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Sermon: Relationships and Restoration

A sermon preached at Christ Church, La Plata & Wayside (in Newburg, MD) on December 17, 2017
Third Sunday of Advent, Year B, RCL: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5;16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

One favorite mode of entertainment for me is movies. So earlier this week, I turned to the On-Demand channel for options and I stumbled across a wonderful movie titled, “All Saints.”

The story goes that, after trading in his corporate sales career to become an Episcopal priest, Michael Spurlock’s first assignment is All Saints, a quaint country church in Smyrna, TN with just a dozen members. But it comes with a catch: he must close the church doors -- for good -- and sell the prime piece of land on which it sits. While developers eagerly eye the property and the congregation mourns the inevitable, Michael and his family begin looking forward to moving on to an established church where they can put down roots.

But when the church hesitantly begins welcoming a group of ethnic Karen refugees from war-torn Burma, former farmers who are striving for a fresh start in America, Michael feels called to an improbable new mission. As Michael befriends Ye Win and learns of the horrors they’ve escaped, Michael begins toiling alongside the Karen people, in hopes of turning their fertile land into a working farm to pay the church’s bills and feed its newest people.

Jeopardizing his family's future by ignoring his Bishop and the diocesan council’s directions, Father Michael must choose between completing what he was assigned to do: Close the church and sell the property, or to listen to that still, small voice of God challenging the people of All Saints to risk it all and provide much-needed hope to their new community.

During this Advent, we have been hearing a word from the Psalms speaking to God’s work of restoration -- in the world and in our lives.

The restoration we might consider is the restoration of relationships -- with our God, with one another, and with creation. In the Psalm we read the first Sunday of Advent, we heard the Psalmist declare: “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (Psalm 80:3). This is a prayer for the restoration of Israel. The time may be after the exile of the northern kingdom of Israel, but before the fall of Jerusalem. In it, Israel is pictured as a great vine planted by God. This work of restoration is God’s work, not ours. It is a work of salvation – a word that includes both healing and reconciliation.

Last Sunday, the second Sunday of Advent, the Psalmist wrote, “Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky” (Psalm 85: 11). This psalm is one of thanksgiving and a prayer. Praise is given for God’s forgiveness in the past and prayer is made for restoration in the present. All that the psalmist knows and has experienced of God’s love and faithfulness fills them with optimism. What God has yet to give will far exceeds God’s past goodness.

During this Advent season, we are called to lift God’s work of restoration that mends hearts, minds, bodies, and spirits, so that we might enjoy the blessing of living in God’s holy presence.

Restoration is the work of God in Christ Jesus through the Holy Spirit, but Advent reminds us that God used John the Baptist to prepare the way for the one who reveals God’s work of restoration in the world. John the Baptist is the one who is charged with removing the barriers to God’s work of redemption and salvation.

In John’s Gospel, we hear John the Baptist claiming the mantle of Isaiah and declaring that he is “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23). In other words, John is the one who points us in the right direction so that we might experience the grace of God moving in our lives through the Spirit.

In previous weeks we have heard words about hope and peace, and today we’re invited to recapture joy. I realize that this Advent-Christmas Season isn’t a season of joy for everyone. I remember leading Blue Christmas services in my former parish and I see plenty of other churches offering the same. It is a good reminder that there are some people for whom this holiday season is hard; others who may need to do some grief work before they can rejoice in the Lord.

With that in mind, today Psalm 126 invites us to look back to the way God restored the fortunes of Zion. This psalm is often associated with the return from exile and the hardships that followed. The Psalmist speaks of those who dreamed that God would restore their fortunes. “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying the sheaves” (Psalm 126: 6). Dreams are important because they help us look forward into the future.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream, which he shared with the nation in 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It’s been more than fifty years and we’ve not yet fully realized the content of that dream, but the dream keeps pushing us forward. While racial divisions continue to exist in our nation, and much work needs to be done before the divide in our country is healed, there is a dream that can guide us on the journey forward.

This Psalm looks back to the end of the exile. It speaks of God’s people laughing and shouting with joy, even as the nations declared that “the Lord has done great things for them.” Yes, even those looking on from the outside could see that God had been at work freeing the people from their captors.

In trying to visualize this event, I tried to imagine the joy that must have been present when word came to those enslaved being held by the Confederacy that President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. I imagine it was a day full of joy and laughter for them, just as it was for those returning from exile.

Of course, even though the people of Judah left Babylon with hearts filled with joy and laughter, they returned to a city and a temple that laid in ruins. Yes, they were free, but not everything was as it should be. There were obstacles that still needed to be removed. The way of the Lord needed to be made straight.

In verses four through six of Psalm 126, we move from remembrance to imagining the future. When John cries out from the wilderness, he is crying out from the midst of the Negev desert. This is a dry and weary land that needs to experience the life-giving and life-restoring power of water. Yes, the people cry out: “restore our fortunes like the watercourses of the Negev.”

As anyone who has spent time in the desert knows, it is very dry, and commentaries attest to the Negev valley as one of the driest on earth. After all, it borders the Dead Sea! But if you go into the desert you will find dry river beds. While they are dry most of the year, they can become raging rivers in a matter of a few moments. When rain comes to the desert, it often comes in torrents creating powerful rivers that bring the desert to life. What seems to be dead and barren will spring to life, with the desert floor turning into a colorful blanket of flowers. Pools of water form and quickly teem with life.

In today’s psalm, people sow seeds of grain in tears, but reap the harvest with shouts of joy.

Christ Church, you have your own dream: returning from the exile of uncertainty with your rector. Some of you still grieve the departure of Fr. Tim, which is a natural feeling. Others of you are looking for that next priest, him or her, to grace your door, step into your lives, share your joys and sorrows, to preach from this pulpit, preside at that table, and guide this community in realizing the dreams that each of you and all of you have for Christ Church. When that person comes, all of you will share in shouts of joy. Any remaining deserts of pain will bloom with new life, new hopes, and restored dreams.

I’ll share that the movie “All Saints” was filmed on location at the real All Saints Church in Smyrna, Tennessee. That church never closed. It’s still there. They continue. Theirs is a story about faith, commitment, friendship, and relationships overcoming a certain death. There are no superheroes with superpowers, just ordinary people with extraordinary faith and a desire to do something and be something together. It is a story of reclamation and restoration. It is a true, real, living example of open hearts inspiring one another, aspiring to be God’s hands and feet and arms of love.

Christ Church, what I saw in that movie, I hope for you.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.