Sermon from the Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr., rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | The Second Sunday of Advent, Dec. 10, 2017
Hear again these words from the second letter of Peter, “But in accordance with God’s promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth…Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace.” While you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by God at peace. Today, on this second Sunday in our season of Advent, we are reminded again that this is a season of waiting. Waiting for Christ to return, waiting for our completion and fulfillment, waiting for a new creation. The invitation is to wait in peace and to wait with hope. The message of Advent is true all the year round. We are a waiting people, and this is the place where we learn the art of waiting.
We do not usually like waiting. We try to avoid having to wait. Or if we have to wait, we find something else to do while we wait passively for something to happen. The waiting we do here, though, is Advent waiting, active waiting. Advent waiting is joyful anticipation, paying close attention because there is something new breaking out right now. This kind of waiting we want to be fully present for, not doing something else, not checking email messages. Advent waiting means living as if this moment is THE moment, the moment that God is breaking into the world again. Waiting, in this way, can bring a sense of peace.
St. George’s is our place to learn how to wait with Advent grace. In addition to being the second Sunday of Advent, today is also our St. George’s parish annual meeting, a time of looking back and looking forward, a time of electing leaders for vestry who will guide us in the waiting. A lot of times on these Sundays of annual meetings rectors set aside the sermon and give more of a report on the “state of the parish.” I’m not going to do that today, but I do want to talk about the state of our parish in the context of the unfolding promise of God in this place at this time. Many of you are here, because you have seen the unfolding, you’ve witnessed God working, and you want to wait here to see what happens next. St. George’s, how are we waiting?
In the Gospel today, we hear of John the Baptist at the Jordan River in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” In other words, “wait for God with action and anticipation.” For us, that waiting begins in baptism. Our worship and sacramental life together is the beginning and end of that waiting. So let me share a few numbers with you here. In the past year, we welcomed 25 new members to the Body of Christ through baptism, adults, young children, and infants. We welcomed 28 people to the Episcopal Church through confirmation and reception. So that’s 53 new companions in the waiting. Thanks be to God. In 2017, we asked God to bless six couples in marriage as they promised to wait faithfully with each other until death. From this congregation in 2017, we have commended to God fourteen souls to God through death into newness of life, celebrating the waiting time we had with them on earth. We held Eucharist services on every Sunday and on Wednesday, Compline Sunday evenings and daily prayer most weekdays and some extra ones thrown in. We sent communion from this communion table to the sick and homebound. Worship and sacraments, signs of God’s grace, is where we begin and end our waiting. It is where we learn how to wait in holiness and devotion to God, where we learn the art of waiting together in words and story, song, and silence. It is crucial for everything else we do, and I give thanks that we do it in so many different ways.
Our worship and sacraments leads us to waiting in our pastoral care for each other, it leads us to waiting in our reaching out with helping hands with neighbors near and far, in sharing of the Good News, the good news of what we are doing here, what we are doing in the world, the good news of what is happening in our hearts. It leads us to learning and exploration of God’s word and how we follow Christ. It leads us to wait as we see the abundance of giving in time, talent, and money in thanksgiving to God. We are learning to wait with the earth itself as we strive to be better caregivers of God’s creation. We have learned to wait, with great urgency, as we strive for justice and to respect the dignity of every human being. We are learning this Advent waiting, this anticipation of God breaking into the world, every time we welcome a new person, welcome a stranger and reach across the lines of difference. I cannot possibly, in the time of this sermon, give an account of all the specific ways we have seen God at work in the waiting at St. George’s in the past year. We would be here for days. I think we will have to have another gathering, maybe in the spring, just to lift up the many, many stories of waiting and grace. I will not even attempt to hit the high spots, because frankly there are just too many and to choose one might diminish others.
I am giving you a bit of a report, not as much about what we have done and more about how we are waiting. The first reflection on waiting is that we are waiting to see what God will do with us next! Just when we think we have enough on the plate, God will throw something at us, something new. You all know how much we have going on around here, and then something else comes along and I say, “really God?!” So just one example (and there are many I could cite) we have some persons who are deaf who have discovered St. George’s and they want to be part of our community. In order to offer them hospitality, we need to find resources for sign language interpretation. We will need to get used to service animals being in our midst. We will have to wait and see how that will turn out. In the meantime, they have already given us a name. In the deaf community, it is an honor when they stop signing your name letter by letter and give you a sign. The name of St. George’s is now “the vegetable church!” We are the vegetable church, because of our reputation as a church which gives away fresh produce every Tuesday at the Table. I said, “I always knew we were a vegetable church, because our community has a lot of fiber!” We will have to wait, anticipate, and learn how to be welcoming in new ways. By the way, there is no church in our Diocese providing this kind of welcome. It will add some wrinkles to our glorious and complicated worship together, and we will wait to see how that goes. But I feel like God keeps doing this with us, giving us another thing, saying “you can do it.” And what is such a blessing is that you St. Georgians more often than not welcome a little more wonderfulness. “Sure, it’s one more thing, but let’s see what might come,” you say. There is an amazing spirit of enthusiasm here, a willingness to be part of the active waiting to see what God will throw at us next. It is a joy to see you excited as you wait to see what the Spirit is doing, what is getting ready to be born here.
My second reflection on the waiting is that there is a time to stop, though, and wait before we do too much. When I came here three years ago, you told me, “there is a lot going on here, are you sure you want this thing?” And you were right, there is a lot going on in this place, and sometimes it can be a little crazy. We are growing. We keep adding members. We have outgrown our space for Sunday school and are now renting space across the street. There is more growth to come. So over the next two years I am calling on us to stop and wait and to undergo a process of reviewing and renewing our ministries together. This will be a time to listen deeply to each other, to the community, and to the Holy Spirit. What ministries are waiting to be born? What ministries are waiting for a transition or maybe waiting to have their end? What resources, what leadership, what space, what money will we need in order to respond to God’s calling? Part of this process will be learning about the talents and the gifts that are right here in our midst, and we started this with the time and talent pledges this year. We need to get better organized in connecting people with each other with opportunities to share their gifts so that we can all share this ministry together. This will be a time of intentionally listening and planning so that the ministries we have been called to can be sustained for the long term.
My third reflection on the waiting is that as we wait in this Advent way, our waiting can be a witness to the world. Right now outside these doors is a world that is overwhelming and overwhelmed and changing so fast it makes our heads spin. And that world is also waiting for peace, but it does not always know it. It is impatient and does not really know how to wait with much grace. We, as Advent people, as people who are learning the art of waiting with hope, we have a witness to share about peace that can be found even in the middle of a mess, even when we do not see the complete way forward. This is something we have been exploring this past year in something we call “habits of the heart,” and healing the heart of our culture and our democracy. We have been saying things like, “we are all in this together,” “we can hold tension in creative and life-giving ways,” and “everyone can have a voice and a role to play as we build beloved community with God’s help. We have a witness while we wait for that to bear fruit.
Our Lenten Weekend speaker, coming February 2018, is the Rev. Dr. Michael Battle, and he has written a book titled: “Heaven on earth: God’s call to Community in the Book of Revelation.” This is not your typical book about the book of Revelation. What he’s saying is that while we wait for the new heaven and the new earth that God promises, we are called to come together. We are called to be active in the waiting together: choosing heaven instead of hell, choosing blessing instead of cursing, choosing community instead of chaos, choosing hope instead of despair. As Lawrence Davies, former mayor of Fredericksburg and pastor of Shiloh Baptist Old Site has said, “You can either curse the darkness or light a candle. I choose the latter.” That is an Advent waiting statement if ever I heard one!
St. George’s we are called to wait. We are called to learn the art of waiting actively together as we see what God has for us next, as we stop and wait to see what we need to sustain ourselves, and as we bear witness to the world with our waiting in hope, together. May God give us hearts to wait well, to choose light, not impatiently looking at our watches but waiting with joyful anticipation as we wait for the one who is coming into the world, the light, the Christ who baptizes us with the Spirit. It is a privilege to be your rector, waiting and to invite us all to wait in peace, together, as we begin another year.