The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
A reasonable facsimile of what was preached on Sunday: always a reflection on the Word, but never the final word.
The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Advent I, Year B
November 29, 2020
When our kids were young, we lived in the Washington DC metro area. Janice and I commuted in different directions, and even though we lived inside the Beltway, we participated in daily gridlock. Getting us to work, getting the kids to two different schools, shuttling them to theater and sports practices, and choir practice on Wednesday night. Saturdays were busy with games and birthday parties. While I was a school chaplain, teacher, and coach during the week, Sunday were big days too. Janice was the parish pastoral care coordinator in our very large parish, and I helped out with some of the five Sunday services. Needless to say, we had to coordinate regularly. Janice was our master of planning and logistics, keeping up with our supply chain, transportation, and laundry. I did groceries and dinner. And God help us if someone got sick.
I do not wish for those days again, but I would not trade them either. We made great, diverse, and lasting friendships through church and school as we shared being in the crucible of child rearing. About the best thing that could ever happen during those times was a snow day. As John Kennedy once said Washington is a great blend of “Northern charm and Southern efficiency.” While some from points north would grumble about how nobody knew how to drive in the snow and lamented the uncoordinated snow removal abilities of the surrounding jurisdictions, we found a snow day to be pure grace: an opportunity to stay put and play outside, and snuggle under blankets. The tragedy of distance learning may be that snow days will be a things of the past.
While I do not miss the traffic and the crowds, we did have an astounding array of restaurants that would deliver great food right to our door. Our name, address, and order were well known to our favorite establishments. The credit card was on file. After some of our craziest days, when we had schlepped miles, made it to all of our activities -- with the right uniforms, costumes, birthday presents, and sports equipment, there was no better joy than making a quick phone call and saying to the harried and hungry family five salvific words: pizzas are on the way. I am reminded of a truism that still speaks, even to this day: “you cannot make everyone happy, because in the end, you are not pizza.”
After one of the strangest Thanksgivings I can remember, with one child getting tested to come home, and the other in quarantine at a Holiday Inn Express, with my parents and extended family all hunkered down elsewhere, and finding ourselves with about seven pounds of turkey for each of us to eat, I can say in solidarity with what I have heard from the many of you, we are so over this pandemic. We are so over troubling news and political shenanigans. We are so over masks and distancing and not being able to gather, hug, or even, sing in the season. We cannot even plan for what we cannot even anticipate.
Today, Advent begins, and perhaps this in between season is more fitting, more resonant, and more reflective of where we are than ever. Advent starts in the dark. It starts with Mark’s account of Jesus speaking into a gathering gloom. Mark’s listeners are well acquainted with hardship. Their pitiful rebellion against mighty Rome has been squashed. As retribution, Rome destroyed the enormous Temple in Jerusalem. They were under the thumb of heavy taxation, hand to mouth poverty, and a precarious future. In what is called Mark’s “Little Apocalypse,” Jesus gets real with his followers. He makes no promises of a soft berth or an easy way. He acknowledges and accepts hardship as part of the journey. But right there in the middle of this text, he lights a candle of hope. He points to the fig tree and says that when we see its budding, we know that summer will come. In his classic poem, Ode to the West Wind, Percy Shelley draws on this passage writing:
Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
These texts set us in motion and invite us to see things anew. Advent is all about preparing for Jesus to be born into this world: in our hearts and in our lives. To get there, we have to take life on life’s terms. Even so, God’s deep message continues to be that there is nothing, no time, no situation, no difficulty, that God will not redeem it. Even where we do our worst, God does the best in becoming one of us. In some crazy way, this season falls at a particular moment in our history, as Jesus words met his people in theirs.
It has been a week of hard news and of good news. While we face the ravages of disease and its ensuing poverty and despair, we have word of brilliant work from scientists and researchers too. Vaccines have been shown to be effective and safe. Millions of doses are being produced. It is likely that people will begin to be inoculated in the coming month. Word of hope and help is beginning to spread. There is light coming to this darkness. If that is not a holy serendipity, I do not know what is.
For our part, we will be heralding the light. We will be making space for renewed life even in the midst of grief. We will be doing whatever we can to be creative and welcoming as we celebrate good news of great joy that has come and will come to all the world.
Like the pizza proclamation, Advent reminds us that help is on the way. Hope on the horizon. And God is bringing all us home. Amen.
The Rev. John Thomas is Rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood