Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Dec. 11, 2022

Posted by on Sun, Dec 11, 2022 in Advent, Sermons

The Third Sunday of Advent

Dec. 11, 2022

“When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word…” I wonder if ‘when John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing,’ —he felt left out, set aside, in the dark, his usefulness outlived? Prison is not a romantic notion, it’s a place of dark fears, grim uncertainties, and even worse—that irrelevancy which one fears is certain. 

From a second century prison diary we read; 

My father, out of love for me, kept trying to refute me and break my resolve. 
“Father, do you see that jug over there?”
“Yes, I do.”
“It cannot be anything other than it is, can it?” 
“So too, I cannot call myself anything other than I am: A Christian.”

This is St. Perpetua’s writing; the earliest work we have from a Christian woman, and one of only a few surviving first-hand accounts from any martyrs of the early Church. It is of her diary from prison, while waiting to hear if she and the others with her will be put to death, and they were.

John is also in prison awaiting what by now he knows is almost certain execution. One question he needs answered plagues him. No, he isn’t asking for a stay of execution or if someone can break him out, nor is the question about his family or a request for any creature comforts. John wants to know about the truth and efficacy of his life’s call. He sends two of his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” He wants to know if he got it right, if the one he prepared the way for, the one he proclaimed would Baptize with the Spirit and with Fire — is really who he thinks it is. Prison distorts and impairs a person, and I think John is wondering ‘Am I going to my death having failed to herald and make way for the real Messiah? Have I failed to fulfill my very purpose?’

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus doesn’t give them a simple ‘Yes!’ and we’re left wondering why.

Perpetua doesn’t give her father a clear answer about why she won’t renounce her faith to save her life, and she cannot fathom his refusal to understand her Christian credo. “Angry at this word, [he] bore down on me as if he would pluck out my eyes. But he only fumed, and went away, defeated.” Even her best explanation of her greatest treasure failed to reach him. For both John and Perpetua neither could separate themselves from what God called them to, it was who they were, impending execution or not.

When we see cataclysmic change coming, like death, we tend to wrestle out the most important and pressing questions of our lives, dig down to the bedrock of our reason for being, and consider God’s call to in life, or question if God is even there. 

In Advent our waiting is to celebrate something certain and wonderful. Today is Gaudette Sunday, some call it Mary Sunday, and while it’s a lightening of for our time of waiting, we can’t look ahead to Mary holding the infant Jesus without also looking further ahead when she will hold his lifeless body in those same arms, after being taken down from the cross. 

Waiting gives us time to wonder and look ahead, to clear away some of the detritus of day to day life and look into the deep water of our souls. What is important to us? Is that why some of the most powerful life questions and answers are explored from prison? One has both waiting space and a sense of an imperative to get it right. It becomes important to know, to share, to tell.

Consider the prison messages like Saint Paul’s letters, Saint Perpetua’s diary, Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the Travels of Marco Polo, Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, powerful words from Elizabeth Keckley, Mahatma Gandhi, e.e. cummings, Ana Rodriguez, —we read their words and hear them speak of what matters, even from a cell where others had sought to stifle and limit them. Judith A. Scheffler is a compiler of such writing, saying, “These are the marginal texts in a tradition of marginal texts.” Yet we are drawn to those margin notes, perhaps even all the more.

John’s question was too important and his yearning too deep for a simple ‘Yes, I’m the one!’ Jesus answered by asking John’s own disciples to tell him what they saw. iHe knew his doubts and uncertainty, his sacrifice, and honored John’s fear that time was short for fulfilling those hopes by sending good news of John’s call fulfilled and in action. They could go and tell John of the Messiah’s arrival arrival, not as a great military mind or leading an armed insurrection or occupation, not the traditional king people had long anticipated, but with words drawn from Isaiah seen coming to life;

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

Advent waiting invites us to wonder and look ahead, not only to Christmas in two weeks, but to really stop doing and wait. To sit still and clear away some of the detritus of life’s clutter, and look into the deep water of our souls. What is important to us? What would we most need to hear from our cell, in the face of death, in questioning our lives? Many of the writers I listed earlier did some of their most expansive self-examination while waiting restricted to a cell? I think we do it too—not literal confinement, but in true stillness. Those five or six minutes of shadowy candlelit silence on Wednesday night feels all too short because to sit without talking, without distraction, or getting up or logging on — our minds are free to fly and wonder, talk with God and listen in the silence, perhaps for the answer to the question of Christ in our lives. What is yours?

The busyness of life can be so filled with the clutter that often there’s no spiritual room to entertain those big life questions, no room to welcome Christ in except in fleeting prayers of ‘Help me, help me!’ or ‘Thank you, thank you!’ I’d like to blame the cell phones, computers, chores, errands, responsibilities, for work, kids, parents, spouses—anything but myself! Yet who among us wouldn’t drop everything for a beloved in dire need or trouble? God waits for us to make time—time and space to invite the Holy One in. Could all our frustrations, fears, and resistance become our prayer of invitation? Our Advent waiting to celebrate the birth of the  Christ Child reminds us to make room for him year after year, to invite him into our whole lives. We do it together by joining in worship and prayer, giving, and service, be it online or in the flesh. Others can know him by our hearing and sharing the good news like that which Jesus sent to John. Whether one is calling out from a prison cell or praying in a monastic cell, lying alone at night in your bedroom unable to sleep or stiff with fear in the pre-op room of the hospital; there is nowhere the love of God cannot find us. If we make even a little room Christ will make his home in us. Listen, with all our hearts listen…what is he saying to you?

© 2022 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.

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