Monday, December 22, 2014

“With All of Our Hearts” - Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 21, 2014

“With All of Our Hearts”
Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 21, 2014
Richmond Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
Rev. Katelyn B. Macrae
Luke 1:26-45

Prayer: Dear God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight. O God our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, Amen.

In this season of watching and waiting, we have come to the fourth and final Sunday of Advent – the day of Love. We are approaching Christmas, it’s only 4 days away now.
This sense of anticipation is echoed in our story from the Gospel of Luke.
Two unlikely characters -
Mary, who is very young; and Elizabeth, who is long past child bearing age, both learn that they are pregnant.
Luke is the only Gospel writer to tell this story and he does it so beautifully and shows us the connections between John the Baptist and his cousin Jesus.
There are so many parallels – the angel Gabriel visits Simeon in the temple to share the Good News that his wife Elizabeth will conceive and the Angel Gabriel also announces the news to Mary.
 There are some great lines from this story.
 In verse 29, it says Mary was much perplexed by his (Gabriel’s) words, and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
But the Angel Gabriel’s words are meant to reassure her. Gabriel exclaims, “nothing is impossible with God.” Gabriel further elaborates Elizabeth, who was barren, is now six months pregnant with John. Nothing is impossible with God!  
Can you imagine what it would have been like to be in Mary’s position? Unmarried and yet finding herself pregnant. She was at real risk to be pushed to the margins of society.
The fact that Mary responds to the angel Gabriel with a positive affirmation “Here I am, a servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”
Instead of “Ahhh, Not me, NOOOOOO! Or, even, “I don’t believe it” like Simeon responded, is incredible.
Mary was a very courageous woman in a very vulnerable situation who took the Angel’s words to heart, “Nothing is impossible with God.”
Before Mary became venerated as “The Virgin Mary” or depicted by artists as “Mary the Mother of God” – she was just Mary, a humble, faithful brave young woman. The poet Ann Weems captures the spirit of Mary in her poem Mary, Nazareth Girl. Weems writes:
Mary, Nazareth girl:
 What did you know of ethereal beings
 With messages from God?
 What did you know of men when you found yourself with child?
 What did you know of babies, You, barely out of childhood yourself?
 God-chosen girl:  What did you know of God that brought you to this stable
 Blessed among women?
 Could it be that you had been ready
                             For the footsteps
                                      Of an angel?
 Could it be there are messages for us if we have the faith to listen?

Could it be there are messages for us too if we have faith to listen?
Friends, I will be the first to tell you that I’ve been kind of distracted this Advent by the violence that I continue to read about and hear about in the news. My heart breaks over and over again at the continued and heightened racial tensions after the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and New York City, the report released by Congress about the CIA’s intelligence gathering practices and human torture, school shootings in Peshawar Pakistan, and a threat called into my own high school in Maine on Thursday that caused the police to evacuate the building. Last week was also the second anniversary of Sandy Hook. My cousin was a 4th grader at Sandy Hook Elementary. She was there in the school during the shooting, and her family still lives up the street from shooter’s house. Even with the horrible tragedy in Sandy Hook, there have been 96 school shootings in America since then - an average of one a week.
This level of violence is not what God intends for our world. And it can make us feel kind of powerless, kind of numb, kind of stuck – wondering if and how to respond.
Yet Weems words echo too - Could it be there are messages for us if we have faith to listen?
On this fourth Sunday of Advent we light the candle of love and we remember that God comes to us at Christmas and that ordinary vulnerable people, people like Mary and Elizabeth, were chosen to help prepare the way for the Christ Child to come into the world.
God is born anew in our hearts at the time of the year when we need the reminder the most – when the nights are the longest and the daylight is the shortest in our hemisphere.
Love comes down and Love is born among us.
Could it be that this might be the message for us too if, like Mary, we have faith to listen to all that is unfolding around us?
If we have faith to see beyond the wreaths and the tinsel and the gifts, and the clean, happy baby wrapped in swaddling clothes surrounded by well behaved animals and remember the grit that really gives this story its substance and meaning.
Jesus comes to us on Christmas as baby, a vulnerable wrinkled baby.
He doesn’t look like the Gerber baby.
And he’s born to a young mother, who had to give birth in a smelly stable with cattle and hay and poop, no midwife, no hospital bed or clean sheets. This was not a place fit to give birth – it was a vulnerable place.
We call him Emmanuel – God with us –
God came and chose vulnerability.
God chose to be with us. God didn’t have to do that. But God did.
In this season of Advent, we are preparing for the baby, for the real, vulnerable infant. 
And he needs our help, he needs us to help to prepare the way for his coming, to proclaim the Good News to the world that in spite of whatever muck and mess and violence is happening, God choose to be with us and continues to be with us.
In this Advent season may we, like Mary, be open to experience God’s gift of love which will soon be born again to us this year.
When Mary sings her Magnificat, her song of praise a few verses after this passage, she proclaims “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
As I said in the children’s message, we all are called to be Magnifiers, “people who bring God’s love into close focus for others.” (Stan Purdum pg 33)
Friends, this Advent season, in this deep midwinter, when frosty winds make moan and earth stands hard as iron,
let us be Magnifiers,
Let us have ears open to listen for the messages of the angels and the cries of a newborn babe,
Eyes open to see God’s light which shines brightly even in the depths of night,
Hearts open to feel the Love that is stronger than all of the violence in the world,
and Mouths open to proclaim God’s hope, love, joy, and peace.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

"Living with Hope in Advent" - December 7, 2014

Image result for hope images
“Living with Hope in Advent"
December 7, 2014
Rev. Katelyn B. Macrae
Richmond Congregational Church UCC 

Texts: Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1: 1-8

Prayer: Dear God, may the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight. O God our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.

On this second Sunday of Advent our theme is Hope.

There is a great Chinese proverb, “Plant trees under whose shade you will not sit.” This proverb is one way of talking about what it is to live with hope.

Sometimes hope is joyful. When we plant a tree, teach a child how to read, or begin a project for the benefit of someone else, we experience the joy and potential present in that distinct moment, all the while knowing that we may not see the true fruits of our labors.

Living with hope is often  joyful, but it can also be frustrating at times.  For those who were impacted by construction and paving on Route 2 this summer, we know what it is to hope for a project to come to completion even when we still cannot fully see its results.

Hope – is such a fabulous, wonderful, weighty, even complicated concept. So in an effort to better understand Hope, today let think about what each letter might represent to us as we live with Hope in this Advent Season. 

H, the first letter in Hope, is for humble and honest. As we begin the second week of Advent, our texts from Isaiah and Mark remind us that Advent is a penitential season and it requires preparation. Nacham, the Hebrew word used for "comfort" in the opening words of Isaiah 40 is also translated as "repent.” It’s like the prophet Isaiah is saying, “Repent, but also take comfort, console yourself.” Nacham reminds us that we cannot automatically leap to the comfort and joy we hope to feel on Christmas Day without first getting ourselves ready.

We get honest in this season, honest with God, honest with ourselves, and even honest with our shopping budgets. When we humble ourselves in Advent, we get to the spiritual bottom line – are we ready for the Christ-child to come into the world again?

O, the second letter of Hope, could stand for overloaded, overworked, over consumed, overtired, overcommitted, and overburdened. These are some of the feelings we may also experience in this season where everything glimmers and sparkles and calls out for our attention.
But there are also other elements of this season more in line with HOPE –

O also stands for open, opportunity, and ongoing.

There’s a certain spirit present in this season (if we pay attention to it). People are more generous, more in tune, open to the possibility that things could indeed be different. I saw it yesterday at the Holiday Market standing outside ringing the bell for the Salvation Army bucket. With the snow falling down outside and people walking around joyfully, it felt really good to be a part of this community that seeks to support and encourage each other.
Because people seem to be more open and receptive this time of year, we have an opportunity as people of faith to proclaim, over the voices that say I’m overloaded, overworked, over consumed, overtired, overcommitted, overburdened and just plain out-of breathe, out of luck, out of hope, and over it - that Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-us, is coming into the world again.
In Advent, we also remember God’s ongoing endeavor to bring about peace and justice. This is what the Hebrew Prophets like Isaiah taught, and this is how Jesus taught us to live. For the past two weeks I’ve been following and praying for seminary friends and church colleagues on facebook who’ve been involved in peaceful demonstrations in Ferguson, MO and New York City. My heart breaks over and over again at the racism and violence which still plagues our nation. Their testimonies teach me that we still have a long way to go. But I also believe God hears the protesters’ cries for justice, and responds when people say, “We can’t breathe.” God wants us all to be able to breathe AND to have life and life abundantly. Martin Luther King said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” King’s words are not an excuse for our present condition, but a powerful and necessary reminder that God’s work in the world is ongoing and God’s call to join in this work is also ongoing, not just in Advent, but every day.

The third letter of Hope, P, is for potential and persistence.

In the financial world, you hope for growth, and you invest in the potential of stocks and bonds – but you spread out your investments to minimize your risk. Depending on how close you are to retirement depends on how much risk you take – do you go with the volatility of putting your stocks in a technology start up, or do you go with more stable bonds?
But when it comes to our spiritual portfolios the advice is different. Instead of spreading things out to minimize risk and maximize potential returns we are urged to consolidate and put our hope into one thing – and that one thing is God! In Advent, we are reminded that Hope is a verb. We imagine the potential of what could be, but, as I noted above, sometimes realize we are a long way away from where we’d like to be, which is why our hope must be persistent.  
In the Book of Romans, the Apostle Paul gives a great explanation of Hope 24For in* hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes* for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8: 24-25)
When we live with our Hope in God, we take the long view, we must be patient. We imagine the potential and invest in the possibility God is about to do a new thing in our midst, even though we can’t see it yet. Which leads to the last letter, E.

E is for Expectation.

Still in the beginning stages of this Advent season, there’s a whole lot of expectation going around. Many children write letters to Santa and put together Christmas Wish Lists with the hope (and the expectation) that on Christmas morning, Santa will have visited the house and there will be some presents that they asked for under the tree. There are also the adult expectations that come with this season – expectations about providing a Christmas experience for our families, expectations of what to cook, what songs to sing, lots and lots and lots of expectation.
Expectations can sometimes weigh us down – I can already hear my mental to-do list going as I talk to you – but there’s also something about hopeful expectation, like Mary, being pregnant with expectation.
Expectation is an essential and exciting part of Advent. What are we expecting this year when Christ comes? Can we open our minds up to new possibilities?
The gospel of Mark that we heard this morning begins with expectation – verse one says, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” And to us as we hear these words again two thousand years later, this is still good news. Mark realized that he didn’t and couldn’t capture all of the Good News of Jesus in his gospel. In the UCC we say that God is still speaking. The Holy Spirit is still moving and acting and thinking in the world. God has not done all of God’s work yet. God equips, inspires and empowers us to be God’s hands and God’s feet in the world.
In this Advent season, may we with humility and honesty, be Open to the Potential God has for us and for the world.

May we use this time to prepare ourselves for incredible possibilities, despite the things we see that make us want to protest.

And may we live with hopeful Expectation and eagerly embrace the Spirit who is coming to us, the Christ Child, who promises that this is just the beginning of the Good News.

Make ye straight what long was crooked,
make the rougher places plain:
let your hearts be true and humble,
as befits his holy reign,
For the glory of the Lord
now o'er the earth is shed abroad,
and all flesh shall see the token
that his word is never broken.