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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Journey Through Advent – Day 20

196412_10150146026462890_91858_nThis morning my church joined churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques across the country and tolled its bell once for each life lost last Friday in Newtown. Each ring of the bell signaled a life with so much potential now cut too short. As the bell stopped ringing I thought about those lives lost in Newtown, and about the bells. And, as much as I believe that we as a country needed to stop and mourn and ring out our pain and sorrow, I also believe that it is not nearly enough.
Now is the time that people of faith everywhere need to start the hard work. We need to do something to transform our culture of violence into one of peace. And for those of us who are Christians, this Advent, as we prepare for the Prince of Peace, that work takes on special importance.
There’s a church in Syracuse, New York that is doing the work of peacemaking. All Saints’ Church, a Roman Catholic parish, is asking parents to bring in Christmas gifts that promote violence, such as video games and guns. If they come with a receipt, the church will return them and donate all the money to Newtown. Not only will a community in mourning benefit, but stores and manufacturers will receive the message that we are no longer going to buy into violence. I think it’s a brilliant idea.
And I think there are lots of other brilliant responses to violence out there as well. And so here’s my challenge to Christians this Advent: what one thing can you do between now and Christmas to transform our culture of violence? What one way can you witness to the Prince of Peace whose birth we will celebrate in four days? Will it be refusing to buy a violent toy? Will it be volunteering with a worthy cause? Will it be speaking up when we as a country start to debate what to do next?
The peace of Christ is already inside us. And it can be all around us. In this Advent season, we have a special imperative to share it by our words and our actions. In these final days before Christmas, preach a Gospel of peace with your lives, and pray that we will never have to toll a bell for lost children and their teachers again.

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.

Journey Through Advent – Day 16

The front doors of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, Kansas.

The front doors of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, Kansas.

We call Jesus the “Prince of Peace”. It’s there in our Christmas carols. It’s there in our church services. It’s even right there on our Christmas cards. We know who Christ is, and this time of year we repeat that phrase again and again. This year especially. After Newtown, we need the Prince of Peace more than ever. We pray, we sing, we call out to Christ asking for that peace right now.

But calling out means nothing if we are not ourselves peaceful people. Because if we call ourselves Christians, if we want to claim that Christ is the Prince of Peace, then we cannot remain silent in a culture of violence.
I know a lot of responsible gun owners. I live in a community with many hunters who practice gun safety. I have friends who have handguns and go to shooting ranges. And, while I personally don’t want any guns, I’m not judging them here.
But no one needs an assault rifle. No civilian needs something that was created for the sole purpose of killing as many people as possible as quickly as possible. These guns were constructed for one reason and one reason only: to destroy human life.
Spare me the arguments about what will happen if only criminals, and not law abiding citizens, have assault rifles. Spare me your stories of what a good shot you are, and how you could have stopped this. Spare me your explanations about why Jesus told Peter to put away his sword, yet he wouldn’t tell you to put away your AR-15. Spare me your worship of a piece of steel.
Spare me John Wayne. I want Jesus Christ.
In Advent you cannot prepare your hearts for Christmas, you cannot claim to long for the Prince of Peace, and then simultaneously continue to worship something designed to rack up the highest possible death toll. You cannot wait for the birth of a child full of promise, while simultaneously not thinking about those twenty children who were full of promise in Newtown. And you can’t sing the line “sleep in heavenly peace” if you are not willing to do everything you can to make sure that no parent ever again has to endure sleepless nights, wracked with grief, the week before Christmas.
Oh Prince of Peace, we need you. And we need your courage now. Help those of us who claim your name to also claim your demand for peace. Amen.

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 14

8855_10151138633161787_1774694977_nI want to know why.

I want to know why a 20 year old would kill his own mother and then open fire on innocent children and the adults who were dedicated to them. I want to know why he had access to a stockpile of weapons that no civilian needs. I want to know why whatever happened in his mind happened.
But there are bigger “whys”. We want to know why a God who is always loving lets horrible things 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 on a morning after loss, that “why” sits with us, and no explanation seems anywhere near good enough.
And yet, 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. But how can we get ready for that when our hearts our so sad, and our heads are filled with questions of “why”? We might even feel a little angry at God today.
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?” If Christ himself demanded to know why, what makes us think that we are any different?
It 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 wake up on this Advent morning with heavy hearts, those “why” questions matter. And 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 may not get the answers we need, but we may just find a love that we need even more.
Especially on the days when there are no answers.

Journey Through Advent: Day 13

Copyright, ABC News

Copyright, ABC News

My wife and I were stocking up on Christmas groceries this morning, and getting ready to bake cookies. I was working over my Sunday sermon on joy in my head. This morning felt light and festive and free. And then, 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.

How much more so for families in Connecticut today? We talk a lot about waiting in Advent. We wait for something wonderful. Someone who will bring peace and hope and joy and love. But all I can think about right now are the families waiting at a firehouse in Connecticut for news that will change their world forever.
I think sometimes people think that pastors are supposed to know what to say in times like this. And, rest assured, soon enough religious people will start telling us why this happened, and start placing blame the same way they do after terrorist acts and hurricanes.
But right now all I can say is that I don’t know why this happened,  but I know it’s not what God wanted or willed for us. And that’s the one thing that tells me why Advent is so important. Because things like this just remind me that God isn’t through with us yet. God can’t be if we are still doing this to each other. Every year I pray that the values Christ taught, like peace and compassion and love for our neighbors, will come into our heart a little more at Christmas. I hope for that especially this year.
Until then my only prayer is the one lifted up in the classic Advent hymn: O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
We need you.
Amen.