St. Paul’s Congregational Church
December 15, 2019
Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11
Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
When I was a little girl one Christmas season my brother made a banner that said, “Christmas is a flower in the middle of winter.” Each year that banner came out and hung at my parents’ home and never failed to bring that flood of childhood memories about Christmas celebrations at home I always loved that saying – in the dark days of winter it’s so good to have both the memory of the flowers from the summer and the promise of flowers that will return in the spring. In the midst of all the darkness, there’s the joy and hope of Christmas – for many of us celebrated with color, with flowers, with plants – I wait patiently, sort of, for my Thanksgiving and Christmas cactuses to bloom every year – and this year I keep watching my new amaryllis plant for the start of growth.
The Isaiah passage that we heard – the desert shall rejoice and blossom – the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad – what a wonderful image that is for us – flowers in the winter – blossoms in the wilderness.
Every time I hear this Isaiah passage, I return in my mind and heart to December 14, 2001 – a rainy cold day when I served at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York, less than a block from Ground Zero. We served breakfast, lunch, and dinner, gallons of coffee, tea, soda, water to about 700 police, firefighters, construction workers, equipment operators, utility workers, federal anti-terrorist force members, OSHA personnel, Coast Guard reservists. We handed out Tylenol, cough drops, scarves, boots, chocolate – and outside we handed markers to passersby so they could share their thoughts and feelings on great banners hanging on the iron fence that surrounds the chapel. Tears mixed with heavy rain showers as relatives and friends of victims, people from all over the world and this country, people of all religions, became one in their loss and grief and care. The sidewalk was silent – so unlike New York.
At noon a bell sounded and clergy present processed to the front of the chapel to lead noon worship. Three Episcopal priests, a Methodist minister from North Carolina, and I were blessed to lead worship, including participating in Communion. Volunteers continued to feed and supply the workers as a hush fell over the chapel – and I stood at the lectern and read these very words from Isaiah. And I knew there were blossoms in the midst of the wilderness of New York, indeed in the entire world: there are flowers in the middle of the winter of our souls. This was probably the most powerful experience of my ministry. This is the story of my Advent stole: the desert, the wilderness shall bloom. At one of the most darkest hours, Isaiah’s words proclaimed extravagant hope, of promise: God hears. God comes. God delivers. Flowers in the winters of our souls.
There are no words to describe how it felt, how it still feels, even 18 years later, to have entered into that effort in New York. There are no words to describe how it felt to be joined in worship, in communion, there in the middle of this caring ministry. There are no words to describe the conversations with workers and visitors and other volunteers there at St. Paul’s.
Just like there are no words to describe the wonder of the season of Advent – the great extravagant hope of Advent. The only way to enter into that wonder, that mystery, is through image, through the arts – through the words and images of poetry, through the sensation of music – through that which touches our souls on a level too deep for words. It is when we empty ourselves and let ourselves be moved so deeply that we can find – no, maybe not find – but at least have a glimmer, a hint, of the hope of Advent, that awesome power of the goodness of God, the promise of God, the presence of God among us, the possibility of God’s realm here on earth, and yes – the deep and profound joy that comes. It was a profound gift to experience all of that at St. Paul’s – from dark emptiness to being filled with the presence of God in a new and deep way: to finding sanctuary in the midst of pain and horror.
That awesome power of the goodness, the promise, the presence, the possibilities of God, once we’ve experienced that glimpse – never leaves us…not even as we note the 7th year of remembrance of the Newtown tragedy; as we live in a time of chaos and rancor and unsettledness in our nation and the world. And, here at this place as we live in a time of uncertainty and concern for our beloved St. Paul’s right here in Nutley.
Isaiah was bold enough in the darkest times to proclaim deliverance to the people of Israel – that God is an active participant in creation and deliverance. That there is hope because God has come to redeem us – God is with us!
The dry desert shall break forth into green; animals that have lived tooth, nail, claw, in conflict with one another shall live together in peace. Injustice shall be put down and righteousness shall blossom forth. God reigns! And that bold proclamation is for us too, not just in our church community but for each of us in our darkest times – as we face illness, our own or that of someone in our family; as we are trying to determine where it is that God is calling us in our own lives; as we are trying to make hard decisions about our own futures; as we struggle to do our part in bringing in God’s justice and peace and healing to all those who are on the margins.
Savor that good and hopeful news for each of us. Timeless good news that we need to hear, to feel, to experience. Good news that we yearn for in our deepest longings.
There were many places near the Trade Center at Ground Zero where workers could go for food and supplies and a break from their often gruesome work. But many came to St. Paul’s for a sanctuary which includes much more than those material things. They sat in the pews facing the beautiful altar, some in prayer, some in meditation, some just savoring the quiet or the music played on the piano or on a flute or a harp. They listened to choirs who came from around the country to sing the beautiful Christmas music. They came looking for food for their bodies and souls and they found those gifts. They were there in that place but the gifts were also there in the faces of every single person, site worker or volunteer, because in each person we can see the face of God. Think about that: we can see God’s face everywhere we are – in this place, in our places of business, in our homes, at the mall, in Shop Rite – wherever we are. And when your face of God touches my face of God, there is hope – there is that awesome Advent hope that defeats the darkness we all face. It’s then out of that hope that the desert shall bloom. It’s out of that hope that we do see the flowers in the middle of winter. It’s then that we can touch the mystery and know deep within ourselves that God comes to us.
It occurs to me that people in our own town, in our own families, in our own area are looking for a place of sanctuary too – even if they don’t name it as such. Will they find that here at our St. Paul’s? Do you find sanctuary here? A time of nurturing the flower that blooms in the desert, in the wilderness? How do we concentrate on that in our life together? Nurturing and sharing the flower of hope, of peace, of joy, of love – how do we see the face of God in each other, in everyone who enters here? How do we invite others to experience sanctuary? How do we invite others into the powerful hope that only God can offer?
Yes, it’s hard when we deal with cold temperatures in the building, leaks from the radiators, worries about our very survival financially, doing the nitty gritty work of the institutional church like paying bills, raising money, shoveling the sidewalks, everything that goes with daily living – friends, it is hard – we too often get distracted, don’t we.
But until we nurture the flowers that bloom in the desert, in the wilderness and then share them – until we offer sanctuary - until we believe and share the good news that God has come to us – that we’re not alone ever – that we believe and share that Jesus came to bring healing, new life, a peace that passes all understanding, and show a joy that goes deeper than anything we can imagine –
And until we open ourselves to that mystery – believe that radical hope, receive that radical peace, share that radical joy, and express that radical love that God has for each of us – until we open ourselves to see the face of God in each other and allow others to see the face of God in our own – it’s only then that we too can become flowers in the winters of not only our own souls, but see those flowers in others. And friends, that hope, that peace, that joy is contagious! Let’s focus on that at the same time we respond to God’s commandment to love God and our neighbors! The desert shall bloom!
God is with us, among us, and in each one of us – let us rejoice and be glad in that! Let’s live into the promise of Advent as we welcome the Child born into our midst. So may it be! Amen.
Let us pray: Holy God, our spirits rejoice in who you are and in all you have done for us. In the desert of our souls you plant a garden that blossoms when we are attuned to your spirit. You open our eyes and unstop our ears. Our tongues sing for joy.
How seldom we allow ourselves such freedom and gladness – instead, we aspire to become rich in things. We grow soft and comfortable inside our royal palaces while others are hungry, and we wonder why our hearts are not satisfied. O God, turn us around to follow your holy way. Help us to realize that you have an important mission for us and equip us to accomplish the tasks you set before us. Help us not to turn away in fear, in despair, in apathy. Strengthen our hearts that our spirits may rejoice in Christ our Savior and that we may share our joy in your good news with all we meet. It is in his name that we pray. Amen.