This sermon was only preached at the 8:00 am service, as our Bishop delivered the sermon at our 10:00 am service on Sunday.
Today marks fifty years of ministry by St. Margaret’s in Plainview. On this day we remember our very rough beginnings at the Plainview American Legion Hall – a place where we often had to clean up empty beer bottles and ash trays before worship. We remember the many people who have come in and out of lives and the ways in which they have made our ministry and life together richer. We remember the pastoral leadership of the parish, and the ways in which each priest challenged and comforted us. And we remember our own journey here – what brought us to this place, the ways that we connected, the ministries that we joined, and the reasons why we stay. We take all these memories and we together say, “Thanks be to God for all that has been.”
Earlier this week, the bishop visited with our Vestry to talk about the work we are currently doing in Plainview. We shared with him our new initiatives in outreach – the ways that we have adopted local families in need, the food we grew this summer in our Garden of Eatin’ to feed our neighbors, and the sandwiches we make with our interfaith brothers and sisters to feed those who do not know from where the next meal will come. We shared with the bishop our evangelism efforts – our new website, blog, and Facebook page. We talked about our efforts to spread the word about St. Margaret’s in our community – our mailings, signage, community presence at events, and even our challenge to get off campus more. And we also shared with the bishop our ministry to spiritually feed everyone who comes through our doors – through education programs for adults and children, for spiritual offerings here and off campus, and through prayer and pastoral ministries. The bishop was pleased with our efforts to reach beyond our walls and to find community partners in the process. Together, we all said, “Thanks be to God for all that is.”
But the bishop did not let us off so easily. He reminded us that we still had work to do. He reminded us that this community is a largely un-churched community – full of people who have fallen away from the church or who have never known church. He also reminded us that our mission field is not just in Plainview. Our mission field is also in every place that each parishioner lives. We are all agents of sharing the good news of Christ Jesus, and that our work more about welcoming people into a relationship with Christ than to grow the church. The bishop also reminded us that there are still potential partnerships available to us. There are ways that we can feed our current ministries through partnering with others, and we should not shy away from that work. In many ways, I understood the bishop to be saying, “You have already made some great changes and are thinking outside of the box. Now, keep making changes and keep thinking outside of the box. Your work is not yet done.” And so, with the bishop, together we prayed, “Thanks be to God for all that is yet to come.”
In many ways, I see parallels between what we are doing today and what is happening in our Gospel lesson today. We are looking back, looking at today, and dreaming about tomorrow. John the Baptist is in a similar situation. As he sits in his cold jail cell, he thinks back to the prophets of old – of Isaiah who proclaimed that there would be one crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” He recalls all that was said about the coming of a Messiah, and what the people of God could expect from the Messiah. As he thinks about this rich past, he also looks at the current time. He remembers how Jesus comes to be baptized by him, and how John feels unworthy to tie the thong of his sandal, let alone baptize him. He begins to feel that his prayers have been answered, and God is finally acting in human history. But he also feels those cold floors, those shackles on his limbs, and the permanence of those prison bars. Is he mistaken? Is Jesus not the Messiah? If Jesus is the Messiah, surely his messenger, John, would not be sitting in this cell. Perhaps there is more waiting in John’s future – perhaps the time is yet to come.
I have been thinking a lot this week about John’s jail experience and the many other prophets we know who have spent time imprisoned. Of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who just a few months before the Nazis hanged him wrote, “Who am I?” Though he eventually wrote, “Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine,”[i] I imagine Bonhoeffer could relate to John the Baptist’s prison questioning. I also think about Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, or Martin Luther King, Junior in the United States who all sat in confinement fighting for a world ruled by equity and justice. Though we admire them, surely they had dark nights of the soul during that time. That is the funny thing about expectations though. When things do not work out as we planned, we sometimes wonder whether God is acting at all. John surely wondered whether God was present in Jesus. Dietrich, Nelson, Aung San, and Martin must have wondered whether they were on the right track too.
I am sure that sitting in a jail cell leads one to wonder and dream about the future. But when John inquires of Jesus what the future holds, all Jesus says is to look around. He does not give John definite answers. He simply points him toward the movement of the Holy Spirit all around him. In some ways, as we look at the next fifty years we could also wonder about where we are going. We too could wonder if the changes we are making are the right ones. We could wonder if God will come in and light a blazing fire that will spark a renewal of ministry and blessing in this place.
And so today, in the midst of celebration and anticipation, we are given the wonderful collect of third Advent. “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us…” We do not pray for reassurance, for confirmation, or for hope. Instead, we pray that God will come among us and stir things up. Now I do not know about you, but stirring things up is not exactly the reassurance I was hoping for today. It is not the “well done, good and faithful servant,” I might have wanted to hear on our 50th anniversary. But in some ways, I think this prayer is better. This prayer, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us,” is a prayer focused more on the future than the past. The prayer is our way of saying, “Okay, Lord. We have been good and faithful servants. Now, come among us and keep stirring our pot – because, as our bishop reminds us, our work is not yet done.” We ask God to stir us up – to give us a new fire, a new spark for the work Christ has given us to do. We know that in the stirring, we may come out looking differently than we expected. We know that in the stirring, we may find ourselves disoriented or even trying life together new ways. But we also know that in the stirring, the Holy Spirit moves in us to make us a better people for God. Today we are grateful for all that has been and all that is. And now we ask God to stir us up so that we can celebrate all that is to come. Amen.
[i] John P. Burgess, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 72.