A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 15, 2019

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!

A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2019

A Sermon preached by the Reverend Beth Lind Foote, Interim Rector, on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2019

My friend who’s a children’s book illustrator worked over a year to create some 300 paintings for a new children’s bible that was just published this fall.  It was fun to be one of her theological advisors. When she realized there were lots of Johns and Marys in the Gospels she asked me for some help:  How could she make them look distinctive?

I was happy to let her know that John the Baptist was a very distinctive guy, and that she could have a lot of fun drawing him since the gospels say he was something of a wildman who wore a camelhair tunic, leather belt, and ate bugs and wild honey. 

Every Advent John the Baptist shows up and takes us out into the wilderness.  Who is John the Baptist and what is the message that he preaches to us today at All Saints’?

John the Baptist is a figure on the hinge of the Old and New Testaments.  He is the last prophet in the tradition of Old Testament prophets; he calls for repentance, and calls the religious establishment—the Pharisees and Sadduccees– to account.  And he is the first Evangelist, who preaches “the kingdom of God has come near,” and calls us to anticipate the coming of Christ.

John is a counter-cultural figure. He might fit right in on Haight Street, but not in 1st century Judea.  In John’s time Jewish religious authority was centered in the Temple in Jerusalem.  So John’s appearing in the wilderness to preach and perform his type of baptism was way outside the religious establishment.  

In those days, most people lived in walled cities for safety. Outside those walls, bandits roamed. The people of Jerusalem, left the safety of the city and went into the wilderness to hear John and to be baptized by him in the river Jordan. They were hungry for a new spirituality; they were hungry for God’s presence in their lives.

It was also countercultural for people to venture into a large body of flowing water like the river Jordan because it was dangerous.  You could easily drown, and folk legend said that the old Canaanite gods and demons lurked beneath the surface.  So to purposefully go down under the water was a risky thing to do.

The Wilderness plays an important role throughout the biblical story. Moses encounters the Burning Bush and the living God in the Wilderness. God leads the Hebrew people out of Egypt into the wilderness where they wandered for 40 years. Moses received the 10 Commandments out there in the wilderness. And God feeds God’s people Manna in the Wilderness.  The Wilderness is a holy and challenging place.

Today, the Wilderness is still the place where God calls people to grapple with their faith, and to seek spiritual growth. The wilderness of faith is not an easy place to be.  It’s edgy.  It’s uncomfortable.

Every Advent John the Baptists calls us out into wilderness of faith, and calls us to repentance. John is not an easy character and Advent is not an easy season in the church.  We’re called to be quiet and contemplative in Advent when the rest of the world is already singing Christmas carols and partying.  We’re called into the wilderness of Advent to experience our spiritual hunger, our longing for God’s presence. 

For some reason, the Advent texts seem especially challenging to me this year.  We’re called to be contemplative and hopeful in a world where ugly old demons like Anti-Semitism and white supremacy have emerged out of the deep waters of the past.  We live in a world where truth, moral leadership, and intelligence is mocked and undermined. Our world can feel like the biblical wilderness full of bandits.

Our Interim time can feel like the wilderness, too.  We are walking in unfamiliar territory as a parish.  Being here at All Saints’ for the past 10 months has been a great adventure for me. I’ve also felt challenged by the realities of ministry in our time and place. San Francisco and the demographics of our neighborhood are changing, and going to church is not a social expectation anymore. Who are we now in this era? How do we engage people in the wilderness of their everyday lives in 2020? 

But then I realize that we are out in this wilderness together, you and I. Isaiah and John both say, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”  We are called to prepare the way of the Lord here in this place, together as a parish.

John’s call to Repentance asks us to let go of our burdens of the past and turn towards the future where Christ beckons us into newness of life.  Both our readings from Isaiah and Romans say, a shoot of new growth shall emerge from the stump of Jesse, a new branch shall grow out of its roots.  God is working below the surface and initiating new growth among us.  We are in the wilderness anticipating where it will emerge.  But I believe we are in a wilderness of hope.

Hope is one of the themes of Advent, and this Sunday we lit the second Advent candle, the candle of Hope. Emily Dickinson famously wrote,

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -That perches in the soul –And sings the tune without the words -And never stops – at all –

Hope can seem elusive in our day to day lives. Its melody is muffled below the static of anxiety that becomes loud and distracting.  Sometimes we need to intentionally turn up the volume knob on hope to hear it, and I think this is one of those times.  But how? 

This week I studied our Gospel in The Message, a modern version written by Eugene Peterson, a biblical scholar and pastor.  Sometimes Peterson’s interpretations throw new light on a familiar passage.   Listen to John the Baptist according to the Message:

“I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life.  The real action comes next.  The main character in this drama—compared to him I’m a mere stagehand—will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out.”

Do you hear John’s message of hope?

Today, out here in the wilderness of Advent in the Interim time, I find hope that the Holy Spirit will come within us and change us from the inside out.  I find hope in the vision of a new shoot, new growth emerging from the Stump of Jesse in the reading from Isaiah. 

I find hope in Isaiah’s vision of wolves, leopards and lions lying down with domestic animals and playing with little children.  This is a vision where God lift upends the usual pattern of aggressor and victim; God lifts up innocence, love, and hope.  Isaiah says, “A little child will lead them.”  The presence of children is always a sign of hope.  Together, we can prepare the way of the Lord, and make the way straight before us.

This Advent Season, may you hear the song of hope more clearly.  May you intentionally tune into it, turn up the volume, and sing along with it. It’s something we all need to hear and to share as we prepare for the coming of the Christ Child.

As Paul says in our reading from Romans today,  “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”