Sermon, December 11

The desert shall bloom like a rose

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh

St. Luke’s, Portland

December 11, 2016; Advent 3A: Isaiah 35:1-10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11


This day of our pageant practice reminds me of my first visit to the Holy Land some twenty or so years ago. I had gone to Israel imagining some sort of living Christmas pageant with a desert full of shepherds, rocks, and sand and things like that. I was amazed to discover a land of modern cities with a northern region that is full of green fields and groves of fruit trees. Even the barren rocky region around the Dead Sea was dotted with date palm plantations made green through irrigation. When I asked our tour guide about this, he smiled and with great pride said, "Yes, it's true. We have done so much. The prophecy has been fulfilled. The desert has bloomed like a rose."

As Middle East tensions demonstrate, doing that with people is harder than with date palms. There was a woman in one of my former congregations who went through a wonderful reawakening of her faith. For a while, she was at the church every day, working hard at this or that, helping in whatever way she could. Then the day came when she stormed into my office and said, "I'm leaving. I just can't take it anymore. The people around here are so un-Christian. I'm going to the Salvation Army. They live out their faith. They help people." With a huff, she said "Good-bye,” and walked out the door. About two months later, she was back. When I asked her about the Salvation Army, she said, "They were such hypocrites. I couldn't stand it so I left. I want to be on your mailing list. I am rejoining the women’s group. But I want you to know that I am going to go to another church down the street.”

Jesus asked, "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? What then did you go out to see?” “Someone in soft robes?” Caught up in her search for perfection, that woman could see nothing but wilderness in front of her. She could see how the people around her were flawed but she missed seeing that God was working in and through their lives. She could not see how they were experiencing healing and hope in their lives and offering those things to others. Perhaps most importantly, she missed how she might have experienced that healing and hope herself. In her desire to have everything just right, she couldn’t hear the Advent message so eloquently expressed by the late Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.1

When John’s disciples asked Jesus if he was the messiah, he told them to go and tell what they have heard and seen. Let me take those words to heart and share a little of what I have heard and seen this week. On Monday night, I was part of the inauguration of a new learning collaborative between Maine Medical Center and Preble Street through which medical, psychiatric, and dental residents will provide free services to those in need. As you enter the lobby, the first thing you see is a large photo of our own deacon, Dick Rasner, washing the feet of a homeless woman last Maundy Thursday. On Wednesday at noon, our own John Hennessy and several other parishioners stood “shoulder to shoulder” with leaders of 25 faith communities at USM, as our new canon missioner used the story of Mary and Joseph to tell immigrants and refugees they were welcome in Portland. On Thursday night, I spoke about the spirituality of creation to an Environmental summit of business and political leaders at Allagash Brewery. At the same time, the Franny Peabody Center held its Christmas Dinner for those with HIV/AIDS in the lower Parish Hall. On Saturday, the Upper Hall had an altar guild polishing party where the conversation and laughter showed that far more than the silver was made to shine. In each of these examples, rough places are being smoothed out, barriers are being taken down, and broken and barren places are bearing life. In each of these places, God’s kingdom is breaking through and a way is being made for the Christ of Christmas to come.

Jesus said “Go and tell what you see and hear.” While the public events I described were very powerful, the most moving moments of the week were personal. On Tuesday, I learned that Ilona Berlin had died. You might remember her from volunteering at the fair in previous years. You haven’t seen her recently because she has been sick. In March, she was told that she only had a few months to live. She could have shut down or drawn herself inward. Instead, she made the process of dying into a new journey of life. She made sure she connected with friends, she went to the ocean every day, she listened to music, she read books, and she meditated and prayed. This person who had previously been shy and retiring had blossomed, and my visits with her were a blessing. Today is Gaudete Sunday, coming from the Latin word for “joy.” Happiness and joy are not the same thing. While happiness is an emotion that changes related to our circumstances, joy is something deeper, something spiritual that sustains us in all our ups and downs. Ilona embodied that kind of joy. She knew she was dying. She knew she was in the wilderness and had, in fact, been there for a long time. In her journey through that wilderness, she rediscovered who she was and whose she was. In that wilderness, she found Jesus. Though she didn’t quite make it to Christmas, she learned what Christmas was all about. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could learn from her experience and do the same?

Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in. On this third Sunday of Advent, may it be so.




Posted in: Sermons 
Post Date: Sunday, December 11, 2016 6:33 AM