The Lord is With You

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 | Romans 16:25-27 | Luke 1:26-38 | Canticle 15

Advent is all about preparation. “Prepare the way, O Zion,” we’ve sung, and theoretically, that’s what we’ve been doing, preparing the way for Jesus Christ to be fully present. These past three weeks have given us clues. As we lit the first candle with a word of peace and heard the Gospel tell us to “keep awake,” we focused on being present and aware. We lit the second candle in hope that we’d be a part of making a straight pathway through the desert, that the pathway of God’s peace might be realized. We lit the third candle with a word of joy and the vivid image of John the Baptist proclaiming, being that voice in the wilderness for the one who stood among them but was not yet known, the one greater than him who would baptize not with water but the Holy Spirit. And today, we light a candle with the word of love on our lips, and we remember the Annunciation of Mary, to whom the angel Gabriel said, “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.”
The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898

If you went home today or sat in your favorite chair reading or watching a movie tonight and Gabriel appeared to you, would your preparations find you in a place ready to engage God’s will? Because Mary was apparently ready, though I do like the poems and paintings that show her hesitance, reticence, youth, and vulnerability. It is not lost on me that after Gabriel has told her not to be afraid and that she’s chosen to bear the Son of the Most High, her most pressing question is about how that’s to be? How can she be pregnant? Forget the logistics of gestating, birthing, and mothering the Son of God: let’s start with the basics. And she’s told that the power of the Holy Spirit will overshadow her, with her consent. Mary shows us who she is in her devotion, in her strength.

I mentioned that there was one more thing I wanted to share from Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness.

“All too often our so-called strength comes from fear, not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence. If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open. . . .” (quote from Roshi Joan Halifax at the beginning of Ch. 7, p.147)

I mention this because while we all take for granted Mary’s strength, we often hear her spoken of as meek and mild. Of course she’s that, too. God knows who she is and favors her. Surely she is one who loves God with all her heart, all her soul, and all her mind. She’s awake and aware. She anticipates the Lord’s presence in her life. Her joy is harder for me to see, so tied up in her love and her surrender, that it must be complete in being so implicated in God’s will. That Mary is all of this in her youth speaks to a wisdom beyond her years, a strength of spirit that even Zechariah failed to show when Gabriel appeared to him. She heeds Gabriel’s message not to be afraid, and her love of God remains steadfast. Zechariah, a high priest and elderly man, powerful in many ways, serves as a contrast to this our Mary in Luke’s telling.

Young as she is, dependent upon her family and now her betrothed though between the two households, and about to be pregnant…could she be more vulnerable?

“Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.”

God knew in Mary the strength of her spine, her strong back, not only to withstand the strain of childbirth but to endure the trials of raising a son who would have to go the way of the heavenly Father. He would break her heart in rejecting his earthly family. He would dismiss her when she called him out at the wedding feast, though she did not dismiss him. She would be close always to the news of him, as a mother does, and stand there even at his death. The song “Mary Did You Know” wrenches our hearts because we know that all this will come to pass, but how could she? God knows she’s strong of heart, and she has a strong back.

And she’s soft. Soft enough to swell with a child. Soft in her vulnerability, which means not only that she can be broken but also that she can break into newness of life. She’s not hardened to possibilities or unresponsive to that which is far greater than herself. Naive as it may be, she knows who she is and where she is in this world. She doesn’t have God’s approval like Zechariah and Elizabeth; she has God’s favor.

And the Lord is with her. Already. Before he was conceived. Before he was born.

“How can we give and accept care with strong-back, soft-front compassion, moving past fear into a place of genuine tenderness? I believe it comes about when we can be truly transparent, seeing the world clearly–and letting the world see into us.” (rest of Halifax’s quote on p. 147)

We see the Virgin Mary, in her youth and vulnerability, in her obedience and devotion, in her strength and love beyond her years. The Lord’s favor was with her, indeed, radiating to all through the generations, this most highly favored lady. But before all the generations called her blessed, she had to brave the wilderness of her wild-hearted response, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary’s “yes,” Mary’s consent to participate in the will of God took her further into vulnerability, the wilderness of walking a way alone. Like we said last week, though, when we take a light into the darkness of the wilderness, we tend to find others who have also ventured into a way that was right even if it wasn’t popular, a way that is true even if it’s uncomfortable. Mary makes it to Elizabeth’s house. Mary makes it to the birth with Joseph. The Lord is with her all the while.

We may not get Gabriel visiting us today or ever. Our calls are not as dramatic most of the time as we navigate our jobs and vocations, our lives and loves, but the decisions we make are often life-altering. When we approach a precipice having done the training in mindfulness and presence, with knowledge of our story and stories, and with a strong back and soft front and wild heart . . . what does our decision look like if we not only believe but know that the Lord is with us?

Beloved, the Lord is with you.

How do our decisions make space for the presence of the Lord to grow in our lives? Are we responding out of fear? Are we putting up a shield to defend ourselves from what is uncomfortable, terrifying, or different? Or are we showing our soft front, our wild, open hearts? Can we take that step into the wilderness even if it’s dark and unknown but we feel it to be true?

With this kind of walk in faith, the Light grows, and we make way for the Incarnation.

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Breaking In, Making Way

Isaiah 40:1-11 | 2 Peter 3:8-15a | Mark 1:1-8 | Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

There’s part of me that wants a rally cry from the church to come down from above, stop us in our tracks, and realign everything so that we’re all fixed in God’s will. So when I hear the words of Isaiah to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God,” I get excited. Yes! This is it. Finally, “every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low.” We’ll get the level playing field for equality and justice to be manifest so the Glory of God can be revealed, for all to see it together. That’s the beloved community I long for. And the Gospel of Mark repeats this, basically. Only, it’s not so much a rally cry as it is an introduction . . . for John the Baptist, a man of the wilderness, humble and unworthy, yet baptizing many.

This is why we can’t solely proof-text the Bible, why we can’t just pick and choose verses of Scripture to hold onto. Well, we can certainly hold onto verses of Scripture for the strength and assurance we need; I have one stuck to my laptop screen (Jn 15:11). But we also need to know the context of the greater picture.

As much as I want Isaiah to be a rally cry for social justice–and it very well can be–it’s also part of an image of the way the world is when God’s will is manifest. The Israelites have suffered under oppression and are at that time returning to their land, something they didn’t think could or would happen. What’s happening is that what they least expected is actually happening, what they don’t deserve is being granted because God is faithful in God’s covenant with them. Their journey this time won’t be forty years’ wandering in the wilderness, but the path will be straight for them. In that moment, this is an observation of the mercy of God, even as we also get a picture of the fickleness of the people with whom God is in relationship and know their struggles are not over.

We get an even richer image of God’s manifestation in Psalm 85. God is speaking peace (shalom) to the faithful: peace, the fruit of forgiveness. What does it look like? Like mercy and truth meeting together, like righteousness and peace kissing each other, like truth springing up from the earth and righteousness looking down from heaven, like abundance for all and peace as the pathway. Just thinking this fills my imagination and heart with goodness, but it’s highly conceptual. I read a story about a group who created a physical “Road to Shalom” so youth groups could actually walk a way of peace. They had signs that said “Steadfast Love,” “Faithfulness,” “Righteousness,” and “Peace.” Using Ps. 85, vs. 10, they had youth hold the signs and act out the verse. Steadfast Love and Faithfulness met one another (our “Mercy” and “Truth” in the NRSV translation; NIV has “love” and “faithfulness”), and Righteousness and Peace exchanged a kiss (among much giggling). This was a very physical, tangible experience, a way to embody the path of peace so that our finite minds can try to fathom the greatness of God’s glory.

Whereas the Word of God does stand forever, we are more like the grass and flowers that wither and fade. Our Epistle reading reminds us that with God “one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” We know with God there’s that timelessness and all time, the kairos time I’ve referred to before. With that perspective of all time, I cannot even imagine the kind of enduring patience that waits for us to turn our hearts toward the way of peace. That kind of steadfast love that waits for us to acknowledge the truth of our condition of suffering. That kind of goodness that accepts us wholly and unconditionally.

I want a rally cry, and I’m offered a way of Peace. I’m reminded of the patience of God who is waiting on me, when I think I’m waiting on God.

I’m waiting for God to intervene in the Middle East crisis and the poverty crisis and the refugee crisis and every single one of our life crises. And I think surely this Christmas we’ll remember that Christ has come and been made manifest and that we have all the power of the Holy Spirit to make all things new, . . . but I’m told to wait. To be still. To listen. To be alert and awake. And to heed the messengers who have gone before me. And to repent for my sins. So that I can be ready to meet Christ at his Birth and at his Second Coming. That’s a lot to do for one “just” waiting.

I want a rally cry to make the world a better place, and I’m so outwardly focused that I miss that God is waiting on me. And on you.

Wait. Be still. Prepare yourself. Listen. A rally cry will come…has already come…and broken into our world. God has prepared a way of peace, determined a pathway long ago. Who’s to say it’s not already written on our hearts? We might stumble upon the path of peace, but what happens when we prepare ourselves for it? What happens if we help reveal it to others?

What does it mean for us to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God”? Would it be like parting the Red Sea or the Jordan River? Or making way through the crowds clamoring for healing or throwing down palm fronds on the way into Jerusalem? Is it really the people doing the “making way”? Or are the people the ones noticing enough to direct attention at what is breaking into the world, right into the midst of all the messiness and struggle, settling into our heart and spreading to our minds and lives.

And this in-breaking presence of God speaks peace to the faithful, to those who have their hearts turned toward God.

So we don’t have to go to someplace that tells us it’s trying to create a visual of the path of peace. We live it. Frederick Buechner said, “The birth of the child into the darkness of the world made possible not just a new way of understanding life but a new way of living it.” People the world over don’t have to wonder what it’s like to live outside of God’s love because God’s love already broke into our world and prepared for us the Way to salvation. But we forget that we’re in this eternal covenant of God’s steadfast love and grace and mercy. And we have to be reminded that when we greet one another with peace, whether we’re in church or in our cars or on the phone or in the restaurant or the grocery store, we are walking along the path of peace, one that was and is and yet will be.

Steadfast love/mercy and faithfulness/truth meet not just like teenagers on a youth trip, shaking hands and exchanging names. Mercy and truth meeting looks like legislators listening to the constituents showing up at their offices in D.C., outlining the affect health care has on their lives, how grateful they’ve been for the dialysis they’ve received or for every effort made by the medical team to heal the child and provide a refuge for the parents as they watched their child die. In this coming together of mercy and truth, righteousness and peace kiss, coming together in a communion of intimacy and love that bears fruit of something good for all, in legislation that benefits the most, especially the least recognized, the most invisible.

I want a rally cry, and I’m invited to be still. Be alert. Notice the pathway of peace that signals where the feet of God have trod–to the altar, to the food bank doors, to the waiting rooms of health centers, to the kitchen table, to the artist’s canvas, to the inventor’s studio, the programmer’s desk, to the child’s imagination, and to the student’s mind–to everywhere Holy Spirit gives us a taste of the grace and mercy, righteousness and peace that creates what is Good for each of us and all of us. In our haste, chances are we’ve paved over the holy with our good intentions and self-interest, creating a different kind of highway that helps us navigate the mountains and valleys without thinking too much about it. And we have the soundtrack of our lives playing so loudly that there’s no way we’ll hear the voice of a weird-looking guy in the wilderness or even a still, small voice within, nudging us to stop a minute and notice the glimmer of light out of the corner of our eye.

There’s a way that’s been prepared for us. There’s a light that’s broken in in the most unlikely of ways. God’s waiting for us to notice and follow the path.

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The Long Haul

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 | Psalm 78:1-7 | 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 | Matthew 25:1-13

Most families about this time are finalizing Thanksgiving plans, determining who’s going to be where, bringing some part of the great feast. Perhaps your family, like ours, lingers around the table a little while, too full really to move, and starts storytelling. Casey’s dad is really good at this and is prone to exaggeration or throwing a joke in when you least expect it, so you fall for it completely. Then his mom starts in, sometimes barely getting the words out from laughing so hard, and we’re all laughing, too, though we’ve heard the stories hundreds of times (and I can’t tell you many of them because we’re in church and you probably know your own family legends). We can almost guess which stories are going to be told, depending on the theme of the conversation. I’ve noticed my older kids recognize this pattern and can jump in to jog memories if details or stories are left out of the conversation. In a sense, this is the Milford family’s oral tradition. These are the stories we tell when we gather together that demonstrate our resilience, our bond, and our sense of humor (to be sure!).

We gather each week for our Great Thanksgiving, our Eucharist, and we share our stories. Stories like Joshua leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, making sure through a bit of reverse psychology that they’re all in, committed to following one God, like him and his house. (So, yes, they’re really going to have to get rid of all the other idols.) Stories like in the letter to the Thessalonians that offer encouragement, hope, and assurance. They just knew the Son of Man was coming at any moment, but people were dying before he got there. What about their reward? In light of the foolish and wise bridesmaids, how can they–how can we–be sure we’re all ready, fully prepared? It doesn’t seem sustainable to be in red alert mode all the time. Something doesn’t seem right.

We know there’s a lot “not right” right now. A quick glance over the headlines just this past week tells a story of a people clamoring for something but getting tripped up on themselves. Where in all our stories does it say point a finger at anyone but ourselves? We want to do that. We could read and live our tradition blaming everyone else for our plight–from the Egyptians to the pharisees, to the Romans, to the Islamic State, to nonbelievers, to addiction, to mental illness. . . our list is legion. Last week when we were given the Beatitudes, Padre Guillermo and I both read them as instruction for how we live our lives in relationship, in community. They are how we live our lives ultimately because we are in relationship with God, and nowhere in the instructions does Jesus tell us that we are to rationalize or make excuses for not loving God or our neighbor, blaming our inadequacies on anyone and anything but ourselves. This acceptance or even realization that we are accountable for ourselves doesn’t feel good, but it allows us to seek out help; it helps us admit our weaknesses and vulnerabilities for which we need support. We could use our own letter from Paul.

When we’re living into the Christian life and trucking along with a new convert’s fervor, we might shine the light of faith brightly for all to see. We make our decisions based on what is right and good because it seems so clear. We know whose we are. We know where we’re going. We’re ready to meet the Lord now or in the kingdom to come. Our lamps are lit, and we’re prepared. We’re wise. And good. (And incredibly prone to being self-congratulatory.)


Maybe we started this life of faith with such vigor but started to lose our way. Unconditional love and acceptance drew us in and lit a fire we didn’t know we were capable of. Our light shines as brightly as for those who are wise, or at least it does at times . . . or did at one point. We just missed the instructions on how to keep the oil filled, our lamps ready and prepared. So how do we stay on fire for Jesus? How do we stay in love when things get hard, when the blessedness assured by Jesus seems hypothetical and archaic?

We share our stories.

Remember when Moses saw the Glory of God and was transfigured so much he had to wear a veil to talk to the ordinary folks? Remember how Moses died at the LORD’s command without much ado, and then Joshua was chosen to lead the people on into the Promised Land? Remember how Jesus summarized the law as loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind and loving your neighbor as yourself? Remember how Jesus lived, died, and rose again to show us the triumph of life and love on Easter morning? Remember the first time you experienced the unconditional love of God? Remember when you experienced the radical hospitality of this place? Remember how All Saints’ was planted and all the crazy things you’ve been through? Remember the first service on the Land? Remember the first bilingual service?

All our experiences now are the stuff of tomorrow’s stories, and it’s okay to look at the stories, the memories and learn from our mistakes. The gospel doesn’t say the foolish bridesmaids couldn’t get oil to fill their lamps; they just hadn’t done it in time. The wise ones knew the stories, learned from them, and remained steadfast, ready for whatever came next.

The important thing for us today is that we realize we’re in this for the long haul: “this” being our Christian life. This Christian life isn’t a sprint to the Second Coming but rather a marathon of following Jesus’s way through life, death, and resurrection–physically and spiritually. We need the light of Christ to illumine our way forward, and we need the oil, the fuel for that light. What do we do to nurture our faith in Christ? When and what do we pray? Do we hear Bible stories or read them on days other than Sunday? Do we consider our church family part of our support network? How much of what we do in the other 166 hours of the week reflects that we follow Jesus and that He is the light of our life? If we don’t know how or why or when, know that’s what I’m here for, to help you in your walk in faith, to find fuel for your faith. Normally people seek out the church in times of crisis, but if we keep maintaining a life of faith, we have a reservoir at the ready.

And what about All Saints’? We’ve considered the stories of the past, but what of its trajectory? What do we need to make ready so that when Jesus wanders in in the guise of the unemployed, the hungry, or any one of us, we’re prepared to show love of God and neighbor in practice? Keep in mind, we’re not pointing fingers or making excuses. This isn’t just a prompt for a “we need a building” discussion. This is really a prompt for us to prayerfully consider who we are as a church, as a people of God who proclaim the Risen Lord and who are gifted with Holy Spirit. Because if you put us in a room with a hundred other people from a hundred other religious traditions, we couldn’t distinguish the foolish or wise, the lazy or the prepared. Looking out at all of you, I don’t know your heart and mind (though some of you are likely still thinking about Thanksgiving). How does who we are affect our trajectory as a church in Bentonville, in the world?

These are the kinds of questions the vestry and I ask ourselves as we put together a yearly budget. Good caretakers, good stewards consider not just the material but also the intention and the hope. As we gather weekly for our Great Thanksgiving and tell our stories, what stirs in your heart? What fuels the light of Christ within you? What are you grateful for? What gives you a sense of wisdom? Those are things we can’t really put a pricetag on and say, “Well, match your yearly pledge to that.” The work we do here, the preparations we make from a place of faith are not of this world but are still very much within it. I know in the newsletter there’s been an emphasis on pledges that haven’t been met and how we have a deficit. But I believe we are a community that knows how to prepare. We are a community of abundance–of love, of talents, gifts, and treasure. We’re also a community of vision; we see All Saints’ filling an important role in the faith community in Northwest Arkansas. We’ll watch and wait together, but our anticipation isn’t idle. There’s work to be done, memories to be made, and stories to tell. We’re in it for the long haul.


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