The poet William Wordsworth once wrote:
“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come,
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy.”
I find resonance with that poem every time a hold an infant – there is a freshness, a vital new energy they bring that is, to me, irresistible. As others have put it, they have the dew of heaven fresh on their brow. Usually on this feast of our Lord’s baptism, we baptize such little ones, and we have several little ones in the parish, but in order to include family and God parents from far away, we will baptize them on several occasions in the coming months.
Nonetheless, this feast gives us the opportunity to consider again our own baptism and its meaning in our lives. That Wordsworth poem that I began with, continues on this way:
“Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy.
But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.”
What this poem captures for me is the sense that though we come into this world trailing clouds of glory, life in this world can gradually turn us and fade the memory of the God from whom we come. What happened to Jesus at his baptism, and what happens to us at ours is that the clouds of life in this world which may obscure our vision of the light from which we descended, are cracked open and the mystical reality of our connection to a loving God is remembered and reaffirmed, and we are touched by the Holy Spirit. Now if we are tiny babies when we are baptized the remembering and reaffirming happens in those who surround us on that day – our parents, our God-parent, our siblings, grand-parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and our family of faith in the congregation. And the Holy Spirit comes upon us and, I like to think, plants the seeds of spiritual gifts that with time and nurturing can bloom into talents and facets of our personalities that God will use for good in our world.
And it is plain – is it not – that the world needs people to be connected well to God? We simply have to look around to see that all sorts of evil and suffering spring up when people are not walking humbly with God. Now those of us who are go getters, who are people of action might get all fired up by this sort of talk. But we would do well to pause on this feast and to remember that when it comes to baptism – both Jesus’s baptism, and our own – baptism is not about what we are going to do to make the situation right again in the world – and indeed in our own lives- rather it is an acknowledgement that only God, working in us can make the situation right again. Baptism can make us fearless in accepting the fact that our world is severely bent by human sin, because baptism offers us a covenant with God who- unlike us – is stronger than that sin.
And that covenant is free gift to us. We don’t have to do anything but reach out and accept it. There are no prerequisites or entrance exams. All we need do is open our hearts to God’s grace who comes to us in Christ so we can be swept into God’s loving embrace. We don’t even need to understand the mystery of God’s incarnation in Christ – as if that would ever be fully possible – all we have to do is see that God loves the world and all people so much that God would want to come among us in human form. As a friend of mine says – even just the willingness to have willingness to believe works. In our first lesson the prophet Isaiah said the one who is coming among us in God’s name, or as God’s word, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” It is not our strength that God needs, but rather our willingness to put our trust in God’s promise to lead and guide us in the Spirit. And when we cannot muster up even a little willingness to believe, we can run here, and borrow some from the person in the next pew.
There is a wonderful story that Tom Long, a renowned preaching professor, tells about how faith is shared in community this way:
“Late one spring a former student came by Tom’s office for a cup of coffee. They chatted about this and that and then she said, “I have a secret to tell you.”
“What is it,” Tom Said.
“I’m pregnant, she said.
He was overjoyed. She and her husband had a seven-year-old daughter, and they had been trying since their daughter had been born to have another child, but had been unsuccessful and had finally given up. Now she was pregnant.
“That’s wonderful news,” Tom said
“We just got the test results and we know two things about our child. Our child will be a boy, and will have Down’s syndrome.”
Tom said that he knew she must be bruised reed and a dimly burning wick.
“I don’t know how we are going to handle it,” she said, “but we are trusting in God to help us.”
At Christmas that year a card and letter arrived in Tom’s mailbox from this former student, who wrote, “After nine long months of unmitigated discomfort, at four in the morning on August 18, I knew the magic moment had come. At last at 10:55 am, Timothy Andrew took his first breath and let out a hearty yell, he was whisked off to neo-natal intensive care where he spent the next three days before coming home. He’s strong, alert, beautiful. He has the sweetest disposition. He shatters daily our images of handicapped and special needs. He may need special help, but already he is no slouch in giving special love. We are blessed. Kate (that’s their 8 year old) is Tim’s champion. Hearing our concerns about how well Tim might be accepted by other kids, Kate informed the kids on our block, ‘My brother has Down’s syndrome and everybody’s going to play with him or else!’ One evening we overheard her talking to Tim: ‘I’m so glad you’re here, Timothy, I will always love you, I’ll never leave you, and I’ll always be nearby.’”
Don’t you just hear the echo of God’s words to Jesus at his baptism in the words of this little girl to her brother? These are words of love and hope and appreciation. God never stops loving us, hoping in us and appreciating us, even when our wicks burn low, or our bruised reed parts show. And when we lend and borrow that faith in community the mystical body of Christ, of which we are a part through our baptism, is built up.
Today we celebrate that God has given us the gift of a covenant in our baptism that can shape our lives for good, if we are willing daily to stay close to God, listen for guidance, and generously share our faith with those who need it. May it be so among us!
I want to end with some words from the 13th century mystic, Mechtild of Magdeburg. In one of her visions, God spoke to her about the covenant relationship between us and God. Mechtild wrote this:
“God said, ‘I am like a great magnet and you are like a needle, and I will draw you to myself’ That this God, no matter what mess we make of our lives, no matter how much we feel we have failed, nor will never make it, or God is far away – this Great Magnet – because we are made of the same essence of this Great Magnet – This Great Magnet, this Great God, will have us home.”
In the name of the Word alive among us, Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen+
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Repent is one of those words that might have an antiquated feel to it because it is not used very much in our common parlance. We are more apt to talk in terms of asking forgiveness, or being accountable. The English word repent and repentance as we find them in the New Testament are translations of the Greek word metanoia which is defined as “change in one’s way of life resulting from penitence or spiritual conversion.” So we can see repentance or metanoia does not have to be about wallowing in guilt, though guilt may need to be acknowledged and responsibility accepted. In the sense that John preaches it repentance is about being willing to let God turn us from one way we have been traveling, and lead us in a new way or on a new path – a way or path that leads to the wholeness of God’s realm of light.
Isaiah tells us that we will recognize the realm of God when we encounter it, because it will be a place where rifts, divides, wounds will be sutured, closed and healed. The question is, does the realm of God bring into being the healing Isaiah envisions, or does the experience of metanoia and the healing that comes with it make us aware that we have brushed up against the realm of God? My answer that question is yes- both are true at the same time!
If John’s call to the turn- around of metanoia can bring us up short for a moment and allow us space to stand back from our lives and see where we are off course and out of whack, then we can again decide to turn ourselves over to God who longs to lead us by another way. And my experience has been that when I do that, healing takes place. So the realm of God brushes up against me, and I don’t turn away, but seek God’s power in navigating, and healing begins. And as that healing takes root, I begin to recognize the harmony and wholeness of God’s realm popping up all around me. I wonder if it’s a case of more bubbling up of the realm of God, or a case of restored vision to recognize it. Again the answer is probably yes – both of the above intertwined and woven together!
As a community of faith, each Sunday we have made liturgical room for the experience of healing through the ministry of our healing team in the laying on of hands for healing which is offered in our side chapel each during the distribution of communion. It is a regular space and time we have set aside for anyone who wishes to pray with others for healing, for ourselves or others. This Advent, as we seek to heed John’s call to repentance, I want to propose that this space of the laying on of hands and prayers for healing can be a place of metanoia. Perhaps there is something on your heart that you feel called to repent of. Certainly the general confession during the service is a time to confess it in your heart and to receive the words of forgiveness in the absolutions that follows. And still further you could choose then to go for prayers of healing and wholeness with the member of the healing team after receiving communion. The power of asking another simply to pray with you as you prepare to amend your life should never be underestimated – if you try it, you will see what I mean.
Sometimes though the metanoia we need is not about a specific act we have committed what we need forgiveness for. It may be more subtle than that. It may be a way in which we are living our lives – our stance toward life. A very common stance many of us in this culture work from is the stance of rigid self- sufficiency. This manifests itself when we believe we can handle all of life’s stresses and demands ourselves. A major symptom of this stance is that we have trouble asking for help, even when we really need it, and when we do ask for help we feel anxious or guilty about it. If we recognize this or some other rigid way of being in the world that seems to bind us more than it lets us live joyfully, we could also be called to seek metanoia and reach out in trust of God’s ability to inspire, lead and even carry us each day. As I said before, it is amazing what grace God can work in our lives when we bring such repentance into prayer with another, asking God’s healing power to flow through our connection to one another.
So this Advent if you are in metanoia, asking God to lead you in a new way, to touch you with the power of that eternal realm of light, consider joining your prayers with those of one of the healing team members. And if you do not feel called to come forward for laying on of hands, you can still participate, by adding your silent prayers to those being raised by others who are in the side chapel. Metanoia is powerful in our individual lives and even tenfold when we join our prayers together in community. While it may feel a bit vulnerable or uncomfortable to pray for healing here, with someone else, in this public fashion, it allows us to tap into the power of being the body of Christ. We are more together than we are separately. There is a sacramental aspect to asking healing in Christ’s name, and so God works through our petitions for healing to encourage and strengthen each other’s trust in God.
How it works I do not know, but prayer changes things. In my experience, healing comes in many forms, and the grace that brings it into being works in ways I can not predict or imagine. But when it comes I recognize it. Prayer changes things. Prayers for metanoia and healing change things. They change the course of things; they amend us in our ways; they allow us to hear ourselves talk to God about the disease or brokenness we experience and the wholeness we envision – and hearing that changes things. Prayers for healing allow us to reframe, to be open to a different way of seeing the circumstances of life – sometimes it is our perspective that is healed. Prayers for metanoia and healing open us to God’s grace which is always there for us, no matter what.
In a lecture on healing that I once attended, Avery Brooke, an Episcopal lay woman who’s life work has been healing prayer, said “The person who lays hands on another for healing is like a fireman with a hose, but that person does not know which disease or brokenness God is aiming at. The person asking for prayer may present one thing for healing only to really need to be cured of another.”
May the fire-hose of grace douse us. May that grace lead us on a course that is turned more and more toward the wholeness of the realm of God. In the name of Christ. Amen+
This past week my sister and her family were with us for several days and we all had joyful coming together with our parents to celebrate around the Thanksgiving table. It took some doing to get my Dad from Country Center to my Mom’s assisted living center, where we shared the meal, but the effort worth it as we saw how happy it made them both to have us gathered around them. I hope that your celebrations brought you close to those you love also, in some way or another, and that those moments were blessed for you.
Well, as is often the case, these visits seem too brief, and before we knew it my sister and her family were packing up to head back home. Early morning flights meant they had to leave our house in their rental car in the wee hours of Saturday morning. We hugged goodbye on Friday evening, but I thought sure I would wake up when they began moving around and get up to see them off. I woke when it was still dark out, but my clock told me it was an hour past the time they were to leave, so I got fearing they had overslept, but in fact they were already gone. I could not believe I had slept so soundly as to miss three people gathering their belongings and leaving my house in the middle of the night!
This experience made me think of the way our second lesson this morning from Romans starts out – Paul writes, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” Clearly yesterday morning when I woke I was confused about what time it was. And maybe that is a good way to begin Advent, because in its themes and its timing Advent is about the experience of being disoriented and then reoriented by the mystical and unexpected movements of God.
Advent begins the New Year before the world expects it. A whole month before we are ready to flip the calendar to reveal a fresh New Year, Advent places us on day one of the new church year. Just as commercial world is ratcheting up for the Christmas shopping season, with full-on glitz and everyone’s favorite holiday songs playing on an endless loop, the season of Advent is beckoning us to slow down, and slip away to a quiet, shadowy place to do some deep listening as the light builds gradually on our advent wreaths. This spiritual focus of Advent is a real disconnect from the activities that are cranking up around me, and I consider that a good thing. It is not that the larger cultural festivities – the gift giving, the parties, the tree lightings, etc. – are bad things. It’s just that they are not the whole thing – not the full picture of what is going on, so they don’t really satisfy me in the end – I just keep feeling that there has to be more.
In a strange way this year, perhaps more than any other I can remember, I am in a place where I feel ready for this season of disorientation to begin. I think that is because I am already feeling that way. sa Some incidents which have taken place in the wake of the presidential election have felt disorienting to me. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League – to name just two prominent organizations that keep tabs on how our society is doing in protecting the human rights of all our citizens – both report large upticks in incidents of hate crimes and hate related speech in the weeks since the election. And the very sad part is that a good percentage of these incidents are happening in America’s schools. This was a real wake-up call for me! I literally was asleep to the fact that such ideology was still so prevalent in our country. I feel disoriented by this reality, but at least I am awake it now, and that is a good place to begin when figuring out how to respond to this new reality.
This week I was in attendance at an open meeting of the City of Newburyport’s Commission on Tolerance and Diversity. The meeting was called to be a place for Commission Members and members of the general public to come together to talk about responses to instances of hate speech in our community. This was brought on by several incidents of hate speech that have taken place in the Newburyport Public Schools. There have been swastika graffiti found, and at the High school there was an incident in which hate speech was used against a Muslim student by a fellow student. The attendance at this open meeting was good and I felt the meeting was a positive first step in helping our community figure out how to hold citizens accountable for unacceptable behavior, and the same time look for healing rather than further fracturing of our community.
At the close of the meeting, a Muslim friend of mine who had been in attendance told me that he felt the positive part of this situation is that these ideas and thoughts are now being shown, and not hidden. He made the point that if these ideas and thoughts are present but not expressed, they could not be publically called into question and addressed. He said he thinks it is much more dangerous when hateful ideas are not whispered in secret where they cannot be engaged. As painful as it is to hear such things being spoken he said, it nonetheless gives the community the chance to protect those who are vulnerable and to hold purveyors of hate accountable and to help them to grow in a new direction if they are willing.
In the Gospel lesson for today Jesus says,
“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Advent is the season that paradoxically makes us ready for what will be the unexpected hour of the Son of Man. That hour is coming each and every day in our interlocking communities of church, city, schools, family, state, diocese, nation, as we are enlisted to help unexpected good come out of situations that at first we think can only result in evil. And these daily occurrences are only foretastes of the eventual final coming of the Son of Man at the end of time, when as our first lesson from Isaiah envisions, all peoples will gather around God’s holy habitation and will know a time of peace and harmony. May we live expectantly and love courageously in this season, trusting that our God of love is bringing it all to pass, through all of us who look even the least bit interested!
Happy New Year, people of God! Amen+