“Unexpected gestures of love”

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
Preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
In Easton, Pennsylvania
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 20, 2020

Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have
known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced
by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion
be brought to the glory of his resurrection; who lives and
reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now
and forever. Amen.

Votive Candles in Bethlehem December 2020

Last evening, I had the pleasure of participating in the Virtual Posada celebrated by the Latino Community of the Cathedral of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Due to the pandemic, it had to be a virtual Posada, rather than an In-Person Celebration. And yet, there was so much about the ritual which was familiar. The most noticeable absence was the delicious meal which is usually served at the end.

In case you are not familiar with the tradition—it is a popular one in much of the Latinx World—from Mexico to Chile and Argentina. The particular form—such things as music and prayers often vary. But, at the very center of the Posada is a ritual. The community is divided into two parts. The first part contains Joseph and Mary. They go door to door knocking, and seeking shelter. Those inside the “inn,” engage in a dialog with those outside—which is often sung. After being turned away time after time, there finally comes a moment in which the doors are thrown open and those outside are welcomed inside.

The Posada is used as a preparation for the commemoration of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. When I lived in Hamilton Heights, in New York City, the congregation of the church where I served celebrated it as a kind of novena. For several nights leading up to Christmas they gathered each evening in a different home to celebrate this ritual. It had a way of taking them away from the distractions—from the shopping frenzy– which might have prevented them from really focusing on what the final days of Advent is all about. It challenged them to realize that the preparation for Christmas is both a personal and a community undertaking. By gathering in fellowship to worship, to sing, and to share hospitality—each person was invited to open their hearts and home to the Holy Infant, and to their family. Perhaps more importantly, the community was challenged to open and welcome the light of Christ into their midst. In a time of often bitter cold and darkness, the light and warmth which “God with Us” offers seems especially important.

The fourth Sunday of Advent reminds us how unexpected and surprising the good news of the incarnation was! Mary was taken by surprise, Elizabeth and Zechariah were taken by surprise; Joseph was taken by surprise. Even those who were most anxiously awaiting the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel were astonished at the way in which God chose to act. It does not seem to be an exaggeration to suggest that the whole story of salvation is that in every generation, in every time and place, God has chosen to reach out in love—in the most merciful, empowering, liberating, and encouraging–and surprising–ways. This truly is Gospel, “good news.”

Perhaps more astonishing is that God chooses not to act alone, but rather invites us to participate in the unfolding story of salvation. Each of us, like Mary, are invited to welcome God into our hearts, into our homes, into our families, into our community, into our workplace, into our world. If we, like Mary, are willing to trust, and to say “Be it done to me in accordance with your word,” we too will make the love of God real, present, and effective.

Trust is needed—is, in fact, essential–because there are so many uncertainties, We do not know what the consequences of our saying yes will be. We do not know how others will choose to respond. Will they join with us to help build up Beloved Community in which all are welcomed, included, empowered, and sheltered? Or, will they find the good news to be too frightening, too challenging, too demanding? Will they choose to share the light and warmth of Bethlehem, or will they choose to hoard the light and warmth they find while others shiver in the darkness and the cold?

It has felt for many of us that this year has been the darkest. and the coldest, that we can ever recall. The coronavirus took us by surprise! We felt hopeless and powerless as it spread so quickly, The numbers which we hear seem unreal to us. More people have died in a single day—in several single days—that those who were martyred on 9-11. More than 300,000 of our siblings in this country have died in less than a year, It is quite possible that this number will continue to grow even more rapidly, day by day, for the foreseeable future.

The good news, of course, is that it could have been far worse. Had we not worn masks, had we not practiced good hygiene, had we not socially distanced and sacrificed gathering with friends, family, and loved ones, the number might have been doubled, or tripled, or even worse, New light and warmth emerges in the form of two vaccines, But, the immunization of our global community will take time. And until we are all vaccinated, we must continue to do what is in our power to protect not only ourselves, but so many others.

What do we do, then, in times of confusion, in times of uncertainty, and in times of change and transition? The lesson of the Fourth Sunday of Advent is that we choose to risk trusting–and choose to say yes to God, We do so because God has proven to be faithful to us in the past, We do so because we constantly find examples of the unexpected ways that God is with us right now–in uncountable and unexpected gestures of love. We do so because we have every reason to believe that God will, indeed, coninue to be with us as we move forward.

As a parish family, we find ourselves, this final Sunday of Advent at an unexpected moment of change—of transition. This past week, our Rector, Father Andrew, shared with us, the news that he will be leaving Trinity after many years, When I heard the news, I found myself thinking that, in the more than ten years in which I have been blessed to be part of this amazing community, whenever I have thought of Trinity, I have automatically thought of Father Andrew—as well as of so many other loving, and encouraging people, It will be challenging for me to imagine us without Father Andrew.

But, just as I firmly believe that God chose Father Andrew to share an important part of this journey with us, I believe that God will guide us through the transition of calling a new Rector  who will  love us, guide us, and shepherd us on our journey forward, That does not mean that the transition will be an easy one, or that we will have answers as soon as we might wish, However, this is a time in which we–as the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus movement at the Forks of the Delaware and Lehigh Rivers–are invited to trust in God, and to say yes, If we are willing to take that step of faith, I feel confident that God will handle the rest.

On behalf of our parish family, I wish to tell Father Andrew and Peg, how deeply grateful we are for so many years of loving, generous, and sacrificial service. We are better, stronger, and healthier because you said yes to God’s invitation to work with us. Together, we have accomplished quite impressive things for God. That will not change when we are no longer together. May God strengthen you in the time remaining with us, and may God bless and prosper whatever ministries and opportunities come to you in the months and years ahead. God go with you, in all that you do!

My dear family, let us pray with all our hearts,  and with all our minds, that we will come together in this time of transition, of change, of growth. Let us trust that, just as God has proven to be faithfully with us, and among us, for more than two centuries, God is with us now. And, God will be with us as we move forward.

As we journey, in these few brief remaining days to Bethlehem, let us prepare our hearts, our homes, and our world for the coming of God’s love, God’s light, and God’s warmth to transform the cold and darkness which we see.