Deep Breaths with Palestrina

Sermon for Sunday, March 22, 2020 || Lent 4A || Psalm 23; John 9:1-41

I usually listen to really upbeat music when I’m writing my sermons, often the Piano Guys, who do instrumental mash-ups of pop and classical music. Their driving rhythms mixed with familiar melodies propel me forward as I write. I’m sure I bop my head along, my fingers click-clacking across the keyboard in time with the percussion. When I sat down to write this sermon, I put on the Piano Guys like normal. But about thirty seconds into the first song, I had to switch to something else.

Because today is not normal. Today is about as far from normal as I can remember since the days following September 11, 2001. As I thought and prayed my way into today’s sermon, I noticed just how un-calm I was. I had not slept well in several nights. I had pain in my jaw, always a sign of stress. I had a thick knot of anxiety in my chest. I looked beyond the anxiety and felt a roiling mix of other emotions, which I’ll get into in a moment. Realizing my state on un-calm, I changed the music. I selected a setting of the mass in Latin by the Renaissance composer Palestrina, who never fails to help me take deep breaths.

Continue reading “Deep Breaths with Palestrina”

Four Images of Grief

I offered the following reflection on St. Mark’s All Souls Day services on November 2, 2019. I wrote most of it several years ago and have used pieces of it here and there, but I have not published the entire reflection until now.

During the next few minutes, I would like to share with you four images. I invite you to imagine these images as I describe them. Each one illustrates a facet of the impact of grief on our lives, something that grief does for us, something that grief is. Perhaps you will resonate with one or more of these images. Perhaps, the four that I describe will spur you to discern your own image for grief. I hope you will, because grief is an intensely personal thing, which makes it one of the hardest things to share. By trying to describe grief, we can give ourselves some language with which to talk about it, and thus find, in some small, yet meaningful ways, the ability to share it with others.

Continue reading “Four Images of Grief”

God’s Unsung Miracles

Sermon for Sunday, November 11, 2018 || Proper 27B || 1 Kings 17:8-16

Today I’d like to talk to you about a special type of miracle that never gets any press. It’s not going to sound very miraculous when I say it, but perhaps by the end of this sermon, I’ll have convinced you. Here it is. Here’s the special type of miracle that never makes the news: There is always a little more inside us than we realize. That’s it. There is always a little more inside us than we realize. Doesn’t sound miraculous, does it? I promise you, it is.

Continue reading “God’s Unsung Miracles”

Psalm 130, Expanded

Sermon for Sunday, July 1, 2018 || Proper 8B || Psalm 130

Psalm 130 holds a special place in my heart. You all know my father comes up fairly often in my sermons because his nearly 30 years of ordained ministry have had such a profound impact on my own. Psalm 130 is his favorite psalm. I’ve often heard him recount with eloquence and tenderness a moment with God out on the ocean when he felt like the watchmen waiting for the morning. Because Psalm 130 is his favorite, it has become one of mine too. So when the psalm came up in our rotation today, it called out to me, and I’d like to share my thoughts on it with you in the form of a meditation. Continue reading “Psalm 130, Expanded”

How Long, O Lord?

Sermon for Sunday, July 2, 2017 || Proper 8A || Psalm 13

I don’t often preach on the psalm, but today I am. I know the story of the binding of Isaac is terribly difficult, and it is the text I should preach on. I did three years ago when these lessons turned up in the last cycle, and I invite you to listen to that sermon on my website. I’ll link to it from this one. As I said, I don’t often preach on the psalm but today I am because today’s psalm is the perfect example of a type of Biblical literature that is so very important to our lives. Psalm 13 is a psalm of lament.

In recent months, many people in the church and out of it have expressed to me sadness or frustration or anger or despair over the current state of our world. And I’ve felt all of the above, as well. These expressions are ones of lament. They and I have lamented the violence done at home and abroad, so much all at once  – from atrocities in Syria to terror attacks in England to the shooting at the congressional baseball practice, to the murder of the young Muslim woman in Virginia. What can we do in the face of such violence but lament? Continue reading “How Long, O Lord?”

Fueling our Hope

Sermon for Sunday, October 16, 2016 || Proper 24C || Luke 18:1-18

Today’s Gospel lesson begins like this: “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

This is strange: rarely, if ever, does the Gospel writer tip his hand while introducing a parable. Jesus seems to enjoy speaking in parables for the simple fact that parables make his audience dig deep into his words and find meaning for their lives by searching for meaning in his stories. But I think we should let the Gospel writer Luke slide just this once. He has our best interest in mind, after all. Luke doesn’t want us to miss the meaning of this story because living out this parable makes our lives fundamentally better. “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” To pray always and not to lose heart. In other words, the story is about having the stamina and fortitude to pray persistently and to hope all the time. Continue reading “Fueling our Hope”

Hold Fast to Hope

Sermon for Sunday, November 15, 2015 || Proper 28B || Hebrews 10:11-25

holdfasttohopeNote: For the sermon at St. Mark’s on 11/15, I was planning to read the Bishop’s address to the Diocesan Annual Convention, which took place the same weekend. Then when the terrorist attack in Parish happened, I knew I needed to say something different. Arriving home from convention in the evening of Saturday, I had little time to put a sermon together, so I went back in my vault to see if I had anything appropriate. I found a sermon from six years ago and started with that as my base. But with the Paris attacks on my mind, the old sermon morphed into something completely different, with nearly two-thirds of the words being new.

I know I already used my yearly allotment of Princess Bride references in sermons, but I was a little time-crunched this week after my homiletic plan changed, so I went back to the deep well that is one of my favorite movies. So imagine this scene: Inigo Montoya, the Spanish hired sword who helped kidnap Princess Buttercup, is losing his duel with the Man in Black. The fight has ranged all over the rocky terrain at the precipice of the Cliffs of Insanity. The two swordsmen had both begun left-handed, but have switched to their dominant hands when they recognized the masterful fencing of the other. Thrust. Parry. Riposte. The Man in Black acrobatically flips off the ruins. Inigo stares at him, clearly amazed: “Who are you?” he asks.

“No one of consequence,” replies the Man in Black.

“I must know,” pleads the Spaniard.

“Get used to disappointment.”

The fight continues, only to end a minute later with an increasingly flustered Inigo receiving a knock to the back of the head. And I’m sure the Man in Black’s words rang in his mind.

Get used to disappointment. Sounds like quite sensible advice. Sounds like the Man in Black has been around the block a few times. Sounds like he knows something about the ways of the world. However, this worldly wisdom is often counterproductive to a life of faith. The Letter to the Hebrews urges us this morning to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for Christ who has promised is faithful.” In a world that teaches us to “get used to disappointment,” holding fast to our hope can be so very difficult.

Our inoculation begins at an early age. Children enter life with bright, wide eyes and unbounded, unfettered imaginations. Every couch cushion is a stone in a castle under siege by the invading hordes who desire nothing more than to pillage the kingdom. Every bath is a deep-sea expedition to find the lost city of Atlantis. Every day is another chance to see a unicorn. But before long, we start getting used to disappointment. We are told that couch cushions are for sitting, baths are for bathing, and there’s no such thing as unicorns.

I remember my mother shouting: “Young man, there are no dinosaur bones in the backyard. Stop digging up my flowerbeds.” But what she didn’t know was that my imagination was equipped with ground-penetrating sonar and that there was an intact velociraptor skeleton just beneath the gardenias. It was the find of the century. Any moment, Richard Attenborough was going to land in a helicopter and whisk me off to Jurassic Park.

But in the grand scheme of things, from the moment we are born, our imaginations do nothing but shrink as our understanding of so-called reality grows. The trouble is that hope exists in the imagination’s ability to frustrate the enclosing nature of the “real” world. We are made in the image of God; therefore, our imagination connects us to the creative spark of our Creator within each of us. And hope resides in this spark. As mounting disappointment attempts to snuff out our imaginations, we encounter great difficulty in accessing the hope, which our Creator installed in us.

This disappointment comes in both the mundane and the catastrophic. First the mundane: another chance for promotion and you’re passed over. A promising new relationships ends abruptly – and you thought it had been going so well. The new water heater has inferior parts and you have to jury-rig what should be a simply installation. Each of us has such mundane disappointments, setbacks, and frustrations all the time. They sap our vitality. And they obscure our hope.

Then there are those catastrophes that make hope seem silly and microscopic in comparison. A parent dies; or a child. A missed payment turns into two and three and the landslide has started and before you know it you’re out on the street with nowhere to live. A war rips through your town and the next day you’re a refugee fleeing the violence. A terrorist attacks ignites the Parisian sky with explosions and gunfire and litters the ground with the slain bodies of the innocent.

How can hope possibly compete with this twin barrage of mundane disappointment and heartbreaking catastrophe? Shouldn’t we, as the Man in Black suggests, get used to such things? They seem to be the natural order, after all. Shouldn’t we just get used to disappointment?

No.

No – because we have been to the foot of the cross. No – because we have seen the ultimate disappointment that was the Savior of the World gasping for his final breath: betrayed, abandoned, mocked, hanging limp.

But that’s not the end of the story. The last vestige of hope was buried with Christ in the tomb. His hopeless friends then entombed themselves in their own hideout. But as Andy Dufresne reminds Red in another of my favorite moves, The Shawshank Redemption: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” Such was proven true three days after the ultimate failure when the ultimate triumph changed everything. Hope rose from the tomb with Christ. Hope does not die. Hope might hide. Hope might be obscured or hard to find. But hope does not die.

The next day dawns. The catastrophe has still happened. The Parisian streets are still awash with innocent blood. But the next day still dawns. And the day after that. And the only thing that keeps those of us who remain alive and eating our breakfast and hugging our children – is hope. Hope does not die. Hope will never die.

And do you know why?

Because Christ who has promised is faithful. That’s the reason the Letter to the Hebrews gives. The writer states emphatically: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for [Christ] who has promised is faithful.” We hold fast to hope not through the strength of our own faith, but through the surpassing faith of Christ, the same Christ who early on that Sunday morning simply would not break a promise to be with us always.

We do not manufacture our faith. Faith is not self-centered. Faith is God-centered. The confession of our hope proclaims that the reality of resurrection life exists, and that we will encounter its utter joy when we finally and fully enter God’s eternal presence.

We believe that this happens in the power of the resurrection when we pass from life through death to new life. But the confession of our hope does not merely cast our thoughts to the life beyond death. Remember, hope exists in the imagination’s ability to frustrate the enclosing nature of the so-called “real” world. This real world is full of disappointments, frustrations, and, yes, catastrophes.

But God has blessed us with hope-fueled imaginations. God has blessed us with the mission, as Hebrews says, “to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” God has blessed us with the resources to feed and clothe everyone in this world. God has blessed us with the patience and love to stand together against terror and senseless violence. We must only provide the will. We must set our disappointments in the context of the hope that God’s own faith makes real in our lives.

When we were children, the magical words “Once upon a time” lost their luster when we heard their counterparts: “Sweetheart, it’s only make-believe.” But I say to you that we have the opportunity, we have the imagination, we have the will to change this world for the better. Because God keeps God’s promises, we are able to keep our promises. We are able to make a difference in people’s lives. Get used to disappointment? Not a chance – because hope is a good thing, and no good thing ever dies.

Precipice

Sermon for Sunday, May 10, 2015 || Easter 6B || Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98

precipice“Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.” Today’s psalm begins with these glorious words, and for me it begins with a question. Why does the song we sing have to be a new one? Why can’t the song be an old song, one that has stood the test of time? “Amazing Grace,” perhaps? Or how about “In the Garden?” While these songs are beautiful and wonderful and should never, ever be lost to the ages, I think the psalmist feels the urge to sing a new song because he or she has discovered a fundamental truth about God’s movement in God’s universe. God is always doing something new.

God’s ceaselessly creative hand did not stop molding and shaping the universe at the end of the sixth day of creation. God continues to breath new life into this ever-expanding cosmos: at the grand scale of galactic expansion and at the small scale of simple, daily interaction. In the playroom next door, the twins do something new seemingly every day. Amelia loves to eat real food. Charlie has started climbing. We have several parishioners who have recently moved from their homes into assisted living facilities or whose recent medical interventions have led to new lifestyle choices. They are faced with newness of a less joyful kind, but we still fervently hope that their new situations will lead to much better outcomes than they could have expected before.

The simple fact that spring has sprung reminds us that God is always doing something new. In my life. In your lives. In the life of the church. The world. Creation. We believe that God’s reign is constantly and continually reshaping existence, bringing all things into closer connection with God, as creation was always intended to be.

The newness that trumpets God’s closeness is borne on the wind of the Holy Spirit. Not all new things are of God, but the Holy Spirit helps us discern when and where God is birthing those new things that do lead to closer connection for all people. When we allow ourselves to be open to the newness dancing along in the Holy Spirit’s wake, we become people who are less afraid to try new things, to risk, perhaps to fail, but to know that in the attempt a new shoot of possibility has sprung up from the ground. When we do succeed in living into God’s reconciling newness, the result is deeper connection with God and a more expansive understanding of God’s love and God’s generosity.

One climactic example of this success happens in our tiny first reading today. It is the most extraordinary event in the history of the early days of the church. You might think it would be a dramatic conversion or a miraculous healing or a mystical vision or a memorable speech, but while each of these happens in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, none is the event I have in mind. No. The most extraordinary moment of reconciling newness in the early days of the church happens when one person simply realizes he is wrong and then changes his mind.

That person is Peter. And we might expect Peter to be a hardliner, sticking to all of his positions and presuppositions just because he had been with Jesus from the beginning. After all, Jesus did give Peter the figurative keys to the kingdom. What could be more human of a reaction than for Peter to lock out anything new that threatened the integrity of the in-crowd? As I’m sure we’ve all done from time to time, Peter could have stuck his head in the sand, ignored the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and resisted any opportunity for growth, for reconciliation, or for new possibilities.

But that’s not what happens. So here’s the story, beginning with just a bit of background. The society in which Peter grew up was divided between Jews and Gentiles. There wasn’t necessarily animosity between them, but there was indifference and a lack of connection. Society was just built in this divisive way, so no one really questioned the structure.

That is, until one day when Peter is hungry. While a meal is being prepared, Peter receives a vision from God. All of the animals that observant Jews aren’t supposed to eat appear before Peter, and a voice directs him to kill and eat. Peter balks at the command: “I’ve never eaten anything that’s profane or unclean.” But the voice counters: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happens three times until the vision has finally sunk into Peter’s bones.

When the vision ends, Peter meets a trio of Gentiles who invite him to meet a Roman named Cornelius, who has also had a vision from God concerning Peter. Never fearing that he might be walking into a trap, Peter goes with them and meets Cornelius and his whole household. And then Peter preaches a fabulous sermon that proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ.

This is where our passage for this morning picks up the tale. While Peter is still speaking, the Holy Spirit encounters all who hear him. Peter’s companions, who are Jewish believers in Jesus Christ, are astounded that the Holy Spirit of God would deign to manifest itself through unclean Gentiles. “But what about our in crowd,” they seem to protest. “We thought we were the special ones. We thought we were the ones that had the Holy Spirit.”

Then Peter remembers his vision of the now clean animals. And he finds himself standing at the precipice of a decision, at the precipice of something new trying to break into reality. His society, his upbringing, and everything he has ever known pulls him to reconfirm that Jews and Gentiles can never be united, that the good news of Jesus Christ is for Peter’s people alone. But that same Holy Spirit, which is even now dancing around Cornelius and his Gentile family, pulls Peter in a new direction toward unity and acceptance and radical welcome of the estranged other. And this time Peter doesn’t balk. He baptizes all the Gentiles present and charts a new course of acceptance in this new and nascent religion soon to be called Christianity.

This particular type of newness – welcome of the other, whatever makes that person other – keeps encountering the church again and again. Over the centuries, Christians have failed to be swept up by the wind of the Holy Spirit’s newness too many times to count, but every once in a while, we trim the sail just right and succeed in ushering in God’s reconciling newness. Just in our lifetimes, we have expanded opportunities in our church to many groups who had been shut out before – allowing women to be priests, for example; or blessing loving relationships of any orientation with the sacrament of marriage.

When you are trying to discern how and when to lean into the newness shimmering on the horizon of your life, how do you feel? Terrified? Excited? Saddened by what is fading away? Joyful for what is breaking in? All of the above, probably. In any case, like spring blooming in a riot of color every year, newness is just a part of life. In our own lives and in the life of the church or our nation or the world, the newness that comes from God will always lead to deeper connection, greater reconciliation, more hope – maybe not today or tomorrow. But the path will lead there someday.

The next time you are at the precipice of a decision like Peter, stop for a moment and pray. Take a deep breath and feel which way the wind of the Holy Spirit is pushing you. Ask God what new thing God is trying to birth through you with this decision. How will it lead you closer to God or another person? God is forever speaking words of reconciliation and renewal into this creation. Each day, we have the opportunity to hear them anew and to choose the course towards closer connection and to leap off the precipice and to soar on the wind of the Holy Spirit.

Walk on Together

Sermon for Sunday, June 29, 2014 || Proper 8A || Genesis 22:1-14

(I forgot to hit the button on my recording device this week, so it’s just text this time around.)

walkontogetherAs I contemplate my impending fatherhood, the story of the binding of Isaac, which we read a few minutes ago, has taken on new meaning for me. I’ve always struggled with this story, and, if you’ve ever read or heard it, I’m sure you have, too. This reading from the Hebrew Scripture brings up so many questions: why would God ever test someone in such a barbaric way? How could God be so apparently abusive? How could Abraham even think about going through with it? If the angel hadn’t stopped him, would Abraham actually have killed his son? What would that prove?

We could spend this and many more sermons attempting to explain (and only succeeding in explaining away) such difficult questions. We could say that people experienced God differently back then, but that wouldn’t satisfy us. We could say that this story simply narrates the move from human to animal sacrifice, which, in future generations, distinguished the Israelites from many of their neighbors. This is a little better, but such academic aloofness doesn’t account for the tenderness of the relationship displayed between Abraham and Isaac. We could say so many things in order to feel okay about this story, but, despite the happy ending, something will still not sit right. Indeed, the Jewish rabbis have been struggling with the binding of Isaac for millennia; one sermon from me isn’t going to put a dent in that effort.

But I have to say something, so here goes. Often, when a story in the Bible makes us feel uncomfortable, we have a tendency to dismiss it: to flip the page, wipe the offending verses from our memory banks, and move on as if they never existed. However, if we take the time, like the Jewish rabbis, to struggle with the difficult passages instead of ignoring them, we can hear the Holy Spirit whispering good news to us, even in the midst of the struggle. I heard such a whisper of good news this week when I read the binding of Isaac over and over again in preparation for this sermon.

The whisper of good news started when, as I said, I began reading the story through the lens of my impending fatherhood. I expected to be horrified by Abraham’s action as I have been in the past; by the “I was only following orders” defense Abraham would have had to give Sarah when he got home, had he gone through with it. Strangely, this time around, the first time I’ve ever read this story after having spent hours staring at the ultrasound picture of my son’s face, I was not horrified.

I wasn’t. Instead of seeing the brutality of the test, I saw the tenderness of the relationship between father and son in a pair of verses that I’ve never noticed before. On the third day, Abraham and his son Isaac leave their servants and pack animals and continue on alone. Here the narrator tells us, “So the two of them walked on together.” As they make their way up the mountain, Isaac stops and questions his father. Abraham answers, and then again the narrator tells us, “So the two of the walked on together.” Father and son, together: Keeping each other from stumbling as they hike up the mountain; feeling each other’s warmth; walking hand in hand, perhaps.

Of course, the sad irony of this walking up the mountain together is that Abraham is preparing to walk down alone. Or is he? And this is where a new question arises, a question that links Abraham’s deep relationship with Isaac to Abraham’s deep relationship with God. The question is this: Is Abraham lying?

In between those two tender bits of narration (“So the two of them walked on together”) Isaac asks the whereabouts of the lamb for the burnt offering. And Abraham responds: “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

So, is Abraham lying to Isaac here? Is Abraham just telling Isaac what the boy needs to hear to keep him going, to keep him pliant? Or does Abraham actually believe what he is saying to his son? Does Abraham believe that God will, indeed, provide a way out of this mess?

I think the answer falls somewhere in between. A cynical person would call his response a lie. But I think Abraham is speaking out of his hope, out of the deepest conviction of his heart that he will not need to go through with it, that the promise God made to him years earlier will continue to hold, the promise that countless generations will spring from his son Isaac. No, Abraham isn’t lying: he’s speaking the only truth he’s ever known. From the day Abraham stepped out into the desert all those years ago, God has provided, even when Abraham’s impatience or fear kept him from seeing God’s provision.

But for us the phrase, “God will provide,” has, sadly, reached sound byte status. We hear the words and say, “Yeah, sure,” and then go about our business. And we fail to attribute to God’s provision both the miniscule and the monumental blessings in our lives. For all the struggle our story today causes, the binding of Isaac also invites us to hear again the good news that God does, indeed, provide, and God gives us the eyes to notice God’s provision.

It all starts with the word “provide”: in Hebrew this is literally the word “see” or “perceive.” So when Abraham says to Isaac, “God will provide,” we can loosely translate it as, “We shall see what God is up to.” This understanding of God’s provision presupposes that God is already active wherever we are going, that God has already shown up when we arrive. We enter a story already in progress, so to speak.

Notice what Abraham says three times in our passage today: “Here I am.” With these words, Abraham makes himself available, opens himself up, orients himself towards the stimulus of his response. “Here I am,” is the verbal equivalent of a posture of openness and reception. By saying, “Here I am,” Abraham signals his desire to see what God is up to, to see how God is providing in the current situation.

We believe that a piece of God’s very nature is that of provider. And we have the opportunity to participate in God’s provision by training ourselves to see the many and varied ways God is moving in our lives. When Abraham tells Isaac that God will provide, Abraham is reminding himself what he believes, what he has relied on his whole life. God’s provision has not always fit Abraham’s timetable, and Abraham has not always done the best job trusting, but, one way or another, God has provided.

When we look back at the trajectories of our lives, we often see coincidences that cannot be explained; or relationships that have stood the test of time; or burdens we didn’t think we could bear, but did. This is evidence of God providing. But so are the deep, calming breath when the baby is screaming her head off; and your mother’s embrace after a hard day at school; and the desire to help someone in need; and all of the little things that never make headlines, that we won’t remember when we look back at the trajectories of our lives.

Since we won’t remember the small blessings once they’ve sunk down into the depths of memory, God invites us to appreciate today’s provision today. We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” for the same reason Abraham told Isaac that God will provide: so that our eyes will be open to the blessings of this life, so that a day never goes by when we don’t notice God’s presence in something, no matter how small.

I know the story of the binding of Isaac is hard to hear and uncomfortable to process. Even so, through it the Holy Spirit has good news to whisper into our hearts. Today, the good news is that God provides and we participate in that provision when we say, “Here I am.” As we move through our daily journeys, sustained by our daily bread, each of us has the opportunity to walk hand in hand with God, to go forth and see what God is up to. So take joy in trusting that when our stories are written in the book of life, the narrator will say, “So the two of them walked on together.”

*Art: Detail from “Abraham and Isaac” by Rembrandt (1645)
*Thanks to Kathryn Schifferdecker’s article on Workingpreacher.org for the Hebrew relationship between seeing and providing.

A Most Ingenious Paradox

(Sermon for Sunday, December 2, 2012 || Advent 1C || Jeremiah 33:14-16)

I’ve never been good at staying up until midnight on New Year’s Eve. I always seem to nod off at about 11:35, or in recent years, much earlier. There was one year back in my wild college days when I managed to keep my eyes open for Dick Clark’s countdown, but now that he’s gone, I won’t ever have that pleasure again. So maybe some of you can fill me in on last night’s frivolities. Who took Dick Clark’s place? It was Ryan Seacrest, wasn’t it? Show of hands – how many of you stayed up until midnight last night to watch the ball drop in Times Square?

No one?

Did I print the wrong sermon?

No, I didn’t. The world at large won’t celebrate the New Year for another month. And the world at large is already celebrating Christmas, or to be more precise, perpetual Christmas Eve, with all the hustle and bustle of shopping and the butchered covers of  “O Holy Night” playing in the mall, and the newspaper circulars I could weight train with. The world at large, as it so often does, has everything backward.

For us followers of Jesus Christ, today is New Year’s Day, and Christmas doesn’t happen until we tick the next four Sundays off the calendar. Today begins a period of deep-breathing, of collective Lamaze, if you will, while we wait and watch with the Virgin Mary as she comes to full term. This is the kind of breathing that the world at large can’t participate in, because the world at large never stops to catch its breath. So what is today, this New Year’s Day, this Day of Deep Breath? Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the church year. Over the next three and a half weeks, we have the wonderful opportunity to breathe into the quiet spaces within ourselves and allow God to fill those cavities with the perpetual hope that marks this pre-Christmas season.

That’s what this sermon is about, by the way: hope. Advent is about anticipation, expectancy, keeping our eyes open, and hope fuels these things. But hope has always been a tricky concept to convey, so we’ll try to tease out its meaning a bit in the next few minutes as we talk about what this wonderful season of Advent, this season of deep breathing, has in store for us.

piratesWhen discussing hope, we first must acknowledge the fundamental paradox of our lives as followers of Christ. This is, as the Pirates of Penzance sing, a “most ingenious paradox.” [“A paradox, a paradox, a most ingenious paradox. Haha haha…”] The pirates’ response to the paradox is to laugh, which isn’t a bad place for us to start either because laughter keeps things light, and this sermon could easily get very, very heavy.

So what is this most ingenious paradox of the Advent season and of our lives as followers of Christ? Well, rather than tell you straight out, I think I’ll illustrate by using the most beloved of Advent songs, which we won’t actually be singing until next week. “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here until the Son of God appear…”

The name “Emmanuel” is a special one. First appearing in Isaiah’s prophecy, the angel who comes to Joseph in a dream gives this name to the unborn child in Mary’s womb. Emmanuel means “God with us.” Do you see the paradox yet?

O come, O come, Emmanuel. O come, O come, God with us. O come, O come, One who is already here, One who is closer to us than we are to ourselves. O come, O come. This is the paradox – we wait for and anticipate the One who is already and forever with us. My father has often said, “The best way to prepare for the coming of Christ is never to forget the presence of Christ.” This is the paradox that we live into as followers of Jesus and celebrate especially in this Advent season.

And this paradox shows us why hope is such a difficult concept for us to get our heads around. You see, hope is faith projected into the future. Hope is the willing expectation that the bounds of possibility are far wider than we can perceive. The trouble is that the times when we most need to be hopeful, the times when hope really is the only thing that can sustain us, are often the same times that faith is in short supply or when those boundaries of possibility feel impossibly narrow.

Today’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah comes during one of those narrow times. Things are looking bleak for the people of God because they haven’t been acting like the people of God for some time. By coincidence, I actually just finished reading the entirety of Jeremiah last week, and man, is it a depressing book. One tragedy after another befalls the people of Jerusalem: siege, famine, betrayal, assassination, murder, all culminating in the worst tragedy of all – being carted off en masse to Bablyon and the desolation of exile from their homeland.

But in the midst of this darkest of dark periods in the history of God’s people, the Word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah and says, “The days are surely coming when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David…In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.”

In the midst of the darkest of dark days, through Jeremiah God affirms God’s promise. There isn’t much hope in the book of Jeremiah, but here, in these few verses in the middle, we get a tiny whiff of hope.

But even a tiny whiff of hope is still hope. Hope of any size or strength is still hope – full, effective hope. Here again, is our paradox. Hope sustains us with the promises of God fulfilled at some future time that we cannot see in the midst of desolation. But at the same time, God is the One catalyzing the hope within us, the tiny whiff of hope, which is all we can manage right now. And so we pray, “O come, O come, God with us. You are here, O God, but come just the same because this tiny whiff of hope is wavering. O Come, O come, Emmanuel.”

How many of us have found ourselves in this situation, in this dark day of desolation? Perhaps yours happened on the day your mother died and you realized that you would never again hear her voice on the telephone? Perhaps yours happened when your son was diagnosed with severe autism and the life you had mapped out for your family took a sharp turn? Perhaps yours happened when you lost your job, or when you didn’t get accepted to the college you had your heart set on, or when you had sunk so low into depression that your bed became an island in a vast sea of nothing. Perhaps today, New Year’s Day for the Church, you are in the midst of your dark day, your time of exile.

Whether you are or whether you are remembering when you were or whether you are dreading when you will be again in that dark day, I invite you on this First Sunday of Advent, to take a deep, cleansing breath. Let that breath fill the quiet spaces within you. Feel God breathing into you that tiny whiff of hope, an embryonic hope, as small as those cells coalescing in Mary’s womb. The hope growing in Mary’s womb will be with us soon, in three and a half short weeks. But, as our most ingenious paradox goes, Jesus Christ, our Emmanuel, is forever with us, and he’s breathing hope into our desolation, he’s breathing vastness into our narrowness, he’s breathing promise into our faith. Rejoice. Rejoice. Emmanuel comes. Rejoice. Rejoice. God-with-us is here.