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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. 



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