Sunday, November 27, 2016

The First Sunday of Advent

Sometimes in life we are thrown rather unique challenges.  I accepted the responsibility for today's sermon in part because it was an open slot that needed filled and because I felt that it would be easy to come up with something to say about hope and advent and our theme, 'be ready.'  After all, these are warm, fuzzy things to think about...especially at this time of year.

But life happens, and things don't always turn out as you expected them to.

Towards the end of October, I got sick with what was probably the flu.  It lasted forever....close to three weeks.  Then, a few weeks ago I hurt my foot in my tap dancing classes, the results of which you can see with my spiffy new boot.  All of this to say that I lost access to my primary source of stress release and happy endorphins....exercise....specifically, my running, which has also become a powerful time of prayer and centering to me and has allowed me to enjoy God's creation more fully.

The timing couldn't be worse.  Not only are we passing through a season of highly stressful current events, but I'm also at the end of my fall allergy season, which means that my body is just tired because it's been fighting off invaders for quite a while now.  On top of that I have always been prone to a bit of seasonal affective disorder.

All of this to say that my depression came roaring back a couple of weeks ago....and it's really, really hard to sit down and write about hope and the coming of Christmas when you are busy fighting off the black dog, even when you are armed with the type of toolkit I've built over the last 25 years.

But I found myself on the farm Friday, and it was such a beautiful evening that I couldn't help but limp my way out to the sheep pens to visit with the flock.  I watched as Mom and Tanith brought a bucket of feed out to the little girls, where they called to one particular sheep named Chance.  As I watched Chance decide whether or not to trust the stranger with the bucket (Tanith) - she eventually did - I thought of the improbability of her very existence, and I found maybe I did have some ideas after all.

We throw the word "hope" around a lot in church, and I want to take some time today, on this first Sunday of Advent to talk about what hope really is.

I'm going to start with what hope is not.  Some of this I pulled from a poem about Hope by Katie Harmon-McLaughlin that was in today's worship helps.  Some of it is from my own musings.

Hope is not a lighthearted or superficial wish.   Hope is not fleeting or far away.  Hope is not something we use to give meaning to or consolation for bad circumstances.  Hope is not passive.  Hope doesn't sit on the surface.  We use the word hope in those ways all of the time...but they don't reflect the truth.

Biblically speaking, hope means to trust.

Real hope, and I'm borrowing some quotes from the Book of Joy by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama because it just happens to be what I'm reading right now, and because they speak so deeply to this, is:

“Hope,” the Archbishop said, “is quite different from optimism, which is more superficial and liable to become pessimism when the circumstances change. Hope is something much deeper.”

Those versions of hope that I mentioned earlier?  I believe those are more in line with what the Archbishop refers to as optimism.

He goes on....

“I say to people that I’m not an optimist, because that, in a sense, is something that depends on feelings more than the actual reality.”

“I believe with a steadfast faith that there can never be a situation that is utterly, totally hopeless. Hope is deeper and very, very close to unshakable. It’s in the pit of your tummy. It’s not in your head. It’s all here,” he said, pointing to his abdomen.”

“To choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one’s chest to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass.”

“Yet hope requires faith, even if that faith is in nothing more than human nature or the very persistence of life to find a way. Hope is also nurtured by relationship, by community”

“Despair turns us inward. Hope sends us into the arms of others.”

So what, exactly, does a little lamb have to do with true hope?  And why did Chance bring me to reflect on the idea of what hope is and what it isn't?

For the last several years, we've spent most of our spring break on my parents' farm because it just so happens to coincide with lambing season, which is one of the best times of the year to be on a farm.  We spend a lot of time during lambing season out in the barn and in the fields, making sure that all is well with the flock.  For the most part, the breed that my parents raise doesn't need much assistance...but every once in a while we must step in.

About half way through the week, during a routine check of the fields, my dad and the girls discovered Tanith's ewe, Danette, standing off by herself.  The worrisome part is that she was not able to easily get to the barn when they tried directing her, nor was she obviously in labor.  They eventually did get her to the barn, and Dad sent for mom and I.  After a quick exam, Dad began treatment for bloat.  Unfortunately, it was already too late for Danette.  Sheep are notoriously fragile, and have a tendency to die quickly and easily.  In a way, it's a blessing...they don't suffer...but it also makes it extremely difficult to save them when something goes wrong.  Within a minute or two it because clear that Danette was dying, and we had a choice to make.  She was days away from her due date, and if you know anything about sheep you should know that those days make a huge difference.  The babies weren't likely ready to be born, and it was possible they were already in trouble given what was happening to their mom.

We took the chance anyway.

My dad delivered the twin girls in an emergency c-section.  Trained by a lifetime as a farm girl and the veterinarian's daughter, I stepped in immediately to start rubbing the babies with towels, trying to coax them to life.  Mom joined me when she arrived with more supplies.  There are times when you don't think, you just do.  Both lambs took their first breaths.  We kept going.  Once the lambs were breathing well on their own, we wrapped them in clean towels and took them to the house.  They spent the rest of the day snuggled on our laps.  My dog Winston even helped out, licking them both from head to toe...providing the same type of stimulation that a mama sheep normally does to help get their little bodies going.  It would take them hours instead of minutes to get to their feet on their own, and it would take us several long and patient days to get them to accept the bottle as easily as they need to, but it happened.  Tanith named her girls Chance and Hope, for that's exactly what they were.

Hope would sadly die in a farm accident later in the summer....something that was no one's fault and couldn't have been avoided.  Chance, well Chance would get sick with something called bottle jaw, and it was a very near thing indeed.  Lambs who grow up without their mamas just aren't as healthy and hardy as lambs who grow up they way they were intended.  Once again, we almost lost her....but she came through thanks to the efforts of my parents, who worked round the clock for a week to try to keep her with us, and I believe also because of the many prayers that were said on her behalf.

So you see, Chance is an improbably sheep.  Twice she's survived when everything told us that there was no possibility for her to live.  Twice she's been a living example of hope.  Hope was that deep feeling inside that spurned us to action, that kept us going when everything told us it was time to give up.  That hope didn't deny the reality of the situation.  It wasn't blind to the facts and it didn't try to ignore the probable outcomes.  It wasn't wishful required us to step up and be present and to work for the outcome we wanted.  Hope required us to trust, and it was born from the faith that God had a plan...that life would find a way, even for one tiny little lamb.

And now, as I watch my daughter feed her lamb Chance, I am reminded that Hope is always there, and that I must do my best to work for it.  Chance shows me the beauty and love that can be found if only we hold on to True Hope.

Not only is today the first Sunday in Advent, the Sunday which we traditionally focus on hope, but it is also a day in which we are called to Be Ready.  Our scripture for today reminds us that Jesus stressed the importance of preparation and watchfulness in living each day in this world that God created and loves.  We are called to be ready for the coming of God's reign on earth.

But what, exactly, does that mean?  How are we to do that, and how does it connect to hope?

To answer that, I was drawn to a specific piece of today's scripture.

“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
Matthew 24:42-44 NIV

If there is one truth about the Frazier family way of celebrating Christmas, it's that we LOVE Christmas music.  In our gigantic collection, there is a Reba McEntire story song, The Christmas Guest, which is her take on a very old German tale.  In it, a poor man named Conrad spends a day waiting for the Lord to come to celebrate Christmas with him, after being told of this visit in his dreams.  He prepares his humble home the best he can, looking forward to this visit with great joy.  Over the course of the day, though, God does not show up.  Instead, he is visited by a beggar, an old woman, and a lost child.  In each case, Conrad extends his hand to give what he can.  He finds the beggar a pair of shoes and a coat.  He feeds the old woman, and gives her a place to rest.  He calms the fears of the child and shows her the way home.  At the end of the day, sorrowing that the Lord didn't actually come, he goes to bed where he dreams again, and when the Lord appears in those dreams, Conrad asks him why he didn't come.  The Lord smiled, and told him that fact he had been there.  He was the beggar...the old woman...and the child.

I believe that this is what's meant by that scripture....that we are called to be ready for the coming of our Lord..not to celebrate our own lives, but so that we can bring about his Kingdom on Earth by extending our hands to those around us.  We can be that light of hope for others.  For when we pay attention to the needs of those around us, miracles can happen

My sophomore year in college was rough.  It was the year that depression and stress finally brought everything crashing down around me.  The worst came, sadly enough, on my birthday.  I was in the dorms with a group of friends, watching our friend JM's homemade movies.  To this day, I'm not entirely sure what happened, but something inside of me snapped that night.  I quietly got up and left, in tears before I even got to the elevator.

I was not allowed to leave alone.  My friend Brian noticed somehow that something was off.  He followed me to my car, and insisted on going home with me to the condo where I lived alone.  Brian was very much a trusted brother figure to me.  Without once trying to find out what exactly was wrong, he sat calmly with me until the tears had worn themselves out.  He then read me a few stories out of a fairy tale book of mine, and told me to go to bed....that he would be downstairs on the couch should I need anything in the night.  As I climbed into bed, I heard him checking in with our other friends to let them know what was going on...that something was different, that I needed them.

In the morning, we drove back to campus for finals.  He deposited me in our friend Jay's room.  They'd clearly decided I needed watching, and I don't think they were wrong.  As Jay and I talked, he caught me saying that I thought they would all be better off without me.  Jay just looked at me.  He told me I was wrong, and he told me that no matter what, I could call him over the break whenever I needed him....that even if he happened to be gone, his family would know how I could find him.  He was true to his word.  The one time I called, his Mom greeted me with incredible warmth.  He wasn't home, but she knew exactly where he was and had been left with instructions to contact him immediately so that we could be in touch within minutes if I called.

And one more.  JM...he of the movies...pulled me aside shortly before we all went home for Christmas.  He had noticed a few things, and wanted to talk.  It wasn't long before he was finishing my sentences, to my complete surprise letting me know that he knew exactly what was going on in my brain and in my heart.  He then shared about his own experiences with depression...including what it was like to take an antidepressant.  I would call him the day I made an appointment with my doctor, and again the day I took that first pill.

Three beloved friends, all of whom were paying attention, and all who were ready to step in and do what they could for a friend.  All were beacons of hope...shinning lights in the dark.  All helped to get me through that holiday season so that I could begin the process of putting my life back together in the spring by making sure that the hope in my own heart was not allowed to die out.  All of whom brought the Kingdom of God just a tiny bit closer by doing what we are all called to do...which is to love and care for each other.

And so, as we begin the process today of preparing for Christmas, I would ask each one of you to take some time to reflect on Hope and on what it means to you.  Are there stories in your own life where real, true, deep hope has carried you through dark times?  How has Hope called you to action...for yourself or for others?  Have there been times when you or others in your life have been ready and have been able to answer the call?  What can you do to make sure you stay focused?  What can you do to prepare?

May God's blessings be on each and every one of you.

May Hope live in your heart for now and for always.

May we all Be Ready with open hearts.


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