12/17/17 – Soft Animal Sermon

I’d like to begin this sermon with a poem from a book I received this week from the president of the Redeemer Preschool board, Kristin Maguire. It’s a collection of poems by an Episcopal poet named Mary Oliver and the poem is called “Wild Geese.” We have actually been singing an abridged version of this poem during communion, throughout this season of Advent. I have been wanting to share this poem with you all for several weeks now, but it never felt like quite the right time. So when Kristin gave me this book, I took it as a sign. So here it is. “Wild Geese.”

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

The world offers itself to your imagination,

Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—

Over and over announcing your place in the family of things.


During this season of Advent, we have been making room for others in the mansions of our hearts by opening ourselves up to wisdom from outside faith traditions. On the first Sunday of Advent, as you may recall, we gleaned wisdom from the tradition of Islam, from the story of Ishmael’s second wife Rala, who showed hospitality to Abraham. We also were invited by the Muslim poet and Sufi mystic Rumi, in his poem “The Guest House,” to be hospitable and compassionate to our own plethora of emotions, rather than reacting anxiously to them. And last Sunday, we were lavished with wisdom from a Zen Buddhist priest, who reminded us of the double meaning of Advent and invited us to “bring our own jingle bells,” specifically by holding the first coming of Christ with gravity in order to hold the second coming of Christ with some levity, because Christ will come to us in ways that we do not expect. As the Rev. Kogen Dito-Keith said, “Whatever we think the Second Coming of Christ is going to be, it is going to be free from what we think it’s going to be.” This is powerful wisdom for us as we move into transition and await the coming of a new priest and perhaps a new experience of Christ within this community.

Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, which is also known as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is Latin for “Rejoice.” On Gaudete Sunday, we light the pink candle of the Advent wreath and sometimes the priests were pink vestments. Traditionally and historically, Advent has been a penitential season in the church (kind of like a mini-Lent) and Gaudete Sunday has been a day in which Christians take a little respite from all the repenting, a little break to relax and to rejoice. On this Gaudete Sunday, we hear the voice of one crying out in the wilderness in the Gospel of John; we hear the prophet Isaiah poetically describe God’s immanent arrival (God’s adventus), using earthy images like “oaks of righteousness” and “oil of gladness.” We hear Paul say to the church in Thessalonika: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” And on every Gaudete Sunday, we hear the stunning words of the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, who sings, “God has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and his children for ever.”

On this day of relaxing and rejoicing, I invite us to take a break from repenting and to give thanks for this community called Redeemer. Mary’s Song and the other readings of this Gaudete Sunday invite us to find joy in our connection to past parishioners and priests of the Redeemer community who gathered around this same altar. They invite us to recall the ways that Christ has already come to Redeemer so that we can open ourselves up to the next coming of Christ here among us.

As Mary remembers her ancestors in the Magnificat, she calls us to remember our ancestors. Mary has appeared in many cultures, and whenever she does appear, this is a crucial part of her message: “Remember how profoundly and inextricably connected you are to your relatives and your ancestors. And remember how connected you are to the earth and all that is in it.” This last Tuesday was the feast day of La Virgen de Guadalupe, who appeared to Juan Diego, an indigenous man in Mexico in the 16th century; and this was part of her message: “Remember your connection to God, the earth, and your ancestors.” And the Lakota Sioux tribe, which is the main tribe in Standing Rock ND, was founded, according to legend, by a young, powerful and mysterious woman known as the White Buffalo woman, whom many have compared to Mary. This was her message as well. She said to the Lakota, “You are connected and related to all created things. You are related not only to members of your own tribe, but to all the nations and all the animals and all the earth.”

So again I say, let us give thanks and find joy in this connection and in our connection to this very plot of land upon which the Coast Miwok performed their rituals and buried their ancestors. Let us consider how Christ is speaking through them to us now in order to help prepare us for the next coming of Christ here, for the next season of Redeemer’s life together, for the new ways that God will embody his love in San Rafael and the world through all of us. Let us consider this as we take a break from repenting on this Gaudete Sunday, as we relax and rejoice and as we sing together the words of Mary Oliver, a poet named after the eloquent and poetic mother of Jesus, Mary.