A Sermon preached on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 15, 2019, by The Rev. Beth Lind Foote, Interim Rector on the occasion of Willard Harris’ 100th Birthday
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John the Baptist, a prophet, experiences doubt. Doubt. And Expectations. What doubts and expectations do you experience this Advent season?
I am thankful that John the Baptist has some doubts and some expectations because I always have a few this time of year. This is the week when I experience a lot of doubt: about getting everything done for the church and for my family; doubts about finishing the Christmas shopping, and doubts about celebrating Christmas without family members who have passed away this year. These are my doubts. I’m sure you have yours.
And we always have our expectations for the season that are often high, and they often go deep. Mixed together these doubts and expectations are a recipe for anxiety. So let’s leave them here in front of the altar for a few moments while we look at our text more closely. Where is the Good News in the middle of Advent?
John the Baptist and many of his time expected a Messiah who would drive out the Romans and rule as a new King David. Last week we saw John the Baptist in all his glory out in the Wilderness baptizing in the river Jordan. This week we see the vulnerable side of John the Baptist as a prisoner. He suffers for his faith. And he wonders if he got it right? Is Jesus the one?
Notice what Jesus tells John’s disciples. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Jesus does not try to meet John’s expectations of a Messiah king. Instead, he goes way beyond what John expected.
This week I saw a National Geographic story online about a 3,300 year old Sequoia tree in Sequoia National Park. It’s so large that until now there’s never been a complete photograph of it. And this giant in the forest is still growing and getting taller every year.
I was reminded of that tree when I read this passage. John has expectations for who the Messiah should be, a powerful king who saves the Jewish people, but the reality of Jesus is different than what he expected, and ultimately so much larger and more profound than what he expected that he can’t imagine the whole meaning of it.
Jesus tells John that his ministry is about healing people, lifting up the poor, and about wholeness and newness of life, even after death. Jesus ministry is about love.
Jesus is so much bigger than any of our expectations. Like the giant Sequoia, we can’t see him in his entirety. Often we’d like to downsize him into our own image, make him fit our own boxes, our preconceived expectations of who he is. This is a dangerous thing to do that we see happening in other Christian churches these days. It’s dangerous because it diminishes Jesus, and makes him serve our small, selfish purposes.
Jesus is larger than we can comprehend, he is the Christ, the mystery who offers himself for us on the Cross and in the Eucharist. As we contemplate Jesus, I find my doubts recede and my expectations being blown away. As John the Baptist says in the Gospel of John, “I must decrease and He must increase.”
In our passage from Isaiah we see a vision of God’s healing of the earth. Water bubbles up out of the dry ground and waters the desert into a flowering garden. We can take courage in the line, “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, be strong, do not fear!” I’m sure both John and Jesus knew this passage from Isaiah.
Isaiah says, “A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way…it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.” (I am especially glad to see that line, “not even fools shall go astray.) Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall fade away.”
The Good News is that Jesus is coming into our hearts and he is so much bigger and more profound than we expect.
Today we lit the third candle on the Advent Wreath, the candle of joy. The third Sunday of Advent is often called Rose Sunday or Gaudate in Latin, which means rejoice. At the halfway point in Advent we pause to rejoice. The third candle is pink. There are many theories about the meaning of why the candle is pink, and some point to the divine feminine found in Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Today I think we also light the pink candle as a birthday candle to celebrate our beloved Willard Harris who turns 100 years old next week and embodies many qualities we find in Mary: tenderness and love; resilience, and strength.
One of my jobs as Interim Rector is to help the parish look at the past and find patterns and strengths. This fall we had several all parish meetings with a timeline where people could mark when they arrived at All Saints’. Of course, Willard arrived in the late 1950’s, and so she put her sticky note way over here and almost everyone else put their sticky note way over on the other side of the timeline.
It occurred to me that Willard has seen it all at All Saints’; she has served faithfully, and she continues to serve. Last Sunday she was with us in the Altar Party, and she held the Altar Book as I proclaimed the Gospel. I thought in the moment, how wonderful this is to be holding the Gospel Book with her, and serving side by side with her in the liturgy. Like the mighty Sequoia, she is still growing, still putting out new shoots of friendship and lifelong learning, still connecting all of us in the All Saints’ community with her roots .
As part of my research about the parish, I found the 1964 photo directory. What a treasure. Inside, there’s a photo of Willard and her family! It was a very different time in San Francisco and in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. Before the Summer of Love, before the era of hard drugs in the 70’s and 80’s, before the AIDS crisis, before condos for $1,000,000.
In some ways it was a more innocent time. It was also a time when there were many expectations that people would conform to societal rules. People dressed up, families were larger, women had a certain role, and it was an expectation that people went to church.
But one expectation—that an Episcopal church would be all white—was blown away. All Saints’ was really diverse for 1964, maybe one of the most diverse churches in the country. There were Black families, Chinese families, Japanese families, single people, and many different ages represented in the directory. That was Father Harris’ vision for an Anglo-Catholic parish in the Haight, with the emphasis on the broad meaning of catholic, which means universal and for everyone. It was a true neighborhood church.
1964 was the height of the Civil Rights Movement and it’s moving to hold that 1964 directory and imagine what was going on in the rest of the country. In a way, All Saints’ embodied something of Dr. King’s vision of the Beloved Community. And Willard is our beloved of our beloved community here in 2019.
The Good News this morning is that Jesus is here with us, ready to exceed our expectations, and meet our doubts with love and healing.
The Good News this morning is that God has blessed us with Willard. And God has blessed Willard with a long life of healing as a nurse, and a life of love and service, as a mother and as a beloved member of All Saints’. We are blessed to have her with us today, and to celebrate the Good News with joy! Amen!