On Pandemics, Rollercoasters, and God…

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Photo credit: https://theinconstantmuse.com/2016/07/27/rollercoaster-ride/

One of the habits this pandemic has cultivated is thriving in survivalist mode:  dealing with the thing in front of you, then moving to the next, until all the “things” are done.  This requires shelving one’s emotions for another time because they get in the way of what needs to be done.  This kind of operating can be intoxicating because there is a rush that comes from accomplishing things when times are hard – acknowledging that despite how hard things are, you are still being productive and useful.  It can be a useful skill, but a habit that cannot be sustained long-term.

Nowhere have I felt that reality more than in this last week.  In the course of one single week I conducted a funeral for a one-month old infant, I joyfully celebrated the baptism of two life-giving children (one infant and one preschooler), I received the shocking news that my beloved barre and yoga studio would be closing in 24 hours (a place that has been a source of joy, friendship, and health for five years), our family entered into quarantine as we finally succumbed to COVID (we’re all fully vaccinated and boosted), which involved postponing countless major and minor events at church, and finally, learned that a dear friend who is younger than we are was gravely ill from long COVID.  It was not until the end of the week, when COVID finally slowed me down that I realized what a rollercoaster of a week it had been emotionally.

Truth be told, the life of a pastor is regularly a rollercoaster like this.  I frequently have back-to-back meetings:  one for a couple preparing for marriage and one for someone facing divorce.  I can have back-to-back visits:  one for a family with a newborn and one for someone on Hospice.  Even Holy Week has Good Friday and Easter Sunday within days of each other.  Emotional whiplash is a regular occurrence in this field.  But in some ways, the disadvantage of this pandemic is that we all seem to be living in a constant emotional rollercoaster.  You may have read my litany of the last week and thought, “Seems like a typical week in COVID!” 

My prayer for all of us during this rollercoaster of a time is that we be tender with one another.  When we hear good or hard news, remember there are a lot of other things going on in the background – family who cannot be there, conflict among neighbors, or even happy news that seems inappropriately timed.  But especially remember to be tender with yourself.  If you need to congratulate yourself for just surviving and being productive, do it.  If you need to wallow or cry, do it.  And in case you cannot feel it or have lost touch with your relationship with God, remember God is with you in the midst of it all, being more tender with us than we could ever be to ourselves or others.  My prayer is that you feel God’s presence this week.

Sermon – Isaiah 43.1-7, Luke 3.15-17, 21-22, EP1, YC, January 16, 2022

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A couple of weeks ago, despite months of planning, I was not sure today would happen.  Of course, we would celebrate the feast of Jesus’ baptism regardless of whether we were gathered in person or online, but I really wanted all the things that come with an in-person baptism – babies crying the middle of sermons, moms and dads rhythmically bouncing their children to soothe them during the service, crayons scattered wherever children find themselves in the worship space.  But most of all, I love having the congregation’s children gather around the font, eyes fixed on the pouring of water, clutching onto the sacred items we have asked them to hold, nervously giggling as they wait for the big moment of their friends’ baptism.  Their energy is reflected by the adults in the space but seeing that energy up close is invigorating.

But then, we suspended physically gathered worship, and everything shifted.  We had choices in front of us, and after much prayer and discernment, the baptismal family decided to gather their small family without the enthusiasm of the whole congregation physically present.  Not until I read today’s Old Testament lesson did I appreciate the parallels in our collective journey to this day.  You see, Isaiah has been prophesying to a people in exile.  The sinful generations of Israel have led to their own demise, and they now sit in Babylon in despair, recognizing their failings, feeling isolated from everything familiar, wondering if they will ever find God’s favor again.  Though we have not been exiled from our land, this pandemic has created our own exile of sorts.  Our weary hearts long for good news.

Into these twin exiles in Babylon and in pandemic, God speaks words of redemption, belonging, and hope.  “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine,” God says.  “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned…For I am the Lord your God…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”  These words from God are a balm to the people of God.  But each of those promises are not only for the nation of God.  Those “you”s are accompanied by the second-person-singular verb forms, as one scholar explains, “as if speaking to each member of the community.”[i]  I will be with youYou are mine.  You are precious and honored.  I love you.

That is what we do in baptism.  Although baptism is a communal event – whether, like in Luke’s gospel, as Jesus stands in a line of people to be baptized along with them, or whether we gather in some hybrid form of in-person and online worship – even though baptism is necessarily communal, baptism is also about the promises to a unique child of God:  who belongs to God, with whom God is present, and who is loved.  We hear echoes of God’s blessing from Isaiah in Jesus’ baptism, when God says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  The Church claims the same for Reed and Zenora today – “You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”[ii]  Although Reed is old enough to hear and understand this blessing, we as a community, with Zenora’s parents and godparents, promise today to keep reminding Zenora of her identity as a child of God, whom God protects, to whom she belongs, and who is deeply loved and honored.  In truth, we all need that reminder, especially during these dark times.  That is why we will all reaffirm our baptismal covenant in just a few moments – so that we might reclaim our baptismal identity and receive again the charge of our call. 

This service today is not just a day of blessing for Reed, Zenora, and all of us gathered in hybrid worship.  Today’s baptisms are also a commission.  As one pastor writes, “Luke uses very few words to share with us the baptism of our Lord.  But those few words lead us to very deep wellsprings of joy in the faithful ministry.  To identify with all people, to depend upon God in prayer for the strength to live and to love, and to hear the affirmation of your God as the source of your calling and purpose in life are the most enduring joys of life.  Theses are the blessing of our life together in Christ as the church.”[iii]  Our invitation today is to take this pivotal moment for Zenora and Reed, to receive the reminder of your own beloved status, and then to go back out into the world with a reenergized sense of purpose and renewal.  God says powerful words to us today.  I love you.  Our work this week is to say the same to a hurting world.  I love you.  Amen.


[i] Kathleen M. O’Connor, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 219.

[ii] Robert M. Brearley, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 240.

[iii] Brearley, 240.

On Feeling the Love…

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Photo credit: https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/valentine-s-day-the-politics-of-saying-i-love-you-1.3777525

I grew up in a loving household, so I am not really sure where I picked up this particular sentiment.  But for as long as I can remember, I have not really been comfortable saying the words “I love you,” to just anybody.  I would sign cards, “Love,” or “Much Love,” or maybe throw around the casual, “Love ya!”  But somehow those three words seemed big and perhaps reserved only very special people.  There is an intentionality in those three words that made me feel uncomfortable or even too vulnerable.  As someone who can be a little emotionally guarded because of my profession, those three words evoke an intimacy that sends off warning bells.  And I am not sure I am alone in this sentiment.  There was even a movie called, I Love You, Man!  As if adding the word “man” qualifies the three words enough to not make them too intimate. 

But in the last couple of years, and certainly during this pandemic, this sentiment has started to shift.  I found after a long, hard phone call, where a friend and I bore our souls about how hard this pandemic has been, the words just came out of my mouth.  My immediate instinct was a little panic about how vulnerable those words felt.  But when the friend said the words back, a shift began.  The lesson was reiterated in a pastoral visit with an aging parishioner who was approaching the end of life.  After a long talk, I allowed the three words to escape my mouth again.  The returning “I love you too,” made me realize skirting around the words, “I love you,” has been an unnecessary, and perhaps false, act of denying the truth of our relationships.  No matter how much I try to protect myself, the very act of being a pastor means entering into, and sometimes offering one-sided, relationships of love.  The acts of Jesus were often shocking because he vulnerably offered love to all.

This Sunday, we will celebrate two baptisms at church.  It will be a day full of love, even in these restricted times when most of our parishioners will have to join online.  But as I prepare for Sunday, I am especially struck by our lesson from Isaiah,[i] which offers words of consolation to a suffering people.  In verse four, God says to God’s people, “…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” We have lots of images of God rolling around in our minds and hearts, but these are some of the most intimate, affirming ones I have read of late.  And I really needed to hear them.  Perhaps you need them today too.  If so, they are my gift to you.  And if you need to hear them aloud, join us on Sunday for online worship.  There will be plenty of love to go around!


[i] Isaiah 43.1-7

Sermon – Isaiah 60.1-6, Matthew 2.1-12, EP, YC, January 9, 2022

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About a month ago, we were gathered for Youth Group, and the activity was assigning parts for the Epiphany pageant.  When we started, no one was particularly excited about the exercise, many committing to reading the parts for the night but not necessarily to performing the parts at church.  By the time we were done, youth were repeatedly asking when they should plan to be in church for the pageant, where they would get costumes, and when to schedule the dress rehearsal so they could coordinate the rehearsal with their other sports practices and commitments.  Their sparks of enthusiasm release a glint of hope in me:  maybe, after almost two years, with vaccinations for kids 5 and up, and with masking, maybe we would be able to finally have our beloved Epiphany Pageant.  And over the Christmas season, hope bloomed in my heart.

And then, five days ago, everything came apart at the seams.  We moved not along a spectrum of restrictive options, but completely shut down gathered worship altogether.  And although we have survived shutdowns before – even thrived in them – this one, on the Feast of Epiphany, is hard.  A day that is designated for the last of our Christmas celebrations instead feels like a day to recognize we are not yet done with this pandemic.  Instead of marveling at gifts and epiphanies, we feel like we are sitting in ashes.

I think that is why, even though we are celebrating the epiphany that occurs when the magi arrive in Matthew’s gospel, I am instead drawn to our lesson from Isaiah.  To understand why, we need to remember the context of this Isaiah lesson.  The lesson is a lesson proclaiming the favor of Jerusalem.  The lesson claims that although darkness covers the earth, nations shall come to Jerusalem, bearing gifts, and wealth, and abundance.  Maybe none of that sounds too remarkable – Jerusalem has always been the favored city of God.  But here’s what we might not realize about this passage of favor and blessing.  This passage is written to the exiles from Judah as they wait in Babylon.  As one scholar explains, “In the middle of the sixth century before Christ, things seem as dark as they have ever been, with little left to sustain the hopes of the Judeans.  They are exiled from their land; the temple has been destroyed; and the dynasty of David has come to disastrous end.” But, Isaiah says, “…the poverty and shame of exile will be overcome when all the wealth of the world pours into Zion and the city of exiles becomes a light to the nations.  Isaiah bids the people, ‘Arise, shine; for your light has come.’” [i]

We know all too well the darkness of exile.  If anything, this pandemic has been an exile of sorts – an exile from the physical plant of our church, an exile from family and friends, an exile from a way of life we probably never fully appreciated.  Into this darkness, Isaiah dares speak to the people a word of light:  not just the promise of the presence of light, but an instruction to be light.  “Arise, shine,” Isaiah says.  “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.  Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you…you shall see and be radiant.”[ii] 

On this feast of the Epiphany, the first revelation of God to the Gentiles (the Gentiles being those magi that come from another land to see the Christ Child), we do not get to watch our children reenact the epiphanous moments of Christ’s birth narratives.  But maybe this year that is okay.  Because the story of the magi is not a story about sitting back and watching.  The story of the magi, as Isaiah reminds us, is not about observation but about participation.  This year, the question to us is not just how the magi or the exiles of Judah are epiphanies, but as Karoline Lewis asks, “how are we epiphanies of God’s glory?”[iii] 

When Isaiah says, “Arise, shine…be radiant,” our question and invitation is to consider how we can be radiant epiphanies of God’s glory in a time of darkness for our communities.  We mourn the lack of our youth and our children not being here to lead us in a pageant not because they are endearing, but because they model for us what embodying God’s light means.  The pageant is a physical reminder of the embodiment of faith we are invited into every day.  And without the pageant today, we lean into Isaiah who does not give us a free pass.  Even as we gather across the internet, we are invited to be light, to shine, to be radiant in the communities around us: to our families who maybe we’re a little tired of spending time with, to our neighbors who despite proximity may feel deeply alone, and to the weary world around us who needs Christ’s light more than ever.  And Isaiah reminds us we do not have to make light – the glory of the Lord has risen upon us already.  Our invitation is to not cover the light, but to let God’s light shine through us – to be radiant for others.  Maybe as nations come to our light, we might be able to lift up our eyes and look around and see the radiance they see in us.  Arise, my loves.  Shine.  For your light has come.  Amen.


[i] Kendra G. Hotz, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 196.

[ii] Isaiah 60.1, 3-5.

[iii] Karoline Lewis, “Sermon Brainwave #822:  Epiphany of Our Lord – January 6, 2022,” January 3, 2022, as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/822-day-of-epiphany-jan-6-2022 on January 8, 2022.

Sermon – Matthew 2.13-23, C2, YC, January 2, 2022

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Today is a very weird day for us scripturally and liturgically.  Even though there are two Sundays appointed for Christmastide, we rarely get to enjoy both because the feast of Epiphany, which falls on January 6, usually gets substituted for the Second Sunday of Christmas.  This year because we get to celebrate the second Sunday of Christmas, we go from Christmas celebrations on Christmas Eve and last Sunday, to the flight to Egypt this week – which takes place after the magi arrive.  And next week, we will go backwards to hear about the magi’s arrival which happens before this week’s lesson.  Like I said, today is super weird.

But the timing is not the only weird feature of today.  The structure of the Episcopal lectionary varies from the Revised Common Lection today and cuts out verses 16-18 of the second chapter of Matthew.  Now, normally, cutting out a few verses is not that big of a deal, but today cutting out verses is a huge deal.  We go from learning that Joseph has a dream warning him to flee to Egypt because Herod wants to destroy the baby Jesus (because the magi arrived and told him a baby has been born king of the Jews – and Herod is not interested in anyone taking power from him), to Herod dying and Joseph receiving another dream in Egypt telling him to go back home to Israel with his wife and baby Jesus.  But in those three omitted verses is an atrocity so mind blowing, I can only surmise the lectionary crafters eliminated the verses because they thought we would be too distracted by the atrocity.  In those three verses, Herod realizes he has been tricked by the magi, and so he sends his men to kill every male child under the age of two in Bethlehem to make sure a new king does not arise.  In essence, Herod is so determined to keep his power that he kills about twenty infants and toddlers[i] to secure his leadership.

But the weirdness does not stop there today.  This text is laden with meaning and parallelism.  Joseph is spoken to in dreams which causes him to safely journey to and from Egypt.  Another Joseph – the son of Jacob and great-grandson of Abraham with the coat of many colors – he had dreams too that led to his bondage in Egypt at first, but eventually to his security and power in Egypt when he interprets dreams for the pharaoh.  So, we hear a parallel story of two Josephs.  We also hear a parallel story of Moses and Jesus.  As one scholar explains, “At Jesus’ birth, violent forces seek his life, just as violent forces had sought the life of Moses.”[ii]  If you remember, the reason Moses was raised in the security of Pharaoh’s home was because Pharaoh’s daughter found Moses in a papyrus basket floating down the river – floating away because Pharaoh had ordered every male Hebrew child be killed because the Hebrews were becoming too numerous and he feared losing his power.  In essence, Jesus’ and Moses’ stories track one another – Jesus is the “Son of God and the expected prophet like Moses who will deliver Israel through a new exodus.”[iii]

Here’s the thing about the weirdness today.  We do not really want weirdness right now.  We are still in the twelve days of Christmas, and we want babies, and angels, and mom’s pondering, and dad’s standing righteously, and shepherds praising and marveling, and magi adoring the Christ Child.  In part, we want the sentimental comfort and joy of Christmas because our lives are running short on comfort and joy lately.  In fact, the wave of the Omicron variant is pressing upon us, and in a time when we thought we would be moving toward freedom, we are making a U-turn toward oppressive restrictions.  We have enough turbulence, terror, and violence in today’s world – the last thing we want to do is read about that mess (and more accurately, that repeated mess!) today in church.

But here’s where we find hope.  Matthew may lay out murder and fleeing and the continuation of a violence and oppression.  But as Dean Culpepper reminds us, “Matthew dares to see things as they are and still affirm that God is working, even in the worst that we can do.”[iv]  Today is not about glossing over the mess of this world.  Today is about naming the mess of this world and still being able to see God at work, doing something as radical as sending the Christ Child to us.  That is the real joy of Christmas this year.  “Nothing can defeat God’s promise of Immanuel, God with us.  Even when we cannot celebrate peace on earth…we can celebrate Immanuel, …the love of God and the promise of peace.”[v]  And that promise is better than any glossed over, sentimental wishes of a Merry Christmas.  That promise is weird, but tremendously good news, indeed.  Amen.


[i] R. Alan Culpepper, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 167.

[ii] Culpepper, 169.

[iii] Culpepper, 169.

[iv] Culpepper, 169.

[v] Culpepper, 169.

Sermon – Luke 2.1-20, CE, YC, December 24, 2021

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Church on Christmas Eve is always a funny thing.  For years, I scoured the stores for matching dresses for our girls.  I served in churches where people would sport tuxedos and fur coats for the night’s services.  Family pictures were regularly taken by the Christmas tree – either at home or at church.  Quite frankly, I was a little relieved when I became a priest and never had to worry about a new outfit because no one would see the outfit under my vestments anyway.  And then the pandemic hit.  Last year, we had to watch Christmas from home – maybe in matching pajamas, but more likely just in a pair of jeans or sweats.  A year later, we are all out of the habit of dressing for public, and, if you are here at Hickory Neck, you know jeans are just as acceptable as that fancy dress or jacket in the back of your closet or that some of you are fabulously sporting tonight. 

I am not really sure where the notion of dressing up for Christmas came from, except maybe an older tradition of always dressing up for church.  But nothing about our Christmas story screams high fashion.  Mary and Joseph are traveling to Bethlehem under order of the oppressive government and are likely in traveling clothes, dirty and weary from the road.  Mary also gives birth this night, so her body is likely sweaty and soiled.  Meanwhile, her child is not in a matching layette, but in bands of cloth.  Both are likely an exhausted mess.  And the shepherds who later come visit are likely not to fresh-smelling themselves, probably in their most utilitarian clothing for tending to sheep in the dark cold of night.

And yet, in these most basic settings, the privilege of the miraculous happens.  Mary births not just an ordinary baby, but the Christ Child – the Messiah – as Isaiah says, the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  Meanwhile, not only does an angel appear in the blinding glory of God, but also a whole multitude of the heavenly host shows up.  All to ordinary people, dressed in ordinary garb, going about doing ordinary things.  But as scholar Sarah Henrich says, “Heaven and earth meet in obscure places, not in the halls of power.”[i] 

This week I read about such a meeting of the heavenly and earthly in the Washington Post.  In November 2020, Kim Morton was sitting at home with her daughter watching a movie in Baltimore County, Maryland, when her neighbor sent her text telling her to look outside.  Her neighbor, Matt Riggs, had hung a string of Christmas lights all the way across the street from his house to hers, as he explained, to brighten Kim’s world and to show her that they were always connected, despite the isolation the pandemic had created.  Kim had been struggling with anxiety and depression, had lost a loved one, had a lot of work stress, and had started experiencing panic attacks.  Matt knew her pain himself, and so decided they both needed a reminder that they are not alone in their pain. 

But here’s the funny thing about Matt and Kim’s story.  The neighbors saw what Matt did, and they wanted in too.  Neighbors across the street from one another started talking and said, “Let’s do it too!”  Slowly, but surely, neighbors started reaching out to one another with expressions of connection, love, and quite literally, light.  By the time Christmas arrived, 75% of the neighbors had joined in with strings of light crossing the entire drive.  And this year, in November 2021, the whole neighborhood held a house-to-house light hanging party.  Kim, the initial recipient of the lights said, “It made me look up, literally and figuratively, above all the things that were dragging me down.  It was light, pushing back the darkness.”[ii]

Matt and Kim’s story did not happen in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, or even New York City.  Their story happened in a little neighborhood, outside of Baltimore, that no one had heard of until the Washington Post came along.  And although Matt and Kim never mention Jesus, the truth is that heaven and earth met in an obscure place, shining connection, love, and light.  This Christmas, the ordinary, earthy setting of Bethlehem and the shepherd fields are reminders – reminders that we can have all the fancy bow ties and heels we want, but more often, we will see and experience the sacred in the ordinary moments where Jesus shows up and offers us love.  The birth of the Christ Child tonight is a reminder that we, like ordinary shepherds can be used to be sharers of the Good News in tiny, ordinary ways – ways that show Christ’s love and light, and in ways that help us experience sacred connection with our neighbors.  Amen.


[i] Sarah Henrich, “Commentary on Luke 2:1-14 [15-20],” December 24, 2021, as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christmas-eve-nativity-of-our-lord/commentary-on-luke-21-14-15-20-20 on December 22, 2021. 

[ii] Sydney Page, “A man strung Christmas lights from his home to his neighbor’s to support her. The whole community followed,” Washington Post, December 21, 2021.

On Merry, Messy Christmases…

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Photo credit: https://myharvestchurch.ca/messy-christmas/

Christmas as a pastor is not really like Christmas for most people.  Just ask any preacher’s kid.  While their peers are taking long road trips, fun vacations, or at least doing fun activities like making gingerbread houses, going to the movies, or baking cookies, the fun in a pastor’s home does not really begin in earnest until all the church services are done – and after a requisite nap for said pastor. 

But that is just surface stuff.  The harder part for clergy is holding in tension the reality of Christmas.  The secular world would have you believe Christmas means perfectly decorated trees stuffed with tons of perfect presents, hearths dressed in elaborate greenery, family traditions that always bring joy, and gatherings around meals with people who are happy to be together. 

But clergy are the ones who hear throughout Advent about those dealing with health crises, those struggling with the pending death of a loved one, those whose marriages are crumbling, those struggling to make ends meet, and those who are in the fog of depression and anxiety.  Clergy are also the ones who celebrate weddings, the births of babies, the good grade on an exam, the new relationships or reconciled family member, and the unbounded joy of a child waiting to open gifts.  The juxtaposition of the messy, horribleness of life and the joyful, abundance of life is never sharper than at Christmas – where societal and personal expectations are high, and where reality never reaches perfection. 

The irony, though, is that the actual Christmas story is just about that – a juxtaposition of messy horribleness and joyful abundance:  where governments are oppressing the poor financially, where pregnancies are scandalous, where birthing rooms are inadequate; all while the poor receive good news, where the lowly birth the mighty, and where community and goodness is shared among strangers.  This year, still slogging through a long season of pandemic and political strife, I pray that you might see the Christmas story clear-eyed – taking off the rose-colored glasses, and seeing with fresh eyes the messy, ugly, beautiful story of Christmas.  Christmas blessings my friends!  I see you, I love you, and more importantly, so does Jesus.

Sermon – Luke 1:39-55, A4, YC, December 19, 2021

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A couple of years ago, I had the occasion to take a long walk with a mentor and friend.  I do not really remember what we talked about, except that our conversation was mostly about life, family, and vocation.  I remember she said something to me that was so profound, her words took my breath away and I stuttered in my steps.  But the funny thing was, she did not say anything new.  In fact, her words started with that classic line, “So what I hear you saying is…”  She simply reflected my own words back to me in a way I couldn’t hear them myself.  She held up a mirror to me and in that mirror I saw my truth in a way I could not have seen alone.

Although much of this day liturgically is about Mary, I find myself strangely drawn to Elizabeth this year.  We know a few things about Elizabeth.  She was a descendent of Aaron, which means her lineage is part of the priestly line in Judaism.  Her husband, Zechariah, is also a priest, but more of an ordinary village priest, not one of the priests based in Jerusalem.[i]  Elizabeth is a part of Aaron’s priestly line in her own right.  We also know when Elizabeth’s husband is told she will bear a child, he does not initially believe – and because of that is struck mute for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.  On the other hand, Elizabeth responds to her pregnancy with a profession of God’s favor for her.  And because Zechariah is mute, Elizabeth does the blessing and prophesying when Mary shows up.  As scholars Levine and Witherington tell us, “Elizabeth’s cry is both exultation and prophecy: ‘Blessed are you among women.’”[ii]

Sometimes I think we get lost in the reality of these two pregnancies and do not hear all of what is being said.  There have been countless artistic renderings of these two pregnant women.  And of course, the identity of who is in these wombs is important to the message of the Luke’s gospel.  But sometimes I think the presence of pregnant bellies is distraction to the other thing Elizabeth is preaching.  Pregnant bellies are at times a source of grief for those who long to carry a child but cannot; are at times a source of lost identity – because all people and artists see are the growing bellies and not the person carrying the child; and are at times a source of oppression and loss of power – especially for those, like Elizabeth who have been barren, and those like Mary who are pregnant way before societal expectations dictate. 

But here’s what we miss when our minds only see pregnant bellies.  As scholars point out, “Mary is blessed not simply because she is pregnant with an extraordinary child; Mary herself is blessed, and so she is more than simply a womb…Mary is blessed not simply because she conceived, but because she ‘believed’ – she trusted – that the ancient prophesies would be fulfilled.”[iii]  Elizabeth does what my mentor did so many years ago, and holds up a mirror to Mary.  Sure, Elizabeth confirms the words of the Angel Gabriel[iv], and prophesies Mary’s child will be, but she also looks deeply at Mary and says, “Look.  Look what you did.  You said yes.  You believed this tremendously impossible thing God told you and you said yes.  Blessed are you for your willingness to believe and say yes.”

What I love about The Visitation is the way we have access to Elizabeth’s here at Hickory Neck every Sunday.  I think one of the things we missed when we shut down churches during the pandemic was that reality – having access to an Elizabeth each week who somehow could see you, could reflect back what you shared in time after church over coffee or breakfast, or who had the ability to name faith in you – those times when you believed and trusted in God, even if in the moment, you had very little trust.  That is the gift of church every week – gathering with a group of people who you may not otherwise encounter in the world out there, getting to know their stories, and sharing the truth of God’s sacred activity in each other’s lives.  That is what Mary and Elizabeth give to each other: “…community and connection.”  As one scholar explains, “God removes their isolation and helps them to understand themselves more fully as part of something larger than their individual destinies.  Together they are known more fully, and begin to see more clearly, than they do as individuals.”[v]  Certainly we can experience faith alone – yes, even on the golf course occasionally.  And we can definitely experience church online, sharing our comments, prayers, and praises in the comments (something we do not even always even do in church).  But we also distinctly experience the incarnate God through other incarnate people – those people made in the image of God, whom the Holy Spirit uses to speak truth, and through whose bodies we witness truth, grace, and love.  May we all know Elizabeth’s this week as we walk toward the manger in awe and wonder and trust.  Amen.


[i] Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington, III, The Gospel of Luke: New Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2018), 26.

[ii] Levine and Witherington, 38.

[iii] Levine and Witherington, 38-39.

[iv] Stephen A. Cooper, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1  (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 93.

[v] Michael S. Bennett, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1  (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 94.

Sermon – Malachi 3.1-4, A2, YC, December 5, 2021

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The professional choir at the parish I served as a curate would perform Handel’s Messiah every Advent season in preparation for Christmas.  I remember my first Advent the Rector told me about the performance with excitement and anticipation, and all I could remember thinking was, “Oh goodness!  Do I have to go??”  Do not get me wrong, I love Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus as much as anyone, but that piece is only about three-four minutes long and is only half-way into the three hours of singing that Handel’s Messiah takes

Music is a funny thing in Advent.  Most people I know do not really love Advent music.  Unlike familiar, comforting, endearing Christmas carols, Advent hymns are “discordant, unsung, and unpopular in many congregations.”[i]  I have known choir members whose skin crawls from Advent music, and I imagine many of you are here today because the idea of a whole service dedicated to Advent Lessons and Carols which we will hear at 10:00 am sounds like torture. 

The problem might be that Advent music is not as catchy as Christmas music.  But I think there is a deeper truth to our distaste of Advent music – the music of Advent points to the themes of Advent:  of apocalyptic demands to be alert, doing acts of righteousness to be right with God; of judgment so stringent to be compared to a refiner’s fire and fullers’ soap; of needing to bear fruit worthy of repentance so as not to be chopped down and thrown into the fire; and of bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly.  None of that is quite as catchy as a holly, jolly Christmas.

Perhaps the issue is that Advent music tries to do the same thing scripture does.  In 1741, Handel wrote to a friend of his masterpiece Messiah, “‘I should be sorry if I only entertained them.  I wished to make them better.’  The composer challenges [us] to go beyond feeling good to doing good.”[ii]  The same was true for Malachi.  Malachi brings good news of a messenger coming to prepare the way of the Lord and that we will be purified enough that our offerings will be pleasing to the Lord as they once were before.  But Malachi also reveals the fearful questions of the people.  “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”  These are just two of the twenty-two questions in the fifty-five verses of Malachi.[iii]  But they are questions we all ask if we are paying attention during Advent.

I remember when I was pregnant with my first child, women poured pregnancy stories over me.  There was a camaraderie the stories built, the state of our friendship altered because we were now going to share something we had not before.  But what I always noticed about those stories is whenever I expressed my nervousness about labor, their eyes darted away, and they made wistful promises about how anything resembling pain would be forgotten.  The more their warm countenances shifted to wary, twitchiness, the more I suspected labor would be a painful reality.

The same is true for the infant we will welcome once again on December 24th.  As much as “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” as much as we sing of “Silent Nights,” and as much as we dream of “Joy to the World,” that celebration comes with a price – the price of preparation, of messengers making the way for joy, of fire burning away all that corrupts us.  Advent is not about entertaining us, but, much like Handel hoped, is to make us just and better, so that we might be right with God when that infant is placed in the arms of the Church.  Advent is for Malachis, for Zechariahs, the father of that coming messenger, and for you and for me.  And although we may feel like we have been refined enough to last a lifetime in this last year and a half, the refining God is doing now in each of us means, as one scholar assures, we will “be re-formed in God’s image, and [that re-forming] will be good.  No matter how we feel about it now.  No matter what we may be afraid of now.  When we are refined and purified as God promises, it will be good.”[iv]  As much as we may dread that awful music or loathe those heavy, foreboding stories of Advent, we do so together, knowing that we are being refined tougher, so that, together as a community, we will welcome the Christ Child with open, ready arms.  Amen.


[i] Deborah A. Block, “Pastoral Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1  (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 30.

[ii] Block, 30.

[iii] Block, 26.

[iv] Seth Moland-Kovash, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1  (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 31.

On Solitude, Gratitude, and Advent…

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Photo credit: https://www.horizonviewhealth.com/favorite-autumn-walks/

This Thanksgiving was a bit different for us.  Instead of making a drive, or having family come to us, the four of us had a quiet day punctuated by a traditional meal on the family China.  When I kept referring to Thanksgiving Dinner, even my children protested, “What’s the big deal – it’s just lunch!”  As an extrovert who has spent a lot of the last almost two years with these three other people, I felt a sense of absence for all the people with whom I have enjoyed this traditional day.  But as I watched my beloved introvert revel in the quiet, I began to see a peace among these four people who have come to deepen our trust and love for one another during this pandemic (even if that love is sometimes expressed in short tempers and bickering). 

I suspect we were not alone in our “new normal” Thanksgiving.  Many people from our church community had similar arrangements – couples who stayed home, four neighbors who came together in their “aloneness,” singletons who found joy over Zoom calls.  Even those who gathered in smaller groups commented on the quietness of the day – and a kind of gratitude that can only come from scarcity – scarcity of community, of gathering, of all things normal. 

For me, it was the perfect way to segue into Advent, a similar season of hushed quietness.  As the world whirls around us, we pull back, quietly preparing our homes, knowing the uncertainty of these times, and being grateful for every moment of comfort in this season of waiting.  That’s why I enjoy the Advent practice called “AdventWord.” – a visual way to meditate on a daily word throughout Advent.  It gives me a chance to scroll back through old pictures or turn my gaze to the world around me and snap something anew.  It is a solo, quiet practice that stirs creativity, gratitude, and hope.

What are you doing this Advent to set time apart?  How are you struggling to set time apart?  Maybe you can only find literal moments of peace.  Maybe you can squeeze out a half hour a day.  Maybe you can daily confess your desire for such a practice to the God who sees you in all your commitments.  Whatever you do this Advent, know that you have the support and love of a community who sees you too, and holds on to a desire for peace and comfort for you in this season.