The Third Sunday of Advent is known throughout the Church as “Stir Up” Sunday. This refers to the great collect of the day: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us….” I reckon that we fit that description pretty well this morning, since this marks my last Sunday as the rector of St. James’s Church. Clearly, we are about to stir things up.
To be sure, this is a most difficult sermon for me to preach. I will miss you and this place where we have had the good fortune to work together in the ministry of Christ Jesus. As I look upon your faces, my heart is filled with so many memories of each of you. Somewhere in that place between memory and forgetfulness we will lay our relationship as the years pass. I am proud to be counted among the “Doers” of God’s word at St. James’s.
What effect I have had on this church will now tumble into your history. I remember one wise lady in my parish in Massachusetts saying to me when I was about to leave St. Elizabeth’s, Sudbury, that she had seen many rectors come and go and that they were rather like street cars. You climbed aboard one for a while and then you caught the next one. There is much truth in her metaphor, for we all come and go. I hope that as a result of what we have done, St. James’s looks less glowingly at its past, and more hopefully to its future. While we may be proud of who we have been, what is important on the threshold of a new millennium is to work intentionally on who you will become.
There is a force in this parish that sees itself standing in a yesterday that no longer exists. In the great story of Moses’ encounter with the burning bush in the desert, you may recall that God says to Moses that my name is Yahweh, which translated means, “I am who I am.” Because there is no future tense in Hebrew apart from the present, Yahweh can also mean, “I will be who I will be.” God doesn’t tell Moses “my name is Tom, Dick, or Harriet,” God says “my name is a verb called movement and action.” You are part of that wondrously active heritage of God’s love and energy—creating a new heaven and a new earth.
Whenever God shows up in the Bible, the first words of his message seem always to be “Do not be afraid.” And our first reaction to God is to be afraid that we can never do or be what God wants, but Jesus has come to tell us that we are precisely whom God loves and can be more than we ever imagine.
If you haven’t noticed already, Advent is a time for prophets. A time to connect our lives with what God is doing in the future. Listen to Isaiah: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered nor come to mind. But be glad and rejoice in what I am creating….” Imagine God saying to us this Sunday, “For I am about to create a new St. James’s, the former things shall not be remembered nor come to mind. But be glad and rejoice in what I am creating….”
Almost six years ago I came to St. James’s after having experienced the strongest spiritual call I have ever felt in my life. I knew that I needed to be here. I didn’t quite know why, and I assure you that the reasons I imagined were all wrong. But as I look around this sanctuary this morning, I rejoice in not so much what we have accomplished—even though this sanctuary is its own testimony to our ministry; I rejoice in the way God has loved us and inspired us out of complacency or fear. Consequently, St. James’s can say without shame or hesitation that we have tried to be part of God’s future in mission, in worship, in prayer, in the diocese, and especially in the world. This Sunday, churches in England, Ireland, Israel, the West Bank, Honduras, Rwanda, and Atlanta are praying for you and me and for our future. Let those connections not disappear, for they are part of the threads of God’s love, in this wonderful, unfinished tapestry of the Kingdom that is coming into the world.
Time is the primary experience of our lives. We live our lives by our clocks. Time focuses our lives. We divide, categorize and commit our lives based on time. It is probably the biggest shortage that we have in our lives. The prophets, like Isaiah, know of a different time. A time that is broader and not focused on us, but on God. Somehow they offer a glimpse of something beyond what we can see by ourselves alone. Prophets tell us things we would rather not hear. Prophets send us visions we would rather not see. Prophets remind us that God’s time is not our time. Being a prophet is a dangerous business. John loses his head. Jesus is nailed to the cross. Jeremiah is thrown in a pit to die; Elijah has to go into hiding. All of the prophets understood that in order to connect our lives with God’s future, it required commitment, cost and change.
Advent is our time for seeing like a prophet. It is not a time for protecting St. James’s so much as it is for expanding the work and ministry here. Woody Allen, the now older comedian, once quipped when referring to Isaiah: “The lion and the lamb may lie down together, but the lamb’s not going to get much sleep.” It’s a funny line, because it draws out of us our innate cynicism about religion and the vision of hope in scripture. We don’t really expect the lion and the lamb to lie down together. It’s a nice little metaphor, but it’s unrealistic. Lions eat lambs; they don’t sleep with them.
Rich, educated people like Episcopalians are easy prey to cynicism. We are realistic, in control and not easily open to anything that will seriously effect our priorities. We don’t expect God to interfere unless we get ourselves into a very desperate jam. We not only don’t expect God to interfere; we don’t want God to mess with us when things are going well.
What prophets see is that we have blinders on. God is here. And God will move whether we get on board or not. If we allow cynicism to take away our innocence, then we will miss the purpose for our lives. People didn’t expect a Messiah to come from Nazareth or a baby born in Bethlehem to amount to anything. When they killed Jesus, they were sure they had him dead and delivered. Except they didn’t count on the truth that you can kill God’s love, but you can’t keep it buried for very long. Maybe Advent is so much a time for children because God keeps trying to get us to rebuild our innocence and to allow God into our hearts so that we believe that what we do for God is important, vitally important.
We human beings are pretty much defined by our competitions. We define ourselves by our differences, by the distinctions we achieve, by the trophies we win or don’t win, by the failures of our friends and neighbors. Just to say we want to be successful is nonsense. We want to be richer, smarter, more talented, better looking, and better respected than anyone else.
But here is the message of Advent. God is close to you, closer than any human being, because God is the only one in your life who will never compete with you. You see, by defining ourselves by our differences, we define ourselves by failure, thus we become cynical and that experience requires us to stay away from God. But God’s compassion and love for you can erase that distance that our competition maintains with just the willingness to be innocent and open and faithful once more.
The beauty of Christmas is that it is all eraser. Christ comes to erase our mistakes, to rub out our sins. Is it too small a thing, then, at this juncture in our lives to remember that God has dignified our race by becoming part of it, we therefore honor God when we honor our brothers and sisters?
Leaving you I worry most about your staff and these friends in Christ I leave behind. Do you know them? Do you know how hard they work for this Body of Christ? Susan Eaves is one of the best priests in the Church. Someday I hope I can be as talented as she is. Do you know how many hours she gives to you in love, because you cannot pay her enough for what she does?
Lindon Eaves is not technically on your staff, but Lindon is a lover of souls, and he gives himself to this congregation free of charge with energy, vitality, humor, and genius. You are very lucky to have Lindon serve you.
Greg Jones is new with us. He is learning how to be a priest, still, but Greg and Melanie have come here with the same innocence and trust in you that you ought to have in God. They trusted in coming to St. James’s that you would love them and care for them. Please do so.
Bob Seiler has been a quiet, compassionate member of our staff for many years. He has waited with us through the long hours of growing older. He has held our hands as we prepared to die. His dignity and thorough commitment to St. James’s is unparalleled.
Geraldine Johnson has been the director of our Children’s Center for many years now. She is a saint living among us quiet and true. The St. James’s Children’s Center is a ministry sent from God. We need to be proud of it, and we also need to be aware that even in this Christian family Geraldine has had to face the demon of racism far more often than any of us imagine. She is the kind of person who is easy to take for granted because she is holy.
Carol Brandt is the heart and soul of this Church. I remember once when Richard Nixon was the Vice President and he was coming to my hometown and was to visit in our house. I was seven. Three FBI agents came to door and I ran to get my father. Scared, I hid behind the door and heard them say, “Mr. Trache, we know more about you than you know about yourself.” Carol knows more about this place than anyone—and probably more about you than you know. You can find here during any season. She listens and loves you, and she has given her life to this Church.
Poconna Thiel is our financial secretary. You might not know Poconna if you are not involved in the finances of the church or a wedding. Poconna has a heart as big as the State of Virginia. You will travel the world before you will find a person who has more loyalty and love than Poconna.
Betty Molster is the fireman of St. James’s. She got us by hook and ladder back to where we are. She is the most adept person at spanning the generations that I have ever seen. She is savvy, smart, loving and beautiful. More importantly, she loves this place not for what it was but for what it can be. She has more backbone than a thousand bishops do. I think she is just terrific.
Anita Lisk is our Director of Christian Education, which she will tell us means “anything remotely connected to learning.” She is a delightful and devoted person whose energy infects the Sunday School the staff and all of us. She is smart and talented, and she has given up another life to come and work so diligently in this place.
Jennifer Burk is our parish secretary, and she is a clergy spouse. Jennifer is a brilliant person. Her easygoing manner and intelligence have made every one of us look smarter than we are. We are fortunate to have her work among us.
Finally, I have saved my friends Mark and Virginia Whitmire for the end. In their five years here, they have made remarkable changes in the ministry of music; indeed music became a ministry with them. You see them work on Sundays but you rarely see them during week, working with the Children’s Center and others whose doorway into God is through music. They are the best and they have suffered the most. Because of what I did here, the Whitmires have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous behavior, most of it behind their backs. Some people have truly shamed the Body of Christ. But in spite of evil intentions, the Whitmires have brought our music program into the Church community. Nobody could have done it with more aplomb and love than they have.
Please take care of this staff, they are diamonds in St. James’s crown, remarkable people who love you and love the Lord. Finally, I am grateful to so many of you for your love and care and patience. I truly believe that we have done some wonderful ministry together. And I will miss you. I will miss your willingness to make things happen, your generosity of spirit, your friendship, our worship together, and mostly the opportunity to love and be loved by you. May God bless us every one.