We have partnered with TryTank – the experimental laboratory for church growth and innovation – to produce a new preaching resource aimed particularly at smaller congregations (those with an average Sunday attendance of 29 or fewer). That said, any congregation can use it. We have also paired it with an adult forum curriculum. From Christ the King Sunday to Christmas Day, we have six sermons each about 12 minutes long. They are based on the Sunday lectionary. The video sermons will be available on the web and can be played as a sermon during the service.
More information and to watch the video: https://www.trytank.org/vpmdec1.html
One of the customs which I love here at the monastery, is that at Compline each night, on the anniversary of Brother’s death, we read his obituary. Now not to boast, but I will take the credit, or perhaps the blame, for reviving this custom, and for writing some of the obituaries. Now after listening to them, I am aware that some of them were badly written and others, eye rollingly embarrassing and have caused more than a few sniggers. Recently, I decided it was time to fill in the gaps, and to rewrite the really dreadful ones.
One of the obituaries has always caused us to roll our eyes. In Father Conran’s we would read that his health precluded him from living in community for long periods of time, and so off he went to Scotland to run a parish, and to live with his sister. We rolled our eyes, not because we couldn’t imagine the scenario, but because everyone has not wished that our health precluded us from living in community. Over the years, Father Conran became a caricature upon whose delicate constitution we would project our own feelings, and frustrations with life in community.
But I’ve discovered something. We had Father Conran all wrong. I’ll let him speak for himself:
Somewhere in France
11 October 1915
We have had our confirmations. At first the men didn’t understand; … they…seemed to think of it as ‘being done,’ much as if they were to be inoculated…. But the great difficulty was when and where to see them to give them any sort of preparation…Then there were [other] difficulties; for instance, how about the commandment “Thou shalt do no murder,” when they were trying to kill Germans every day.
At last the day of confirmation came. …at 2 PM 126 of those I had prepared were there…but no Bishop, then a wire to say ‘motor broken down’ but he was coming on. We spent the time going over the instructions…but the men were getting uneasy; they had to be back in the trenches. I felt they must go, and had just said so, when the Bishop came. No time for address or hymns… they knelt down to be confirmed, and after the Blessing marched straight away, I fear some to death, and some to be wounded; but [they]…had the gift of the Holy Ghost to strengthen them through what was to come the following day; a day I shall never forget as long as I live….
It wasn’t Father Conran’s delicate constitution that precluded him from living in community. What precluded him from living in community is what we now call Post Traumatic Stress, and what he would have called Shell Shock. Now when I think of him, I think not of a delicate constitution, but of the killing fields of the First World War; of flash backs; mood swings; nightmares; cold sweats; depression; perhaps uncontrollable rage and suicide attempts. A day I shall never forget as long as I live. It is safe to say that Father Conran never did forget that day. That day was etched in his memory for the rest of his life. That’s why Father Conran’s health precluded him from living in community. It wasn’t his delicate constitution, but because he saw what no one should see, never mind live though.
Knowing the truth about Father Conran has challenged me, and in challenging me, I have been changed. I have changed the way I think about him. No longer is he an object of pity or ridicule, but of awe and incredulity. I have changed the way I now listen to his obituary, and indeed all the obituaries. I have changed the way I relate not just to his past, but to the community’s past, and even to my own past. Knowing the truth about Father Conran has changed me. But isn’t that what truth does? Truth changes us if we let it.
You could say, that today is a feast of truth; that John the Baptist is a saint of truth; that Advent is a time of truth. If we let it, truth will not only challenge us it change us.
John the Baptist stands in a long line of prophets. The role of the prophet in scripture is not to predict the future, but to speak the truth, God’s truth, to a disbelieving, distracted, disheartened people. At times the prophet is sent to speak this word of truth, God’s truth, to a specific person, the king, the ruler, and truth is spoken to power. At times the prophet is sent to speak this word of truth, God’s truth, to a people, the nation, and that truth comes as a word of warning, a word of challenge, a word of hope. Whenever, and however, it comes, truth, God’s truth, has the power to change people. And those to whom the word of truth, God’s truth, is spoken, have a choice: we can choose to hear the word of truth, or they can choose to ignore it. We can choose to hear or ignore, not because the truth hurts, but because the truth challenges, and changes us. If we choose to hear the word of truth, we will be changed, just as I was changed when I heard the word of truth about Father Conran.
We live in the midst of a disbelieving, distracted, disheartened world. How could we not? Who has not been disheartened, distracted, disbelieving this week, this month, this year? The news we hear day by day, week in, week out, is anything but encouraging.
Today we hear John the Baptist speak a word of truth to a brutally oppressed people, living in an occupied land:
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
Who would blame John’s audience for not believing? How could this possibly be true? How in the midst of a military occupation are they expected to see the salvation of God? These are the words of a madman, not a prophet. Who would blame us for not believing? How in the midst of COVID, the very real and justified anger behind Black Lives Matter, the climate crisis, not to mention the daily ups and downs of our own lives, are we expected to see the salvation of God. These are the words of a madman, not a prophet.
But they aren’t the words of a madman. This is the promise of God…all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
Advent is the darkest time of the year, literally, and it would seem, this year at well, metaphorically. We are those people of whom Isaiah spoke who sat in darkness, desperate to see the light.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.
We are those people who pray the words of Revelation: Maranatha! Lord Jesus, come soon! aching for the light to return, not just to our lives, but to our world.
It is to us, no less than the crowds along the Jordan River, that John comes speaking the word of truth, God’s truth: and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. We are desperate to see that salvation here, now, today. We are desperate to see God’s salvation in our own lives. We are desperate, and God knows it. And the promise of God is that we will. We can. We do. Even today, we can see the salvation of God.
But to see it, we need to be prepared to change, because the truth will change us. I found the truth about Father Conran, and not only was the way I looked at him changed, I was changed. We know the Word of Truth in Jesus, and if we let him, he will change us.
Advent is a time when we face the darkness, not only of our own lives, but of the world. We know the stark, dark reality of our need to see the salvation of God. The promise of Christmas is not just the promise of a baby but promise that God has heard our cry. Maranatha! Lord Jesus, come soon! we cry for ourselves, for our world. The promise of God is that our cry has been heard. To our cry Lord Jesus, come soon! God answers Vero Cras: truly I will come.
The word of truth spoken by John is not just some future prediction, but a present reality. Yes, God will come, but more to the point, God has come, and God is coming. That is God’s truth.
Sometimes God’s truth is spoken to power, and if they listen, they tremble.
Sometimes God’s truth is spoken to a disbelieving, distracted, disheartened world. And if we listen, our eyes will be opened, our ears unstopped, and our lives changed.
It’s curious. Father Conran opened my eyes. He unstopped my ears. He changed my life. And today I can see the salvation of God just a tiny bit clearer, even in the darkness.
 Cowley Evangelist, November 1915, page 248-249
 Luke 1: 4c-6
 Isaiah 9: 2
 Revelation 22: 20b
 The Great O Antiphons of Advent, according to the Sarum Usage and as sung at the Monastery, form a Latin acrostic spelling out ‘Vero Cras’ or ‘Truly I will come.’
I saw it strangely as if for the first time. I was on the Longfellow Bridge connecting Cambridge to Boston. I usually go over the bridge on the Red Line, the subway, or over another bridge by car. As I stood on the Longfellow Bridge and looked straight ahead, I saw Boston anew. I saw Beacon Hill as a hill not going underneath on the Red Line or sideways. My usual patterns by subway and by car gave me a limited perspective of location, of home. Standing on that bridge, what I thought I knew, now I see differently.
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
“Does this song resonate with you?” my friend asked. I took a listen and said “No, I don’t like it.” I listened again. “No, it’s more than that. I’m uncomfortable by it.” I listened again. “Oh, now I know. I don’t like it because it rings true. That song, it embarrasses me, because those words are my life, that’s what I struggle with, that’s what I’m in need of. That song shows my sin. The song also encourages me with the truth of how I’m loved and can love instead of than the distortions and shame I get wrapped up in.”[i]
Sometimes we are quite aware of our bad habits, what we have done wrong, and what we’ve neglected to do. We are also often blind, having covered up, dressed up, renamed, ignored and simply stayed put in patterns that limit what we see.
John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John came preparing the way. Prophets don’t just say: “Repent.” They reveal our sin. They may sing it back to us, making us uncomfortable, helping us remember what we’ve covered up or forgotten. They might bring us out on a bridge so we can see the hill right in front of us.
“Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of his novels set in Narnia, C.S. Lewis tells the story of Eustace, a boy who in his greed turned into a dragon and who limped because of a bracelet that dug into his leg. Aslan the Lion led Eustace in his pain to a beautiful garden and a well with clear water. Eustace wanted to bathe in the water to ease the pain. Aslan said he must undress first. Eustace scratched his scaly skin off, but then saw there was another layer of dragon skin. He scratched two more layers off, but another remained. Then Aslan said: “You will have to let me undress you.”[ii]
Retelling the event later to a friend, Eustace said, “I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know—if you’ve ever picked the scab off a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away. …”[iii]
“Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off—just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt—and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me—I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on—and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again.”[iv]
Forgiveness is like God pulling beastly dragon skin off. We can’t do it ourselves. Cleansing sin is intense and hurts at first. It is like a refiner’s hot fire or a fuller’s soap that removes dirt and oil from wool. God goes “going deep to the heart” to relieve, save, and heal. God both forgives by removing, unbinding from what confines and by binding up, an inner healing, where wet with grace we remember ourselves as beloved children.
Dear friends, what change in pattern or perspective prompts you to see differently?
How do you hear the pain of your own heart? What words, music, image, person reflects it back to you?
What is your own story, your own experience, of being forgiven? What is the invitation now?
Our repentance is always in response to God. Seeing the obstacle, hearing the pain, and whatever desire we have to confess comes from God. That is God already at work in you, preparing, sending messengers with saving invitations.
“Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh [yes, all flesh] shall see the salvation of God.”
[i] Sleeping at Last, wrote songs about the nine Enneagram types and unpacks each in a podcast with Chris Huertz. The Enneagram is a valuable tool for self-awareness and growth. Unlike personality profiles based on strengths, each type has patterns of disintegration as well as integration.
[ii] C. S. Lewis (1952) The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’. New York, NY: The MacMillan Company, 88-90.
[iii] Lewis, 90
[iv] Lewis, 90-91
Shopping these days feels like sensory overload. We’re bombarded with messages: Your home can be the best with these trees, ornaments, garlands, and nicknacks. Here’s the present for you. Get ready—Christmas is coming! December and year round, our culture tells us to look good and to have the right stuff. That what we have and how we look determines who we are.
We want to have our living spaces in order before anyone comes over. Don’t drop by because it—and I—might not be together. This is hard for me. I have always strived to keep my rooms organized with my loose ends and junk nicely hidden under the bed, in the closet, or under carefully draped fabric.
While it may not be an orderly space, what’s particularly important to your presenting image? We’re taught to consider what we wear, the stuff we own, the people we know, the places we’ve been, and what we have done. We consider what we let others see and for what they don’t see. Get ready—someone is looking at us!
In our Gospel text, someone is coming. God comes to John in the wilderness: not a fun place out in nature, but a harsh land where few people go. John looks odd, dressed in camel’s hair eating locusts and honey as Matthew and Mark tell us. An odd man in an odd place, and lots of people came from all around the region. John is not fancy nor fashionable, but many people listen and do what he invites. John is not the awaited guest; he points to Jesus. Get ready—God is coming!
I don’t know if you have ever been to Compline here at the Monastery. If you have, you will know that it is our custom to read the obituary of a brother on the anniversary of his death. Now not to boast, but I will take the credit, or perhaps the blame for not only reviving this custom, but also writing from scratch some of the obituaries and editing others. This was a project I did when I was a novice. Now after listening to them for nearly 30 years, I am aware that some of them were badly written and others seemed to be just a list of dates. A few of them were eye rollingly embarrassing and have caused more than a few sniggers over the years. This fall, after I moved back to the monastery I decided it was time to fill in the gaps (we were completely missing some obituaries) and to rewrite the really deadful ones.
I have been working on this project for a couple of months, and I think I can now say with Father Gross, whom some of you will remember, that I now know more of the real history of the Society, that I could write a scandalous best seller. But don’t get your hopes up. I am not going to do that.