The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)
The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
In this world there’s a whole lot of trouble. In this world, there’s a whole lot of pain.
In this world, there’s a whole of trouble, but a whole lot of ground to gain.
Why take can you could be giving? Why watch as the world goes by?
It’s a hard enough life to be living–why walk when you can fly?1
And she said, “Tell me are you a Christian, child? I said,“Ma’am I am tonight.”2
A blessed Christmas to all. I’m honored to stand here and give what voice I can to the power and the promise, the gift and the invitation of this holy night.
Hear these words from a Scripture text that we typically read in church on Christmas Day:
When the goodness and the lovingkindness of our God appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7.)
We might assume that whoever wrote about “the goodness and lovingkindness of God appearing” was referring to the birth of Jesus, but it’s not likely. For among the earliest followers of Jesus, who after the resurrection wrote every word about Jesus recorded in the New Testament, there wasn’t nearly as much interest in Jesus’ birth as there is for us today. For centuries Christians didn’t celebrate his birth. Because their starting point with Jesus wasn’t when he was born; it was the experience and the memory of what it was like to be in his presence.
And so tonight I speak to you about the man whom baby Jesus grew up to become, and why he matters; and driving the point home, why it matters that we who call ourselves Christian in whatever ways we do, claim him not only as our Lord but, also as the carol says, “our lifelong pattern.”3 For those who of you who aren’t Christian, I simply hope to paint a picture of why we who are believe our following him is meant to make this world a better place for everyone. We fail at that task with humbling regularity, but it is part of the Christian job description.
The poet Maya Angelou once said that after we’re gone, people will probably forget most of what we said and most of what we did, but they will never forget how we made them feel. That was certainly true about Jesus. People wrote down what he said and did, but what they were trying to convey was what it felt like in his presence. For starters, they wanted us to know that he genuinely liked all manner of people. If Jesus were alive today, he would be completely at home at any one of our Christmas gatherings. He’d be the last one to leave and he would seek out the very people we try hardest to avoid. After the party, he’d slip out the back in search of those in our communities that we don’t even see, who aren’t invited to anyone’s parties anymore, if they ever were.
The earliest Jesus followers wanted us to know how much he cared for people, especially those who were suffering, and he was surrounded by suffering. Many stories of his life begin by describing how he was moved with compassion by a person’s pain or grief, or the grinding poverty that afflicted most people of his day. In fact, the only thing that seemed to anger Jesus was when he saw people who were in a position to show compassion instead withhold it; or when he saw people in power and authority, particularly religious authority, lord over other people and made them feel unworthy. For whenever he could heal someone, he did. If he could spare someone’s pain, he did. And he taught in ways that made people believe that God actually loved them even when they felt unlovable. He forgave so quickly and completely, and people felt forgiven and freed from the weight of guilt and shame.
Jesus had an amazingly deep and personal connection to God, but he never acted as if that made him special. He wanted everyone to know that we could have the same intimate, loving connection, especially when we feel or have repeatedly been told that we are unworthy of God.
Another thing about Jesus: he didn’t experience the world as divided between religious and secular, or in the religious lingo of his day, clean and unclean. He didn’t want anyone else to experience the world–God’s good creation–in that falsely divided way, as if God could only be found in a place like this or approached through a sanctioned leader. That kind of thinking and the power dynamics it set up made Jesus crazy.
Finally, it’s important to know that Jesus wasn’t simply going around being nice to people. You don’t get crucified for being nice. His mission, his life purpose was to call people like you and me into a movement, a new way of living, fully reconciled to God, forgiven and freed, committed to loving other people the way he did, and creating human communities defined by love, hospitality, generosity, forgiveness–which is what he called the Kingdom of God. Those called by Jesus were called to courage: If you’re going to follow me on this path of love, he’d say to those drawn to him, be warned. You’re in for the ride of your life.
Jesus was an amazing person. So much so that people began to wonder about him: what manner of man is this? From where does he get his authority? Isn’t he Joseph and Mary’s son? Many in his presence found themselves thinking, in the words of world religion scholar Huston Smith, “that if divine goodness were to manifest itself in human form, this is how it would behave.”4
Those who killed him assumed that that would be the end of him and little his band of followers, but his death was just the beginning of the movement that bears his name. The goodness and lovingkindness of God that they experienced while he lived didn’t leave them when he died. It grew stronger as time went on, and they grew stronger, more confident in his love for them, his presence with them, and they grew more confident in the call, stronger than ever, to pattern their lives after his. They came to believe that he really was God with them, divine goodness manifest in human form. “I am with you,” he said, “to the end of the age.” And isn’t that what the angel said? “And you shall call him Immanuel, God-with-us.” It was never a matter of his followers trying harder to be like him. He was with them. They were leaning on his power and grace and love, as they did their best to follow in his path.
And this faith in him, and the experience his presence and his love, his forgiveness and his call, is something that kept going, from generation to the next, in the least likely ways, through the most imperfect people, like you and me. It’s a mystery how it happens, but it does. And it doesn’t happen just not just once in a person’s life, but over and over, as we experience something that feels like we’re not alone, that we’re in his presence, that his love and his forgiveness and his strength, and his compassion and passion for justice is with us, and in us. But it’s never just for us, as if following him makes us part of a special club of saved people. His life–from beginning to end–was for the whole world. Remember what the angels said “Behold I bring you good news of great joy for all people.”
He is with us now, here, tonight. He’s not just with us; he’s saving us from all that conspires to keep us small and anxious and afraid, so that we might live as he lived, love as he loved, with kindness and courage, with compassion and resolve. And he’s not just saving us, he’s calling. For if we’re going to call ourselves Christians, he actually needs us to step up and step out: Because in this world there’s a whole lot of trouble and a whole lot of pain. He needs people like you and me willing to give rather than take, willing to love rather than hate, willing to forgive, to heal, to reach out, and work for justice and peace for all people.
The Methodist minister Adam Hamilton say it this way: “Our mission at Christmas is not to get stuff for people to open on Christmas morning (although that’s nice, too–and I did that). It is to be people of hope who let Jesus’ light shine through us, who act as his witnesses so that others see him in us, who offer hope and help, who pray and work so that our world looks more like the kingdom Jesus proclaimed.”5
She said, “Tell me are you a Christian child. I said, ‘Ma’am I am tonight” If you are, or want to be, you can say yes tonight for the first or the thousandth time. Then get ready for the ride of your life as he continues to teach you day by day how to love, shows you when and where he needs you, in particular, to show up because you are needed. He will continue to work in and through you in ways you will never fully understand, even through your failures and mistakes, in part so that you never forget that the gift of his love and the privilege of sharing it isn’t something any of us can earn. It’s a gift.
And remember, that when you and I are gone, what people will remember is the difference we made for them, how we made them feel, if, in any way large or small, we conveyed something of the goodness and lovingkindness of God that we have known in Jesus.
There’s a star on the far horizon, rising bright in the Christmas sky
For the rest of the time that we’re given, why walk when we can fly?6
1. “Why Walk When You Can Fly” by Mary Chapin Carpenter
2. “Walking in Memphis” by Mark Cohn
3. “Once in Royal David’s City”
4. The Soul of Christianity by Huston Smith
5. Not A Silent Night: Mary Looks Back to Bethlehem by Adam Hamilton
And they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’
Christmas comes every year — in peacetime and in war; in times of sorrow and of joy; in sickness and in health. No matter our feelings about the state of our nation and our world, Christmas comes. And with it, the clarion call of audacious hope: God is with us.
However you celebrate Christmas this year, never lose sight of the spiritual power at the heart of this season: Jesus comes to us where we are, as we are. He is not afraid of the mess we all too often make of things. For all the beauty of our celebrations, remember that Jesus was born in harsh, dangerous circumstances. We celebrate his birth not because it all happened perfectly, but because everything wasn’t perfect. Imperfection is where God chose to come, and chooses still.
The Christmas story, writes Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, “reveals a who God has entered our world as it actually exists, and not as the world we often wish it would be. ….[We’ve lost the plot if we use religion as the place where we escape from difficult realities instead of as the the place where those difficult realities are given meaning.”
There is joy, peace and hope in the celebration of Christmas, but not sanitized living or wishful thinking. The joy goes deeper; the peace surpasses human understanding; the hope emboldens us to walk in the darkest places as witnesses to the light.
Nor would Christmas be real if we left any part of ourselves out. Dare to believe that God wants you to bring all of yourself: every joy, every sorrow, every disappointment, every hope. This is a particularly potent moment to invite Christ into your life, for the first or the hundredth time–not the life you wish you had, but the one that is yours–and to ask him how you might help him bring peace and healing to the world–not the world you wish we had, but the world as it is.
United Nations peacekeeper Hizkias Assefa works in some of the most violent nations of the world. It’s difficult, often heartbreaking work. When asked how he keeps going, Assefa simply replied, “I am Christian. For Christians, hopelessness is not an option.”
For Christians, hopelessness is not an option because we believe that God never gives up hope in us. The birth of Christ was not a one-time event that happened long ago. Christ is born anew each and every time one of us takes his message of love to heart and follows him in the way of love and reconciliation. You can be that Christ-bearer in the world, and so can I. What better way to live the brief and wondrous lives we’re given. For ours is an audacious hope: God is with us.
The wilderness and dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. . . Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Hear is your God.” Isaiah 35:1-10
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered him, “Go and tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
We all have chores or responsibilities that require us to show up for them whether we want to or not. If you grew up on a farm, for example, you know that cows need to be milked twice a day, regardless of how you might feel about milking cows. If you’re the parent of an infant who isn’t yet sleeping through the night or are providing care to anyone who needs care around the clock, you know that it doesn’t matter if you’re tired–you get up when the baby cries or your charge calls you because that’s needed. How you feel doesn’t factor into your decision, if “decision” is even the right word for what goes through your mind as you get up to do what must be done.
There are emotional dimensions to this same experience on all points of the relational spectrum. Perhaps you are a sibling called upon to be fully present to a brother or sister on a joyous occasion when you’re going through a tough time. Or you’re a young person, full of life, summoned to a grandparent’s hospital room for one last goodbye. Such emotional dissonance is part of life, and it’s the kind of experience that makes us better people, as we learn to be present, bringing our whole selves where we’re called to be, aware of our dissonant feelings but not acting on them, and at the same time not imagining that because of them we don’t belong.
I say all this by way of analogy for the range of emotional possibilities that are part of the Advent/Christmas season, both in and outside of church. Like other events on the calendar, Christmas comes every year, no matter how we might feel about it, whether or not “we’re ready” or “ in the spirit,” whatever that means. Christmas comes in peacetime and in war; in times of sorrow and of joy; in sickness and in health, for better, for worse. Christmas comes no matter how you feel about the state of our nation and our world. Christmas comes.
In my own circle of family and friends: our son and daughter-in-law are newlyweds and are looking forward to their first Christmas as a married couple with the blush of new love and excitement of starting of new traditions. And one of our dearest friends died last week, leaving behind a grieving husband and five heartbroken children and stepchildren. Such range is present in nearly every family.
But there is good news in the midst of real life: there’s no need to worry about how you feel as Christmas approaches. You needn’t judge yourself, or frankly, place too much stock on your side of the emotional equation. Emotional dissonance is, in part, what gives Christmas its meaning and its power. We can all simply let the season be, let the spiritual insights of this holy time speak to us, wherever we are.
Today is the third Sunday of the season devoted to preparing to receive the spiritual gifts of Christmas. As such, the day’s scripture readings offer images and words that speak to all levels of our experience.
From the prophet Isaiah, we’re given the image of flowers blooming in the desert. Now I’ve lived in the Arizona desert, and flowers are not what come to mind when I remember the desert landscape. But there are flowers in the desert, briefly, at the end of the rainy season. They are mostly small and amazingly resilient. Desert flowers are beautiful and unexpected, and in our mind’s eye they can be images of grace arising from the most inhospitable environments.
From the Gospel story we have an even more dissonant image for the season, that of John the Baptist in prison, about to be executed. He sends his disciples to ask Jesus a burning question: Are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another? What an unexpected question from the one who had dedicated his entire life to the coming of the Messiah, who was there at Jesus’ baptism, and heard the voice of God say, “This is my Beloved Son.” But near the hour of his death John wonders if it was all for naught. He gives us permission to give voice to the most unsettling of doubts that surface when what we were once so sure of collapses all around us. Whatever your version of John’s question is, you can ask it, especially at Christmas. But then listen, as John listened, for whatever answer comes.
And remember on Christmas Eve we will gather to remember the birth of a child born over two thousand years ago whose coming into the world changed the world. That child was born in the most dubious of circumstances, and we celebrate his birth not because it all happened perfectly, but precisely because everything wasn’t perfect. Imperfection is where God chose to come, and chooses still. Dissonance is expected.
Let me close with a story that on the surface has nothing to do with Christmas, but for me captures the essence of this often mixed up, dissonant time.
The story comes from the novel Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner, which tells of a friendship between two couples over their lifetimes. They met when the two men, Sid and Larry, began their work as struggling English professors in the late 1930s. Both couples were young: Larry and his wife, Sally, were poor. Sid and his wife, Chastity, came from families with money. Chastity was the flaming extrovert among them and the one who took charge, at times overbearingly so. Sid was the first of the two men to secure a tenured position, but his literary career never amounted to much. Larry struggled longer, but eventually wrote several books of great acclaim. Sally was gentle and quiet, but she loved her more flamboyant friend Chastity.
At some point in her early 30s, Sally contracted polio and almost died. She remained crippled for the rest of her life. The couples raised their children together, shared summers at Sid and Chastity’s family summer home in Maine, and tried in their own ways to make a contribution during the tumultuous years of the Great Depression, Second World War and post-war era. Their friendship was not without struggle, but it remained the touchstone of their lives.
When they were in their mid-50s, the foursome traveled to Italy for an extended holiday. They rented a villa in Florence and spent their days in the routine they loved best: mornings for work and study; afternoons for excursions; evenings for leisurely dinners and a shared bottle of wine. Chastity, true to her character, organized most of their outings.
One day they rented a car and drove to a nearby town to see the paintings of a renowned artist, Piero della Francesca. They made a special effort to see his most famous painting where it hung in a small chapel over the altar. It was a depiction of Christ’s resurrection at the very moment he rose from the tomb.
Up until then, the day had been light-hearted—great weather, wonderful food, easy conversation among them. But Piero’s Christ knocked all joy out of them, as Larry, the narrator, put it, “like an elbow to the solar plexus.” It was not the face of a god reclaiming his suspended immortality, but the face of a man who until a moment ago had been thoroughly and horribly dead, and still had the smell of death in his clothes and the terror of death in his mind. If resurrection had taken place, it had not yet been comprehended.
Three of the four were moved to silence by the painting. Chastity didn’t like it and said so rather loudly. Where was the hope? And why such sadness in Christ’s eyes? But Sally stood a long while on her crutches in front of the painting, with recognition in her eyes, “as if,” her husband surmised, “those who have been dead understand things that will never be understood by those who have only lived.”
As they drove back to their villa in silence, they were hailed by a team of roadside workers. One of them had been injured badly, his right hand mangled and bloody. The couples agreed to give him a ride to the nearest town, and he got into their small car. As they drove on, he winced in pain every time the car hit a bump, which was often, and just as they were about to turn toward the next town, he motioned for them to stop. When they did, he got of the car and began walking down the road, away from the town. In their broken Italian, the four tried to persuade him to come back to the car, to no avail. Eventually, they drove on without him, feeling they had failed at something essential.
Later that night, Larry turned to Sally and asked, “Did you see his eyes?” speaking of the roadside worker. “Oh yes,” she said. “Tell me something,” he asked. “When you remember today, what will you remember best, the spring countryside and the company of friends, or Piero’s Christ and the workman with the mangled hand?” She thought for a moment. “All of it,” she said. “It wouldn’t be real if you left out any part, would it?”
My friends, Christmas wouldn’t be real if we left any part of ourselves out. And so bring all of yourself: bring every joy, every sorrow; every disappointment, every hope. Allow God to show up for you, where you are.
And remember that each person in your life and all those you meet are also the ones for whom Christ is born, ones whose whole selves are invited to show up. Through whatever gesture of kindness or generosity you offer, you may be an instrument of grace, an assurance of God’s love, the very essence of Christmas for another person, no matter how you feel.
For Christmas comes to all of us, and through all of us, ready or not.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry to join Faith Over Fear Interfaith Walk Sunday December 18th
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour… Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Romans 12:9;1
Dear Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington,
Though we belong to different branches of the Abrahamic family, we will walk united in our belief that at this divisive and distressing moment, people of faith and goodwill from across the broad spectrum of American society must come together to create a counter-climate in which we practice hospitality, protect those who are vulnerable, engage in respectful dialogue about our disagreements, and love one another regardless of our differences.
We will walk united, too, in our grief and concern at the rise in hate speech, the increase in violence against racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, and the ugly consequences that ensue when people’s actions are informed by extremist rhetoric and careless slander.
It is not sufficient for us simply to hold what we deem to be the proper opinions, or even to cultivate a deeper knowledge of the challenges before us. God calls us to faithful action. In Presiding Bishop Curry’s words, God requires us to do all we can, “to change the nightmare that this world often is into the dream that God intends.”
In walking together, we will demonstrate our commitment to creating the dream God intends. We will convey our resolve to stand firm in the face of any acts of violence or hatred perpetrated against our friends and neighbors.
The distance we will cover together is about two miles, and I expect us to be finished by 3:30. I hope you will join us as we walk and pray, affirming our faith traditions shared conviction that all people are created in the image of God, all people are worthy of dignity and respect, and all people deserve to live without fear.
“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Matthew 3:1-2
Good morning, All Souls’–what a privilege to be with you on this day of auspicious beginnings. While it isn’t customary for the bishop to be present for the rector’s first Sunday, I’m delighted that my visit, scheduled months ago, coincided with Jadon’s arrival. In addition to adding my welcome to yours, I’m grateful for the opportunity to publicly thank your leaders for their dedicated service and hard work of the past year. And I’m honored to take part today in the celebration of baptism and reception into the Episcopal Church.
Jadon and I met on Thursday morning, when we found ourselves sitting next to each other at a diocesan clergy gathering for quiet prayer. It was his first official day as your rector, and the gathering was a good way, he said, to mark the beginning of this new path of life and ministry among us.
I’d like to speak to you this morning about the Christian life, drawing upon one of the most straightforward and enduring ways of understanding this life, and indeed, all human life: that of a path we’ve chosen, or has somehow chosen us, a particular path to which we have been called.
When I was a parish priest and had the privilege of meeting with parents presenting their infants or young children for baptism, I would give them a short essay from the writer Anne Lamott entitled, “Why I Make Sam Go To Church.” In it she writes:
Sam is the only kid he knows who goes to church. He rarely wants to. This is not exactly true: the truth is he never wants to go. What young boy would rather be in church on the weekends than hanging out with a friend? It does not help him to be reminded that once he’s there he enjoys himself. It does not help that he genuinely cares for the people there and they for him. All that matters to him is that he alone among his colleagues is forced to spend Sunday morning in church.
You might think, noting the bitterness, the resignation, that he was being made to sit through a six-hour Latin mass. Or you might wonder why I make this strapping, exuberant boy come with me most weekends, and if you were to ask, this is what I would say. I make him because I can. I outweigh him by nearly seventy-five pounds.
But that is only part of it. The main reason is that I want to give him what I have found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by.
I want to give him what I have found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by.
One of the most startling and hopeful revelations of my life took place in my mid- 20s, which was the first time I had taken time to reflect back, in context of a therapeutic relationship, on the whole of my life. (It seemed like a long life at the time.) Doing so, I realized that my life wasn’t simply a series of random, chaotic events. There was more to my story than that. That I had a story was what amazed me. I sensed a kind of coherence and forward movement. Certain events had meaning in retrospect far beyond what I had experienced at the time. I felt the power of God’s grace, and of Jesus’ guiding presence. I knew as I had never known before that I was, in fact, on a path. It was the path of my life, for which I had some responsibility, but on which I was also being led, somehow guided in ways that I couldn’t fully understand but that I sensed God was now asking me to trust.
I invite you now to think about the path of your life, where you’ve been, how it is that you are here this morning, and what you might say if someone were to ask how you got from where you once were to where you are now. Did you consciously choose your path, or does it feel for you, as it often does for me, more like a revelation?
If we drop ourselves into virtually any book in the Bible, we encounter people on a journey of life and faith, or we read passages written by people, like me in my 20s, looking back with deeper understanding of the path they and their people have walked.
The first biblical passage I felt moved to memorize when I was in seminary was from, of all places, the book of Deuteronomy. It describes a liturgical celebration, an ancient version of Thanksgiving, during which the people of Israel recited the story of their path, their journey, as they made their offering of thanks. The first line sets the stage: “When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God.”
And here’s the story:
A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.
In five verses we have the entire arc of a journey, the path of our spiritual ancestors, starting with Abraham, that wandering Aramean, who who heard a call and started walking, and as he walked and wandered, a path was revealed to him and later to his progeny.
On Christmas Eve, we’ll gather in church to remember the story of Jesus’ birth, a story of weary travelers on a journey–Jesus’ parents seeking refuge. And Jesus spent most of his ministry walking and inviting people to join him, so much so that after he died, his first followers were known as People of the Way, his way, following his path.
So what kind of path are we on, you and me? Does it feel like a path, or more like wandering with no clear sense of direction? Is there clarity in some ways but not others?
To be honest, I’ve always longed and prayed for more clarity on the path than I’m given, and I confess my envy of those who receive such clarity. I’m amazed by those who knew from an early age what they would dedicate their lives to, what path was theirs to walk. Like the musicians who by age 5 or 6 knew that they had a gift and would later know without question which particular instrument was their destiny. I was also completely intimidated by the freshmen in my college dorm who knew from the first day what their majors would be. That wasn’t me.
I’m also in awe of those for whom that kind of clarity emerges at a later time in life, with equal strength. A friend of mine, in her late 30s, decided almost overnight that she was destined to become a dentist. That involved taking undergraduate prerequisite courses, then applying to dental school–which is highly competitive. Then she had to figure out how to pay for it, so she joined the Army Reserves. Then she went to dental school. All this while raising two young boys. It took her about six years. But she is practicing dentistry today.
And just this week I heard a story on the radio show, This American Life, about a woman whose boyfriend had broken up with her and moved to London. She woke up one morning absolutely convinced that what she needed to do was buy a one-way ticket to London, present herself at his doorstep, and ask him to marry her. It didn’t turn out well. But when she told her story, from the perspective of being married to someone else and a mother of young children, she had no regrets. For she did what she felt she had to do.
That kind of clarity takes my breath away. And it is certainly one way of experiencing our lives as on a path, those times when we know that we simply must act. Maybe you’ve had such moments.
But there is another way of walking the path with which I am more familiar that it is far less clear, but no less compelling. It’s when we’re given small bits of clarity, not the whole vision. Something happens to set certain events in motion and we consent to it and take a step forward, with a sense that it’s important to keep going even though we’re not sure of the destination.
Quakers speak of this as the Way opening before us. It’s very important to pay attention on the way, noting the signs as we go, constantly reassessing, perhaps wandering more than we’d like, but walking by the lights we’re given. The writer E.L. Doctorow, likens the task of writing a novel to this kind of journey: “It’s like driving a car at night,” he wrote. “You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” He also said that writing is an exploration. “You start from nothing and learn as you go.”
Following our path is often like that: step by step, walking by faith and not by sight. And if that is the kind of path you’re on now, the Advent season is a particularly helpful time for you to be in church. For in Advent, our biblical companions are among those who did not fully understand the path to which they had been called but said yes anyway.
Consider John the Baptist whose fire and brimstone sermon we’ve just heard. As uncompromisingly clear as he was about his message of repentance and his call to prepare for the one coming after him, he readily acknowledged that he did not know who that person was. Imagine staking your life on someone who is, as yet, unknown to you. As a sneak preview for next Sunday, John again will be center stage, this time speaking from prison as he is about to be executed. From his prison cell, he instructs his disciples to go to Jesus, who was now preaching and teaching throughout Galilee, and ask “Are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” He went to his death not knowing for certain if Jesus was the one he had been preparing for, but he was faithful to his path until death.
On the last Sunday of Advent, Joseph takes center stage, a man whose journey we often overlook at Christmas. Remember that Mary came to him while they were betrothed with the unwelcome news that she was pregnant. Being a decent man, Joseph planned to end their engagement quietly. But then God spoke to him in a dream, telling him to take Mary as his wife. And he agrees, on the basis of a dream. And in those early days and years of his parenthood, when terrifying events threatened the child Jesus, God continues to speak to Joseph in his dreams, guiding him as to where to go next.
Clarity often comes to us like that in bits and pieces. But here is the good news: a little bit of clarity is enough to take the next step. We don’t need the entire path illumined. Light for the next step is sufficient.
Moreover, we are not called to walk this path alone. Listen to Anne Lamott again describing her church:
Most of the people I know who have what I want—which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy—are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people in community, who pray and practice their faith . . They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful. Our funky little church is filled with people who are working for peace and freedom, who are out there on the streets and inside praying, and they are home writing letters, and they are at the shelters with giant platters of food…When I was at the end of my rope, the people at my church tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on.
People of All Souls’ Church, you are not alone. You are here together, walking by the light given to each one of you. That’s what you will soon promise to the ones being baptized and received, that you will do all in your power to support them in their lives of faith. Because that’s what churches do. That’s what churches are for. And together you are at a wondrous moment, beginning a new phase of life with Jadon as your rector. And you’re not alone in that either–you are part of a wider wider community in our diocese, others who, like you, feel called to walk in the way Jesus, as part of the Episcopal branch of his movement.
So, friends, if ever you’re given great clarity on the path, give thanks and walk with confidence.
And when you’re given just a bit of clarity, a bit of light to see by, give thanks, and walk in faith that more will be given in time.
Remember that a little bit of clarity is all you need to take the next step.
Pray for that clarity, and it will come. Then step out.