December 20, 2020
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty saviour for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
Much to my surprise, as a lifelong night owl, I have become a morning person this year. Finding myself up before the sunrise has been a bit disorienting. And yet, each morning, there is peace, drinking coffee in my favorite chair, seeing the first sunlight filter through our neighbor’s fir trees across the street. Silently watching the world awaken, greeting the birds as they begin to arrive at the feeder on our window, I have found is something I had been longing for. I’ve even found myself, some mornings, opening a daily prayer app I have, reading scripture, giving thanks to God, having a time to pray for you and our world before my day begins.
These mornings have brought me a deeper sense of gratitude. Theologically, I’ve always had a little bit of a cringe response to the idea of expressing gratitude to God for stuff, money, food, possessions. The idea that God blesses some, while not blessing others, doesn’t fit with our understanding and Biblical teachings of God loving all and providing provision for all, and that it is systemic injustice and racism that leads to poverty, hunger, not having a safe home for so many. But in the early morning quiet, I have found a new understanding of gratitude, one that acknowledges the needs of others, and invites my days to be about being in relationship with those who I can be in solidarity with, to move this world closer to God’s dreams for it.
In my early mornings, filled with gratitude, I have been thinking of Kris Strawser. Kris thought of herself as the very last person Anyone would expect to meet at Church. But here she was, back in 2015, walking in from the bitter cold on Christmas Eve, entering Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia. Kris huddled together with us in a small upper room, filled with candles and singing. The room was overflowing with those desperate to hear the story of God’s Light and Holy presence, full of the rich dark, echoing the peaceful silence of a world being reborn. We also welcomed a handful of folks experiencing homelessness and poverty who were desperately seeking a respite from the biting cold. Kris thought she was the last person anyone would expect to see in a Church that night, and yet, she immediately felt at home.
Because of whom she was, because of what she knew to true about herself in her bones, she thought of herself as the last person anyone would expect to meet at a Church. She saw herself as the very last person anyone would expect to transform a Congregation. and yet that’s exactly what God’s Holy Spirit did through Kris. In her years outside of Church, she saw God at work in the quiet, in the unassuming, in the possibility of people they might not know they held, and when she arrived, she was filled with an idea, a possibility, that transformed our community. On that cold Christmas Eve, I was setting up hot chocolate and cookies for fellowship after our service, when I met Kris. She walked up and told me she had this crazy idea, but I should hear her out. “This church is going to Baptize me. I don’t know what I need to do, but we will do it.”
With my colleagues over the next few months, we learned Kris’ story. As a Lesbian woman who was an artist and grew up in an anti-religious home, she had so many experiences of churches slamming doors in her face, of Christians being hurtful, and refusing to welcome in people who saw God at work in the world as she did. So, for years Kris had stayed away, even though the Holy Spirit was moving within her in the quiet. Then she received a crushing diagnosis from her doctor, and she discovered that her life would end much sooner than she expected. As she grieved, the most surprising emotion filled her, a profound gratitude. She was so incredibly grateful for her life. She realized that gratitude is directed towards someone or something, and this sense of awe, of thanksgiving, it was welling up within her towards the God who had always been beside her. She wanted to be part of a Church, to say thank you, to draw closer to God. Each day, on her way into work, she walked by Broad Street Ministry, past the big red doors, flung open seven days a week to welcome in those experiencing homelessness and hunger, offering meals and community, social services, and friendship. She started speaking with students who worked with us for their work-study jobs and learned that we supported the arts and loved questions about faith, that they saw God in the last people anyone would expect. She figured, why not show up and see if this was where she was called to?
And so, after our Christmas Eve service, Kris was aglow with the Holy, and we set to getting her Baptized.
In the Presbyterian Church, when an adult is baptized, they write a statement of faith, of what Scripture and throne Experiences of the Holy Spirit led them to Believe about Jesus. For Kris, her story was about finding belonging, of God Finding her, before she had figured out her thoughts on the trinity or the nature of Sin. Kris asked “could I share why I already know I belong to God? Almost like a deceleration of Belonging. A statement of faith is so final, and I’m still figuring it out, but I know I belong to God and this place.”
Kris knew that God loved her exactly for who she was. She was a Beloved Child of God, a Sheep of God’s own Fold, a Lamb of Christ’s own flock. When she showed up, she saw that our congregation had a bigger role to play in the community then we had, and helped us grow, to learn how to join with God’s work in the world in a new way. Our Church had a rash of Baptisms after Kris’s. We started having folks asking if they could write their own declarations of Belonging, to tell the story of God’s mighty acts of power in their own lives. And when people would speak their truth in this way, when they would share how they found God’s welcome in that place, someone else would hear, in their heart’s own language, that they belonged to God, to our community. Kris’ gratitude to God led her to give a beautiful gift, not only to herself, but to our community, and others. She didn’t just experience gratitude and let that make her feel better; she let that thanksgiving move our world closer to God.
Kris entered hospice a few years after we Baptized her, and I was asked to come pray with her one last time. I got to meet her Sister, who thanked us for our Church, and the hospitality we showed Kris. She told me about how Kris used to call up family members on Sunday evenings after church and tell them about how their churches should be more like Jesus, expecting the least likely people to be aflame with the Holy, serving the poor, defending, and welcoming those vilified in our society. I thanked her Sister and told her the story of how God transformed our Congregation through Kris. I told her about Kris’ declaration of belonging, and the impact it had on us all. I told Kris I was there to pray with her, and with great effort, she folded her hands in prayer. At this point the cancer was causing her a great deal of pain, but a great peace came over her. “Oh wow,” she whispered. She tried to speak but couldn’t. And in that room, we prayed words familiar and comforting.
Into your hands we commended Kris, Loving God,
a sheep of Your own fold,
a lamb of Christ’s own flock,
a sinner of the Spirit’s own redeeming.
I called on Jesus and the great cloud of witnesses, all those who thought they were the last people God would ever choose to transform the world through. These past weeks, as we approach Christmas Eve, I’ve been thinking about Kris, and especially this week, reading about Zachariah. He’s found himself with time in quiet, unable to speak, not working at the Temple. As someone who used to spend his time ministering to God in the temple, praying, offering sacrifice, to suddenly be at home, this time transforms him. Each day, he sees the life of the community outside of the Temple’s walls. He witnesses the ministering of hands making bread, of keeping the children, the poor, the dispossessed fed. He sees a different side of the people he has known their whole lives, and is filled with a gratitude for others, and God’s love, new every morning. And, as he sings in his eventual song, he has a deeper sense of God at work in the world. His unlikely child, he sees as part of God’s coming transformation of our world. Through his quiet waiting, he finds a new way for himself, his child, and others to Belong to the Holy One, who has always been by their side.
Beloved, in these last days before Christmas, may we let ourselves grow still. May we pause, and look around at what God is doing, discovering new blessings in ourselves and others. Because there are new adventures ahead. Jesus is coming again, returning anew into this weary world, and there are folks around us who, like John, will prepare the way. May we be on the lookout for the last people we’d expect, even ourselves, being moved by gratitude, to get involved with God. I know, from those quiet mornings praying for you, giving thanks for you, that many of you are preparing the way for the revolutionary of love of the Christ Child. May we be strengthened to be the people God dreams of us being, through the giving of Thanks for God’s presence in our lives, in our world. In the Name of the One who was, is, and evermore shall be, One God, Mother of us all, Amen.