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Sunday, December 26, 2021

In the beginning was the Word



Note: This sermon was preached extemporaneously. I had just learned about the death of Desmond Tutu and felt called to preach this sermon instead of the one I had carefully prepared. It is reconstructed mostly as I recall saying it. 


St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE

on Facebook Live Sirach 26:10. 

Christmas I - December 26, 2021 

You can watch and listen to the service here 


In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.


Yes, I have a sermon all written out.


It’s up there. In the pulpit.


That’s not what I want to preach on this morning. I’ve changed my mind. Two things caused that to happen.


The first is what inspired the first sermon. It’s the first sentence of The Greatest Story Ever Told by John: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

The second is what caused me to hear it in a new way. I don’t know if you have heard by Archbishop Desmond Tutu died some time last night. He has been battling prostate cancer since 1997.


If ever there was anyone who embodied The Word that was with God from the beginning and the Word that was God, it was Desmond Tutu.


I had the enormous privilege of meeting Bishop Tutu. Twice. I want to tell you the story of those two meetings.


The first was when I met him in D.C. in The National Cathedral at the consecration of Frank Tracey Griswold as the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church.

It was 1986. I had just finished the Dreaded G.O.E.s (General Ordination Exams) and my bishop said, Look, you need a bit of a break. I’m going to send you train tickets to DC so you can be at the consecration of the new PB. Part of being a priest is knowing how to network. Go. See people. Meet people. Network.


I thought, Yeah, sure. I’m exhausted! I’m going to go and put my feet up on the train and sleep on the way there and back.


The consecration was wonderful and powerful. There were lots of church dignitaries there, including Desmond Tutu. The word was that he and his family had been whisked away from South Africa because there had been so many threats on his life.


Afterward, there was a great reception at the Westin Hotel, about 2 miles from the Cathedral. I had on my proper Episcopal pumps. Of course I did. Let me tell you, walking 2 miles in proper Episcopal pumps is more painful than taking GOEs.


I was one of the first ones at the hotel ballroom – it was vast – and I scoped out private corner over by the Exit Sign. No networking for me. I just wanted a place where I could put my feet up and people watch.


I hadn’t been seated very long when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up to find a very short, very black man in a purple shirt. “May I join you, please?” 


Yes, it was Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Himself. I later realized that his security guards had probably chosen that table precisely because it was near the Exit. I suppose it was a good plan, just in case they needed to make a hasty departure.


Introductions were made – he said, “Just call me Desmond.” Oh, sure… dddddDesmond.

And then, someone brought him over a bowl of ice cream – a scoop each of vanilla, strawberry and chocolate. “They must know that I love ice cream,” he said, and then invited me to share some with him.


“Oh, no thank you,” I said. 


“No, please,” he said, “have the chocolate.” 


“No thank you,” I repeated.” 


“Really,” he said, “have the chocolate.” 


After a few minutes of this back and forth I looked at him, smiled and said, “You don’t like chocolate, do you?” 


He looked rather sheepish as he said, “No, no I don’t.” 


And we laughed and laughed and laughed.


He asked me why I was there. I told him the story of my bishop and the GOEs. He said that, at that time, women were not allowed to be ordained, “But, it will happen,” he said, forcefully. “It is a matter of justice.”


He wanted to know about the GOEs. I told him all about the seven days of torture. I said my least favorite part was the last set which was 100 fill in the black questions. The first 10 questions were, “Name the 10 Commandments.”


I was furious. This was a test for fitness for ordination, not confirmation. Even so I dutifully filled in every blank. The eleventh question pushed me over the edge. It was, “Who was the mother of St. Augustine of Hippo?”


Now, I went to Roman Catholic School. Of course I knew the mother of St. Augustine of Hippo. I knew LOTS of saints. And, of course I knew that MONICA was the mother of St. Augustine.


Could I remember that there, in that particular moment in time?


No. No I could not. So, in my fury, I wrote down, “The mother of St. Augustine of Hippo was . . . .MRS. Augustine of Hippo.”


Well, Archbishop Tutu simply fell out laughing. He thoroughly enjoyed the story. When he came up for air he said, “My church in Johannesburg is St. Augustine of Hippo.”


Later, when I asked him to sign my service bulletin from the consecration, he signed it +Desmond, of Johannesburg. I had the service bulletin framed and it has hung in every office I’ve ever had in the church.


It was about 1999 or 2000 when my daughter, who was working at NYU called me and said, “Mom! NYU is giving an award to Desmond Tutu for his work on the Truth and Justice Commission. I can get you in if you like. Wanna come?”


I was on the next train from NJ to NYC.


When I walked into the reception room, it was hard not to notice that it was filled with dignitaries. I looked for a small Black man with a purple shirt. There he was – center of the room and to the left, talking with Hillary Clinton.


As I made my way toward him, he spotted me, smiled broadly, pointed his finger at me and said excitedly and loudly, “Mrs. Augustine of Hippo!” He threw out his arms and I threw out my arms and he hugged me for a long, long time. I was ecstatic!


I said to him, “How are you? I’ve heard that you were diagnosed with prostate cancer. And then I heard you were having radiation treatments. And THEN I heard you were chairing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. WHEW! Are you crazy?”


He said, “Yes, of course I am crazy. But, do you know my President? Nelson Mandela? Yes, well, my President asked me to chair the Commission. I said no, but he wouldn’t hear of it. I said, Mr. President, I am the wrong person for the job.”


My President, President Mandela, asked “What makes you say that?”


I said, “My President, I laugh too easily. I cry too easily. I am weak. I am not the person to lead anything.”


And, my President, President Mandela said, “This is why you are perfect to lead the Commission. Because you laugh too easily, you know the absurdity of Truth. Because you cry to easily, you have suffered for the sake of love. And, if you know your weakness, then you know the power of God.”


“So, this is what qualifies you for the job: You know the absurdity of Truth, you have suffered for the sake of love and you know the power of God. If you know those three things, anyone can be a servant leader.”


In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the word was God.


And that Word was Jesus. And Jesus is in each one of us. And Jesus makes us servant leaders. If you know the absurdity of truth, if you have suffered for love and if you know the power of God, you, too, are a servant leader of Christ.


No, not any one of us can be the kind of servant leader of the caliber of Desmond Tutu. There are only a few of those who come into our lives in our lifetime. But, we can be the best we can be. We can allow the Word to become incarnate in us.


In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the word was God.


And  the Word of God was Jesus. And, because of Jesus, Desmond Tutu became another word for God.



Sunday, December 19, 2021

It's the little things


A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Georgetown, DE
and broadcast simultaneously on Sirach 26:10
Advent IV - December 19, 2021


I want to tell you this story of my experience with a 92-year old retired pastor in the Assemblies of God Church who taught me the importance of “little things” that seem insignificant but can be a lifeline and a pathway to salvation.


I went to see him on Christmas Eve. His family said he was sleeping more and more and eating less and less. He was fragile and pale and looked increasingly gaunt. He was off almost all his meds, all except the one for pain. He had gone from taking morphine every 4-6 hours to every 3-4 hours during the day. That and a sleeping pill at night held him mostly until morning.


We had a time of prayer and, to my surprise, he asked for communion. I was only too happy to oblige. I think I said something about how it was no trouble; that it was a little thing, really. A bit of consecrated host. A sip of water. A time of prayer. Not much. Certainly I could provide that for him, especially on Christmas Eve.


After communion, he rested a bit and then, he pulled himself up and said, "And now, I want to tell you about the importance of little things. Little insignificant things. Things that don't seem to have much value but they can repair a relationship and save a life. I want to tell you about the inestimable value of one thin dime."


He told me a story about his oldest son, his firstborn, the one named after him, the one he now lives with. He talked about the time that his son's first wife left him. After a year of marriage, right after high school. For no apparent reason. Just packed her bags, waited at the kitchen table with a casserole in the oven, the house clean and the laundry done until he came home from work.


Said she didn't want to be married anymore. Said there was no one else, there just wasn't anything left of her. Said she had lost herself in everything everyone expected of her which she couldn't do. Especially not have babies. Lord, no, she said. She didn't want any babies. Not now. Maybe not ever.


And, she needed to find herself. Nothing personal on him. Just very personal for her.

And, just like that, she was gone.


His son was brokenhearted. His heart just flat out broke, is what. He cried for what his father said must have been two weeks. Straight. Day and night. Night and day. Didn't eat. Didn't drink. Just cried his heart out from his bed or sofa.


And then, his father said, his son lost his mind.


He picked himself up of the couch and said to his father, "I have to leave. I don't know where I'm going or when I'll be back. I just got to go."


So his father said, "What could I do? The boy had to go. He had to put himself back together. He had to heal himself. I couldn't do it. That was more medicine than I had in me. He had to go out into the wilderness, battle his demons and pray for the angels to find him and rescue him."


Which, apparently, he did.


One particularly fierce battle with those demons happened on the train tracks just outside of Los Angeles, California.


His son, his firstborn son, decided that the only way to end his pain was to stand in front of an oncoming train. He figured it would be fast and he'd be dead before he knew what hit him.

It would be, he thought, a mercy.


At this point in the story, my patient asked that the head of his bed be raised so he could see me better. After I adjusted his pillows and gave him a sip of water, he cleared his throat and continued.


His son said that, as he was waiting for the train, he heard a voice say, clear as a bell, "Look inside your wallet." He thought it might be the voice of God, telling him to get out his wallet so his body could be identified after his death.


And then, he heard the voice say, "Remember the one thin dime."


That's when he remembered that, at his graduation from high school, his father gave him one thin dime and said:


"Put this in your wallet and keep it there. It's not much but it will give you one phone call to make if you are ever in any trouble. It will remind you that, if you ever question who you are, you can always call the one who gave you your life and your name; that you are always mine and I am always yours. It will remind you that you can always call me and, no matter where you are or what you've done, I will come and get you. It may not be worth much, but what it represents is worth everything in the whole world. It represents unconditional love."


And, in that moment, his son picked himself up from the tracks and walked the short distance to the train station. He picked up the payphone, put in the dime, and made a collect call to his father.


"Daddy," he said, "this is your son. Your prodigal son. I just used the one thin dime you gave me. And so I'm calling you, just like you said to do. Daddy, I want to come home. Can I come home now? I think I'm going to be okay if I can just come home."


"And so, he came home," he said, "My son came home to his prodigal father. I called an old pastor friend of mine who lived right outside of LA. He came right to the train station and picked up my boy. He and his wife fed him. Said he ate like he hadn't seen a good plate of food in years. He'd been gone a little over a year, so who knows what he had or hadn't eaten in that time."


He sighed, cleared his throat and continued, "He stayed with them about a week and then we got some money for a bus ticket home. He was pretty wore out when he got home - looked very thin and his mother liked to have a heart attack when she saw him - but by the next week he had a job and the next year he met the woman he's now married to and they've been happy together ever since."


"One thin dime," he said, shaking his head in continued amazement. "Just one thin dime."


Then, he reached into the pocket of his pajama shirt and pulled out a thin dime, breathed on it, polished it a bit on his blanket, and gave it to me.


"Here," he said, "put this in your wallet. I know you can't make a phone call with it. Ain't no phone booths in too many places these days, anyhow."


"But, I want you to keep it and if you're ever feeling poorly, like your ministry don't matter to none but Jesus and you wonder why you keep at it when you could be making more money doing something else and none of it seems worth it any how or any way . . . that time, you just take out this dime and hold it in your hand. And know that once there was an old, dying man who loved Jesus very much and saw the love of Jesus in your heart, too."


"Know that you ministered to this poor old raggedy, full of cancer minister and let him minister to you and you helped him to feel worthwhile and useful and purposeful again."


So, of course I got all girly-burbly and when I opened my mouth nothing came out but "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."


At least, that's what I thought I was saying.


I'm not sure, but I just might have had an ecstatic moment there myself.


One thin dime. That's all. Just one thin dime.


It's not so much about the dime, you see. It's about the importance of little things. Little, seemingly insignificant things. Things that don't seem to have much value but they can repair a broken heart and save a life. It may not be worth much, but what it represents is worth everything in the whole world. It represents unconditional love.


At the time, no one thought much of a visit between a young pregnant girl and her older pregnant cousin. If anyone had seen them, they just probably looked like two women so happy to see one another one of them burst out in song. But, that little song, made up of a series of little words carried by little notes, was enough to shape and form the mind of the son in her womb and made the nascent prophet forming in the womb of her cousin to leap for joy.


Many thought that, when the King of Israel would come, it would be with great power and might and glory. But, God sent them a babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.


Small. Not worth much. But, capable of healing broken hearts, restoring dignity and value and worth, and saving a life, representing unconditional love.


What has God sent you that you’ve been storing away that you may need this Advent? What have you overlooked or diminished in your life that you might rediscover this during such a time as this?


Perhaps the words of Mary Oliver’s poem “Invitation” will open your heart and inspire your soul to consider those questions. Oliver writes:


Oh do you have time

to linger

for just a little while

out of your busy

and very important day

for the goldfinches

that have gathered

in a field of thistles

for a musical battle,

to see who can sing

the highest note,

or the lowest,

or the most expressive of mirth,

or the most tender?


Their strong, blunt beaks

drink the air

as they strive


not for your sake

and not for mine

and not for the sake of winning

but for sheer delight and gratitude –

believe us, they say,

it is a serious thing

just to be alive

on this fresh morning

in the broken world.


I beg of you,

do not walk by

without pausing

to attend to this

rather ridiculous performance.


It could mean something.


It could mean everything.


It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:

You must change your life.




Sunday, December 12, 2021

Be the hope you seek

A Sermon Preached at St. Paul's, Episcopal Church
Georgetown, DE
and broadcast simultaneously on Facebook Live
Sirach 26:10
December 12, 2021 - Advent III - Year C 


Well, John the Baptist sure knows how to get your attention, doesn’t he? I can only imagine the frustration he must have been feeling to blurt out, “You brood of vipers!”


After he gets their attention, they ask him, “What should we do?” And, he tells them exactly what he’s been telling them all along: Repent. Stop what you’re doing. Do something different. Take a different direction. Make a new path. Change your ways.


Except now, he tells them in very specific terms. Got two coats? Share. Got food? Ditto.


Tax collectors? Stop being corrupt. Be fair.


Soldiers (Police)? Ditto. Do not abuse the power you have. Take only what you earn.


Essentially, he is saying to them – and to us, all these many centuries later – You are responsible for paving the pathway for salvation. You contain the seeds of joy and hope. Be the joy you desire. Be the hope you seek.  And, share.


I was a newly ordained priest when I learned this very important lesson. I was assistant to the rector of Memorial Episcopal Church on Bolton Hill in Baltimore, Maryland. The church had built a large, first of its kind in that city, state of the art apartment complex for the elderly called Memorial Apartments. Part of my portfolio was to preside at Wednesday noon Eucharist in the Chapel there.


After mass one Wednesday, I was asked to see a resident who refused to come to chapel. She was the recent widow of a well-known and loved Baptist preacher and was having a very difficult time adjusting to her new residence. That was partly because she was not Episcopalian and partly because she was one of the few African American residents. 


Would I please go and visit with her?


I found her to be a very formal lady, holding herself with great dignity, the kind which demanded immediate respect. I wondered what indignities she had had to suffer until she learned that for some people, respect is earned but for others, it must be demanded. For some, as a mechanism of self-defense, respect must come as an expectation.


The sadness in her eyes, however, was enough to break your heart.


Our first few meetings together were awkward and uncomfortable, but slowly, slowly, slowly, she warmed up to me, even favoring me with a little half smile every now and again.


At the end of our visit, I would ask her if she wanted me to pray. She would nod her head affirmatively and I would open my Book of Common Prayer and launch into the collect of the week, or, perhaps a prayer from the back of the book that suit the occasion – such as “in time of trouble” or “for the earth” or even “for public life”.


After awhile, when I would ask her about prayer, she would sniff and ask, “You mean, those words from your prayer book? The words are pretty but do you call that prayer?”


“Yes, ma’am,” I would say, “Don’t you?”


“Well, when my husband prayed, he prayed from his heart. Those are the best prayers.”


I was young. I was newly ordained. I wanted to do my best. So, I started looking for books on “extemporaneous prayer”. I was not only young but I was also foolish so I went looking specifically for “how to” books on “extemporaneous prayer”.


Had I thought about it for 10 seconds I would have seen that studying technique on extemporaneous prayer is a bit of an oxymoron. In the end, it’s simply a matter of the heart – a prepared heart, to be sure – but something that flows from the heart rather than scripted from memory. 


The next week when I saw her, I was a bit anxious. I wanted so to please her, to bring even a faint smile to those very sad eyes. When our visit was coming to an end, I asked my usual permission to pray and she gave me her expected sarcasm about my prayer book.


This time, I held onto my closed BCP – a little too tightly, as I recall – closed my eyes just as tightly and launched into my first experience of extemporaneous prayer.


I have no idea what I said. None. I had probably said too much. I worried I hadn’t said enough. When I opened my eyes, I looked at her face and immediately realized that my worst nightmare come true.


She was crying. “Oh, no, no, no!” I said.” I’m so sorry. Did I say something to offend? Something that upset you?”


And then, she smiled the warmest, most gentle and loving smile I could ever have imagined her capable of giving.


“Why no, child,” she said. “You were just fine. That was beautiful. It’s just that, when you started to pray, well, it was then that I realized just how lonely I really am.”


I sucked in my breath as I took in her words. And then, I heard myself say, “Well then, why don’t we talk a bit about that loneliness.”


And, over the next two hours, we talked and laughed and cried as she told me some of the stories of her life.


It was the first of many times we would talk and laugh and cry and she would tell me stories of joy in the midst of great sadness; of peace in the midst of tremendous turmoil; of the light of hope in the presence of foreboding darkness; of love in the face of horrendous, evil hate.


I realized that, when I opened my heart to her, she could open her heart to me; that, when I took a risk to trust myself with her, she could take a risk and trust her stories – her sadness, her loneliness – with me.


I learned the secret buried deep in the message of John the Baptist: Jesus came to save us – yes, ready or not, deserving or undeserving – but our lives are part of the ongoing revelation of salvation history.


Indeed, our lives are part of the path that prepares the Way of Salvation. The simple acts of love – the hope in our stories – pave the way for the hope of Incarnate Love to come again and again and again into our lives and so, in turn, into the lives of others.


Are you unhappy with the direction of your life? Repent. Turn around. Go in another direction. Got two coats? Share one. Don’t give into the temptation of corruption and sin. Be fair. Take only what you need. Don’t abuse whatever power you have.


Take a risk. Open your heart. Be the love, be the joy, be the peace, be the hope you seek.


This is the message to us from John the Baptist. If we listen to him we will hear him proclaim the Good News of the coming of Jesus: Be the hope you seek. And, share.



Sunday, December 05, 2021

Spasmodic tricks of radiance

“The word of God came to John”

A Sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church

Georgetown, DE

Broadcast on Facebook Live: Sirach 26:10

December 5, 2021 - Advent II - Year C


Well, we’re now headlong into the second week of Advent. The lectionary lessons this morning would have us consider the prophets God has sent to herald the coming of Jesus.


The first lesson is from the minor prophet Malachi. Malachi is actually a Hebrew term meaning “my messenger.” Malachi’s message is one that tells of John the Baptist as the herald of Jesus.


Zechariah, of course, was the father of John the Baptist and the husband of Elizabeth, who was the cousin of Mary. His song is what scripture says Zechariah first sings after having been struck silent when he heard, in disbelief, that he and his elderly wife were about to have a child. In his song, he prophesizes that his son, John, will be a prophet of the Most High. And, he was.


In Luke’s gospel, we hear that John was in the wilderness when “the word of God came to John.” He began preaching the ancient words of the prophet Isaiah all around the area of the Jordan, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”.


The word of God had come to John when he was still in his mother’s womb. It was John who leapt for joy when Mary, pregnant with The Word of God, had come to see her cousin Elizabeth. Both women were bearing miracles in their womb.


Malachi. Zechariah. John. Each of them, messengers of God. Even Paul, who from a prison cell in the city of Philippi, is writing messages about the second coming of Jesus.


Elizabeth, bearer of a prophet. Mary, bearer of the prophet who was The Word of God. Both women, bearers and messengers of God’s messengers.


So, here’s my question: What does it take to be a messenger of God? I mean, is there an office one should visit? Where’s the application? Does it need to be filled out in triplicate and notarized? Or, is it just an accident of birth? Or, is it simply a matter of being at the right place at the right time?


I’ve been reading some of Sylvia Plath’s poetry this Advent. Nothing like reading the words of a bi-polar poet who committed suicide at the age of 30 to get you in that holiday mood, eh?


Actually, I find Plath’s poetry to be deeply spiritual. There are more than a few poems that are brilliant, some catching the mood of anticipation and frustration of the impossibility of waiting, of the “almost and not yet” of the Season of Advent.


The last few verses of her poem, “Black Rook in Rainy Weather,” caught my eye.

Miracles occur.
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance
Miracles. The wait’s begun again,
The long wait for the angel,

For that rare, random descent.

It could be said that Plath was talking about the miracle of the descent of the angel who would lift her depression, but I think it also captures something of the magnificence of the ordinary. Of how some miracles may simply be “spasmodic tricks of radiance” and we don’t realize the significance of the miracle that has actually taken place right in front of our very eyes.


So, a story. (Of course, a story.)


A few days before I left for my pilgrimage to Egypt, I went to the PNC Bank in Millsboro. We were told to bring $200 in single dollar bills and $100 in five dollar bills. We would need them for purchasing souvenirs from street vendors as well as tipping. One does not retrieve that kind of cash from the ATM Bank Machine, so I went inside the bank to carry out my task.


It was Saturday morning. I had gotten there about 10 minutes before the bank was scheduled to open. Already, there was a line inside the vestibule and out onto the sidewalk. At the front of the line stood an elderly woman who had what appeared to be a bag of coins. Behind her was a man who was speaking another language to his young son, who was clearly there to be his translator. And, behind him was a man with disabilities of his body, his eyes and ears, and his intellect.


What I had imagined to be a ten-minute  (fifteen, tops) sprint in and out of the bank on a Saturday morning was now shaping up to be a test of my endurance. Ask my family: I am not a patient person. Patience is decidedly not my strong suit.


I sighed. Out loud. The person behind me responded to my psalm of lament with a sigh of his own. It was going to be a long wait. Turns out, we were both correct in our prophecies. We stood there in line for almost 40 minutes, waiting for our turn at the teller’s window.


Here’s the thing about being a priest: You don’t get into this business if you don’t love people. Oh, you can, I suppose, but you won’t find yourself often happy in this profession (and, I suspect not many will be too happy with you). You don’t do this work of servant leadership, of the impossible vocation of attempting the near constant attempted balance of the pastoral and the prophetic, without a deep, abiding love for the people God sends you.


Oh, I’m a long way from perfect, even after 35 years. (See also: short on patience). I am, however, a student of human behavior and an avid people-watcher. Because I love people I find them endlessly fascinating, as I imagine God is absolutely fascinated with us. 


I always learn new things about myself from watching other people. 


This morning was to be no different.


I found myself impressed and, in fact, inspired by two different groups of people. The first group was the tellers. Can I just say that, as a person who is short on patience, I am in absolute awe of those who seem to have it in abundance? I watched almost slack-jawed as the teller helped the woman count out her sack of coins. 


Several times. And, always, every time, with a sort of joyful anticipation of both the woman and the teller.


Turns out, she had ten whole dollars in pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters but the joy on the face of the woman who realized she not only had more than she hoped for but now had enough money to take to her church’s Fall Festival was priceless. Her joy was surpassed only by the joy on the face of the teller who helped her count her money. 


Their joy was absolutely infectious.


Then, there was the teller who helped the blind man. Not only did he help to deposit his meager monthly disability check – repeating the simplest of steps over and over again, never raising his voice, but always maintaining calm  – but he also helped the man put cash into the various envelopes he had brought in with him: rent, food, personal needs, and yes, one for Christmas shopping.  


The customer with the multiple disabilities made his requests to the teller in a Very Loud voice – several times. The teller, for his part, carefully and gently explained each step, repeating himself – pleasantly – as often as was necessary. 


It took a little more than 30 minutes for a transaction that otherwise would have taken no more than five – seven minutes, tops. And yet, no one in line lost their temper. No one grumbled. We all seemed to be expectantly waiting for the outcome of those ahead of us.


Which leads me to the second impressive group: My fellow customers. Now, I don’t have to tell too many of you that we live in some pretty ugly times. People seem all too eager to offer an opinion – generally in the form of sarcasm or disdain, flippancy or mockery – over the smallest of things. Hair-trigger tempers abound. Many people seem all-too-ready to criticize, complain or condemn. It’s like some folks are stuck in their very own pit of despair and want to suck the rest of us down there with them. 


(I'm remembering the line from Al Pacino's charter Michael Corleone's in The Godfather: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.")


Not so that morning at the PNC Bank.  It was October – the beginning of October – nowhere near Halloween or Thanksgiving, and we couldn’t attribute it on the Spirit of Christmas. There was just an air of patience and acceptance among those who were in that bank lobby, waiting for their turn.


We were inspired by the patience and generosity of spirit of those bank tellers who, despite the status of their religious standing, were exhibiting the kind of behavior that, I'm quite certain, makes Jesus smile.


As I have reflected on that experience, I have come to hear the very words we heard this morning revealed in a new way. The prophetic words of Isaiah, repeated thousands of years later by John the Baptist, and now repeated again, thousands of years later, for us, found new application:

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

The word of God came to me that morning and I hadn’t even been looking for it, much less had visited the Office of the Prophecies of God or filled out an application. It was this:


People with disabilities, people with poor education or limited intellect, people who have had to leave their country of origin and do not speak the language of their newly adopted home country all have a pretty rough go of it. People with disabilities face obstacle that may just as well be hills or mountains. To be occasionally ridiculed or demeaned because of the way they look or talk can make anyone feel lower than the lowest valley.


I watched in awe as the tellers straightened the crooked paths and smoothed the rough ways. They removed the barriers that would cause the most sturdy among us to stumble.

Moreover, they opened the eyes of this woman who had been blind. I had been seeing the words of the Prophet Isaiah as a feat of engineering rather than seeing how I – we all – might more closely involve ourselves in the process of salvation.


Turns out, Sylvia Plath was right. Miracles do occur. Sometimes they look like “spasmodic tricks of radiance”. The long wait for the angel does not have to be that long. 


We need simply to open our eyes, open our minds and, most importantly, open our hearts to see scripture being revealed and lived out right in our very midst. In a bank. At the market. In the parking lot. Even, I dare say, in church!


The word of God came to ordinary people like Isaiah, and Zechariah, to John and Elizabeth, to Mary and even St. Paul. There have been many more, before and since. 


The word of God can come to you, too, in the most magnificently ordinary places. 


Just wait. And, watch. After awhile, you’ll see.  


That random descent of a long awaited angel won’t be that rare.