Advent 1 – Lil, A Sign of God’s Presence – December 3, 2023

Lil, A Sign of God’s Presence

Choir for Advent            Happy first Sunday in Advent, the first Sunday in the new church year!  Many of us who are lifelong Episcopalians have been taught all our lives that Advent is the season of hushed expectation, where we wait, filled with hope, for Jesus’ birth.  And for many Episcopalians in the United States — there’s a kind of almost Puritan abstemiousness about Advent.  In many Episcopal churches, congregations observe Advent as a season of self-denial, like a mini-Lent, emphasizing this idea by using purple vestments and hangings  — the same color used for Lent.  In fact, this has been Emmanuel’s practice over the years.  While the use of color in vestments and altar hangings is ancient, it’s important to remember that Jesus doesn’t tell us in scripture that we must use blue or purple at Advent.

The mothers and fathers of our faith didn’t write in ancient documents that if we wore red instead, like we do at Pentecost, that our worship wouldn’t sustain our faith.  But our traditional colors are signs for us.  They point to, and remind us, of what is really important about the season.  What can we do in prayer or liturgy to point us toward the connection, peace, and belonging we all crave — and need — to be whole?  That’s where we need to call our attention in Advent, as we wait for God to come to us in human skin.

I’ve shared before the words of my Liturgics professor, Patrick Malloy, now the Dean of St. John the Divine in New York:  “If you want to change the liturgy, change the furniture, not the words.”  Does anyone notice anything different up here today — on the pulpit, the lectern, the altar, or even on your rector?  After much study and prayer, the worship committee has decided to try out another familiar tradition in the Episcopal Church, that is, blue vestments and hangings during Advent instead of the purple that we have used both at Advent and Lent.  We hope that the blue can be a sign reminding us to be ready for God to break through into our darkness this Advent.

Staying Alert

Be Awake Be Aware            Our gospel readings over these past weeks have been all about staying alert to signs of God’s presence so that we are ready to respond when the time comes.  Like those sleepy bridesmaids, we need to keep our lamps trimmed and burning to be ready, because we don’t know the day or hour that we will be called upon to respond.  We need a sign to point the way!  We heard the prophet Isaiah this morning beg God to tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at God’s presence as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil.  Now that’s a sign we could see!  Mark’s gospel this morning reminds us no fewer than seven times in as many lines to stay alert:  But about that day or hour no one knowsBeware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.  Therefore, keep awakefor you do not know when the master of the house will come ... And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.  Nothing unclear about that message, right?  We read that passage in Advent because Advent is all about being ready to cooperate with God’s activity in the world.

 Lil Hargrove

           I shared the very sad news yesterday that our beloved Lil Hargrove, Emmanuel’s very own saint, entered into eternal life on Friday.  As we work this Advent to stay alert and be ready to help as God brings light into our darkness, I can’t think of anyone who could read the signs, and was more ready and alert to God’s presence and need in the world, than Lil.  Lil was the hub of Newport’s intersecting communities’ wheel.  Lifelong member and active lay leader leader here at Emmanuel, Lil did everything from teaching Sunday School to serving on the vestry, including multiple terms as both senior and junior warden.   She was the first woman at Emmanuel to serve in those roles.  Lil was the beloved greeter at Soup’s On and also worked for years at Memorial Funeral Home as a greeter, retiring only in 2020 from “standing the door,” as she called it.

Lil was good at greeting, as she knew just about everyone in the community, and everyone knew her.  Lil was a nurse-teacher at parochial schools in Newport before settling into her long role as a nurse-teacher at Thompson Middle School.  She started a “learn to swim” program for second graders, and for many years, she opened her home on Almy Street every Monday to students who needed tutoring or homework help.  She served them dinner around her dining room table after study sessions and presented a dozen roses to each one who graduated from Rogers High School as they received their diplomas.  Lil was a mother and grandmother to us all, and a sister to those who came before us.

From the time I first arrived in Newport, when people learned that I was the priest at Emmanuel, they would ask if I knew Lil Hargrove.  Then these folks would continue, with evident emotion, “Lil sent me a prayer in a note just when I when I needed encouragement.”  I believe that more than a few of us reflecting on Lil’s life and legacy right now received those cards, notes, or even drawings.  I have one that is very special to me pinned up in a place where I see it every day to bolster my courage, which as St. Paul tells us is a form of faith.  Lil told me her secret:  she had a bowl full of names and drew them at random each week for her note-writing ministry, yet she unfailingly reached those who needed her prayers most in that moment.

Spiritual Readiness

Lil's Chair         What does staying awake and alert to God’s presence look like walking around every day in life?  What are the signs that can point our way during this Advent so that we can be ready to cooperate with God’s activity in this community and the world?  Blue vestments and altar hangings don’t in and of themselves signify the spiritual readiness that the season of Advent calls for.  Our liturgical colors relate more to our culture and lived experience than they do to any basic tenet of our faith. I do think, though, that it’s important that blue is different from the colors we use in other seasons of the church year, because Advent is focused on different things.

I’d like to suggest that we relate that blue to our experience of Lil’s life and example, as she never missed an opportunity to serve.  Lil loved the Yankees, and their team color is blue.  Her special Yankees chair has been in her spot in church for these many months, holding her space in this community just as she always held space for us in her heart as she’s done the hard work of going on to God, where space is held for all of us.  Lil’s blue Yankees chair is a sign I can remember.  Amen


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