Joy as Resistance: December 11, 2016

Every year about this time, I start to panic. I’d imagine that a lot of clergy would tell you the same thing. We are trying to finalize Christmas eve services, and get all the moving pieces to line up so that everything goes off without a hitch.

But that’s not what stresses me out about this time of year. What really gets me is Christmas shopping. I get so anxious about buying the right Christmas presents for my family. And shopping for a spouse is the hardest part. Every year Heidi tells me, “I have everything I want…I have you.”

And that is so beautiful and wonderful…and totally exasperating. I’m not going to show up on Christmas morning with nothing, and so I turn into this Christmas detective asking her friends what she really wants.

This year, though, she told me exactly what she wanted (and she told me I could share this story with you this morning). And Heidi is normally so serious and studious, so it surprised me when she told me she wanted this new Nintendo Classic video game console that plays all these old games people from our generation know.

“Great!” I thought. “I’m sure that every big box store around has it on sale, and I can go get one now and wrap it up for Christmas.”

Only, there’s a problem. You can’t find this thing. Apparently Heidi’s dream Christmas gift is the dream gift of the whole country. Stores get it in stock and it sells out in minutes. People are camping out. I’m searching every website I can think of, and the closest I have come to finding it is on a site that will sell you one for six times the retail price.

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Seriously, if you find this thing, let me know.

I’m missing the “I have all I want…I have you” years.

It’s fun to laugh about this, but we also need to acknowledge that this time of year the pressure to make Christmas perfect is sometimes overwhelming. Because as much as I stress over them, the presents aren’t what it’s all about. And on this third Sunday of Advent, when we are so close to the big night, we read a story about what matters. We read about Jesus’s mother, and the surprise of her life.

An angel comes to Mary and tells her that she is pregnant in the most unconventional of ways. Immediately Mary gets up and goes to her cousin Elizabeth’s house. And Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist, and when Mary enters the house the baby leaps up in her womb and Elizabeth knows immediately that something amazing has happened to Mary.

And Mary turns to her and says the words that we now know as the Magnificat: “My souls magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

There would be a lot of understandable reactions to this news that you are pregnant, delivered by an angel no less. Anger, disbelief, denial, fear. No one could possible blame Mary for those feelings. And, Mary may very well have been feeling all of those things, but in the Magnificat we learn that somewhere in all of those feelings she was also feeling something else: joy. “My spirit rejoices in God”

This third Sunday of Advent is traditionally the one when we focus on joy. And, oddly, we talk about joy by telling the story of a teenage mother in crisis. She was young, she was poor, she was pregnant with a baby that was not her fiance’s. And she must have been absolutely terrified. Her world would never be the same.

And yet, somewhere in there, there was joy. There was hope. There was the promise that as hard as it was, this was a good thing.

This has been, for many of us and for many of our neighbors, a difficult year. It may well be that you are ending the year feeling down, or scared, or frustrated. You may be worried about our world, and our future. That is completely understandable.

And that’s why this year, more than most, joy is so important. To find or cultivate joy in the midst of all that is going on is an act of resistance. It’s like Mary standing there terrified and uncertain, telling her cousin this crazy and confusing news, and still being able to say “rejoice”.

Mary’s joy gives me hope. But it also reminds me that joy is different than happiness. Because what Mary was feeling might have been joyful, but I don’t know that I would say she was happy.

And here’s why that matters for us. This time of year happiness is for sale everywhere. Turn on the TV, listen to the radio, walk into a store. Every advertisement, every display, is meant to tap into your hopes and promise you happiness.

And here’s the thing: as much as people say you can’t buy happiness, the truth is that you can. You can buy happiness pretty easily, really. You can find happiness in everything from a stiff drink to a big paycheck, or a nice meal to a new car. You can get happy pretty easily, at least for a little while. And then you can lose it just a quickly.

But joy…that’s what you cannot buy. It’s not for sale in any store, and you won’t find it by getting every little detail of your Christmas celebration right. That’s not how joy works.

Now, joy does not always come easily to some of us. We prefer quiet dignity and reserved praise. On another level, for those of us who are so keenly aware of the inequalities and pain of the world, being asked to be joyful may even be met with suspicion. How can we be joyful when so many suffer?

Here’s what I think. I think it’s easy to be joyless in this world. It’s simple. It doesn’t take much effort. You can put others down. You can dwell in hopelessness. You can even lob out negative comments on the internet from the comfort of your own home. The best part is that if you lack joy, you don’t even have to do anything constructive. You can just dwell in it.

But it is a whole lot harder to rejoice. Why? Because joy is hard.

Now that may sound like an oxymoron. Joy is joy. Shouldn’t joy be easy?

I don’t think so. Because I think joy is something deeper than that. But that also means that it’s rooted. And it’s the thing that remains in you even when everything else around you is crumbling down. It has been said by many, in many different ways, that joy is resistance. That is especially true in the worst of days.

I started out telling you about my Christmas present crisis. But here’s the thing: even if I can’t find this thing, I know that Heidi will be just fine. Why? Because I know she is rooted in something that is much deeper than a need for the right gift on Christmas morning. (I’m still taking all tips on where to find it by the way.)

In all seriousness, we know this. We knew it even as children watching “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”. You remember: “Every who down in Who-ville liked Christmas a lot, but the Grinch who lived just north of Who-ville did not.” The Grinch hates the celebrations, hates the singing, hates the presents, and hates the whole thing. So he devises a plan to slip down into the town in the night, bag up all the trappings of Christmas, take all the presents, and ruin Christmas.

And he does. And the next morning he stands on his mountain waiting for the people to wake up, and be devastated.

how-the-grinch-stole-christmas-christmas-movies-17364435-1067-800But instead, he hears singing. It turns out the Whos woke up and it didn’t matter to them that they didn’t have trees or presents or decorations. And it turns out that no matter what he tried to take away from them, Christmas came anyway. And it stuns him. And he says to himself, “Maybe Christmas, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

The Grinches of the world don’t know what real joy is. And so when they try to take it away from you, they will go only for the things that bring you happiness. And that is not right. But it’s also not the end of the story.

Because joy is indeed resistance. And because joy is how we keep singing in the midst of the pain and fear of the world. I’m fully convinced that nothing strikes fear in the hearts of those who would oppress others more than joy. We do not excuse it. We do not allow it to go unchecked. But we do proclaim that it will not win. Instead we set our hearts up on the front lines, fortified with joy, and we promise to work with Mary’s child to bring light to all the places that need it the most.

But in order to get to that place, we have to get ready. And so, here is my call to you: this Advent, do not settle for happiness. You are worth more than that. Instead, gather the ones you love, and find joy together. Live in the world and look for the moments where joy is breaking through. Open your heart, and let the joy of Christ’s birth really fill it for the first time.

Resist what can never love you back, and rejoice in the One who can. I guarantee that if you do this, no matter what else happens, you will have a truly Merry Christmas. Amen?

Unquenchable Joy: Sermon for December 14, 2014

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

5:16 Rejoice always,

5:17 pray without ceasing,

5:18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

5:19 Do not quench the Spirit.

5:20 Do not despise the words of prophets,

5:21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good;

5:22 abstain from every form of evil.

5:23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

5:24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

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The third Sunday of Advent, like each of the Sundays in Advent, has a traditional theme. The first week we talked about hope, last week about peace, and this week we focus on joy. And as we get closer and closer to Christmas, joy seems to surround us. It’s right there in our Christmas carols, and on our cards and decorations. Joy feels natural this time of year.

And so it is easy to hear texts like the one we read today from the letter to the Thessalonians and agree. Hear the words again: Rejoice always! Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Jesus Christ for you!

It’s easy to see why this is the text that churches read on this third Sunday of Advent. It’s all about joy, and who doesn’t like to hear about joy this time of year? And so, as we light our candles, we can boldly proclaim our joy in our words, and in our prayers, and in our songs. Christmas is almost here, and we are joyful.

But, what about those times when joy feels impossible? What do we say then?

Two years ago today I was getting ready to preach about joy. It was the Friday before the third Sunday in Advent. I had been married less than a month before, and I still hadn’t come down. I was on top of the world. Joyful beyond words. And that day we were at the grocery store buying things to make Christmas cookies. And when we got home I was planning to write a sermon that would have rivaled George Bailey’s joy at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

And we had just cleared the check-out line when I looked down, and there was a text from my mom. It just said: “It’s so horrible about all those children in Connecticut.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but within minutes the full horror of what had just happened in Newtown, Connecticut started to sink in.

The next two days, like most clergy I know, I went back and forth between the TV screen, and a blank computer screen. Because I knew I was supposed to preach about joy, but how do you talk about joy in the face of something so terrible?

I think that in the church we sometimes don’t do a very good job of acknowledging the realities of the world. We talk about hope, and peace, and joy, and love. But do we also talk about the hard things that are happening in the world? Things like violence? Things like tragedy? Things that defy understanding?

Too often we don’t. We gloss over those things and focus instead on the brighter, or happier stories. And then we wonder why people worry about whether they will be welcome in church. Because if we don’t acknowledge the pain and suffering in the world, and instead just say “be joyful”, how can anyone tell us their stories? How can they talk about when they are mourning? How can they talk about when they are depressed? How can they talk about losing their job and scrambling to make ends meet?

To deny what is happening in the world is not a Christian response. It’s the opposite of a Christian response, in fact. Because Christ never told us to not tell the truth about life. He never told us to only be happy or carefree or bright all the time. Instead, Jesus told us to bind up the brokenhearted, tell the truth, and stay near those who suffer.

That’s one reason we have our Blue Christmas season here. Because we know that hard things happen, and that sometimes it might feel like there is no room for that in the Christmas season. Because some years the holidays are just plain hard. We understand, and we make room for that. Because whatever you are going through in your life, you are welcome in church. And you are welcome to carry those things that are hard into this space as well. Because if you can’t bring them here, where can you bring them?

But, at the same time, the church has an obligation. And that is to not just acknowledge the brokenness of the world, which we must do, but to also go one step forward and proclaim that it doesn’t have to be that way. There is another way. And in Advent we point to that fact, and we point with hope to the future, and to the way Christ is coming into this world.

The passage we read from Thessalonians reminds us of that. It’s important to remember the context of this letter that tells us to “rejoice always”. Like many of the Apostle Paul’s letter it was sent to a church that was going through a time of uncertainty. They were figuring out how to be some of the first followers of Jesus Christ at a time when no one understood them and what they were doing. And professing your faith in Christ, at that time, could often come with harsh penalties. And so Paul was writing this letter to them to encourage them, and to remind them to continue to live in hope and joy, even when it was hard to be hopeful and joyful. And he tells them “don’t quench the Spirit.” In other words, do not let anything extinguish your joy.

So what did I say on that Sunday two days after Newtown, two years ago? I’ll tell you this first, what I said did not make everything better. And it didn’t erase the pain of what had happened. It probably even sounds a little ridiculous now, but bear with me. Because that day the best I could think about to say was to talk about the color of a candle.

You may notice that today’s candle on the Advent wreath isn’t blue like the other three. It’s pink. The traditional color for Advent is purple, which is meant to represent what is royal, like the coming Prince of Peace, but also to show repentance, and the turning away from what is and towards something better. And churches used to take this very seriously, and the four weeks before Christmas for centuries were very somber and penitent.

But the story goes that in the midst of the dark winters and more reflective Advents of years past, churches thought that about now people needed a little glimpse of what was coming. And so they made the third candle pink, which is supposed to be sort of a mix between the purple of Advent and the white of the Christ candle that we light on Christmas eve.

And they called this Sunday “Gaudette Sunday” which means “rejoice”. And so, we light the pink candle because just as the white mixes with the purple and transforms it, we are waiting for Christ’s light to break into our world and bring the joy that feels so elusive. We stand here in the real world, at the junction of where pain and hope meet, and we look for something better. We long for joy. And we sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, oh come God, and be with us.

And we do something else too. We proclaim, just by being here, what joy really means.

The other night in our Advent discussion group we talked about “joy”, and we asked if it’s possible to be joyful even when maybe things in the world around you aren’t so great. And one of you said something like this: “I’d like to believe that the joy that comes from Christ is not so that shallow that the world can give it or take it away.”

I think he was right. Because if joy can be lost or gained so quickly, it’s just happiness. Not a bad thing, but not such a long-lasting thing sometimes. But the joy that comes with Christ sticks around. It’s there in the best of times, but it’s even there when times are hard. You can be a joyful person and still cry alongside the world. Because being joyful means you know it isn’t supposed to be that way, and you believe it can be better.

About a year and a half ago, a few months after Newtown, the Boston marathon bombing happened. We were married at Old South Church, the church right at the finish line of the Marathon that sustained some damage in the explosions, and just a few months before we had stood only feet from where the bombs went off to take our wedding photos. And when we watched the coverage on the news, I felt like someone had punched me in the gut.

About a week later, before they even opened the streets back up, we went down to Boston for Old South’s first worship service in the aftermath. And I spent some time walking around the streets there by Copley Square. Police tape blocked off a lot of the area, but every time there was a barricade there was also something else. People had taken chalk and written messages on the sidewalks. Messages of hope. Messages of healing. Messages of peace. I walked the streets reading them.

And there was one message that captured me in both it’s simplicity and its depth. There, on the sidewalk, in blue chalk, someone had written simply “light overcomes darkness”.

I think that’s when I stopped feeling like someone had punched me, and I started to remember that violence and anger and destruction don’t get to have the last word. Only God does, and God sent Christ to this world not just so that we might live, but so that we might have a deep abiding joy.

And so, here we are, on one the shortest days of the year. The longest darkness. And we are here because somewhere inside of us we believe that it is true. We believe that the light will always overcome the darkness. And we believe in the miracle that is about to come into this world.
On Christmas Eve we read a passage from the Gospel of John, one that the person who wrote that chalked message on the sidewalk may or may not have know: “The light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. In other words, Christ is the light of the world, and the worst that the world can do is still not enough to extinguish that light. And if that light cannot be extinguished, than neither can that joy.

And so, our job as followers of Christ is to spread that light, and spread that joy. Because joy is different than just a feeling. Joy is a way of living as people following the light of Christ into the world. Claiming joy is an act of faith, and living with that joy is an act of revolution in a world that could use a little joy right now. God’s gift of joy is there for us all to claim, not just in the good times, but especially in the bad.

And so, and as we watch and wait this Advent, be witnesses to the light of Christ, and the joy it brings. And live as the people who believe that this joy, and the child who brings it, can change the world. If you do that, you’re halfway to Christmas already. Amen.

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Advent Hope (Or, Why I Quit My PhD Program)

Over the last few years I have written short daily devotionals for each day of Advent and Lent. I enjoyed doing it, but there were times when it felt a bit draining, particularly in the clergy obstacle course that is the season of Advent and Christmas planning.

So this year I am doing something a little different. I am not writing daily posts, but I am committing to blogging. Maybe it will be once a week; maybe more. But, if I miss a day I won’t feel like I’m failing Advent. (Ever feel like you get grades for your liturgical seasons? Just me?)

The sanctuary at The Congregational Church in Exeter. The manger is filled with strips of paper on which the prayers for hope of the congregation have been written.

The sanctuary at The Congregational Church in Exeter. The manger is filled with strips of paper on which the prayers for hope of the congregation have been written.

Today seems as good a day as any to start in Advent because it is a memorable one for me. Thirteen years ago today I was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. When I knelt in the chapel of Columbia Theological Seminary and my friends and colleagues laid on hands I thought I knew how this journey would go. I was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) to a specific call as a hospital chaplain. I thought I would spend a few years serving as a chaplain, go to graduate school and get a PhD, and then teach in a seminary somewhere. I had hopes, and I was going to work to make those hopes realities.

And for a few years I was on that exact course. I spent hours in a pediatric emergency room responding to the families of children with traumatic injuries. I crammed for the GREs. I earned a second masters degree in systematic theology that would boost my chances of getting into a PhD program. And then, early in 2005, I dropped six PhD applications into the mail and waited.

Here’s the part where you expect me to say I didn’t get in anywhere, and I had to change my hopes. Part of me wishes I had received back rejection letters. But I didn’t. Instead six offers of acceptance came back bringing with them my choice of programs. In the end I picked the one I thought made the most sense and headed off for the ivy tower, ready to join the ranks of the academy. My hopes had been realized.

Except for one thing. I hated academia.

Sure, I’ve never met a PhD student who was thrilled with their life. Graduate work is quiet drudgery. You live in a little apartment while your friends are buying houses. You drink too much coffee and eat too much crummy food. You feel grateful for the meager stipend you are lucky enough to get for being a teaching assistant. And you read. A lot. And you write. A lot. And you try to make your professors happy, but you get a sense that this is going to be a years-long academic gauntlet.

I expected all that. I expected things to be hard, and I was fine with that. But what I didn’t expect was how empty the whole thing would make me feel. I didn’t expect that each class and paper would feel meaningless. I didn’t expect the existential angst that would come from devoting years of my life to a dissertation that would most likely sit in an university library unread. I didn’t expect that I would feel like I was on the sidelines, sitting on the bench, while all my other clergy friends got to play in a game that mattered. And I didn’t expect that I would start to think about how to get through the next 35 years doing something I hated.

It wasn’t until later that I came to realize that, no matter how much we complained, a lot of my classmates actually didn’t hate it that much. I began to realize that they had a legitimate calling to academia. And, more importantly, I did not.

And so, I had to go back to what got me there in the first place. And I realized that becoming a PhD student had little to do with my hopes, and everything to do with my fears.

The reality is that when I was ordained in 2001 the Presbyterian Church (USA) (the tradition in which I was ordained) still prohibited practicing LGBT people from being ordained. (Despite recent news reports to the contrary, this is still the case in many presbyteries.) I had been out since I was 18, a fact that did not change while I was in seminary, and I know my ordination committee was well aware of this fact. (One member pulled me aside to assure me of this.)

And yet, I was never asked whether or not I would abide by the rules as they then stood. It became our little game of chicken. Our own ecclesiastical “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

If I had it to do over today, I might do things differently. But I was 24 when I was approved for ordination, and living in the South. Not even the local United Church of Christ jurisdictions were approving LGBT people for ordination yet. And so, cheered on by professors and well-meaning clergy who assured me I could do more good “inside the system” than outside, I played the game, and I was ordained.

But I knew that there were still things I could not do. I could not pastor a church, because I could not love a congregation the way a pastor must love their church and not be honest with them. Likewise, though I was not yet partnered at the time, I knew in the future that I could not love someone as a partner and ask them in any way to hide who they were in my place of ministry. I knew plenty of clergy who did this, and I saw what it did to them and their families.

And so, even though I loved preaching, even though I loved the parish, I convinced myself that I didn’t belong there. And I instead came up with a new set of hopes; ones revolving around chaplaincy and academia, relatively “safe” places full of LGBT clergy.

But deep down inside I knew it wasn’t my calling. No wonder I was miserable. I had traded in hope for convenience and safety. And hope, real hope, rarely guarantees us either.

I left my PhD program after two and a half years. My only regret is that I didn’t leave earlier. I also left the Presbyterian Church, choosing instead to transfer my standing to the United Church of Christ. And, finally, I went out into the parish, the very place I’d been so terrified to go, but yet the one place I was sure God wanted me.

Along the way I learned something about hope. It’s not about goals or plans or hoping that everything will work out easily and with the least degree of resistance. Instead, it’s about trust. It’s about trusting God enough to believe that God is creating something new and good, and God will make a way for you to do exactly what you are called to do.

And it’s also about knowing that if your hopes aren’t big enough, if they are in any way dictated by fear and not faith, you will end up settling for being miserable.

Thirteen years later, my ministry has taken me to a place I never expected. I’m not at a seminary teaching. I’m also not living with a tacit understanding between self and denomination. And I’m not compromising my hopes anymore.

Instead, I wake up in the morning next to a wife I love dearly. One I will never ask to hide for me. I walk from our home down the street to my study in the church office. I spend my days preaching, writing, praying, talking to parishioners, working for peace and justice, and serving the church and community. But, more than that, I truly believe I spend them (to steal a phrase from the Westminster Catechism) glorifying God, and enjoying God forever. And I am truly, deeply happy.

And now I know. On that day thirteen years ago, I may have had hope, but my hopes weren’t nearly big enough. And so this first week in Advent, when hope is what we think about, that is what I know about the subject: A hope that depends on our fears, and not our faith in what God can do, is no hope at all. And I truly believe that God wants more for us than that.

Joy in a One Star World: Sermon for October 19, 2014

Philippians 4:4-9

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

One of the wonderful and yet challenging things about the internet age is that anyone can share an opinion online. That can sometimes be wonderful. We get to hear a lot of new perspectives that way. But, sometimes, there is a lot of perhaps less-than-helpful stuff to wade through too.

A good example of that to me are online reviews. There are a lot of online review sites where you can go and rate things and experiences, usually by doing something like leaving one to five stars. Maybe you’ve heard of a site called Yelp? It’s a site where if you go to a restaurant you can then go there and rate it with, say, “four stars…pretty good”. Or “one star…I got food poisoning”.

I’ll admit, I read those reviews before I go to a new restaurant. But, slowly, a whole lot of other things have started to be reviewed. Like churches. We don’t have any reviews…I checked, but Old South Church in Boston, a church that has existed over 300 years and whose history is tied up in our very country’s has some. In fact, Old South, got a one star review recently. The reason why? A would-be-bride, who was not a church member or attendee, couldn’t have her wedding on the Saturday she wanted. Sorry, Old South…you get one star.

I like reading about other places, like the Grand Canyon, which also has Yelp reviews, including this one star review: “As amazing as the views are, it’s really kind of boring. Every 500ft a new vantage point of the same thing: a really big hole in the ground.”

I mean, technically, I guess that’s true. Sorry, God…good try, but not your best work. One star for the Grand Canyon.

10403016_827092474010019_3062638086161016394_nBut, what does this have to do with this 2000 year old letter written by the apostle Paul to a church he had visited? I was thinking about one star reviews while reading this week’s passage from the Letter to the Philippians. And it’s not because I’m about to give it one star, don’t worry. But it reminded me of those Yelp reviews because I believe it speaks to a tendency that exists even to this day: the tendency to choose the negative over the positive. The tendency to choose complaining and fear over grace and abundance and joy. Or, put simply, the tendency to be a one star voice.

Paul tells the church, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice…Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God…(and) whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

In other words, you can be a one star voice. You can choose to be a voice of negativity, or doom and gloom. You can complain constantly without trying to change anything.

Or, if you really believe this Gospel stuff, you can choose another way.

That’s not easy. How often do we not say what is going right? How often do we focus on what is wrong? How often do we choose to magnify what we don’t like, and not lift up what is going right? How often do we choose to be voices that break others down instead of building them up? And how often do we just stand by and not say a thing as we watch someone do that to others?

It’s probably more than we realize. And what we don’t realize is that it doesn’t just impact us. It slowly infects the ones who are gathered around us. And negativity attracts more negativity until all that is left is the negative. So, there is a question for us to ask ourselves as individuals, and also one every church should periodically ask itself: With all the choices people can make with what to do with their time and resources these days, who would want to be a part of something negative? And how much more attractive are we when we are positive? And how much more powerful is our witness to Christ when we rejoice?

So, about right now you might be thinking, well, that’s all well and good, but it’s naive. I mean, someone has to play devil’s advocate. Someone needs to think of the worst case scenario. Someone has to snap us back into reality. You preacher types like Paul, you just don’t get the way the real world works.

Except, Paul did get it. He got it more than we realize. When Paul wrote this letter, this exhortation to a church to “rejoice” and lift up what is good, how do you picture him? At a comfortable desk somewhere? Sitting down with a five year plan that spelled out everything that was about to happen with great confidence and excitement? Relaxing?

Those are fair assumptions. It’s pretty easy to say “rejoice” when things are going well for you. But that’s not what was going on. When Paul wrote this letter about joy, he was in prison. And he was waiting for his sentencing. And he knew it might well be death. He literally was facing losing his life. Nothing was good or comfortable or happy. He was having a one star kind of day.

And yet, he was full of joy. How can that be?

Here’s what I think. I think it’s easy to be a one star voice in this world. It’s simple. It doesn’t take much effort. You can lob your thoughts out like reviews on the internet and you feel better and you don’t really have to do anything constructive after that.

But it is a whole lot harder to rejoice. Why? Because joy is hard.

Now that may sound like an oxymoron. Joy is joy. Shouldn’t joy be easy? I don’t think so. Because I think joy is deeper than that. Joy and happiness are two different things. Happiness is easy, but it’s fleeting. You can find happiness in everything from a stiff drink to a big paycheck. A nice meal to a new car. You can get happy pretty easily. At least for a little while. And you can lose it just a quickly.

But joy. Joy is hard. But it’s also deep. It’s rooted. And it’s the thing that remains in you even when everything else around you is crumbling down.

Joy was there that day with Paul in that prison cell. And that wasn’t an accident. It was there because Paul had chosen the places where he would put his trust and his faith. And they weren’t in the fleeting things of this world. They weren’t in the things we can hold on to or lose. They were solely in this: God’s love, and Christ’s grace. That’s where his heart was. And so even when everything else in the world was taken away from him, no one could touch his joy.

And so, when he tells us to rejoice, I think he knows what he is talking about. And I think it gives us a pretty good reason to do the hard work of starting to think about how we rejoice, both as individuals and together, and to look at what we lift up as worthy of rejoicing about.

It just so happens that today is an easy day to be happy. We are baptizing a beautiful baby and starting her on her journey of faith. And we are also welcoming eleven new members to our church. I’m happy. I’m thrilled. And, if I might be so bold, I am joyful. I am rejoicing. And I hope you all will join me in that rejoicing.

But, before you do, I want to offer this caution: Choose joy carefully. Because joy isn’t cheap.

Because joy requires something of us. It requires us to constantly re-root ourselves in our faith. It requires us to part and to have a relationship with God. It requires us to stop putting our faith in earthly things and to let go and trust the Holy Spirit. And it requires us, as the church covenant we are going to recite together as we welcome new members states, to “hold fast” to God and to Jesus Christ. Nothing else.

Joy requires faith. And faith is not easy or comfortable sometimes. And, honestly, you can choose happiness instead, and it will come at a much cheaper price.

But here’s the thing: joy trumps happiness every single time.

Remember at the beginning when I was talking about Yelp and that one star review for Old South Church? I’ll let you in on a secret that the bride who posted it probably doesn’t know: They don’t care. (By the way, I’m pretty sure that if the Grand Canyon doesn’t care either, by the way.)

How do I know this? Because neither a church nor creation draw their value from what is easily given or taken away. And, if we are functioning at our best as children of God, neither do we. Instead, we draw our meaning, we draw our joy, not from what we are or what we have or by what others say about us, but instead from whose we are. And the more we remember that God alone is both the source and focus of our rejoicing, the more we find that we can never again settle for anything less than to rejoice.

And so, let’s turn our hearts to the next part of our worship today, the part when we respond to the Word of God. And let’s welcome those eleven new members. Let’s baptize that beautiful baby and let’s make our promises as a congregation to her. Let’s celebrate.

But first, ask yourself this: as we celebrate are you going to be happy? Or are you going to rejoice? I hope it’s always the latter. Because you are a beloved child of God, and you deserve nothing less. Amen.

Questioning Advent: Day 18 – Open It

from the United Church of Christ

from the United Church of Christ

We’ve been finishing our Christmas shopping here in Vermont. We try to buy local for as much of it as possible, but there are a few items that you just can’t get around here. For those, we went online. Which means that for the past few days the UPS truck has been sliding its way up our icy road to bring us a box or two.

I should say that most of the gifts aren’t a surprise. We each come up with a short list of things we might want, and we stick to that. But we each usually try to surprise the other with a little something too. Which is why when Heidi texted me from the house yesterday to say a strange box was at the door and she thought it had been mistakenly delivered to us instead of the neighbors I hurriedly texted back, “DON’T OPEN IT!”

This time of year it can feel like the world outside the church is full of gifts and the inside the doors of the church we are screaming, “don’t open it!” In Advent we are quick to remind others that technically the Christmas is not here yet, and that we need to wait. And, though I’m a diehard believer in observing Advent, sometimes it must feel like the world is offering carols and lights and parties and the church is only offering waiting.

And none of us like to wait. We don’t like waiting in grocery store lines. We don’t like waiting in traffic. We don’t like waiting for admissions letters or test results or anything else. So why do we wait for joy in the church?

My mom had a rule. We were allowed to open one present on Christmas Eve. The idea was that we had been waiting a long time, and though the big show was Christmas morning, it was okay to celebrate a little ahead of time. And on the week following the third Sunday, we are called to celebrate a little bit too. This is the week we light that pink candle, that visual reminder of both the purple candles of Advent and the white of Christmas, and talk about joy. And the thing about that is that we don’t have to wait until Christmas Eve, or even Christmas day, to mean it. It may be Advent, but we know what is coming. We know that God is about to bring joy into this world. So, maybe it’s okay for us to practice being joyful?

Sometimes Christians talk a lot about joy, but we don’t really seem all that joyful. When I look around during the Christmas season I see a lot of that. We either have admonitions to not celebrate yet, or we have Christian leaders on news channels using joyless phrases like “the war on Christmas”. But what would it look like if instead of either holding our joy to ourselves, or waging all out war with others, we stopped waiting to share that joy?

What if instead we looked at the world and said, “Go ahead…open it. Open one. Let it be a reminder of what’s about to happen. Because, it’s going to be good?” I believe we can do that. I believe we should do that. And I believe there are more than enough gifts to go around from now until Christmas morning.

Question: If you could give one spiritual gift of joy to someone else between now and Christmas, who would it be and how would you do it?

Prayer: Joyfully, O God, we truly do adore you. Help us to live out that joy together this time of year. Make us witnesses to the joy that Christ brings. And strengthen us to speak joyful words to a world in need of more. Let joy be our gift to the world, and help us to give it with only these words: Open it. Amen.

Questioning Advent: Day 16 – Scrooge, Charlie Brown, Buddy the Elf, the Grinch, and the Rest of Us

UnknownI firmly believe that Christmas is the best time of the year for movies and TV specials. Everything from It’s a Wonderful Life to A Charlie Brown Christmas to Elf to the Grinch to A Christmas Story and beyond. Most of the year I won’t watch a whole lot of TV and movies, but each December there’s a list of shows I want to see again.

This year we’ve watched A Christmas Carol (the Muppet’s version) several times. And once again I watched the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, and how he was transformed from a grumpy, hardhearted, miser to a generous and loving man. And as I was watching, I started to think about a lot of those other Christmas shows I like. The main character often goes through some sort of transformation.

George Bailey finds hope again. The Grinch’s heart grows. Charlie Brown learns what Christmas is all about. The list goes on…

And, when you think about it, as much as these are Christmas stories, they could also be Advent stories. Because they’re all about preparing our heart and transforming our lives. We who follow Christ are supposed to use Advent to get ready to transform the world. But that’s often a tall order. Because it’s hard to create peace in the world. We can do our best, we can work for good, we can pray for peace, but in the end, we find out an important truth: often you can’t find peace in the world, until you find peace in yourself.

In the stories many of us love, that happens. Scrooge realizes the error of his ways, and his heart is transformed, and only then does he give generously. Charlie Brown finds meaning with his sad little Christmas tree despite the fact the whole world has gone commercial, and no one understands what Christmas is really about anymore. Buddy the Elf finds that it is his difference that makes him special. And if you’ve ever seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, in the end we find Clark Griswold, who just wanted a perfect Christmas, finds peace in love of his family despite the fact that just about everything has gone wrong.

One word we give to finding peace within ourselves is “serenity”. A sense that no matter what is going on around us, we will ultimately be okay. A sense that God is will us. And a sense that no matter what the rest of the world is doing, we are able to still find peace and joy and hope deep inside of us.

It’s been said that serenity is an inside job. No one can give it to you. And, really, no one can take it from you, either. It’s a peace that, I believe, comes from knowing what matters most in the world, and opening ourselves up to the peace and the grace that God wants us to have. And it’s only when we find that serenity that we find we can truly have joy.

And if we’re really serious about Advent, if we’re really serious about preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ, then serenity is the natural byproduct of this time of year. Because if you are truly using this season to focus on what is coming, there is no way that you won’t be changed by it. Maybe you won’t have a big, miraculous, carol-filled Christmas morning, but inside your heart, if you listen closely, you’ll hear the change happening and the joy filling you.

Question: What have your favorite Christmas movies or specials taught you about how to find joy?

Prayer: God, you can use anything you want to teach us about you. Speak to us this Christmas through everything around us. Whether we are looking at lights, singing songs, or watching a movie, show us the message of joy that you have for us. And then God, help us to cultivate that joy in ourselves, so that we may then spread it to others. Amen.

Journey Through Advent – Day 21

IMG_0155This time of year many of us are feeling two things: overjoyed and overwhelmed. There is so much about the Christmas season that is wonderful. But at the same time there is so much on our to-do lists, that we might not give ourselves much time to feel that joy.

This is often especially true for clergy. Tomorrow at my church we have the children’s Christmas pageant. Tomorrow afternoon my wife leads a Lessons and Carols service at another church. And Christmas eve we are back at my church for two services. That means that this weekend is being spent writing sermons, recruiting ushers, and making sure that all the details are taken care of.But at the same time, this year I’ve been consciously trying to devote more time to actually sitting back and enjoying this season. I’ve spent evenings sitting by the tree, helping to bake cookies, and writing Christmas cards. Sometimes I’ve thought to myself, “but there’s so much else that I should be doing…how can I take a break and do these things?” I’ve been talking back to that voice this year. I’ve been reminding myself that God wants us to feel joy, and what better joy than that which is spent celebrating the season of Christ’s birth?

We are in the last days of Advent. Two nights from now we enter the season of Christmas joyously. But today you may be feeling like another obligation is the last thing on your list. A Christmas eve service might feel like another “to do” item on your list. A luxury you can’t take the time for amidst cooking, wrapping presents, and entertaining guests. 
 
Do it anyway. Mostly because worship is never a waste of time, but also because you deserve this time to feel the joy of the Christmas season. You need this time to remember what everything else going on around you is really all about. And your soul thirst for this chance to feast on the goodness that is God’s love. Nothing puts a joyful season in better perspective than celebrating Christ’s birth. Bring your families. Bring your house guests. And bring your joy. There’s more than enough room for everyone in this inn.

Journey Through Advent – Day 19

IMG_0211Today I’m working mostly at home. I’m writing the liturgies for Christmas eve, finalizing details for the service, and doing other things that don’t require me to be either at the church, or on the road. This means I’m sitting by the Christmas tree, listening to carols, and getting to enjoy the season.

As an added bonus, my wife is baking cookies behind me in the kitchen. So far she’s made sugar cookies and chocolate crinkles. Gingerbread, peppermint meringues, and peanut butter blossoms are on deck for later. Which means that as I write, the wonderful smell of Christmas cookies is all around me.

This time of year, we have reminders of Christmas joy and cheer all around us. The lights, the trees, the cards, and, yes, the cookies, are all little reminders of joy. And just as the smell of cookies are a reminder of what is to come, the joy of the Christmas season is a reminder of the world that God wants us to be.

But the reality is that right now, this world is not the world that God wants for us. The last week has reminded us of that in the most horrific of ways. God wants a world where all of God’s children are loved and respected and live in peace. We’re not there. No where close.

But every so often we get a foretaste of what it could look like. And it is good. Last week, in the aftermath of the greatest trauma, the clergy of Newtown came together to pray for their community. Priests, ministers, a rabbi, and an imam, all offered their prayers. And as I watched, I couldn’t help but think that this is what God wants for us. In the midst of unshakeable grief, we are coming from our respective traditions, and offering comfort in the best ways we know how.

By contrast, some religious leaders are using this tragedy as a way to push their own agendas. Instead of comforting the afflicted, they are further afflicting them. They blame the shooting on everyone from gay couples to those who advocate religious freedom to divorced couples. And their words, far from glorifying God, lead us away from the world that God wants for us.

This Advent season, test the voices that you hear that claim to be speaking for God. Are they voices of comfort? Of hope? Are they pointing you to God’s love, and giving you a small taste of the world that God wants for us? Or are they sowing division, and pain, and hatred?

In our hearts, we know the voices to follow. They’re the ones that, even when they are at the center of tragedy, still find a way to speak with compassion and peace. We heard them in Newtown. They are the religious equivalents of all the things that remind us God’s love in this holiday season. They are a sign of a better world to come. And they deserve our attention.

When Joy Feels Impossible: An Advent sermon for those who mourn for Newtown

nfl_e_newton_logo_b1_300(If you would prefer to listen to this sermon, rather than read it, you may do so here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/rev.-emily-c.-heath/id509946419 )

The third Sunday of Advent, today, like all the other Sundays in Advent, has a traditional theme. The first week we focused on hope, the second on peace, and next week on love. But the focus today, just as it has been for generation after generation on the third Sunday of Advent, is supposed to be joy.

But how are we supposed to feel joyful today?

Friday morning started out joyful in our house. Heidi and I were stocking up on Christmas groceries, and getting ready to bake cookies. I was thinking about the sermon this morning, and what I would say about joy, and I was feeling so joyful and festive and free. And then, leaving the store, right there in the grocery store parking lot, I looked down at my phone and saw a text from my mom about the latest school shooting. And in a split second joy turned to despair.

Maybe you felt the same way on Friday. When you heard that there had been another school shooting, an event that has become all too commonplace in our culture, did the rush of the holiday season stop for a minute? Did you say a quick prayer for the families, or pray that the news, already bad enough, didn’t get worse? And then, when the details started to come in, did you feel absolutely crushed by them?

Joy was the furthest thing from my mind on Friday. Because how can you feel any joy when someone decides to take their anger or pain or whatever else it was out on six and seven year olds and the people who had dedicated their life to them? How do you even start to reconcile that with what you believe about the goodness of the world, or the basic humanity of people?

It is incomprehensible, and unimaginable, and it shocks us and takes our breath away.

And it should. The fact that things feel so hard, so wrong, and so painful right now is a good reminder that this is not okay, and this is not normal and this is not acceptable. It’s a reminder that parents shouldn’t send their children to school worrying about whether they will come home.

This morning’s Scripture reading, one of the traditional readings for this day, is from the letter to the Philippians. Paul was writing to the people in Philippi. And both the congregation and Paul are facing major challenges. A member of the congregation had been very sick, and it had shaken them. And Paul himself is facing official persecution for his beliefs, and even thinking ahead to what he realizes might be his upcoming death.

But one of the main themes of the letter is joy. And again and again Paul tells them to rejoice or be joyful. And in this passage he says “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”

And even though Paul wrote it 2000 years ago, and he didn’t know what would be happening in Newtown, CT all these centuries later, you want to say “what are you talking about. I will not rejoice. I refuse to rejoice in a world where children know so much pain.”

How can we?

Some of you have connections to Newtown. You grew up near there. You have family and loved ones who live there. You were teachers near there. And others of you feel this in different ways. You know what it’s like to lose someone close to you suddenly and traumatically and without explanation.

How do we rejoice? How do we feel anything other than confusion and pain and anger and hurt? And how do we reconcile what happened with the loving God in whose name we are supposed to be rejoicing?

We want to know “why”. Let’s be honest. At some level we want to know why a God who is all-loving and all-powerful lets this happen. It’s the classic question of theology. If God is all powerful, why doesn’t God stop tragedies? I’ve never believed that God wills or wants bad things to happen, and I come from the school of thought that believes that we humans make our own choices, and they are sometimes very bad ones, and in those moments no one hurts more than God. But today, that “why” sits with us, and no explanation seems anywhere near good enough.

Maybe you’re even feeling a little angry at God. I think that’s natural. And I think God can take it.

One of the last things Christ said before he died, in his hour of greatest suffering, was “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And really, the shorter version of what he was saying was, “God, why?” And if Christ himself demanded to know why, what makes us think that we are any different?

And here we are in Advent, preparing for the birth of the child who would someday be called the Prince of Peace. And this world needs peace more than anything.

And we are being asked to prepare our hearts for the coming of the child who would later ask “My God, why?” And that’s why I truly believe that in this Advent season it is possible to both prepare your hearts for God’s incarnate love and to ask “why”. In fact, maybe it’s even imperative. Advent is about building a relationship with God, and you can’t have a good and real relationship with anyone if it is not first an honest one. Our questions, our pain, our anger, all have a place in the life of faith. Belief does not preclude bewilderment.

As we ask them, whether we realize it or not, we are doing Advent preparation. Because with every question asked, we are opening our hearts up to God, and asking for a deeper relationship. We aren’t walking away from the tough questions. We aren’t giving glib answers about this being the “will of God” or trying to explain away the devastating pain. We aren’t wading into the war of words and saying destructive things. Instead we are staying present with God, and present with the world, and mourning with both.

In times like this “God, why? can be the most powerful and honest prayer you can utter.

As we ask that question this morning we remember the words that Paul sent to the Philippians long ago: in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Paul had never heard of a place called Newtown, Connecticut, but I think his words have meaning this morning. He’s not telling us to forget what happened. He’s not telling us that it’s all okay. He’s telling us to pray. And he’s telling us that in these prayers, we might find something unexplainable in the midst of the unimaginable. We might find Christ’s love just enough that we will find peace. And in the midst of tragedy, finding that peace does indeed, as Paul says, “surpass all understanding”.

And so today, we come to church, and we ask that question, even on the same morning when we light the Advent candle for joy. (Light candle.) You may notice that today’s candle isn’t purple like the other three. It’s pink.

Purple is the color of penitence. It’s one that calls our hearts to reflect on what needs to change both in ourselves, and in the world. And as people and as a society, we need to do some of that today.

But the story goes that in the midst of the dark winters and more reflective Advents of years past, churches thought that about now people needed a little glimpse of what was coming. And so they made the third candle pink, which is supposed to be sort of a mix between the purple of Advent and the white of the Christ candle that we light on Christmas eve.

And they called this Sunday “Gaudette Sunday” which means “rejoice”. And so, we light the candle this morning, not because we are rejoicing, but because just as the white mixes with the purple and transforms it, we are waiting for Christ’s light to break into the pain and violence of our world and bring the joy that feels so elusive.

We stand here at the junction of where pain and hope meet, and we look for something better. We long for joy. And we sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, o come

God, and be with us. We know you are not done with us yet. You can’t be if we are still doing this to each other.

This morning we hold our pain and we look for something better. And maybe, just maybe, we see glimpses of the joy that not even the greatest violence can totally destroy. We follow a man whose life proves that. The world did its worst to him, and yet he still overcame it. And that’s why this time of year, we remember his birth with joy, and we ask that Christ’s joy would fill us all the more. And if you look closely all around you, you’ll see that the joy cannot be contained.

Yesterday at sundown, we rang the bells of this church once for each life that was lost on Friday. The idea was that as the light went out of the world, we would sound a reminder that God’s love never does.

When I let people know that we were going to do it, I didn’t realize that the kids would be here rehearsing their Christmas pageant at the same time. But the parents decided it was appropriate to do it anyway, and even better, to let the kids help. And so yesterday a group of shepherds in bathrobes and angels with homemade wings filed out into the narthex here, and took turns holding onto the rope of a bell heavy enough to pull them off the ground every time we pulled. Again and again they held on and flew up and down.

I’m not sure how many times the bell actually was rung yesterday. Once we got started, the kids kept wanting another turn. And they were so filled with joy, and so filled with life, that as long as the kids wanted to do it, it felt right to let them. For the first time in many hours yesterday, I saw joy. And it was, most fittingly, on the faces of children. It was a reminder to me that the world can do its worst, but in the end joy can never be destroyed. It always finds a way to return. Amen.

Journey Through Advent – Day 11

29671_389906276786_3698836_nThe other day I went to the post office in Newton, Massachusetts. I parallel parked on busy Beacon Street and, just as I was about to get out, a car came up on the drivers side, stopped, and then parked. The driver popped out, looked at me, and said in an annoyed voice, “I’ll just be a minute.” The woman in the car ahead of me was attempting to pull out of her space, and pointed out the the driver that she was now stuck. “I’ll just be a minute,” repeated the driver, and she ran into the post office with some letters.

Longer than a minute later, after mailing her envelopes, and checking her post office box, she emerged again. Issuing no apology, she hopped into her car and drove away down the busy road. Finally, the woman in front of me could leave, and traffic could go on unhindered.
I get frustrated at drivers who inconvenience everyone because of their own selfishness. Often times it comes because they feel so busy and important that they can’t stop and see how their actions are affecting the people around them. I’m not sure what this driver was in such a rush to get to, but it struck me that had she waited a couple of seconds, the car in front of me could have left and she could have taken her space and not been rushed. But when we are so focused by our own “needs” and busy-ness, we often don’t see the simple solutions that could make things better for everyone. In the end our actions communicate to other people the message that, “I am more important than you.”
In the run up to Christmas we often feel stressed out, and like we have a hundred things to do. At our worst, we focus only on our own list of tasks, and overwhelmed feelings, and not on the people around us. The result is that we can act in ways that, if we truly took a look at them, would appall us.
But Advent can be the antidote. Instead of buying into the stress, anxiety, and pressures of the season, we can instead chose to focus on truly preparing our hearts for Christmas. This time of year I like to remember the four traditional themes of Advent: hope, peace, joy, and love. I try to make sure that my actions align with those four themes. But, before that can ever happen, I have to make sure that I am cultivating those things inside of myself.
This Advent, what are you doing to help yourself feel hopeful? Peaceful? Joyful? Loving? It may feel selfish this time of year to take time out of busy schedules and concentrate on our own spiritual life, but my guess is that if we all did it, the world would be a kinder, more considerate place. The paradox of Advent is that in the busiest time of the year, we are asked to slow down, to reflect, and to prepare our hearts. Maybe that’s not an accident. Maybe that’s what we need to most right now.