Monday, December 18, 2017

Don’t Worry, be Joyful

December 17, 2017
3 Advent, Year B

Don’t Worry, be Joyful

Some years ago, my wife and I played a terrible practical joke on a few of our closest family members.  Having grown weary of the ubiquitous Christmas card end-of-year “look at what we did and where we went this year” letter insert, we decided to write our own version.  We wrote a normal one – listing what we’d done and the places we’d gone -- and mailed it out to the larger list.  We also wrote a different one and mailed it to a few relatives and close friends to see what they might think.

In this letter, we did not speak of our children’s achievements, our professional successes or our global adventures.  We went dark.  We wrote of tantrums, expulsions, illness, humiliations and failures. Some of it was partially true – most of it made it – and we were so convincing in our sad, snarky Christmas letter that a relative reached out to us to see if we were O.K.  And then we told them of our scheme.

Deep down, I think what we were trying to do was to push back up against the pressure to have life rolled up in nicely presented package by the end of each year for the world to see.  A life that from the outside projected happiness, when we all probably know that that is not always the case.  When others want a smile and happiness, there can be a lot stirring inside and around us. 

It was musician Bobby McFerrin who wrote and performed his a cappella hit “Don’t worry be Happy” in 1988. 

Here's a little song I wrote
You might want to sing it note for note
Don't worry, be happy
In every life we have some trouble
But when you worry you make it double

Ain't got no place to lay your head
Somebody came and took your bed
The landlord say your rent is late
He may have to litigate
Don't worry, be happy

Today, the third Sunday in Advent and its dominant theme, is the church’s version of that song.  Sort of.  Well, not really. It’s more than that. Long ago when Advent used to be longer and more penitent, the leaders figured that people in the midst of fasting and waiting needed a boost.  So, the message for this Sunday – very close to Christmas – was to rejoice.  There was a light at the end of the tunnel.  There’s a difference, as it turns out, between happiness by joy.

The late theologian Henri Nouwen described that difference. While happiness is dependent on external conditions, joy is "the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing -- sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death -- can take that love away."  

External conditions can change day to day thus shifting our wiliness and response of happiness.  Joy goes deeper. 

What Scripture shows us is that it is possible to experience joy in the midst of profoundly sad moments and hard times, because God enters our lives and often comes to us when we are most ready to accept what before we might have thought we could have done on our own.  There is no accident that transformation and change does not happen so much when we are flying high and most confident about who we are and where we are going, but when we miss, get shaken, confused, begin to doubt or are struck by adversity that we did not see coming.  Then God enters in. 

The public ministry of Jesus began with him quoting the message of profound joy that Isaiah speaks of.   Good news to the oppressed, the brokenhearted are patched up, liberty is proclaimed to the captives, and release to the prisoners.  Mourners are comforted.  Sorrow becomes joy. 

When people come to me in moments of crisis and uncertainty, and ask where they should begin to read in the Bible – they know they have a version laying around the house somewhere – I encourage the Psalms.

The reason we read the Psalms because they allow us to hear how people have prayed for centuries through the ups and downs of life – abandonment, defeat, exile, and hardship.   They allow us rage against God when we feel alone or wronged.  They listen when we feel as if the whole world is against us. They accompany us through the valleys of the shadow of death and remind us that our help is to come from the Lord.   They invite us to see that the sun will rise again and new day will lead to new possibilities.

They show a pathway not to happiness – an emotion dependent on the external – but something more that comes from above.  And in that moment, in Psalm 126 we hear and echo:  The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.  Those who go out weeping shall come home with shouts of joy. 

The third Sunday of Advent wants us to hear loud and clear: Paul writes in the Epistle:  v. 16-21 Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; hold fast to what is good. 

My wife Leslie and I have traveled to Mexico with our family many times.  When our kids where very young, we flew into Mexico City to transfer to a language school in Cuernavaca, some two hours south by car.  Those where clergy vacations in those days: the whole family in language class.  On this trip, we flew into Mexico City at night and saw lights that would spread from horizon to the next.  Some 18 million people living the vast city, one that we know is susceptible to earthquakes and violence.  I remember after we collected our luggage, we had to walk through crowds and crowds of people to find the car that would take us the rest of way.  With kids too big to carry, and too young to allow to wander on their own, we grabbed their hands and held on tight as we walked pulling our suitcases.    

Hold fast to those we love.  Hold fast to what is good.  Hold fast to the gift of community in a land that values independence more than dependence. 
The Pew Research Center did a survey of most and least religious states last year and ranked them.  Most religious: Alabama.   There was a tie for 50th – the least religious states.  Massachusetts and New Hampshire.   Hold onto community when it seems like coming to church is swimming upstream.

Hold fast to the joy that music brings – especially this time of year.  Hold fast to those moments that seem to be going by too quickly by taking time to sit, pause, look up and around.  Hold fast and hold on to what matters and let the rest go. 

Going back to Nouwen’s words – learning the difference between happiness and joy -- is becomes "the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved.”

Why is unconditional love so true and so hard?

Diplomats often speak of conditions that have to be met before opposing sides can sit down at a negotiation table with one another. 
It took the prodigal son distance and time away from his father – time misspent doing all the wrong things – that in returning he discovered that he was loved even after he wandered, rebelled, and squandered away almost everything. 

The first step of faith – in being able to experience joy – is talking ourselves into being worthy of love and forgiveness by God because of who we are and in spite of what we’ve done.

Loving unconditionally involves doing the inner work that many of find difficult and illusive. It is a life-long process of coming to see ourselves as God does.

This is the heart of what Advent waits to announce.  The incarnation of God in Jesus, whose birth and life John was preaching and preparing for, had no pre-conditions.   God came into a broken world with no guarantees.

Jesus was born in an out of way, almost forgotten town – far away from the halls of power.  Lowly shepherds are a lasting testimony for the working-class roots of the first Nativity scene. 

In the days that remain until Christmas, spend a few moments each day, thinking and praying about what fades away as soon as the special day and season is over – the decorations and lights put away for next year – and what stays with us through all our days.  Hold onto to One who holds onto you.  Always. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Sermon:It’s not about the End: it’s about the beginning

December 10, 2017
2 Advent, Year B

It’s not about the End: it’s about the beginning

When was the last time you were stopped on the street or in a store and asked for the time?   “Excuse me, do you have the time?”  I actually can’t remember when this has happened to me, but I know it has.  I remember growing up there was a phone number you could call that gave you time exact time: we would call and set a new watch to that minute and hour.  Fewer people today, as studies are showing, are wearing wristwatches: many of us have cell phone, which we know always displays the correct time. Who needs a watch?

We have a complex and layered relationship with time. 

When we mull over a decision or are not sure if a relationship will last, we say: ‘time will tell.’ ‘Time flies when we’re having fun’ and ‘time stands still’ when things are not going so well. ‘Time heals all wounds.’ Does it? At this time of year, I find that I’m keenly aware of the time of day when it gets dark: this past week the sun was setting at 4:09 p.m. – making it dark by 4:30. Winter has come!

The late clergyman Henry Van Dyke wrote that:
“Time is
Too Slow for those who Wait,
Too Swift for those who Fear,
Too Long for those who Grieve,
Too Short for those who Rejoice;
But for those who Love,
Time is not.”

All through the readings of this season there is a dominating emphasis on time.  When will God act, break through and bring about lasting change?  The people of Israel waited for centuries for a Messiah, a savior and Advent 101 is all about preparation for that Messiah.  It is about hearing the challenge to the call of Isaiah and become like John the Baptist: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

Time.  God’s time in the Bible is kairos, and our time is chronos -- as in chronology.  We know they are different.   How? 

In the Epistle from 2 Peter: v. 8 But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.  Isaiah 40: All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

Life is precious.  It is a gift.  Each moment, each day. We cannot bend time or make it stop, but grow to lean what we are to become and do with what God has given us.

I never grow tired of hearing the verses from Ecclesiastes that Peter Seeger used in his 1960’s hit song, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn.’  They remind us that what we see and experience to be coming to an end is also a moment to turn – that turns into something new.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

There were protests and tear gas on the streets of Bethlehem this past week.  Rocks were thrown.  Police sought to quell the unrest.  Isaiah 40 v. 1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.   Jerusalem on edge in the news: yet again.

The Advent memo to us on the Second Sunday is clear: prepare and be patient.   Patiently wait for the Lord to come like a thief in the night as we hear of fire and the heavens passing away. 

You know, and I know, that however festive the run-up to Christmas is, we are probably preparing for the wrong things. We are inclined to rush, when we should slow down.  In a world that values more, we know, deep down, that we don’t need much to experience joy.  The little things matter much more than the big things.

The many apocalyptic readings of we’ve been reading these past weeks – with images of how the world will end invites us to consider endings and beginnings.

I don’t think this cinematic device is used too much anymore, but all of the big Hollywood movies of yesterday – MGM, 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures – their films always finished with these two words flashed up on the screen:  The End.  You knew when the movie was over. 

As time marches on in our lives, I have found that the endings are tricky to negotiate.

I spend a good amount of time thinking and praying out what you all are thinking and praying about.  So, often, what is on my mind is what you carry in your hearts and around your shoulders.  I see your worry about the health of loved ones: a father with cancer, a mother who broke her hip, a child struggling with depression, a global economy that is shifting and making it harder to survive and prosper than it was just a few decades ago.  I see many try to find the sweet spot between being busy and occupied with life.

All of this makes me attune to what God may be saying to us through the turns and travails of our lives.

The end is really not the end.  The end is the beginning to fuller awareness of the God who gives life. 

The world crucified the son God sent to save the world, and God will would not give up trying to draw closer to all that God created.  God said no to death.  On the third day Christ rose again.  Resurrection.  New life. 

When did you think that your life was over as you knew it – or thought so – and as the days and months passed, that wasn’t the case?

In the moments of our greatest pain and doubt, loss, confusion and fear, we are being held by a God who is unseen.  We are filled with our next breath so that we can keep on breathing by what we call the Holy Spirit, and if we have been open to the greatest mystery – we can imagine and see and feel the face and touch of this God/man the world knows as Jesus.  This holy face of love, peace, forgiveness and compassion.   Whose birth in Bethlehem we are preparing for yet again.   

Following the well-known verses of Ecclesiastes that were set to music, we hear more:  v. 14 I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it.  We stand between forever and new in hope.