All month Casey Reynolds has been trying to convince me to preach a sermon that she created for the first Sunday of Advent. Now, you may recall that the first Sunday of Advent was the week the Madrigals were here, we started this sermon series, took communion together, and held a fellowship luncheon that included a strategic building plan presentation and two dozen deviled eggs. All in one day. At some point, I said to Casey, "Everything would be fine if I didn't have to write a sermon this week". Being the kind, ever-loving person that she is, Casey said, "Here, I'll write one for you."
Well, turns out that I didn't use it that week...or the next week...but as the season gets busier, I have been more tempted to use it. So here it is this 3rd Sunday of Advent:
God is great. God is good. And there's a baby on the way. The end.
It really does pretty much sum up the meaning of Advent, right? Not to mention, it makes my life much easier.
However, I am still anxious about using it today because, although it is true, and meaningful, and appropriate, it just doesn't seem like enough. I feel guilty, as if I am not doing my job, if I don't offer more than three sentences. I guess at the heart of it all is my fear that some people would be disappointed. Well...some folks would not be disappointed if we stopped right now because we would definitely beat the Baptists to lunch. But, honestly, I would worry that you would be disappointed in me. And...the last thing this, or any, recovering people-pleaser wants is to do is disappoint!
Now, don't get me wrong, in my rational mind, I know that if I did show up here today with a three sentence sermon, there might be some ripples of shock among you all, but neither the church, nor the gospel, nor any of us would end because of it. We would be back here next Sunday. BUT...in my irrational mind, I worry that a sermon like that would get me fired. I am pretty sure that plenty of pastors have that reoccurring nightmare.
Actually, I suspect that lots of people have similar experiences. We find ourselves worrying that if we screw up in any way, we will be rejected. Now, let me just say, I have discovered that this angst is probably more true for younger people than all you more seasoned ones. Still, I am certain that most of us have some embedded anxiety or fear about being enough...wondering if we have performed well enough, said the right things, or have done enough. And I'm not just talking in the church. In all aspects of life people worry about this. Is my work good enough to keep my job? If I speak out about something will people believe me? Am I pretty enough, skinny enough, smart enough, strong enough, young enough to <you can fill in the blank>? And of course there is my daily personal stressor, if I sing out loud will people cover their ears? How embarrassing that would be!
I joke but the consequence is no laughing matter. When we worry like that, eventually, an anxiety such as, "What if I apply for the job and don't get it?" becomes a fatalistic, "I'm such a failure I wouldn't get the job if I did apply for it, so why bother." Our fear drives us to shut down and avoid taking any chances. In other words, we become so afraid of the pain of rejection or loss that we do everything we can to avoid being vulnerable in the first place.
It's just like a Hallmark movie I saw on Friday. I knew if I watched enough movies, one of them would come in handy as a sermon illustration. I think this one was called Home for Christmas Day, but don't quote me. They start to run together.
In this movie, the mom did not want her daughter to date a very nice soldier from the local military base; but the young couple falls in love anyway. The reason the mom is so against it is that, many years prior, she, too, had fallen in love with a soldier, married him, and became pregnant with their daughter. Sadly, though, her husband was deployed and died on his mission.
For years, the mother's grief was so profound, she refused to allow herself to love again. Now I don't want to be a spoiler, but let's just say that the daughter does get her heartbroken. And, in the midst of her pain, she says to her mother something along the lines of: You were right. It's not worth it. Love is not worth the pain.
Suffice to say, I cried in this one. Not because of the girl's heartbreak...that gets resolved. I mean it is Hallmark. I cried because there are so many, many people who have come to believe that "it" is not worth it...love is not worth the pain...life is not worth the risk of rejection...creativity is not worth the chance of failure. As a society, we are becoming people who are unwilling to be real with ourselves, much less others. We are afraid of uncertainty and demand absolutes...often to an extreme. Some folks are so afraid of failure that they struggle with the thought of attempting anything they don't already know they can do well. They need the security of success. Sadly, as a result of these kinds of fear, we miss out on so much of life.
Sociologist and researcher, Brene Brown, refers to this as our "lack of tolerance for vulnerability" and suggests that it is a dangerous growing trend in our nation.
According to Brown, vulnerability - the willingness to be known, to take risks, to be authentic, to be real, wrong, or less than perfect, is at the core many of our painful emotions. We are fearful, anxious and ashamed to just be who we are - in case someone deems us not enough. However, at the same time, vulnerability is also the birthplace of positive experiences such as joy, belonging, creativity, and love. So, as painful and risky as it is to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, when refuse to do so, we short change ourselves of the opportunity to experience the incredible fullness that life has to offer. We rob ourselves of our joy.
So how do we break the cycle...how do we become more tolerant of vulnerability in ourselves and in others in order to experience #morejoy? According to Brown, the answer is to practice gratitude. To be grateful for what we have, for what we experience, for what we learn. In every circumstance. Gratitude breeds trust in God and trust in God breeds joy.
Let's face it, bad things are going to happen in our lives...difficult circumstances...painful events. We can joylessly give into them...or we can look for reasons to be grateful...and to trust that God is with us and rest joyfully in that promise. The more grateful we are in the midst of those circumstances...the more joy can be found in them too. It is as Chris wrote about his best friend Fritz. Fritz was diagnosed with stage four terminal colon cancer. As Chris walked alongside Fritz and his wife Lynn during this tragic journey, he noticed that, in the midst of even the most heart-breaking moments, there was something that could only be described as a deep abiding joy in both Chris and Lynn. There were days of sadness...days of worry and fear..days of frustration and anger. Nonetheless, the couple treasured each and every day. They were grateful for every minute together regardless of what kind of day they were having. As a result, nothing was able to erase the joy found in the love they had for each other.
For the record, this is not from a Hallmark movie. It is a true story about real people experiencing real joy.
Joy that is found in hope...and in grief.
Joy that is found where there is trust and honor and dignity...and where there is pain and suffering.
Joy that is found where there is love...and where there is loss.
You see, here's the thing about joy...it is not the same as happiness. Happiness is an outward emotion...greatly influenced by our circumstances. In fact, it is a learned response to the moment. Joy, however, comes from within. It emerges from the Spirit that is within us. It emerges from our willingness to be vulnerable and trust that God is with us. It emerges from our sense of peace. Or as one anonymous person said: Joy is peace dancing and peace is joy at rest.
As we learned from Mary last week, inner peace comes from knowing who we are, what our limitations are, and most importantly from remembering who God is. Joy emerges when we confidently rest in that peace as we make ourselves vulnerable to God's love.
Which brings us to this story of Joseph's visit by an angel. Now let me just say that despite the succinctness of Joseph's part of the birth story, I believe he experienced true joy. That said, I can't prove Joseph experienced joy...but he was about to become husband and a father which usually evokes a strange combination of fear and joy...not to mention, he was being given a role in God's salvation plan. Who wouldn't rejoice in that?
However, to experience it fully...he had to first allow himself to be vulnerable before God.
It's no secret that Joseph was in an predicament when he learned of Mary's pregnancy. And, since he wasn't there when Gabriel laid out the plan for Mary, all that Joseph had to go on was Mary's story. I'm not saying that he didn't believe her, but we are told that he was planning to divorce her quietly. Joseph was, at the very least, anxious about the situation. Just imagine the thoughts that must have been running through his mind. Processing all of this was definitely not a happy moment for Joseph.
But there was an easy way out. He could have just outed Mary. No one would blame him if he turned her over to the religious authorities...which I believe he was legally he obligated to do. Joseph could have chosen this legally correct, low-risk route...to save his reputation and protect his future option to marry someone else.
But he did not.
He chose the righteous thing instead. The quiet divorce.
One of the first steps to experiencing joy is choosing to do the righteous thing...even when it is not the easy thing. And, it just might not be the technically correct thing either. So how do we distinguish what is righteous? I mean, let's face it, many folks have many definitions of what is right. And we're not going to convince each other to think differently. However, I believe, the take-away lesson in this story is that the righteous thing, legal or not, is the thing that is most loving and compassionate toward Mary.
Our joy begins in the peace of righteousness - choosing that which is loving, compassionate and life-giving toward another....the thing that respects the other person's situation and gives him or her a voice...the thing that may or may not make our life easier, safer or more comfortable, but definitely ensures that the poor and meek are protected - no matter what the world (or your political donors) would have you do. The righteous thing always looks most like the choice Christ would make - upholding the law of love. Friends, when we choose to live the law of God's love, joy is never far behind.
Likewise, our peace and joy is increased when we trust God enough to embrace our vulnerability wholeheartedly. Now let me just say, we don't always believe this until we try it. It's scary and there are no guarantees when it comes to what people will say or think about us if we are vulnerable. Still, in an abundant life, you gotta risk in order to gain. And that's exactly what Joseph did. After the angel's visit in his dream, he stepped into a plan over which he had no control and for which there were no assurances.
Joseph was willing to let go of anxiety over how Mary's pregnancy might be received in the community. He dismissed his worries about what people would say if they found out that he decided to marry her knowing full well that she was pregnant when he did. He was masterfully vulnerable in this story...not naive, not foolish...but real and vulnerable for the sake of the baby Jesus - whom he would help raise. By staying with Mary, Joseph took a chance...but I believe he would say that the joy he received from being in the relationship...and from the role he would play in the history of faith...was worth the risk.
Joseph's joy was made complete when the angel explained that the baby boy was to be named Jesus - and that the people would call him Emmanuel - God with us. His righteous Jewish upbringing would have included memorizing a number of ancient scriptures that reminded him that the source of true joy is the presence of the Lord with us. So, this announcement of Emmanuel coming was a source of true and utter joy. One that we share even today.
Earlier this week, there was a FB meme posted which read:
I am healthy. I am wealthy. I am full of joy.
Now, I know someone meant well, but my gut response was...but what about when we do not have our health or wealth? What happens to our joy then?
The short answer is: Nothing...not if we trust in the presence and promise of Emmanuel - God with us.
In fact, as Rev. Cathy Northrup, so eloquently stated in Presbyterian Outlook this week:
True joy comes not in the entertainment of the season, the material possessions we gain as presents or the enjoyment of food and drink that can become gluttony. (Thanks for the reminder Cathy). True joy (she continues) comes in the knowledge that at Christmas God sent his son to earth to live, die and rise again for us -- sinners all in need of salvation. This how God's hand has moved in our lives. True joy comes, too, in the moments of life when we can see God's hand in our own lives. She adds...perhaps during Advent we can seek to pay attention to and for these moments.
Friends, she is right. some of our greatest moments of true joy may very well come as #AngelsAmongUs...so look for them...be grateful for them...and seek the presence of Emmanuel ---god with us--- this and every day...for when we do, we will know #morejoy.