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Advent is about the Gospel, the good news. The Gospel of Mark tells us that the story the author is about to tell is "the beginning of the good news." So, do you think that means that because this is good news the bad news if over? Or is it good news about what is to come, at some point in the future? We would probably all agree, it does not always feel like we're living in good news right here and now! The same was true for the people of Isaiah's time and of Mark's time. In both passages, the people of God were in the midst of very troubled times.
Our men's breakfast group is reading about great men in history. The first person in our book is George Washington, which prompted me to do a little extra American History reading, which led me to John Meacham's biography of Thomas Jefferson from a few years back. I had some of the typical stereotypes of this founding father - brilliant but conniving, sophisticated, smooth, but also manipulative. We know of the beauty of Monticello and Charlottesville, know the whispers about Sally Hemings. But I didn't know how much suffering he carried. His wife Patty bore six children in ten years, four of whom died as children, a fifth by 26. At age 33, Patty's body was exhausted. The exertions of the war, Meacham writes, culminating in the family's evacuation of Monticello, exacerbated the state of her health. She may have suffered from tuberculosis. By the early summer of 1782 she was confined to her bed.1
"Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not take care of you?" they ask. When?
When was it? Were you there, Lord, among the 850 million malnourished people around the world?1 Were you there, Lord, amidst the line of guests at Urban Ministries? In those villages across Sub-Saharan Africa without access to clean water or at the corner asking for a bottle of water? Was that you, Lord, who was pushed out of your home by military insurgents, by religious zealots or left on the street to fend for yourself? Were you there, Lord, among the endless number of children orphaned by disease - by Ebola and AIDS and alcoholism and drug addiction? Or standing in a prison cell, chained to the wall, given no justice, no due process? Was that you?
Don't you just love it when a scripture reading ends like this one, with "throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth," and then we ask you to say, "Thanks be to God?" Ellen Davis, a professor at Duke Divinity School would remind us that all the words of the Bible are words of God. But some are harder to understand than others. So let's pray:
Back on the last Saturday in October your pastors and two elders attended the 93rd stated meeting of the Presbytery of New Hope. There are five presbyteries - our regional governing body - in North Carolina, covering 126 congregations in 27 counties from Efland to the Outer Banks. At this good meeting I heard two stories in particular that inspired me. The first was about an initiative to bring small churches together. The presbytery has organized a couple of gatherings - one around Rocky Mount and Wilson and one around Goldsboro, for Presbyterians in small membership churches to eat and pray, to hear stories of the great ministry they are doing, to think about ways they can better partner in service. We heard of one small church that has seven members. Seven. And while it is hard for them to see much of a future as an institution, they continue to serve. Every Tuesday all seven of their members get together, prepare a meal, and feed hungry people in their area out of their church. Every week. All seven of them. Instead of sitting around and bemoaning what seems to be their inevitable closing, even as they wait, they reach forward with hope.