I had planned for this Sunday, Dec. 13, to be the height of our Advent worship, on this penultimate Advent Sunday. My goal this season was to emphasize the ways we wait and the way we are prophets, drawing on images from the song "These Are the Days of Elijah." I arrived in my study on Saturday morning to write the sermon that I had planned for months. I arrived to a room full of people wrapping gifts for children of poor families in our community. Another group was working hard on planning the distribution of poinsettia plants for our shut-ins. I was trying to be an encourager to the many people hard at work, but my sermon writing kept getting pushed back. While the clock was ticking, I was not worried that there would be enough time to finish this message that I thought the Spirit had given me for the third Sunday in Advent.
I had just sent off the last of the poinsettia crew with a warning that one of our members was nearing death, so they may not be able to get into his room with the plant. Just after they left another member came into my study to tell me that this parishioner and friend had died earlier in the morning. No plant would be needed this day in his room. After the bearer of the news left I tried to start writing my message. But, instead, I was surprised to find myself reduced to a time of weeping, as I grieved the loss of this saint. This, the third death in our congregation in six weeks, was not unexpected. My emotion was unexpected. I think I am at the beginning of understanding what it means to pastor a pilgrim community.
I started to write again on the prophecy of Ezekiel 37: 1-14. The phone rang and it was another elderly congregant living in a nursing home who thought he was calling his wife. He wasn't sure what day it was, so I told him, and we chatted. As I returned to my computer to start writing, the poinsettia crew returned with the "extra" plant. What should they do with it, they wondered, now that this brother had died? We talked, and I called another member who had recently suffered a stroke and was now confined to her home. Would she like a plant, I inquired. We talked about the life of a stroke victim. She wasn't a shut in just yet, she told me. So, I took the poinsettia and placed it in the sanctuary for a reminder of our departed brother in Sunday's worship.
It was then I remembered I needed to write a prayer and interview for a young man leaving for active duty this week. I wanted to talk and pray with him during worship. So, I gave up on writing the sermon. I went home to shovel snow and put down salt in the driveway so the people coming to our open house tomorrow could walk safely to our door.
Finally, this afternoon, I sat down to write my message. Craddock's book, "Preaching", makes the point that the power of a sermon is found as it connects with the congregation which will hear it. The recent book, "This Odd and Wonderous Calling", makes many similar points about the uncertainty and joy, an odd and wonderous mix, found in serving a faith community. "These are the days of Ezekiel." The title of the sermon I had planned to write is still the same. The substance? Well, it is an entirely different message than the one I had carefully constructed in my head and planned to write when I awoke today.
There is no doubt in my mind, as I contemplate delivering the prophetic word on Sunday, that the message now in my computer memory is much better than the one I had planned. It may not be one that would get an "A" in any preaching class. But, it is the one that our congregation needs to hear, or at least that is what I think the Spirit is telling me tonight.
The word of Hope is found in wrapping gifts for poor children; in delivering poinsettia plants to the lonely; in comforting a confused man and a stroke victim; in assuring a family that, yes, the drying bones of their father, these bones can live.
Advent Hope. It is found in the simplest acts; in the most profound and simple acts of being the presence of the Christ who promised He would come again. God keeps giving Hope in the valley full of dry bones. God keeps putting flesh on the bones, restoring communities and soothing broken hearts.
Odd? Indeed. Wonderous? Certainly. Prophesy to the bones. Wait for the sound of the rattling. God is moving. Still.