In September of 1983, after four years as assistant to the rector of St. Michael’s-on-the-Heights in Worcester Massachusetts,
I became a real honest-to-goodness parish Rector. St. Luke’s was a parish in the picturesque village of Attica in the Diocese of Western New York. It was all rather bucolic unless you took a drive about a mile and a half to the East of the village centre, where all of a sudden there appeared a spectacle you might not have expected. You might be thinking you have encountered something like Disneyland; an immense great walled structure with storybook-looking turrets and towers. Not at all an unattractive structure. Kind of like an immense fortress. It was and is, in fact, the infamous Attica maximum security state prison with its more than two thousand permanent or semi permanent residents.
During the previous July, I had finally decided, with a little prompting by Bishop Alex Stewart, supplemented by much prayer, that the Holy Spirit was calling me to become the rector there. Having said “yes”, David and I drove out to Western New York to see just what I had signed up for.
What we found was a rather small, wood framed and landlocked building built in 1878, totally surrounded by a dusty, dirt and stone parking lot owned by the nearby Roman Catholic Church and school. The building itself had a quaint but rather shabby look and a decided lean to the right. I am speaking of the physical plant, not the political bent, although both probably could be said to apply.
Fortunately, there were good relations with the Roman Church next door, who graciously allowed us to use their parking lot when the street-side parking overflowed.
Noting the rather precarious appearance of the building, David said, “One good genuflection, Jerry, and you are likely to wind up in the basement!”
New beginnings are challenges. Sometimes we question our own willingness to face them. I could not have foreseen the tremendous work of God’s grace that was about to begin for us, both for me personally and more importantly for the wonderful people of that parish and that village. I was so tempted to be fearful, so hesitant, so filled with doubt. O Lord, are you sure this is what you want me to do? Are you sure this is where you want me to be? What do you expect of me in this sad-looking place? But I had given my word. I knew I would be there until God would call me to be somewhere else. The words came to mind, “Grow where you are planted!”
Only by the grace of God, and the faith, sweat and tears of God’s people in that place, when he finally did call me into retirement 22 years later, I left behind a robust and joyful worship tradition, a beautiful new church facility with a huge paved parking lot, and it was all debt-free. I had the privilege of burning the mortgage on that last Easter Day before my retirement. It was so hard to leave it all behind me, but there often comes a time in life when we are called to move on, and, thanks be to God and to my life’s partner David, I had a home to come home to.
Today, we are facing both a challenge and an opportunity. An opportunity old and familiar, and yet at the same time, new and challenging. Hopefully, we pause to look at ourselves and the world about us with fresh eyes.
Once again, we ask, “What now?”,“What comes next?” “What is to be expected of me this year, what is to be expected of us?” “What will be different?” as with all our years, there will be times when we will celebrate, times we might be in mourning. Maybe there will be something which causes us to be afraid. Perhaps we will find a new time of grace; hopefully this will be a new year of life in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. In our annual reliving of the drama of his Incarnation, earthly life, his passion, death, resurrection and ascension which we begin again today, we prepare for him to come once more.
In the beginning of time the One who is the Word from God appeared at the pleasure of the Father. Through Him the work of our creation began. All that is came into being through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.
Again, in the fullness of time, he came into our world, as do we all, helpless, innocent and vulnerable. He prepared for his own arrival with arms outstretched, ready to embrace his creation, eager to embrace us by entering into our humanity. His birth, his nativity, was nothing less than the merging together, the wedding of the God of love with his creation, the world, our humanity, the work of his hands.
Above all, that emanation of God’s grace was and ever will be the manifestation of his most passionate, infinite and fearful love; that love of God which is the womb and source of us all, and of all that is.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear; and grace my fears relieved; How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.
We human beings are born into this world like a story yet untold. Hopefully, we proceed to grow, to unfold into a fuller sense of who we are. Somewhere along the way we encounter an innate and instinctive need and questioning; sense and an awareness, a felt desire to question, explore, recognize and relate to a presence beyond ourselves.
Another way of saying this is a thought and truth familiar to many people of faith: As we are told by Holy Scripture, “We, you and I are created in the image of God.” But what does that mean?
Almost all human cultures include a belief in a god or gods, or perhaps a philosophy of life or political system as a matter of faith; some kind of higher power. But what does it all mean? What does it mean to you and to me and to the person outside the walls of the church?
I hesitate to suggest that the God in whom I believe has a need. I fear to suggest something that makes it sound as though I think God is incomplete in some way. That is not what am saying. We believe that God is complete within himself, a family within the One true God. But God has a desire. God has a dream. God has a passionate craving, not because he needs to gain something he doesn’t already have, but because he has an infinite need to give! If God can be said to have a need, it is only that his creative love knows no bounds, no limitations, and no end.
In his infinite love, God loved his dream into existence. He created and continues to create a world of his own making.
Not a world of mindless robots who always do the right thing, who love simply because they know of no alternative, but a world where his love can be denied or flourish in a fellowship of give and take; a world where love has a much deeper meaning borne out of freedom and choice. More than a mere time of preparation, Advent is a time to consider the choices we make in the context of God’s love.
To demonstrate his love for us, to show the belief he has in our eventual decision to choose love, he comes to us in the gentlest, most vulnerable, most trusting way possible.
He could have come with all glory and fanfare, with trumpeting and shouts of joy and exultation; but that event was not as yet ready for the completion of God’s dream. His dream is this: That ultimately, we will become perfectly created in his image; that through our own desire, consent and cooperation with his grace and his love, we will grow into his likeness more and more, until one day we shall be like him. Through the power of his creating love, we become more and more a mirror image of him, sharing fully in his love, the love that has the power to create, bless and save.
Yes, the holy season of Advent is a time of preparation for something very important. Looking back to that wonderful new beginning in the advent of his Nativity with thanksgiving and praise, we prepare to then turn our faces forward; thinking through and beyond his earthly ministry, passion, death and resurrection, to the longed-for fulfillment of his dream. We look forward to the time when he shall come again, this time not as a helpless babe, but as the triumphant King of love; not to rule over us, but to reign with us in his new creation, the Kingdom of perfect love.
Let us find some time before that wonderful season of celebration descends upon us, with all of its giving and sharing and celebration, to quietly prepare our hearts with gratitude. Let us prepare our hearts once again for the calm and serene wonder we share as we stand or kneel together at the foot of the crèche.
Let us work and pray and prepare to receive him willingly, thankfully, and totally, opening our hearts to his infinite love.
Now my heart sets none a-bove thee, for thy grace a-lone I thirst, knowing well that if I love thee, thou O Lord hast loved me first.