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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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.