…Joy (The Neglected Gift)

A sermon delivered at Second Church in Newton UCC on Sunday, December 20, 2015

“In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.  When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.  And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is how name.  His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.  He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.'” –Luke 1: 39-55

Is it the most wonderful time of the year?  I’m not here to bah-humbug you to death, but I think it’s important to ask: Can we really say that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year?  Sure there’s lots of goodies and presents, we have holiday parties, a little time off, it’s all well and good.  But from where I’m sitting there’s also a lot of…bah-humbug that goes along with the season.  Waiting in long lines, our already busy calendars filled with EVEN MORE stuff to do, longer nights and shorter days…there’s a fair amount of stress and hassle in this holiday season.  For those of us who have lost loved ones and experienced tragedy…there may be very little joy to be found in this holiday season.  So maybe it’s not the most wonderful time of the year.  Or…perhaps, even amid all those hurtles and hardships, God somehow breaks into our lives anyway, amazing us all, against all odds…and that’s why it’s most wonderful, most holy.  Or maybe, like most important things in the human experience, it’s both.  Maybe it’s about Joy AND Sadness, Light AND Dark, Wonderful AND Mournful.  Maybe that’s why we have so many powerful, moving and, frankly, heavy and sad Christmas Stories that we tell year after year. 

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George Bailey faces a crisis that leads him to wonder if the world wouldn’t be better off if he’d never been born, but in the end he’s surrounded by his loving family and supportive neighbors joyfully singing songs around the tree.  Scrooge spent his entire adult life shutting people out, only to have 3 spirits melt his heart, causing him to run into the streets on Christmas day and take a feast to the house of his employee Bob Cratchett.  Rudolph and Hermey the Elf come back from the island of misfit toys to declare that they belong in their community and they have joyous gifts to share by being their own, diverse, weird selves.  Charlie Brown and his sad little tree are visited by the kids from the christmas pageant, and they sing into the night, celebrating joy and togetherness in the long, dark night.  The Grinch’s heart grows 3 sizes larger, and he’s no longer stealing Christmas, but sharing in it. We see this story over and over again.  Going all the way back to the beginning…

When we remove Mary’s story from the safety of Christmas Pageants and nostalgic celebrations we are forced to recognize that this is a young woman who has been dealt a dirty hand.  She has just begun waking up to her own body, and she is already promised to be the bride of a local man.  To be sure, this is not her decision.  It is a decision that was made for her by her father and her “fiancee,” Joseph.  Mary is not entirely disappointed about this, it’s all she knows. It’s what she has seen happen to every woman she has ever known or heard of.  The good news for her is that Joseph seems like a nice man.  She has seen many of her family and her peers wedded to brutes…harsh men who no one would choose as their own mate…but the law and the culture force them to go anyway.  Young Mary probably was lying awake thinking, “Thank you God for promising me to this good man.”  And then Gabriel appears before her.  “God has chosen you, Mary, above all other women.  God has placed the savior of the world in your womb.  You will give birth to this son and name him Jesus.”  And just as quickly as he appeared, The Voice is gone.  Mary is left with only one thought….”My life is over.”  When Joseph finds out she is pregnant with a baby that is not his…he might kill her…and no one in her town would blame him.  If Joseph is the good man she believes he is…maybe he’ll spare her life…but she will then be stuck at home, an unwed pregnant woman…and maybe her own father will feel the need to take her life.  Her life was ruined forever. 

When we think of the miracle of the Virgin Birth…we always hear it as a miracle against nature…a young woman who has never known a man is pregnant.  We use this image to attest to our God’s ability to create life where life cannot otherwise exist.  It is good news for a people on the brink of extinction.  This, however, may not be nearly as great a miracle as these two facts:  Mary is not killed, and Joseph still marries her, protecting her and the child.  The word “miracle” dates back to the mid-twelfth century, meaning “wondrous work of God.”  Every year, we talk about the Christmas miracle. Given what we know about the world, you have to wonder: What is the real miracle at play here?  That a young woman living in the middle east in the first century became pregnant by mysterious means….or that she AND her baby survived to tell the tale? 

And Mary goes to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who is far too old to have conceived a child…and yet, she has.  Elizabeth doesn’t even have to hear Mary’s news, she sees it in her face, she greets Mary as “mother of my LORD.”  These two women, both blessed and burdened by the new livesimages (3) growing inside them, rejoice together—baby John kicking away inside his mother’s belly—and Mary sets aside her grief and her anxiety about her situation and discovers this song of great joy…the Magnificat.  Suddenly, there is nothing that Mary cannot do, because she remembers that she is with God and God is with her.  “He has brought the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.”  In community—when Mary’s desperation meets Elizabeth’s celebration—Mary encounters the truth about the Divine:  God overturns God’s own rules all the time.  God causes disorder so that NEW order can emerge.  It’s the blessing of a pregnancy late in life, and it’s the burden of pregnancy that might end a young life.  The result of both of these miraculous births is the declaration of a God who will bring justice for the poor, humility to the privileged, and that somehow JOY will be found for all. 

This is the complex truth of our faith, it’s why Christmas specials brought to you by General Electric can sometimes preach the Gospel message, it’s why a green monster can become a guest at Christmas dinner, it’s why we continue to celebrate Christmas regardless of the stress and anxiety and pain:  When God broke into our world in the form of a human, there was a reversal in the order of things.  Hope, Peace, Love, and Joy became things of flesh, things that humans were capable of being for and giving to one another.  This is important for us to hear, us people of privilege.  For most, if not all, of us in this room, we are living in an age when it has never been easier to be isolated.  Our entire economy is fueled by our deep preference for doing things on our own and for ourselves.  The problem is, that God has not changed.  God is still most powerfully found in community.  For those of us—including myself—who sometimes neglect the joy of Christmas, or, for that matter, the joy of any normal Friday, because we are too consumed with the overwhelming busy nature of our lives…this may be the most important spiritual lesson for us to learn.  The very gifts we are so grateful for that make our lives as wonderful and luxurious as they are, our privilege, may be keeping real Joy at a distance.

Christena Cleveland, a professor at Duke University’s Divinity School, wrote just this last week, “Privilege distances us from systemic pain and tragedy…Privilege distances us from the God of Hope.”  She relays a conversation she shared with a Rwandan friend who said to her, “We pray for you all.  When you have so many material things, you can’t really know what it means to truly turn to God for all that you need:  the power to forgive, food to feed your children, healing from the trauma of genocide, stability in the midst of an unstable society, or hope to keep fighting HIV.”  When I began studying Privilege, the first lesson I learned was actually about physics:  every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  Those of us who are blessed with the privileges downloadof meaningful work and high paying jobs, we know that there are costs that accompany those privileges, and most of those costs are paid with our most finite resource: time.  This is a fact of our lives:  We are blessed with certain privileges—plenty to eat, living in beautiful homes, providing our children and loved ones with all they could want and more, we have distance from tragedies that are daily realities for billions of people—and these blessings are forever joined with the burden of losing time with loved ones, losing time to do healthy and good things for ourselves, losing time to spend in community. We are the first people in the history of the world who have the ability to choose whether or not we want to spend our time with other people; and our time is so precious to us that we will often opt out of participating in our community if it looks like it’s going to be too much of a hassle.  So we stop showing up, and when we stop showing up we distance ourselves from all the gifts community has to offer:  The joy of sharing one another’s burdens.  The ability to govern ourselves in responsible ways.  When we lose community we lose trust, we lose forgiveness, we lose health, and pretty soon we lose our identity as a community.  We are blessed with the most wealth and comfort and luxury that any human beings have ever known.  That puts the burden on us to make the time to show up to our lives, to decrease the distance between our desires and our needs, or future generations will not see the convenience and privilege that we have enjoyed. 

It begins like this….no matter what your life looks like…whether you are a successful professional with a jam-packed schedule…or you are a pregnant teenager with no expectations for any kind of future…ours is a God of reconciliation…able to create joy when—and maybe only when—the desperation of one person encounters the deep celebration of another.  The stories we tell at Christmas aren’t just meant to be heartwarming, they are not simply to put us in a nostalgic mood, they are BOLD DECLARATIONS about how the universe really works.  We experience the most joy and the highest quality of living when we live together.  We experience more despair, isolation, anxiety, and fear when we are distanced from one another.  When we attempt to have total control over our lives, we end up becoming slaves to our own isolation.  When we make room in our lives, in our schedules, in our routines for messy, hectic, contrary people and voices…that’s where we discover God and the Joy that only God can bring.  Our images (4)challenge as people of privilege is to choose what is best for us, even when it is not most convenient.  And on some level we know this already: We all treasure the joy that babies bring to our lives, and that joy brings with it the burden of sleepless nights and frustrating afternoons.  We all boast about living in a free society in which we have the power to govern ourselves, and if we don’t take the time to educate ourselves and hold our representatives accountable, then we lose that freedom.  We are most healthy when we are selective about what we eat and intentional about exercising.  When we choose what is best for us, even when it is not most convenient, then we are actively engaging our lives and enjoying the blessings of all we have.  When we choose—whether knowingly or not—what is convenient over what is best…then we are neglecting the blessings we are given and we only experience our burdens. We can only experience the joy of God in community…and we access that joy by choosing to show up…by being able to look one another in the eye and see that they carry God with them.  In choosing to decrease the distance between ourselves and our neighbors, by sacrificing our convenience and our control, by embracing our humility and vulnerability.  As long as we cling to worry and independence, we are neglecting the joy that can only be found in our shared life together.  Christmas is bigger than our nostalgia…it is messier and more terrifying than our stories about it would confess.  Because it is not just a story…it is REALITY…it is the way our God works…here, in this life, among us….every day.  Thanks Be to God and please, have a very Joy-filled Christmas!

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