Beginnings not Endings are an important Advent Message – December 9, 2018
Ever year during this holiday season we will likely receive at least one letter, or Christmas card or online message from friends or family who live afar or who, for whatever reason, we rarely get to see. It is an annual Christmastime ritual and often there will be a photograph to remind us what they look like or introducing us to a new baby, telling about a recent move or new job or even the new puppy.
These letters may bring the good news of a new dawn, a new beginning and they may also bring the news of endings, of illness, hardship, and losses. They are a keen reminder of the bond of friendship that transcends time and geography.
This morning we heard a passage of a letter written by the famed person for whom this church is named. It also transcends time and geography. The Apostle Paul wrote it long ago to the community of believers in the city of Philippi expressing deep affection for them and in appreciation for their ministry and mission. He offers thanksgiving for the new Christians, especially those who have been there at the start. They have been faithful and attentive to their mission. This is Paul’s happiest letter and the happiness is infectious.
What is important to know is that he wrote it from his jail cell having endured hard travel in the service of Jesus for nearly twenty years. Paul gives thanks for all that God has begun in them and for the redemptive work God is doing through them.
I cannot help but think that if Paul had addressed his letter to “the Christian Community of Norwalk worshipping at 60 East Avenue,” his message would be no different. In fact, I’m pretty certain that we’re on solid ground by taking his letter to us as a very personal message.
A contemporary translation of his letter says it this way: Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God. Each exclamation is a trigger to prayer. I find myself praying for you with a glad heart. I am so pleased that you have continued on in this with us, believing and proclaiming God’s Message, from the day you heard it right up to the present.
I find Paul’s message most appropriate for us on this Second Sunday of Advent, a season when we are invited to remain alert to God’s activity in our midst; to notice, acknowledge, support, applaud and join the good work being done in and through this faith community.
The lessons read in this season, such as last week’s Gospel, may draw our attention to the end of things yet, in fact, the word Advent from its Latin roots means “arrival, a dawning,” which really speaks more of beginnings, not endings. And, yes, sometimes for something new to come our way, something else needs to conclude.
Paul’s letter to the young community of the faithful in Philippi is a reminder that every Christian community had a beginning and was once new. Think about the early days of this faith community. They pre-date the American Revolution. Four other church structures have stood on this property since the founding of St. Paul’s in 1737.
At least five other parishes in the area were mothered by St. Paul’s on the Green. Some of you may have wonderful memories of earlier days here and some of you are actually creating the memories that will be passed on and savored by others in years to come.
Likewise, the church in Philippi and the Church here in Norwalk are part of real history. The Chalice from which you will receive the Blood of Christ today was given to us in 1865, the year Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The Alms Basin into which your offerings are placed at the Altar was given in 1867, the year that Nebraska became our 37th State. This community boasts early beginnings and, by the grace of God, has been blessed with more than one renaissance.
And as we continue to share together in the redemptive work God is doing through this community, we might recognize how John the Baptist speaks of the future in a way that was vivid and compelling—and sometimes threatening to those in power. He made people profoundly thoughtful—and uncomfortable.
In our own day, we have John the Baptist voices around us speaking of important issues like education an economic inequalities or the diminishing of the values of the Gospel Jesus preached. All of these can be seen as prophetic—to wake us up and enable us to move in a new direction, to welcome a new dawn, a new day. All of this implies that we be a people of vision and imagination.
Jane Addams, founder of a great movement for justice in the early days of the 20th century, said of her experience in inner-city Chicago, “much of the insensibility and hardness of the world is due to the lack of imagination.” Imagination is the willingness to take risks. Imagination is the conviction that God is not finished with us yet, that’s there much, much more to come.
In the routine of our December day skies are dark and silent. We move from task to task, role to role, place to place in what may often seem dull and monotonous. But here in the church, December brings scripture and liturgy that are full of images with power to change lives.
We are challenged to imagine life in a certain way that expands our perspective about what can and can’t be, to see ourselves, our neighbors, and our world through God’s eyes, full of possibility, full of promise, ready to be transformed.
As with the early Christian community in Philippi, this community has seen its “dawn” and enjoyed a long history. Those early communities to which Paul wrote developed and morphed into different forms, structures, and experiences as has St. Paul’s on the Green. You will continue to see the dawn of new life here just as did those earliest believers.
God’s saving work flows through the experience of living our life together and bringing to God’s Table here the high points and the low points of our week—fed by Word and Sacrament and by the love we share with one another. God has birthed this community as God birthed the church in Philippi and God sustains it and gives us grace so that we will not only love much but love well. In the words of poet t.s. eliot: “What life have we have we not life together?”