Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Prayer 2528

We lift our hearts to You, 
Mechayeh HaKol, 
O Giver of Life to All: 
through the gates of prayer 
we center ourselves within your light and wisdom,
and draw near to your mercy.

Teach us to treasure your paths
of faithfulness and unity, O Holy One, 
that we may make them our own. 
May we proclaim our fellowship and love of each other 
as a sign of our worship of You, O Light Eternal. 
May we walk together reverently upon the Earth,
and extol your glory revealed in all creation. 

May we seek to heal and repair our communities, 
and restore our respect for our common bonds 
as a testimony to your call to us, O God,
to live in community and companionship with each other. 

Accept our prayers and praises
as we seek to draw closer to You, O Holy One,
and grant your peace and blessing
upon those for whom we pray.


Monday, December 30, 2019

Prayer 2527: For the Helpers

O Great Provider,
Beneficent and Compassionate One,
we lift up our hearts in prayer,
seeking to center ourselves in your mercy,
that we may be a blessing to others this day. 
You are the Ground of Our Being
and Source of Our Hearts:
we give thanks for your blessing and love. 

Merciful God, strengthen the helpers today: 
those who work for healing; 
those who seek to ease suffering and pain; 
those who comfort the lonely 
and stand alongside the abandoned; 
those who work for true peace 
founded on justice and equality; 
those who welcome the stranger and refugee;
those who live out their lives as love in action. 
And then, O Wisdom,
make us helpers, too.
For this is true worship:
to serve You and serve each other.

Each breath we take is a gift from you, 
O Creator and Redeemer. 
As faithful people, 
may we turn our intentions toward compassion. 
May we reflect hope against despair,
light against darkness,
and enlightenment against division and prejudice,
O Light of the World.

Holy One,
we know that you are with us and alongside us
in joy as well as in sorrow or pain:
grant that the blessing of your peace and presence
may be made visible to all,
especially as we lift up these beloveds to You.


Thursday, December 26, 2019

Prayer, day 2523: On St. Stephen's Day

Most Merciful God, bend near,
and place the balm of your spirit
upon this turbulent world we have made.
Let us hear again your call to live
as children of light, justice, healing, and peace. 

Lord, let us be children of light.
When we stumble blindly
in the storms of sin and destruction,
let us be filled with and reflect
the light of your love.

Let us be for laborers for justice.
Let us seek to not live by the sword,
but by the wisdom and grace of your Word.

Let us be for agents of healing.
Let us seek reconciliation and repentance,
not retribution,
for one wound cannot be healed by another.

Lord, let us be for peace.
Let us unclench the fists of our hearts,
renouncing all that separates us from each other.

Lord, let our cry come to You from our depths
as we pray in your mercy.


Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Prayer, day 2522: On Christmas Day

Most Holy Savior,
we bend the knee of our hearts before You,
and place ourselves at your command
in gratitude and joy.

May we make our hearts
a worthy habitation
for your love to live.
May we, like Mary,
bear you with joy into the world
for the light of the world.

May we serve you
with steadfast faith and hope
for the sake of the world,
revealing God's wisdom and truth.

May we be your hands and heart in all our ways,
and do your work of reconciliation with joy.
May we turn aside from all that separates us,
and remember that we are all children of God,
called to lives of compassion.

Blessed Jesus, place the hand of your blessing
on those we now name.


Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The Song of the Shepherds: Sermon for Christmas Eve

It was surprisingly cold on the Migdal, or Tower, of Eder. It was normally windy and dry this time of year, but perhaps being up in the tower exposed us to more wind than we would have expected. The last lights of the houses in Bethlehem had faded out hours before, and it felt like we were the only people for miles around who were still awake. 

Nonetheless, I and my fellow-shepherds spent every night while we were on watch overseeing the flocks below from this tower, and so had fellow shepherds generations before us. This tower, after all, had been standing since before the days of Jacob and Rachel, our patriarch and matriarch. Rachel had even been buried near here, back when the town was called Ephratha. In fact, another term for this tower was the Tower of the Flocks—that’s how long the flocks had been pastured in the fields below.

After all, we watched not just any flock. These flocks were holy. The rabbis had set aside our flocks for a special purpose—these were the lambs that would be sacrificed at Passover, so they had to be without blemish or imperfection. We had to watch them especially carefully, therefore, and keep them clean with special soft cloths given to us by the priests, that we always carried with us.(1)

So we were passing the long hours of the night, shivering slightly in the wind, when suddenly the stars overhead seemed to whirl and spin. They danced so much, at first I thought I was getting dizzy and in danger of falling from the tower, and I gripped the parapet tightly—it was hard to tell if I wasn’t already leaning over. Or which way was up.

Then the heavens tore open like a curtain being ripped in two, and light like the sun at noonday dazzled us as a rush of noise broke over us like a wave on the sea. We were driven to our knees, with our hands over our heads. Yet, within seconds, the sound resolved into the most beautiful, most heavenly song of praise I had ever heard, but from no instruments from which I was familiar—and we often soothed the herds by playing the pipes and the lyre. Even I, the one who sang the most of all of us, had never heard such music. It entwined itself in my ear and in my heart, and even while I trembled I also marveled and rejoiced at such beauty.

And then! A terrible, yet beautiful being appeared in our midst. He shone with an inner fire that shimmered with colors of garnet, jade, jasper, carnelian, opal, and sapphire, yet also seemed whiter than salt. Surely, I thought, I was going to die—yet he turned his gaze to me and took in each one of us as we cowered, and I managed to gather my courage to look upon him.

“I AM the Angel of the Lord. Do not fear,” he said, in what seemed like the most ridiculous thing to say to anyone ever, and if we hadn’t been terrified, we might have laughed a bit hysterically. Instead, we were simply shocked into an awe-filled silence. Then he swept his arms open wide. The wind around us stopped, and a soothing, honeyed warmth began to spread through my bones, an abiding peace and calmness, and I felt more alert and alive than I had ever felt before. It gave me the courage to do as he said, and we all slowly got to our feet before him, although we still shielded our still-dazzled eyes with our hands as the light danced above us and around us.

He continued. “Again, do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Can anything good ever come from Bethlehem, I wondered? Its time of glory was long since past. And why would the angel of the Lord come to us, of all people, in the middle of the night, to announce the coming of the Messiah, the long-awaited king? Why wouldn’t the Messiah be proclaimed from palaces and even from the top of the Temple itself? I felt a surge of doubt sweep over me so strongly that I began to suspect I was having some sort of dream.

It was only then that I realized I had asked my questions out loud, and I feared I had angered the self-proclaimed messenger of God. Yet he merely continued talking. “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

And with that final word, the angel rose overhead, and the parted curtain of stars into which he ascended was pierced by an army of winged cherubim and seraphim, singing a holy melody of praise as they zoomed and dipped in formation like a murmuration of starlings—yet rather than being black forms against a white backdrop, they were pure white against an inky expanse of sky such as I had never seen before.

And then, just like that, with glorious songs of praise resounding, in formation the heavenly host ascended back into heaven, and sky sealed itself back up. The stars again shone forth in their flickering constellations, but their light now seemed diminished and hesitant in comparison to what we had just witnessed. We all looked at each other, to make sure we had all seen and heard the same thing—and soon we were talking all at once, trying to make sense of our last few minutes together

We all agreed on the details we had just seen and heard, and we were shaken to our cores. Surely, we thought, lights would be blazing on in the town. Surely, the entire region had seen and heard the amazing things we had just experienced. Surely, we had totally forgotten about the sheep down below and they had scattered to the four corners of the earth is terror. We looked down, though, and the sheep were still placidly grazing or sleeping, head to butt in clumps down below, right where we had left them. It seemed like time had stopped, and then just resumed; the wind swirled faintly around us on the top of that tower, the sheep grazed on, but our understanding had just been completely altered forever.

“What just happened? What shall we do?” wailed Chaim, the youngest of us.

Isaac, the wisest among us and also the most quiet, raised his hand to speak, and when he had our attention, he stunned us. “The prophet Micah foretold what just happened when he wrote,

'And you, O tower of the flock, The stronghold of the daughter of Zion, To you shall it come, Even the former dominion shall come, The kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem.'”(2)

Isaac looked at all of us, and then continued, “If the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem, it would be announced from this tower, and the child should be in one of the cave-stalls that we sometimes rent out to shelter our sheep before driving them to Jerusalem.” We were stunned. But that made sense, and agreed with what the rabbis had explained to us in shul. 

 “The angel said for us to go. I think we’d better go,” declared Yossel, who was always the bravest (some could call him the most foolish and reckless among us). But his next words made sense: “If we don’t go, the messenger might come back, and I don’t think I could survive it.” Yet all of us couldn’t go, so Chaim volunteered to stay behind to watch the flocks. The rest of us clambered down the tower and headed into town.

As soon as our sandaled feet touched the ground, a misty, shimmery light shone down from heaven and danced before us, and began to lead us into Bethlehem. We walked past the shelter at the tower’s base where the ewes were kept when they were giving birth, and the light moved ahead of us toward town. This was actually the least incredible thing that had happened to us in the last many minutes, and so without even marvelling we fell into step with this light. When we slowed, it slowed; when we sped up, it sped up too.

Soon it came to rest near one of the caves we used near town—a place that also had rooms to rent as we waited to depart each spring for Jerusalem, and not far from the main road-- just as Isaac had predicted. We had to duck down to enter the cave, and as we entered, we heard the sound of sheep and cattle and donkeys—but also, the low murmur of voices: a man and a girl’s. Soon we saw them—a man, a young woman laying back against a bale of straw, not much older than a girl, really-- and there, in a feeding trough, was a newborn child, his brown, curly hair pressed down flat and moist against his forehead. The young woman started as she saw us, because she had been preparing to wrap the babe in her hijab, and her hair was uncovered.

But we couldn’t back out now. We hurriedly cast our eyes downward, but our gaze kept being drawn to the baby in wonder. It was just as the angel had said! We were rooted to the spot.

It was Rueben, the oldest among us, who figured a way out of our predicament. He reached into his pouch and drew out some of the linen cloths purificators that we used to keep the lambs clean. Keeping his eyes averted from the young woman, he offered the cloths to the man. “For the baby,” Rueben whispered. And the man knelt down next to the young woman, and they swaddled the baby in the cloth strips weaving them snuggly until the child was wrapped securely against the night.

The baby, soothed, opened his eyes and looked right at us. His parents motioned us closer. His eyes were clear as the centuries, and the light of the angel host that had accompanied the announcement of his birth danced and swirled across his dark pupils. I felt all the weight of care and want and fear leave me. Just the brush of his gaze against me healed the broken places within my very deepest being.

In the stillness, as we gazed at each other, we heard an echo of that heavenly song of praise. Hosannas faintly swirled overhead. Then he turned into his mother’s arms and drifted to sleep. Could this truly be the Messiah, the longed-for savior and rescuer anointed by God to reign over Israel?

Yes. This is the lamb of God, we breathed to one another. That’s why he was announced to us, lowly shepherds that we are. Here was the true lamb without spot or stain. And we knew that this holy child would show us the way of peace. The way of truth. The way of shalom—of contentment, of wholeness, and well-being. The way of life eternal, right now.

We looked at each other in wonder, shepherds and parents, and then introduced ourselves. Together, we told the parents how we had been drawn here and what we had seen and heard, even as we knew we must sound insane.

Yet instead of disbelief, they nodded, and greeted our tale with one of their own. They told us how they, too, had been visited by angels and led by miracles and wonders to this place and this time.

Soon, Isaac prodded the rest of us. Surely, the new family needed rest. We promised to bring them food and more cloths when we could. Since our own shelter as shepherds for the temple flock was not any better than this cave, that was all we had to offer. And with that, we backed out of the cave and headed back to the tower just as dawn began to glow in the east.

Yet even as we left and returned to our tower, that song stayed within us. And we began to sing our way through the night—singing out the glory of God, echoing as best we could that song of praise. This was now our mission: to share that song of wonder, to announce the marvels we had seen with our own eyes. To proclaim to the world the coming of the Holy One of God. That song echoed within us even through the coming years. 


 Won’t you join us? Join us, even in our wonder and praise, in proclaiming the light that has come into the world! Join us in carrying that wonder, love, thanksgiving, and praise and sharing it with the world. Tell out the story of God’s love made visible, come for the sake of us all, as the poet proclaimed about us:

The Shepherds watch their flocks by night,
Beneath the moon's unclouded light,
All around is calm and still,
Save the murm'ring of the rill:
When lo! a form of light appears,
And on the awe-struck Shepherds' ears
Are words, of peace and comfort flowing
From lips with love celestial glowing.
Spiritual forms are breaking
Through the gloom, their voices taking
Part in the adoring song
Of the bright angelic throng.
Wondering the Shepherds bend
Their steps to Bethlehem, and wend
To a poor and crowded inn:--
Tremblingly their way they win
To the stable, where they find
The Redeemer of mankind,
Just born into this world of danger,
Lying in an humble manger.
And they spread abroad each word
Which that joyful night they'd heard,
And they glorified the name
Of their gracious God, Who came
Himself to save from endless woe
The offspring of this world below.(3)


Preached at the 8:00 pm Christmas Eve service at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, on December 24, 2019.

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

1. For a history of this theory, see https://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithwalkers/2012/12/was-jesus-born-away-in-a-manger-at-migdal-eder/
2. See Micah 4:8, at https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=444250871
3. Christina Rosetti, “A Hymn for Christmas Day,” at https://www.accuracyproject.org/t-Rossetti,Christina-Christmas.html

Prayer 2521: On Christmas Eve

Most Merciful God,
let the whole earth and all that lives within it 
sing out your glory and praise! 
Holy One, envelop us through your Holy Spirit
to join in the cloud of witnesses who worship You with joy. 

Let us remember tonight the birth of your Son,
born as a poor refugee, and work for others to have a home. 
Let us be guided by you, Lord Christ, our Daystar, 
to follow the path of wisdom to your side. 
Let us seek to uphold each other in a common life
bound by the love that Christ births in us, and calls us to embody.

Bend near to hear the whispered prayers of your people, O God, 
and place the mantle of your blessing on those we now name.


Monday, December 23, 2019

Prayer 2520: On the start of Hannukkah

Holy One, we praise You,
and give thanks for your multitudes of blessings; 
may we welcome your Light into our midst.
Praised are You, our God,
ruler of the universe,
who made us holy through your commandments,
who performed wondrous deeds for our ancestors,
who has given us life and sustained us
and enabled us to reach this season.

May we remain ever steadfast in faithfulness,
remembering your goodness and mercy
that pursues us and seeks us out
all the days of our lives.
As one candle lights another, 
both defying and defining the darkness,
may we too give support to each other,
for the repair of the world and our relationships.

May we sing out your faithful love,
remembering that You are ever with us
in our times of trial as well as joy,
and may we be your priestly people
clinging to You for ever.

Grant your blessing, we pray,
on all who seek You, O God of Peace,
and especially on those for whom we pray.


Thursday, December 19, 2019

Prayer, day 2516

Holy One, we lift our hearts to You 
in praise and thanksgiving. 

Envelop us in your light, O God, 
that your radiance may shine through us into the world. 

Make us bearers of your gospel with each step we take, 
and worthy disciples in your Way. 

Purify our hearts of all malice, enmity, or carelessness, 
and forgive us our offenses, 
as well as those done in our name. 

Open our spirits to receive your truth 
as we await the coming of your Son, O Almighty One. 

Bend near to those who call upon you, Merciful God, 
and accept our prayers.


Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Prayer 2515

Great Spirit, 
we rise to sing your praise
and ask your blessing upon this day.

Give us tomorrow's bread today,
O God of Abundance;
plant within our hearts
a hunger for wisdom
and a thirst for justice.
Strengthen us to stand
with the oppressed,
the discounted,
and the pushed-aside,
O Holy One,
that we may overturn
the thrones of corruption.

May we stand alongside each other 
in peace and contentment,
Blessed Jesus, 
triving only for your kingdom
come among us as a little child
to call us into new life and hope.

At day's end, 
may the blanket of night soothe us,
and may we rest securely in your embrace,
O Most High.
Grant your benediction
upon all those who seek You,
and rest your healing hand
upon all whose hearts are heavy or troubled, as we pray.


Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Prayer 2514

Light of Our Hearts,
in joy we praise you,
and draw near to seek your wisdom.

Forgive us our failures of faith,
O God Who Sees,
and break open our frozen hearts
that they may be warmed and restored
by the hearth of your mercy and grace.
Beloved Jesus, take our hands,
consecrate our intentions,
and hallow our hearts by your love,
then send us out to do your will.

Wonderful Teacher,
renew our spirits to walk in love,
to live in compassion and awareness,
to work for the healing of the world.
Spirit of the Living God,
envelop the hurting within your peace,
and watch over those for whom we pray.


Prayer 2513

Merciful, Loving God, 
we turn to you in gratitude 
for bringing us through the shades of night, 
and for the gift of this new day. 

We pray for those exposed to the cold, 
human and animal alike, 
for those who lack adequate housing,
for those who lack warm food,
and for those who work in all weather.
Your eye is on the sparrow, O God of Creation; 
may we follow in your Way of Empathy.

Help us to show our gratitude
by sharing what we have,
and by caring for those we meet
in recognition of our common bonds,
each a beloved child or creature of God.

Grant your blessing, O Savior,
upon all who work or watch or weep this day,
and gather around the hearth of your mercy
all those for whom we pray.


Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Prayer 2506: On the Feast of Thomas Merton

O Infinite One, Lover of Our Souls,
your mercy is a canopy over us,
your love is a lamp unto our feet.
Accept our repentance
for the error of our ways,
for our refusal to be guided by your healing example,
O Giver of Life to All.

We center our hearts within your benevolence,
Our Guide and Way,
that we may proclaim your glory
with each breath that you have given us.

You, O Lord, are the Light,
All-Pure and Sublime,
encompassing all creation within the song of your love,
that sets the pillars of the heavens
and lays the foundations at the heart of the universe.
Yet you also walk alongside us as we seek your truth,
bending near to hear our whispered prayers,
gathering our tears within your mercy.

Give ear to our prayers and guidance to our steps,
strengthening our heart and minds for discipleship
that we may joyfully and faithfully serve You,
O Ground of Our Being.
Extend the hand of your mercy over all those who seek You,
especially those we remember before You as we pray.


Monday, December 9, 2019

Prayer, day 2505

Lord Jesus, abide with us this day, 
and open our hearts to proclaim your grace 
as we bless and magnify your Holy Name. 
Let the whole round earth declare your glory, 
and all creation join in hymns of praise. 

Draw us within the enclosure of your mercy, 
O Lover of Souls, 
and in the name of your Beloved Son 
preserve us and keep us. 
Guide us through your gospel 
to persevere in faithfulness and hope, 
that we may testify to your Love throughout the world. 
In your great mercy, 
forgive us from all our sins, 
and set our feet securely in pathways 
of peace and forbearance. 

You are the Life and Truth 
to all who live, O God, 
and the hope of all who seek You. 
Press the kiss of your blessing, 
O Spirit of Healing, 
upon all who call upon You.


Sunday, December 8, 2019

Promises and Pathways: Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Advent

This last summer, I took three weeks of vacation, as you may recall, combining two trips into one for the sake of practicality. Even before my call to serve among you, I had been making plans to go to Iona with Confluence St. Louis for 9 days, and it was an incredible time of prayer and renewal in what the Celts call a “thin place” a place where the division between heaven and earth seems especially thin, the barrier seeming somewhat less of a wall than of a doorway.

This last week, I took some continuing education time on Iona’s “sister island” here in the US—and it was incredible to me how an island half a world away and very different in terms of terrain could still have such a holy and inspirational vibe to it. 

But last summer, after nine days in Scotland, I then traveled to Paris and met my husband Bill there, where we spent another nine days exploring that city and the nearby region in France. One of the day trips we took was to Chartres—another important, ancient pilgrimage site for hundreds of years for people of faith. Bill was careful to plan this trip for a day when the chairs of the cathedral are moved aside so that visitors can walk the original labyrinth set in the floor of the Cathedral there. 

The Chartres labyrinth has been copied repeatedly in hundreds of other sites throughout the world—you can even get a portable, life sized copy on heavy canvas, such as one owned by our very own diocesan Cathedral. This same pattern has been embedded in the floors of both Grace Kirkwood and recently at my home parish of Holy Communion in University City. There’s even one at my friend Pamela’s parish in Davis, CA.

But another reason why I thought about that trip to Chartres this week was that Chartres Cathedral also has a magnificent stained-glass window depicting the Jesse tree spoken of in our reading from Isaiah. This magnificent window is one of the original windows in the cathedral, created around 1150 CE, more than 850 years ago. 

So my heart and mind are drawn to Chartres when I read our readings for this weekend. I remember gazing at that beautiful window depicting part of Jesus’s genealogy from Jesse to Jesus. The center panel of the window shows Jesse lying on his couch, and tree sprouting from him, successively showing his descendants that led to Jesus: David; then Solomon; then a couple of generic kings of Israel to emphasize Jesus’s royal lineage; then Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and finally, at the top of the tree, Jesus—the pinnacle of Jesse’s lineage, the king and descendant that David was promised who would sit on the throne of Israel forever. Thus the symbol of the Jesse tree is one of promises God makes and keeps.

Hovering around Jesus are symbols for the seven gifts of the Spirit listed in the very beginning of our Isaiah reading: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and awe before the Lord our God, the last of which is so important that our Isaiah text mentions it twice for good measure. These were all attributes that Jesus himself embodied. 

After standing gazing at that window for at least half an hour, I then took my place at the labyrinth and slowly, mindfully traced the path shared by millions of pilgrims before me by walking on that ancient stone labyrinth at the heart of the Cathedral. With each step, I contemplated the ideas of promises made and kept. I thought of the twists and the turns of my own life--and in my life of faith. I prayed for the courage to cultivate and open myself to the powerful, life-disturbing gifts of the Spirit within myself: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and awe and wonder before the Lord. 

Just like at Chartres Cathedral, promises and pathways intertwine in our readings today. The idea of promises being fulfilled by God, even when it seems they continue unconsummated according to our understanding, is a theme that runs through scripture. Remember Abraham being promised descendants more numerous than the stars, even though he and his wife were old and she had so far had no children herself? With that promise, Abraham set out on a path he had never imagined—to a new life and a new land. What it’s often easy to forget is that years then elapsed after that promise was made to Abraham and Sarah by God, even as they scrupulously sought to fulfill their end of the bargain by packing up everything and moving to a land they’d never seen, which was itself promised to Abraham and his descendants by God. Like Abraham, we too live a life of faith that rests upon promises and pathways. 

We begin to really settle in to Advent this week with readings that remind us of the glorious promises which are our inheritance as people of faith. Advent is a time of penitence as well as expectation, a time of remembering things past while also inhabiting the “not-yet” of the coming Messiah. In the darkness and cold of winter, we are reminded of promises made and promises kept. One of the main theses of the gospel of Matthew is that God fulfills the promises he makes, in this case to David, and this reading from Isaiah helps establish proof for that claim in Matthew. Jesus is referred to as the “son of David” ten times in the gospel of Matthew, more than in any other synoptic gospel (the term does not appear in John). Promises made by God are never forgotten. 

The vision recounted here in our Isaiah passage ends with a description of a restored creation: many of the animals paired together are domesticated animals and the wild animals who prey upon them, led by an innocent. The vision ends with a reference to the “root of Jesse”—to David and David’s descendants—and again expresses the wish that the entire world will turn its face toward Israel and look to it as the source of salvation. Even though, as Isaiah writes, it appears that the tree of Jesse has fallen, the hope is that a rod or branch will spring up from the fallen tree that will grow to be even mightier than its parent. 

As we begin year A in the three-year lectionary cycle, we will spend most of this year with the gospel of Matthew. Matthew’s gospel is the most Jewish of all the gospels, supposedly—Jesus gives five discourses in Matthew, just like there are five books in the Torah, for instance. Matthew’s driving claim is that Jesus, as the Messiah, is the fulfillment of promise and prophecy to the people of Israel throughout the centuries. And even in the early chapters of this gospel we see this case building— chapter 1 recounts Jesus’s genealogy and legitimacy as a son of David and as a son of Abraham—of which our Jesse tree is a symbol.

Today’s gospel, from chapter 3, skips ahead to Jesus’s adulthood, and introduces his cousin, John the Baptist—another familiar character each Advent. John is a prophetic herald, warning his listeners that the one who by rights may judge them is at hand. Our gospel also quotes Isaiah (although chapter 40) as a touchstone to solidify the claims that John will make about Jesus and about himself. John is the one crying out from the wilderness, proclaiming the coming of the Lord. The appearance of John himself here is itself a sign or promise fulfilled, since he comes out of the wilderness dressed just so for the role of an Old Testament prophet—his attire is remarkably similar to that of Elijah. 

The appearance of John the Baptist on our Advent stage is therefore another reminder that promises made through the prophets of Israel were being fulfilled, as the birth of Christ and the launching of his public ministry drew near. “Prepare the way of the Lord! “John, as promised, will shout out from the wilderness. “Make his paths straight!”

And it is here again that I am drawn to the walking of that labyrinth in Chartres, for to me, that is where our reading from Isaiah and our reading from the Gospel came together in one space, and where their connection was physically embodied in the pilgrim path the hundreds of us there that day traced. And I think of that experience every time I get the chance to pray in a labyrinth.

By a special blessing, I even got a chance to walk a labyrinth again this week on Whidbey Island near Seattle as I prayed and thought about these readings—just as I had back in Chartres. With each step I took, twisting and turning, doubling back on myself, I noticed seeming to draw near to the heart of the labyrinth only to be led away again I thought about how that labyrinth walk is so symbolic of the life of seeking faith, of seeking deeper knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. With every twist and turn, I thought about that command, “Make straight the path of the Lord!” 

Jesus’s incarnation reminds us that Jesus comes to show us the way that is straight to the heart of God. Our problem is, as we seek to follow him and emulate him, we often turn aside, distracted or fearful, often, to the right and the left. Now, we can beat ourselves up for that—or let that convince us that the journey is pointless. But this Advent season reminds us of the promise of God to send us one to show us the way, to accompany us in navigating the twists and turns of our lives, the obstacles and seeming dead-ends that really only become dead ends if we fail to remember how God accompanies us as we go through them or around them. 

The labyrinth reinforces one of the messages of this season of the new church year of honoring the journey as much as the destination. As we move from turn to turn in our lives, as we encounter detours and obstacles which we never expected, the gift of that labyrinth calls us to peace in the face of each twist and turn, of relying on the sureness of God’s promises to always walk beside us. A promise that is so sure that God sent God’s only begotten Son to led us through the labyrinth of our hearts to the path of love, of hope, of mercy, and of grace. Even if Jesus’s way is straight, and ours isn’t, what we are reminded today is to nonetheless persist in seeking to follow Jesus, and be transformed by his presence within us.

By wisdom, by understanding, by counsel, by fortitude, by knowledge, by piety, and by awe and wonder the path before us will seem to straighten. What once appeared to be a barricade or a detour instead becomes a blessing that shapes us along the journey. This coming Christ child will be our companion, our model, and our guide along the way. By him, with him, and through him we will not only reach the heart of God, the center of the life of faith. We will ourselves become lights in the darkness to others as they contemplate the call of the path in the deepest recesses of their hearts. We become companions along the way for others as disciples, accompanying each other on the twists and turns of the life of faith. 

The labyrinth also literally embodies for us something we don’t often talk about-- the life of repentance. Think about it. To repent means to turn aside from the path we have been following, and recommit ourselves to the Way of Jesus. A Way that is beautiful and alluring—yet also costly, as all precious things always are. The turns in the labyrinth also remind us of how important it is to examine our paths each day—and turn back from those times we have interposed our own will for God’s vision of love and light for us.

We have to be patient, of course, and persistent. The time it takes to traverse the path of course may seem interminable. There is always the temptation to step off. There is always the temptation to just attempt a shortcut, like proclaiming we are Christians yet turning aside from the transformation and repentance that following the path literally demands of us. Yet the minute we fail to honor the twists and turns in the journey as gifts to ourselves and as proofs of the abiding promise of the love of God, we actually risk losing the path altogether.

As the winter nights lengthen, may we have the faith to embrace the promises of God’s strength in our lives, and the strength to embrace the pathways of faith that lead us deeper into the life of abundance God dreams of for this world. May we remember, no matter how we get to the heart of God, we have the promise of light from light, true God from true God, coming among us, offering salvation and enlightenment for all. May we hold fast to the promise of not retribution, but mercy coming to live among us, judging with righteousness and equity the cause of the oppressed. May we have assurance that surely that goodness and mercy will walk alongside us, no matter where the labyrinth of our lives may lead us.


Preached at the 505 on December 7 and at 8:00 and 10:30 on December 8 at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO.

Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12