Sermon from December 5th, 2021
Baruch 5:1-5; Philippians 1:3-11
December 5, 2021
Pilgrim Church, Harwich Port
Rev. Dr. Helen Nablo
Partners in God’s Grace
A brief exchange after worship, likely an early Sunday in Advent –
Years ago, in a church where my husband was pastor.
The woman shaking hands at the door mentioned she was going to get a
Christmas tree that afternoon.
“Have fun!” My husband said.
“Oh” she sighed.
“Shopping for a tree always takes me back to all
those years picking out a tree with my Dad.
He had to have the perfect tree, so it
took forever, looking at this one, then that one.”
The sigh, her face, the eye roll said it all….not the happiest of childhood memories.
And so here we are, on this second Sunday of Advent.
We’ve lit two lanterns now, and the coming of Jesus birth draws ever near.
And what we have for scripture is not the classic ancient prophecies,
about people walking in darkness seeing a great light,
or stories about angel visitations and surprise births.
What we have is Paul writing what is known as a “friendship letter” –
Yes, there was a form for that back then and Paul adopts it,
writing to a fledgling church, people he clearly loves,
people who have strengthened him and helped him as they stuck by him
during his time in prison in Rome.
And the very best part of the scripture, in my estimation, and what I’d like us to explore today
is the way it ends. With a prayer:
“This is my prayer: that your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight. I pray this so that you will be able to decide what really matters and so you will be sincere and blameless on the day of Christ.”
Did you hear how Paul acknowledged the people’s love?
That’s part of what a friendship letter is, an acknowledgement, in gratitude
of an important relationship.
And their love isn’t just words, it’s something he’s known and experienced.
These folks have given him practical help,
shown him hospitality when he was in their midst.
They have contributed financial support and prayed for him while he was in prison.
He’s already said he sees them as partners in sharing the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.
Now, in speaking of their love he prays that it will become more rich,
deepen with time and experience,
and be something that helps them discern,
which is to say he prays for them a love that has strength in the ability to differentiate
between right and wrong, vital and trivial, healthy and not so healthy.
I pray this “so that you will be able to decide what really matters” he says.
Have you ever cooked a meal for friends and realized you did something overly laborious,
overly fussy, so that way too much of your attention was going to the kitchen
and food production
with not so much attention left for your guests?
Have you ever prepared for a family wedding,
spending time finding matching shoes and purse for your sparkly dress, and then watched yourself
dash off a quick message on the card you were giving to the bride and groom?
Behind Paul’s words is the knowledge that it is so easy to get focused on what is not vital.
He’d visited a few church start ups, and he’d seen and heard a few things about how it can go.
Misplaced energy might be an accurate way of putting it.
This past Friday there was a lot of activity in the church.
Cookies being delivered, sorted and packed for the Harwich Port stroll.
One of your dear members came into the office to ask the interim pastor about pricing.
She said there were a lot of opinions, and now she wanted to add mine to the mix!
I told her about how my mother always quoted Henry Clark, minister for many years at
Hancock Church in Lexington.
He outlawed church fairs, because, he said, “they did not bring out the best in people.”
Too many people, too many opinions, too many decisions to fuss over.
That’s kind of sad, but you can imagine it, right?
There is no church that hasn’t had skirmishes over small things – carpet colors,
cookie prices, you name it and most excellent good hearted people
can get caught up in it.
You know, maybe Hancock Church could have kept doing church fairs if they hung a sign,
taken right from Philippians, over their work leading up to it:
“Be careful with me. I am a work in progress.”
or “God isn’t finished with me yet.”
For Paul believes that love is an antidote to such distractions.
For in Jesus we’re reminded: we’ve all been invited into God’s family.
We all share equally in his transforming love.
And we are all students – lifelong learners – in this business of living out our faith,
this challenge of keeping the focus on what really matters.
One of my favorite authors is Anne Tyler. She writes about quirky people,
all set in her own hometown of Baltimore Maryland.
The other night we watched “The Accidental Tourist” in which Macon Leary, a middle aged man,
writes guidebooks for business people who must travel but, like him, don’t really want to.
Macon gives all kinds of helpful tips about what to pack so as to avoid every hassle,
(the importance of a book to dive into to avoid talking to the person next to you on the plane)
and how to find decent American food in every city, including Paris –
in fact in one scene he is eating a whopper at Burger King
with the L’arc de Triumph in the background.
Macon, played by William Hurt, writes for those who want to keep things familiar,
stable, with no surprises.
He encounters Muriel Pritchett, played by a very young Gina Davis.
She has the most beautiful Pixie face and dresses in the most outlandish eighties outfits.
She trains his dog, who has a biting problem, but she is hardly the picture of discipline
or safe living for that matter.
She never has a thought she doesn’t express, and she is big time into surprises.
As the movie progresses, you can see Macon has a problem, a problem of two women.
There’s his wife, from whom he’s separated, played by Kathleen Turner.
She is always tasteful in manner and dress – a class act.
but she’s actually untouchable.
And there’s Muriel, who is, well Muriel and for quite a while a big dilemma for him.
In the end, what Macon decides is that he needs Muriel.
And she needs him.
They not only ground each other, they “get” each other.
There’s a connection, deep human kindness, the ability to be vulnerable….
and that’s what really matters.
Have you noticed how a good movie will lead to a discussion about what really matters?
Well, good religion should do that too.
In fact, I once heard someone say faith is “worrying about what God worries about
when God gets up in the morning.”
Don’t you like that?
It might be a good thing to say to ourselves in these weeks leading up to Christmas.
Wait, wait, is this something God would be worrying about when God gets up in the morning?
More on that next week, with John the Baptist bursting onto the scene.
Our theme this Advent is “Room in the Inn: Housing the Holy”
and this week we’re encouraged to think about how we do that in our very being.
We all have people we recognize as spiritual people.
They may or may not speak of their faith but when you encounter them, or go to their houses,
they surely welcome you in.
They share something of themselves, showing you a photograph or painting or object
that means something to them.
The conversation moves beyond superficialities.
I think of people, many people, who know how to ask good questions,
who know how to listen, who know how to make another person feel at ease.
I think of visiting Lois Eaton and hearing some of her life story,
and having her ask me to sign her guest book.
Showing hospitality is one way we are partners in God’s grace.
Knowing how important it is to be loved and welcomed
knowing how Jesus welcomed all, we are eager to show this to others.
You will notice that our bulletin covers this Advent are multicultural expressions
of Mother and Child, perhaps Mary and Jesus.
I remember how frightened I was when I was first getting ready to deliver Benjamin
who is now thirty-two.
I didn’t think of myself as the most nurturing person in the world.
I could be forgetful about things, what if I forgot some important aspect of being a mother?
But when he was first placed in my arms, I was amazed.
There was that instant bond, and strong maternal attentiveness flooded my being.
As time went on, I felt this incredible beautiful need.
This child needed me, and I needed to be there for him.
It wasn’t something I had to force, it just happened.
Maybe one of the reasons we like to look at these artistic renderings of mother and child
is that we long for that sort of basic, foundational, reciprocal love.
There are times when love just flows – it’s beautiful.
There are other times when love is not so easy, when we feel we are “up against” someone
whose behavior puzzles us or hurts us.
In a situation like that, we might find ourselves pulling back,
thinking about what we are not getting, or how we’re being insulted.
But if we are to imitate Christ, which is where Paul is going,
then we’d do better to think about what the other person
is feeling like they aren’t getting. We might pause and think of the need they are trying to express.
And pray for a deeper compassion for them.
We might remember we are not so separate from them, that we are all children of one God.
Is it possible that as we learn how to practice love like this that love just flows more naturally from us?
Is it possible that this is the key to having peace, personal peace –
making our focus be in all things learning how to practice love?
There is a word in today’s scripture, in Paul’s prayer for the church in fact, that make me
bristle -- the word “blameless”.
Who among us is blameless?
Who hasn’t spoken wrongly, acted inappropriately, failed to consider something important, asserted
themselves when they’d have been better off showing some humility?
Is Paul about picking out the perfect tree and cultivating perfect Christians?
No, we have to remember the word grace here.
We are partners in God’s grace.
So the focus is not so much on perfection as on our growth -- our need for our own hearts to be
expanded, just like the Grinch in the wonderful kids movie, whose heart grew ten times that day!
Grace means we see ourselves and everyone around us as a work in progress.
So while we hear “pure and blameless” (our translation today says sincere and blameless)
and think Garden of Eden, Adam pointing at Eve, Eve pointing at the snake
the sense of this scripture is more taking responsibility, willing to be held accountable
which is pretty important if we’re ever going to have a more peaceful way of being together.
As one commentator says, “seen from the perspective, the vantage point of love,
blame can be associated with responsibility rather than affiliated with condemnation….
assessing blame can teach us how to step up and do better next time, rather than leaving us
mired in guilt or esconsced in defensiveness or denial.”
(Philip Campbell, p. 42, Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol 1)
These seem like words for our day, when people need grace and also accountability.
Again, this goes back to everyone having the perspective that everyone is a work
in progress….that everyone is learning new things about how to show and receive love
and none of us gets it right all the time.
Perhaps the peace we await in Advent is just this – that “love that will overflow from us
and leave us, if not fully blameless, at least closer to it than we would otherwise be.”
(Philip Campbell, Feasting on the Word, p. 42)
We long for the peace that comes when we let love have its way with us,
when we let love shape us and guide us in all things.
Paul says love produces knowledge in us, helping us see what really matters.
What “purifies” us is letting love be our guide.
As we take our place at the table, may we trust in God
who is bringing us each of us to completion,
making us more and more atune to love,
more eager to house it and more eager to share it.
So let us come to Christ’s table today, because such love and such knowledge
Is surely something we are all hungry for.