There Will Be Signs

Memorial Church Fall 2021Leaves fall on the lawn of Harvard Yard in November. Sermon by the Right Rev. Carol Gallagher, Canon, Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. Photo (above) by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.



By the Right Rev. Carol Gallagher
Canon, Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts

(The following is a transcript from the service audio)

The Right Rev. Carol GallagerIn the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Friend. Amen.

Good morning. Osiyo, is what we among the Cherokee people would say to each other in greeting, whether we are leaving or coming together, Osiyo. This morning, I'd like to reflect with you briefly about our gospel lesson, about the signs that are coming. There will be signs. We have had signs all around us. In the past couple of years, we have lived through the worst of pandemic and have heard in the recent days that there may be more to come, more variants and we have seen what our misuse of this earth have done. We have signs of what is to come and yet in the season of Advent, to begin this Sunday we also hear in the gospel that Jesus calls us to look up, to not be fearful. Our redemption draws nigh, there are signs in our own life of the changes that we are facing.

My mother used to say, my mother, Betty Walking Stick used to say that getting old is not for the weak, not for wimps she would say, and I am learning very carefully and as I get close to my birthday, this Christmas Eve that there are signs of my own personal aging and diminishment. But God invites us in these times, especially during the season of Advent to wait, and to wonder, and to look, and to pray, to prepare and hope again for Christ coming in a new way in our lives, in the midst of signs of things failing, things not working to look up and reach up for God.

And you know, also in this season, particularly right here during the Thanksgiving holiday, people are awakening and seeing signs of what most indigenous people have always known that this land is sacred. This land is Holy. This land where we are of the Massachusetts, Narragansett, Niantic, the Wampanoag among a few holy places, sacred places. And we have work to do, to know our stories, the stories that we are part of whether we are ignorant of it or not. There are signs among us that our world is turning, wanting to listen, wanting to know in a new way. Years ago, when I was in Alaska, I was a priest from the diocese of Delaware, but we were there for the consecration of that time, the new Bishop, Bishop McDonald and I was asked to be the presiding Bishop's chaplain.

In indigenous country most of our consecrations happen either in gymnasium or a hall of a school and this was happening in the university of Alaska, in its concert hall. And so it wasn't set up like a church. So, the folks setting everything up to the best they could. We had folding chairs up on, where we were on the platform and they were labeled who was sitting where and how they should be. And once the consecration happened, the laying on of hands, they rearranged the chairs to move things back and I happened to sit down next to Bishop Plummer, who was at that time, the Bishop of Navajoland and a great Navajo leader. And when we stood up for communion, he tugged to my sleeve, he was a very gentle, shy sort of soul. And I said, what's up Steven? He sort of stuttered and said, well, you got a label stuck to your backside.

And I thought uhuh, and so I pulled it off. It was just masking tape. Fortunately, it wasn't anything stronger and what it said was Bishop. Bishop Plummer said, see, there's a sign. The story of the first Advent as we reflect today about signs and ways forward and how we're going to go, that first Advent, that story happened on occupied land. It was not the occupiers story, but it was the story of the occupied people. Those who hadn't seated their land to Rome, but were yet instill in some ways, stuck on occupied land that they had no control over even though it had been theirs, their homes for generation and generations, and the people were looking for signs. They went out to the wilderness and sought signs as you know, the gospel story from various different people.

That first Advent, the signs didn't come to some great leader, but God heard the cries of people. God reached out not to some great war force, some military leaders, even to the leaders in the temple. But God reached out to a single young woman, single young indigenous woman, a woman of the land and brought forth that birth of Jesus, the most vulnerable, the most vulnerable for mother and child and not only was she delivered in awkward circumstances, but far away from home. And the first family, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus became refugees. The signs we have around us of our life of folks who live in occupied places, folks who are refugees, folks who need to be cared for and loved and here that God is in the midst of us even when the worst signs are before us.

God draws near in these dark times. In these times of occupation, in these times of removal, having to leave our homelands. Walking the road to Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph could have never known what to expect and probably couldn't imagine what the signs along the road meant or what their lives would become. And yet in Thanksgiving, for people who are willing to do extraordinary things in difficult times, we can be grateful. We can walk this road to Bethlehem with them and imagine ourselves in difficult times, lost without direction and yet they were faithful despite their fears and their terror and the signs around them.

They were moving into hostile territory and yet they took on what they could. In native communities, we refer to our work in the present as whatever we do, we should do it to the seventh generation yet unborn, caring for the children that we may never see but knowing that we are those who can change the tide of history, those who can tell the stories so that others might live, those who can carry the child so that others might see God's redemption in front of them. God always sends us signs and sends us leaders and we don't often pay attention, but we still know that we must hold on, keep on for the seventh generation. When my people, the Cherokees were removed from North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia in the 1830s, our people were Christians for several generations, not the whole people, but many of my family. My ancestor, Sally, who's my great, great, great grandmother walked the trail of tears, clutching her little New Testament Psalms and The Little Hymnal. American Bible society had translated them both into Cherokee and I am blessed to have them.

The people along the road heard hymns sung by aliens to them, by native people walking along the trail of tears, they sung hymns and they praised God despite their condition, despite all of the things that they had to carry with them, or couldn't carry with them, leaving their homes behind going to a strange territory and truthfully Oklahoma looks nothing like North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. There aren't any mountains in Oklahoma. It's flat mostly and pretty red, dry soil. And yet they carried on with the faith, knowing that God was in the midst of them, their redemption was drawing near despite all that they were facing and they sung hymns and the people along the trail. And I've heard from people in Alabama and in other places along that trail, that they were shocked and overjoyed and full of mystery to hear these songs and hymns sung in a strange tongue and yet it too probably gave them hope, a renewed hope. It was a sign of God being in the midst of them.

We are invited today to see the signs around us that we are called as people in the midst of dark days, in the midst of a world that is changing, that is full of anxiety over pandemic, anger over not having to wear a mask or having to wear a mask. We are in a world that is frustrated and tired. And yet we can carry that song of God's redemption drawing near. In the darkest days god's redemption draws near to all of us. When the signs are in front of us in our own lives or in the lives of our families, we can still say, God is drawing near. Our redemption is at hand. I'd like to end by singing you that one of the many hymns that were sung and are in that hymnal and it's very familiar to you, but the language won't be. But I share it with you as an invitation, as my ancestors did, to walk with hope despite the anxiety and the fear and the pain and the loss that surround us. God's redemption is drawing near and it goes like this.

(Singing) Amen.


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