Preparing for the Light of Hope

Lit advent candle of hope with the text "Hope".

This sermon was presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem, NH on November 29, 2020

This morning, our sanctuary appears a little different. Transformed almost overnight by new vestments on the communion table, by the placement of our traditional nativity scene, by the addition of our community Advent candles. A transformation which marks the beginning – the beautiful beginning of our Advent season. The season where we learn about, celebrate, and experience – waiting…

Waiting… what an interesting concept – this year – this year where we had to wait in lines to get in grocery stores, wait for stimulus checks, wait for racial justice, wait for environmental insights, wait for election results, vaccines, school closures and semi-openings. We have had a year of waiting. And I suspect most of us do not think of waiting as a celebration.

But waiting is just that – a celebration in our season of Advent. A season of the Christian calendar dedicated to active waiting. A season which begins the four weeks before Christmas and invites each of us to explore waiting in a deeper way. For, waiting through Advent is not just about Christmas; this season is also a way for us to explore our lives as we wait for Christ, who is coming again. 

That said, do we really understand how to wait – how Christ calls us to wait – how to prepare our hearts in the same way we have already begun preparing our sanctuary? If you have then this season is already a celebration for you. If not, let us discover together what Advent is about as we prepare for the light of hope coming into the world.

Would you pray with me?

Holy Creator recreate our hearts this day – prepared to welcome your light of Hope – so, we may be Your Hope for all the world. May the words from my lips and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing to you God.

Now, when I was a small child, I admit that waiting in Advent seemed like torture; much like this year has seemed like torture for many people throughout our world. For, my family celebrated with advent calendars; but, we could only open one package per day – Christmas presents were placed under the tree; but, we could not open them until Christmas morning – the stockings were hung; but, we had to wait for Santa Claus to fill them before we could discover what we had received. Yes, in my young and privileged perception waiting felt like torture because I was only focused on Christmas – on the end. Much like I suspect it has felt for many people as we waited for everything to get back to normal; waited for the world to figure out a solution before understanding the social issue; waited for a vaccine before engaging in any social gatherings. 

That said, I commend all of you who have faithfully discerned how, or if, you would engage in anything over the last year, especially large gatherings like Thanksgiving. But I am curious: were you waiting passively – feeling like it was torture – through this last Thanksgiving – this last year – your entire life? Is waiting for the end goal torture for you like it was for me as a child or maybe not torture. Is waiting for you, just a simple passing of time – like waiting for that Christmas morning patiently when the world would one day return to normal – not experiencing life in the meantime – just waiting? 

I ask because Advent has come along, and we are confronted with a simple question: what if things never become normal again? What if the day of the Lord comes while we are waiting passively for the world to right itself? What will happen if we are asleep when the master returns? 

I believe everyone who reads our passage from the Gospel According to Mark this week may wish to consider this question. For, our passage describes the second coming of Christ through a parable – a moral lesson about the master going on a trip. This metaphor of the master is Christ Jesus. The servants who are left behind are therefore all of us. Thus, the author of this Gospel is sharing an eschatological, or end times, parable which is offered to remind all of us to remain watchful as no one, but the Creator knows when this time will come. Remain watchful, ever present to our call as disciples, actively engaging in the life which God gave us even while we are waiting. This lesson is the beautiful message from Mark. 

However, this message also comes with a warning to stay awake. Not a threat for we have no idea what will happen if – if we are asleep when the day of the Lord comes – if things do not return to normal and we have been passively waiting – if the loved ones we left alone on Thanksgiving are carried home to God before next year? We have no idea for sure. Yet, I suspect there will be fear, anxiety, regrets for any who are asleep on that day.

The theologian Pheme Perkins seems to lean toward the idea of regrets for all of us in the 21st century. He says, watchfulness may not seem significant to us today; but “we all know that human life is fleeting.” Therefore, how we engage each moment is precious on this earth and we are called to stay awake, be present, actively engaging in life; so, we will not live in regret when the day of the Lord comes along. This idea of sleeping while waiting though is not just for the end times. It is also about passively waiting for Christmas and not experiencing, celebrating, or learning about all the ways in which we can prepare our hearts for the light of hope, our Christ, which is coming again.

This passage from the Gospel also shares the Good News that the kin-dom will come – the end times not as some apocalyptic nightmare; but, it is a time of hope when suffering, pain, injustice will come to an end. That in some unknown future we will all be one with Christ as kin. However, this time is only known to the Father so we must continue to learn, to experience, and to celebrate life every day – creating a future of hope by living in the present as Christ’s disciples – today. 

We also witness the Good News of hope in Psalm 80. The Good News that God made us strong, gave us life and will save us as a people. As a Christian, I believe this saving comes to us all through Christ Jesus, the light of the world, the Hope for all humankind. This good news is another message of hope found throughout the Bible. We are reminded of this hope many times that God will save each of us; but are we prepared to be saved – have we prepared our hearts to receive that light in? Are we actively living our faith each day as we wait for the day when we all will be saved by Christ or are, we waiting passively for the day of the Lord and Christmas?

Only you can answer that question for yourself, beloved. Only you and God know what lies in your hearts; yet, from what I have seen, regrets – anxiety – fear cannot exist in the same heart as hope. These emotions seem to oppose one another in a way that does not allow them to coexist.

So, how do we actively wait – how do we go from the fear – anxiety – and regret into a disciple’s heart where we are prepared for the light of hope which may guide us through the darkness?

Well another theologian named Henri Nouwen once said, “Active waiting means (being) present fully to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening where you are and that you want to be present to it.” That beloved is how we actively wait – not by hiding away and letting regrets for a normal which will never happen again rule our thoughts, not by letting anxiety guide every action because we did not find the right present nor by allowing fear to rule our discernments; but, we actively wait by being present fully to every moment of life and knowing that something is happening around you, within you, through you to make the world better. 

For me, today, it means being present to the world around me and living every moment in the promise of hope that this too shall end – engaging with people not with expectations of what we once experienced; but, in the new moment of every day of this blessed advent season – letting go of the what will come in a month and simply experiencing every moment I have with each of you – today. I believe hope is found in the now while we are actively waiting for the coming Christ.

This active waiting does not mean running out to engage in a gathering you feel is dangerous – it means learning what makes you feel uncomfortable and experience life as you can around those difficulties – it means reaching out to one another and exploring innovative ways to engage relationships – it means gathering in family groups to celebrate worship together – it means we keep living even while we are waiting for the Christ to come, the suffering to end, the vaccine to be developed. And we have already seen this community begin to experience Advent as a people who are actively waiting – We have seen Norma decorate the sanctuary so it will bring us hope even though we are semi-closed to in-person worship, Bridget and Cindy will be decorating the outside of the church bringing the people of Salem hope even amongst the rising covid-19 numbers, members of the worship, education and outreach teams have prepared advent care packages to bring you each hope and connection amongst the isolation. 

Still, God says do not fall asleep – even if you have been fully engaged all year. God reminds us to not fall asleep now. Help reach out to one another and engage in a crisp socially distanced walk – be God’s disciples here on earth by engaging in the reverse advent calendar – imagine new ways we can be in worship together and share them to bring hope to all people. For, when we continue to live our lives by actively waiting, by being fully present – by living every moment together we will continually make a place for hope in our hearts that the whole world will be able to witness. May this season of active waiting allow you to bring the hope of Christ into your life – now and always. In the name of Christ, we pray Amen.

Gratitude for the Shepherds

Fall harvest with the text "Let Us Give Thanks"

This sermon was presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem, NH on November 22, 2020.

As of Friday, 399,806 people have been tested for coronavirus in New Hampshire; 16,797 people have tested positive; 12,201 people have recovered; 108 people are currently hospitalized; and 3,981 people are walking around today with Covid-19 amongst a population of 1,359,711 people in the state of New Hampshire. According to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human sources.

Yet the day before, Time magazine released an article saying over 70,000 people have been hospitalized nationwide; hospitals are understaffed; and outside morgues are filling up with people. These two stories paint a very different picture as we enter into this week of Thanksgiving and the beginning of our Advent season.

Amongst these stories, we received word this week from the NH UCC conference recommending an end to in-person worship until the end of the year- not an order from the NH Governor but a recommendation from our fellowship in the UCC conference.

A recommendation which the shepherds of our worship team have discerned, and our Vision and leadership team are currently discerning. 

But this call of discernment is not just about in-person worship, it is also about Thanksgiving; about how do we remain in community; about how to not only survive but grow in faith; and it is about how each and every shepherd who is listening to me right now will discern how we will each engage the world over the next few months during this second wave of covid-19, during this second time of isolation. 

To all of you righteous shepherds of God, I offer my unending gratitude. 

Before we go too far let us pray,

Eternal Shepherd clear our minds of the clutter of a thousand voices speaking and open our souls to Your pasture of eternal Grace. Let Your teachings become ingrained within our beings as we guide – teach – and become an example of Your loving heart. May the words from my lips and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing to You, God.

Beloved, the shepherds I am thanking today are not only the known leaders – the health care professionals – the teachers – but also, every one of you. For although our scripture often uses the terms sheep and flock to describe our fellowship, God did not make “sheep” out of Her followers – God created us as shepherds who righteously care for one another daily. We heard this call of the shepherd when we joined this congregational type fellowship. We live this fellowship each time we share our voice or lead a team. We share this fellowship of shepherding discipleship every moment we live as an example for others. And for all of these beautiful ways, you reveal this call – I am grateful and wish to say thank you.

But today, we are confronted with the difficult discernment around this second wave of isolation and coronavirus, mask use and Thanksgiving, faith and school traditions; we are confronted by these and I wonder what is motivating each and every one of your discernments. This wondering came about when I was in the grocery store this week and I witnessed people walking this way and that – not wearing masks – leaning over one another to take something off the shelf. At that moment, I assumed these people do believe Covid-19 is real. That they only follow the rules as far as they have too; so, they may avoid some external shaming from others. Similarly, I know some souls who have not seen anyone since March – avoid even socially distanced interaction and I assume this choice is due to the fear of contracting this disease from some external source. I assume the motivations in both these cases but only God and you know your motivation for your choices in this life.

And external rewards from not being ashamed to not getting sick – from good grades to being paid – from socializing to alone time can all be great temporary motivators for our actions. These types of motivations are of the Earth though – temporary and not the long-lasting motivations which God calls us to embrace as righteous shepherds.

An idea I invite you to consider as we look at today in our Christian calendar – a day which marks the ascension of Christ. Consider the motivations of the disciples in those days after Jesus had died on the cross and Christ ascended into Heaven to become one with God. I imagine there was fear and loneliness in the isolation which they had known when Jesus died and felt again as Christ left the Earth – And in those days, our fore parents – the first disciples each had to make a choice on how to remain as one community, as one people of God, as one fellowship. Was their motivation based on some external markers of circumcision, of sacrifice, of ritual cleansing or was it some internal call of the righteous Shepherd which Jesus revealed through his life, death, and ascension? 

Personally, I believe their motivation was based on the internal call as revealed in our passage from the book according to Matthew, a book of the Gospel attributed to one of Jesus’ first disciples from those days when our fellowship felt isolation and discerned how to remain in community. In this passage, the author reveals the Good News that God is calling each of us to make discernments not because we feel that it will get us into the kin-dom, ahead in life, or because someone says it is right. Rather, our discernment comes from within, it comes from the heart, comes from our faith as Shepherds both individually and as a way to encourage our community.

This message is shared through the passage telling of not just sheep; but the sheep of the right hand – the righteous who are surprised when they discover they were good to Christ – not for some external benefit – not for a golden ticket into the kin-dom; but because they followed in Christ’s path and were kind to another human being when they fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, and visited the isolated people who were sick or prisoners. 

Furthermore, when we help out the least of those amongst us – not due to some external source, like the NH UCC Conference; but because of the internal joy of helping one another through these difficult times -we become not just sheep but Shepherds and our whole lives become an example of Christ’s teachings guiding – leading – teaching other souls the Way of Christ. 

The theologian William Barclay explains the motivation of the righteous sheep as the “uncalculating reaction of the loving heart,” a discernment and choice made not from an external benefit but from the natural outpouring of Christian love we have for one another. And this call to help other people – for Christ within other people – for God within all Creation is what I see as the motivations of the righteous Shepherd. 

So, how are you motivated through this life – through times of isolation – through this second wave of Covid-19. Are you blindly following an external motivation or are you following the Way of Christ – the Eternal Shepherd?

Only you can answer that question; but I pray that you are all the righteous Shepherds of Christ. For, I cannot make these choices alone – we are a congregation and need to hear your innovative ideas of how we may remain in community – worship – and fellowship – together through this second wave of isolation. We need to know what brings you comfort, joy, and reassurance. How you are engaging faithfully in our traditions like Thanksgiving.

Through this gift of your voice – we as a congregation can discern how to engage our traditions, our comfort, our fellowship not as a knee jerk reaction of following as blind sheep – but as the righteous Shepherds who are looking at these events with a thoughtful manner and helping the souls who are the most susceptible to the deadlier strains of this virus – the people who need to work in order to keep a roof over their head – the people who have become prisoners in their own home. By embracing this Way of Christ, even if there are external motivators for our actions – we will become like the first disciples building an innovative church, an example of God’s loving heart for all people, and following God’s call for every one of us to live as the righteous Shepherd. Thanks be to God for each of you who walk this Way with me as we embrace fellowship amongst isolation. May God grant you each a week full of gratitude for the righteous Shepherds as you imagine, discern, and share the faithful Way for our beloved congregation. Amen