcase. Put your trust in God, who has no intention of leaving us. Look to the rainbows around our church and in the sky and remember what Peter said last week: “It is good to be here with you.” 

Amen

Give Yourself to Love  

Readings: 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 and Mark 9:2-9

Feb. 14, 2021 

By Rev. Marguerite Sheehan

Peter, who never shied away from speaking, said, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here.” I agree with Peter. It is good for us to be here. 

Have I talked enough in the past few week about the gifts our church is receiving from the greater community? Gifts of light and love and prayer that are helping us walk faithfully together through this pandemic time. 

We have received and continue to receive financial gifts from community members who want to help us keep our free Friday night community meal going. 

Just about every week, this week included, we receive gifts of song and music from members and friends who are singing at home and want us to join in. 

Last week we received a gift of a visit from our United Methodist Church District Superintendent Rev. Megan Stowe who joined us in Zoom at our annual meeting. Megan blessed us with an opening prayer and stayed with us as a testimony to our connection with a greater body of churches. 

This morning, along with the gift of music and scripture, we also received a prayer that I want to share as part of my reflection. It was written by Rev. Rachel Fraumann from way up in Barre, VT. Here is Rachel’s prayer. It is called “Transfigured,” but it may also be called “Transformed by Love,” the Love to which we are instructed to give our whole selves.


Transfigured
 
Beloved God,
Here I am —
Your Child.
 
Am I Beloved?
The days are long
The months are short
 
What am I to say?
To pray?
I am terrified.
 
Well, sometimes.
Sometimes I’m just bored.
Often I’m overwhelmed.
 
Am I Beloved?
Even when I can’t handle it anymore?
Even when I wish I could escape it all?
 
Emotions rage, to-do lists totter.
They tell us to be still.
I am restless.
 
I believe!
Help my unbelief!
Transform me!
 
So that I can rest in You.
And know that You are God.
My refuge and strength.
 
I hear your voice:
 
“Beloved little one,
You are enough.
Peace. Be still.
Know that I am God.
Know that there is nothing you can do
Or not do
To separate yourself from being
My Beloved Child.”


Today is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany. From now on we will be walking through 40 days of Lent, a church season where we stand in the bright light of God to let that Light convict, comfort, and transform. Today we witness Jesus transfigured, shining with light, a light that reminds me of the first light we heard about on Jan. 6, the Epiphany, the star that directed the Magi in their trek to find the infant King. We began and end Epiphany with light. 

Rachel’s prayer anticipates the Epiphany to Lenten move from the mountain to the cross to the empty tomb. 

“Beloved little one, you are enough. Peace. Be still. Know that I am your God. Know that there is nothing you can do, or not do, to separate yourself from being my Beloved Child.” 

Nancy and Julie sang, “You must give yourselves to love, if love is what you’re after.”  Even if, like Peter, we are afraid. Even if we are confused, as the early Christians were in Corinth, when the Gospel seemed veiled and inaccessible. And even when we, with the rest of the people in our country, are struggling to hang together while being deliberately torn apart. Even when we think that we cannot handle it anymore and we want to hunker down in a winterized tent.  

It is good to look back to what comes before the story that we are offered. Today our Gospel says, “six days later” Jesus took the trio up the mountain. Well, what happened six days before? Six days before, Jesus gave the disciples a terribly hard teaching, that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priest and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked him because who really wanted to follow a Messiah that is going to undergo such suffering? Isn’t that like giving your all to a loser? 

Six days later, here is Jesus showing who he is in all his glory, maybe so the disciples could hold that light as a comfort and strength on their walk down the mountain and into the hands of those who will do what Jesus predicted.  

Jesus gave his disciples a vision so they could remember the why of it all. 

Why he came to be with them. Why they were going forward with him. The “why and what for” of the whole of life. The why we heard about in the song today, so that we can give ourselves to Love. Because Love is what we are after. As Nancy, when she told me the song she wanted to sing, said “I thought it would be good for Valentine’s Day. And Jesus is all about Love as far as I’m concerned!”

We are after Love and Divine Love is after us, calling us out, showing us who we are, with all our hopes, foibles, and failures. Not to shame us, because “there is nothing you can do or not do to separate yourself from God,” but so that we can say, “Here we are, beloved children of God, standing on the receiving end of Grace.” 

Thank you, God, for this beloved community. Thank you for gifts of stories and teachings and presence, for comfort and conviction and a vision of how we can live as the beloved community in the middle of pandemics and politics and transitions. Thank you for helping us claim that Love is what we are after and to testify that love comes with courageous truth-telling and reconciliation. 

Jesus is all about Love. 

Amen 

Five minutes of peace 

Readings: Psalm 146:1-11, 20c and Mark 1:29-39

Feb. 7, 2021

By Rev. Marguerite Sheehan

It is good to remember that the Gospel messages have been passed down from generation to generation and worldwide, not in a dry and static form, but alive and still speaking. 

It is good to remember this because then it makes sense when hearing the stories that we might more easily picture ourselves on the scene. Like today, are you there with tired Jesus getting up early in the morning so he can have a secluded place to pray and be restored? 

Jesus reminds me of so many young parents I know who are confined to their homes with children whom, of course, they dearly love, but demand attention 24/7. Those stay-at-home children and stay-at-home moms and dads are hungry for what one children’s book calls “5 Minutes Peace!” As in, please, give me 5 minutes of peace! Thank you, Jesus, for scooting away from your dear disciples for a little while. You give us permission to seek a place and a time to pray, even if it is only for 5 minutes a day. 

Can you find yourself also with Jesus the day before his quick break in the desert, when he went with his new followers to the home of Simon Peter? Do you wish that you could do that too? Go off to a friend’s home maybe for a cup of coffee or a home-cooked meal? In this pandemic many, if not most, of us miss being in each other’s homes. 

When you heard of Peter’s mother-in-law (first of all, who knew that Peter was married, and second of all, what was his mother-in-law’s name? I wish those women were named!), when you heard she was sick with a fever, who did you think of? Part of our being here today is to pray that every sick person we know, with or without a fever, feels the presence of Christ at their bedside encouraging them, taking them by the hand, comforting them through and beyond their illnesses. 

The story goes on to say, “And the whole city was gathered around the door.” In other words, everyone witnessing Jesus at work thought of themselves and their loved ones and brought them into the circle of love and healing and community. 

I trust that what we are doing today — many of us alone or with one or two precious family members — is not just watching at the door of the church but fully participating in a circle of love and healing and community. We want to be up-close and intimate. We cannot yet do that, but in new ways like YouTube and Zoom we can seek and find an experience with him and each other. In worship. In an annual meeting. We can enter the “house” and lend a hand the way Jesus does.  

Mark says after a long day of healing and casting out demons and being a fully present Presence for the people Jesus rose in the dark of early morning and went to a deserted place where he could be, as one translator says, “alone in prayer.” 

I think that Mark or Mark’s translator got that one wrong, or maybe Mark got it right and what I am hearing now is the space between “alone in prayer” and “Simon and those with him hunted him down.” 

Jesus was always being pursued, from the days before he was born when Herod sent out the search party to kill him throughout the rest of his life. Even Simon Peter is hunting Jesus down today, but here is what I hear, in the space between going off to pray and being found. 

Jesus, linked in that miraculous and mysterious relationship with God, was never truly alone. When he was tired or active in the village. When he was preaching. When he was sleeping. When he was sad and joyful, sorrowful, and determined, hungry, and lonely. He was never alone and he was certainly not alone in prayer.  

We are not alone. That is the message, the Good News, that Jesus came to proclaim. The truth that God is with and within us, on the sick bed and in the deserts of life, with company and when we get a moment of solitude, in a worldwide pandemic and in good times. “The kingdom of God has come near.” Now is a good a time to pray and re-look at what we think is going on around us and focus our attention on the healing, strengthening, and sustaining Presence of God. 

I am enjoying thinking this morning that Peter’s mother-in-law is with us as we ready ourselves for communion this morning. Maybe she will serve the meal! 

I love knowing I am not alone presiding at the communion table. You are home and breaking the bread and I trust that our being together today is an ordinary and extra-ordinary time of healing where we now will have 5 minutes of peace with Jesus. Thanks be to God. 

Amen 

Free at last    

Readings: Psalm 111 and Mark 1:21-28 

Jan. 31, 2021

By Rev. Marguerite Sheehan

​​​​​​​

“Awe of God is the beginning of wisdom.  I will praise God forever.” 


Is awe the same as amazement? Like in the Gospel today, when the people in the synagogue “were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this?’”  


Is awe the same as being astounded? 


“They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” 


I don’t know if awe and amazement and astounding are the same thing, but I do know that these powerful reactions were signs of wisdom coming to Capernaum. Maybe in our hearing today we can catch something of that wisdom. Something of Jesus. I have already heard some of that this morning in my listening to Brook sing “Amazing Grace.” 


When was the last time you were stood in awe in the presence of God? Was it during worship? Or watching the snow falling, one perfect flake after another? When you were playing with your children or grandchildren and you saw who they were becoming? When the bells tolled last week? When you sat in silence as a loved one took their last breath? 


Awe, amazement, being astounded almost always comes in an experience of being caught by surprise. No one at the temple in Capernaum was more surprised to witness Jesus teaching than the man with the unclean spirit. There he was, sitting on his bench along with everyone else, expecting that the day’s Torah reading would be like every other one he had heard. He expected that he would sit there, in his pain and suffering. Maybe he was feeling lucky that he was allowed in the building given his condition. And then Jesus got up and started teaching and everything changed because the man recognized who Jesus was. 


“I know who  you are! You are the Holy One of God! What have you to do with us? Are you coming to destroy us?” Notice that the man speaks for us. “What are you going to do with us?”


I imagine the man with the unclean spirit was shouting frequently. That is what Spirit, clean or unclean does. It gets a person hollering. Jesus did what everyone else did when the man called out. He told him to be silent. Hush. And then, because surely Jesus is not afraid of whatever calls him out, he released the man. “And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.” 

Mark says the bystanders said, “What is this? A new teaching?” The unclean and overwhelmed man said something entirely different. “I know who you are! You are the Holy One of God!” 


This morning I am thinking about what it is like when you are truly seen by someone and when you truly see someone. When you know whose you are. What an awesome thing that is. 


When my three grandchildren were born it amazed and astounded me to see each one come into the world. Suddenly, there in front of me was a totally new creature who I loved on first sight! At each birth, this little song of love and awe came out of my mouth. “Who are you? Where did you come from? Who are you? How did you get here? Who are you, what did you come to teach us?”  

When we are seen, as the man with the unclean spirit was seen — and when we see another person for who they are, a Holy One of God — we stand in awe.


Imagine this man, seen and healed now, standing in the synagogue. Whatever had possessed him, or twisted him up inside, or held him captive, this spirit obeyed Jesus and departed, leaving the man free at last. In the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we celebrated this month,  “Free at last. Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I am free at last!” 


I see the freed man running up to Jesus and dancing around him. I see him saying, “I don’t know where you came from, but I know you. What can you teach me? I am yours!” 


That is what we are talking about today. When you — and this is true for all of us — when you see who Jesus is and when you let him see you with all your hurts and shortcomings, with everything horrible spewing out of your mouth because you are such a wreck, and you fall totally and absolutely in love. All you want to do is follow behind this Holy One of God. Even when you know now that something in you needs to be destroyed so something new can live.


Life is horrible for many of us. We are sad and fearful and missing our loved ones. Some of us are terribly sick and all of us are sick and tired. In comes the One of God who loves us dearly and is not afraid, who is ready to free us of what holds us back, who is talking with authority because he is speaking his own mind which we believe is the mind of God. 


This is our story. God is here. Seeing us. Loving us. Freeing us. Like the freed man in the story, we get to walk out from this worship service. Where will you go now that you know that your spirit has been freed? Thank God Almighty, free at last! 


Amen  


Christmas Returns

Readings: Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 2:1-20

Dec. 24, 2020

By Rev. Marguerite Sheehan

Merry Christmas, everyone! What a joy it is to be here with you and to imagine each of you this evening wherever you are celebrating this night and tomorrow morning. Merry Christmas! Rejoice tonight! Emmanuel. . .God is with us. 

Because the ongoing pandemic has had us worshipping virtually since March, this has been the most unexpected year and this must be the most unusual Christmas Eve in our collective history, unless you stop and think about the dark night long ago when Mary and Joseph saw Jesus for the first time. That event of that night was totally ordinary, a child pushing his way into the world,  and a most unexpected gift; hope for the world which, in those dark days and these dark days, was hard to find. 

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.” 

That Holy Night is why we are here tonight. To remember the darkness and the bright light of hope that came as a guiding force for the family, some shepherds, their animals, and the onlookers who came bearing their troubles and wonderment. Tonight we are remembering and honoring the darkness and the light. Remembering both darkness and light brings us together and oh, we need to be together now. 

We come together on this Holy Night acknowledging first of all what what and who are not here. There is not the fun of crowding into the church on Christmas Eve. There are no crowds on this night, or our traditional Christmas choir. There are no kids of all ages dressed up and carrying Baby Jesus out to the stable. There is no passing of the light down the pews.

And then (because this is not just another night, it is, after all, Christmas Eve) we also rejoice in what and who are here front and center — the Christ Child, who in his birth and life brought heaven and earth and all of us back together. 

Our rejoicing tonight is because Jesus came into the world long ago and because Christmas returns every year with an assurance that life itself is a gift and is good, even if it is often painfully hard. If there ever was a night to give thanks for the good gift of life itself, this is it. 

Listen now to Reverend Howard Thurman’s Christmas Eve blessing: 

Christmas returns, as it always does, with its assurance that life is good.
It is the time of lift to the spirit,
When the mind feels its way into the commonplace,
And senses the wonder of simple things: an evergreen tree,
Familiar carols, merry laughter.
It is the time of illumination,
When candles burn, and old dreams
Find their youth again.
It is the time of pause,
When forgotten joys come back to mind, and past dedications renew their claim.
It is the time of harvest for the heart,
When faith reaches out to mantle all high endeavor,
And love whispers its magic word to everything that breathes.
Christmas returns, as it always does, with its assurance that life is good.

Tonight wherever you are, I urge you to pause and to allow all your joys to come to mind and your spirit to lift in this wondrous story and in the common places where Christ is lodged. 

Lodged not just in a long-ago Bible story or out in the stable on Severance Street, but in the common beauty of our human life, starting with ways you are already reaching out in loving care to your neighbors, showing up at someone’s house with cookies or a meal, calling someone shut in even more than you are, Zoom calling with grandchildren or friends, asking for and giving forgiveness. 

Long before that first Christmas Eve, the creation story tells us that after breathing life into every single thing, God declared it to be very good. And so it is tonight. God is with us as we bring our lamentations and joys into the Light that continues to heal and guide us, whispering, “Love came down at Christmas, Love, all lovely, Love divine.”  

I am pausing tonight to rejoice for the gift of Nancy Parland and her family, who are gracing us with song. For Keith, who is making that old organ sing! For Brook, who every week is here filming our services. For the shepherds and animals who trekked from Winterberry Farm to be with us in the cold. For the Porter family, lighting the Advent candles. And for all the candles, those already lit and those that will soon be lit. Your hopes and dreams for the world. Pause now, on Christmas Eve and believe that the gift of life is good. 

Merry Christmas Eve! Come and bring out your own candle, whether it lights with a match or with a battery. Raise your voice in song so this night will ring out. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. Glory to God in the highest heaven and peace on earth. 

Amen 

A Divine Love Story   

Readings: Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26 and Luke 1: 26-38

Dec. 20, 2020

By Rev. Marguerite Sheehan

Here we are at the last Sunday in Advent and a few days before Christmas Eve. We have been walking together these past weeks companioned by hope and peace and joy and now we are coming close to the end and hearing about love. As Paul said, “and the greatest of these is love.” 

The Christmas story is in many ways a radical (meaning “at the root”) Divine Love story that is embodied not only in Mary and Jesus, but also in all of us. If we hear this just as a sweet story about a teenaged girl from long ago who was visited by an angel, the story stays a story, something we tell our children but do not take seriously because it’s about them and long ago not about us and now. But if we hear this as a true story, meaning a story that touches the deep truths of our lives, if this story actually rings true for us, it is because we have found our place in the story. 

Here is a prayer I received this week from Rev. Steve Garnaas-Holmes. It was a help for me in finding my way through the Advent and Christmas story and I want to share it with you. 

If Christ is to be born
it will not be in a manger:
that was long ago.
Now it will be in you.
You yourself: be Christ;
bear love into this world.
Dare to believe
that what is holy
may be conceived in you;
that the eternal Word
may be made flesh
in your flesh.
All God intends
is that love be embodied,
and you, child—you
are called to bear this love
into the world.
With Mary, say Yes
to the divine in you.

Can you hear Mary’s story now a little differently? Here comes the angel or, if you prefer, the messenger, or someone knocking on the door of her life. The messenger says, “Hail Mary! Greetings Favored One! Guess what? The Lord is with you! The Lord is not only knocking on your door, but the Lord also wants to be with you and in you!” 

No wonder Mary was perplexed and wondering what kind of greeting that was. My guess is that she was in the least skeptical and maybe suspicious. I bet she was thinking what every young person I know would be thinking: “You have got to be kidding. What is so special about me that God wants to be with me? How can I bear this divine child? I can hardly bear myself.” Before Mary could say “yes,” she had to first say or at least think, “You have got to be kidding.” 

Put yourself, just for a moment, in Mary’s place. Imagine a messenger coming to your door and telling you that God wants above everything else to be with you. You! What would you say? How long, if ever, would it take for you to say, “yes”? What kind of excuses would you come up with? I am too old, I am not good enough, I am or am not a virgin. I am too tired or too scared or too skeptical or just not up for this. What would bring you from “no” to “yes”? 

If the greatest of these is love, it must be true that what God wants from each of us is to bear love, to risk doing the hard work of loving and being faithful not just to a story but also to Love itself. God desires us to be as steadfast and faithful in our loving as Mary and Jesus and Joseph and Elizabeth were after their own first incredulous reactions.

Our love affair with God and, by extension, with the world is a powerful thing. It helps us be more than we can be alone. When we say “yes” to God we become as Mary would become, “heavy with child.” As everyone who has ever mothered or fathered or in any other way taken full responsibility of caring for and about another person knows, when you say “yes” and bear this Divine kind of over-the-top and give-all-you-have kind of love, your life is magnified. Which, of course, is what happened to Mary and Joseph and all the disciples who grew to love Jesus right up to and past his death. Nothing stays the same when we give ourselves to Love. 

“If Christ is to be born, it will not be in a manger; that was long ago.” 

Maybe this wonderful story about waiting for Jesus to be born was passed down in this way not because it is word-for-word true but because it speaks truth. 

Our Fourth Sunday in Advent message is this: dare to believe that what is holy may be conceived in you, in your family, in your church, or community; in your flesh and bones. All that God intends is that love be embodied. 

What a wonderful message in this year when we are so concerned about our bodies and the body of the world. It is true. God is with us, even now. . .especially now. God is over-the-top, steadfast love. And you, child, you are called to bear this love. 

Amen  

Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord

Dec. 13, 2020  

Readings: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 and John 1:6-8, 18, 28 

By Rev. Marguerite Sheehan

Those of you who were with us last Sunday might be scratching your head and saying, “Didn’t we hear that Gospel last week?”  

It is like the game some of us played as children called “telephone.” A group of kids gets together. One person tells the next person a story or part of a story. Then that person retells the story to the next person and on and on again until it finally gets back to the first storyteller. What he/she hears sounds something like the initial telling, but often there are big changes, some of them funny and others radically different. 

Last week we heard Mark talking about John the Baptist. Mark sounded pretty certain that any minute Jesus was going to return in person to the planet. He was convinced that people needed to wake up and stay awake so they did not miss Jesus’s arrival. The Gospel according to John talks about John the Baptist, too. John is not so focused on Jesus’s coming back in his Jesus form. His story says that what is coming is a Light so brilliant it could change your life forever. 

Here we are thousands of years after Jesus walked the Earth and we are still re-telling this story, even if sometimes the Light is so bright we don’t know what we are seeing, like the people surrounding John did not see or know who Jesus was even when he was standing right there in the water with them. We are still singing the songs of Advent and Christmas. We are still waiting for something good to happen in this weary world. We don’t always see the light shining bright. 

One hymn writer put it this way: “What is the crying at Jordan?/Who hears, O God, the prophecy?/Dark is the season, dark our hearts/and shut to mystery.”

Maybe you are having trouble with this whole story, even when hearing it twice. Maybe you are like the friend who confessed, “I am not great at seeing you, Jesus. I need you to see and reach out to me!” 

There is something refreshing about that confession. It sounds like John the Baptizer’s testimony. John knew who he was not and who he was not. He did not try to be more than he was, but he also did not shirk from testifying to the Light that had overwhelmed him and would soon overshadow him. 

One of my favorite reminders about being who we are is a prayer by the Quaker Isaac Penington: “Be no more than God hath made thee. Give over thine own willing, give over thine own running; give over thine own desiring to know or to be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart and let that grow in thee, and breathe in thee, and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that and will lead it to the inheritance of life.”  

During Advent we are preparing to meet the Light of Christ through the stories of John the Baptist and the infant Jesus and in our own anticipation or resistance or skepticism. Advent says God finds us in our wilderness, darkness, or grief, or in an amazing peace, hope, or joy.  Advent does not just look at Jesus, Advent also looks at who we are and what in us needs to die so that we can receive this Light. 

This week I heard about a re-telling of this Gospel that I missed when I was 21 years old and making my way out to the big world.  It’s the musical “Godspell.” In the Gospel according to “Godspell,” John the Baptist is found where he is always found, in the water and calling — or in this case, singing  — “Prepare ye the Way of the Lord, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Prepare ye the way of the Lord!”  

The response of the people is to run toward John while tossing off whatever piece of clothing or of their history that had been holding them back from sinking down in the water or, as Penington describes it, the seed that God plants in them to be who they were meant to be. I looked at a clip from “Godspell” this week and there were John’s followers, singing and dancing and splashing in the water, as joyful as John the Baptist must have been, a voice calling out for other people to see the Light of Love. 

We are not living in a musical, but we are three quarters of the way to Christmas. Then again, who is counting? I am using this week to pray on what I need to give up, what race to stop running so that I might see the Light of Life in all of you and in me, too. 

“From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.” 

This Sunday is about rejoicing, expressing a deep joy in knowing that we are loved. The message is this: Be no more than God hath made thee and rejoice in that gift. 

Can you hear John calling out, “Drop everything on the shore. Look who is with us! Look who loves us! It is the Light we have been waiting for! Rejoice!”

This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice — even in our sorrow and unknowing — let us rejoice and be glad in it – not glad for it but in it! 

Amen