Monroe Congregational Church, U.C.C.
December 17, 2000 - Pastor Diane Schmitz

"Rejoice" the scripture passage tells us. "Shout aloud and sing for joy" says another. You've got to be kidding. In the midst of this chaotic world where people are starving, where people in the name of religion kill one another, where people in our town don't have a place to sleep, we're supposed to celebrate? In the midst of our grief for a daughter who has been captured by the demons of addiction, a parent who no longer has memory of their life, and the ongoing pain of physical ailments, we're supposed to feel joyful? In the midst of uncertainty about the future of our church, in anxiety about financial resources, in the loss we feel of the loved ones who no longer are here, we are supposed to feel good?

Ah, but listen to the rest of the Isaiah passage: "for great in your midst is the Holy One." For that we shout aloud and sing for joy. The Holy One is here in the midst of our troubles and grief and despair. Can we believe that the source of true joy, our relationship with the one who created us, can be celebrated in the midst of the troubled waters we call life?

Madeleine L'Engle composed this poem entitled "First Coming:"

God did not wait till the world was ready,
till . . . nations were at peace.
God came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

God did not wait for the perfect time.
God came when the need was deep and great.
God dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. God did not wait

till hearts were pure. In joy God came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
to a world like ours, of anguished shame
God came, and God's Light would not go out.

God came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn
in the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

God came with Love. Today we lit the third candle of Advent representing Love. In this season of Advent we ponder what it means for God's love to be incarnated on earth. We wonder how we are to respond to "God with us." How are we to love back?

There are many things we love in life; many things that claim our devotion, our strength and our passion. We have concern about these things: our relationships, our work, and our basic needs of food, clothing and shelter. We are concerned about ourselves; how we behave towards others, how they treat us, how we make decisions, if we make the right ones. Love has a place in all of these encounters. Jesus, himself, used the daily lives of the people around him to demonstrate compassion and love. His parables consecrated concern for all communal life and for creation.

The dailyness of our lives is fruitful ground for expressing God's love. But, if our attention solely rests there, we will end up disillusioned and in despair. For these many things about which we have concern are finite things. Even our most passionate concerns are transitory; at some point they will come to an end, as will we ourselves.

The trap we often set for ourselves is that we maintain these concerns as if they were ultimate ones. Listen to Paul Tillich:

"Every concern tries to become our ultimate concern, our god. The concern about our work often succeeds in becoming our god, as does the concern about another human being, or about pleasure. The concern about science has succeeded in becoming the god of a whole era in history, the concern about money has become an even more important god . . . But these concerns are finite, they conflict with each other, they burden our consciences because we cannot do justice to all of them."

The story of Christmas gives us another answer about what can be our ultimate concern. The story of Christmas invites us to make as our primary focus: God dwelling among us. We are encouraged to make our ultimate concern our relationship with God. This is not the relationship with a faraway God living in some distant heavens, but a relationship with a God who walks with us in our daily, earthly lives. This is where our true joy will come from. In this loving relationship we will find a peace we cannot find elsewhere. We still have concerns about the other things in our life but they have lost the power to define us, to own us, to defeat us. They take second place in our lives; our primary focus in everything we say and do is our relationship to that Mystery which sustains and guides us in ways we may not always understand, but in which we believe and trust.

When we can truly grasp the power of that kind of loving relationship we will indeed shout for joy. Joy is near to us in every moment. Every time we intentionally create a time to open ourselves up to feel God's presence and accept God's love, we have that opportunity to be surprised by joy.

It may be in those first waking moments of the day when we resist jumping up to turn on the coffee pot or read the paper and instead go outside and stand silently with the holiness of a sunrise. Or, a lunch time where solitude in a place of beauty is substituted for the running of errands. It may be in that afternoon when we say "enough is enough" and we leave the lists and work behind to take a bubble bath or listen to a favorite piece of music. Perhaps in the evening you disconnect the phone and the TV and sit quietly in the dark resting in the embrace of the One who loves you. A leisurely walk with your dog after work turns into a deep appreciation for the companionship of God's creatures in our lives.

These are contemplative moments. They are not highly structured; they do not involve radical changes to one's life. But, they will have a radical impact. For every moment such as these enables us to experience anew the joy of relaxing into a Holy Mystery that is ultimate and eternal. It helps us to put the rest of our life in perspective. Advent is a time when we can explore how to create additional moments of encounter with the God who is always near to us.

We make space for those kinds of encounters when we interrupt our daily patterns of worry and hurry with a different kind of time and space. We can make time for wandering and dreaming and see where it leads us and how we meet God there.

There is a wonderful Chasidic story (*) about the child of a rabbi who used to wander in the woods. At first his father let him wander, but over time he became concerned. The woods were dangerous. The father did not know what lurked there.

He decided to discuss the matter with his child. One day he took him aside and said, "You know, I have noticed that each day you walk into the woods. I wonder, why do you go there?"

The boy said to his father, "I go there to find God."

"That is a very good thing," the father replied gently. "I am glad you are searching for God. But, my child, don't you know that God is the same everywhere?"

"Yes," the boy answered, "but I'm not."

Advent is a time of exploring how we can be in relationship with our God in a myriad of ways. It is a time of discovering the joyful, ecstatic realization of what it means to be fully, unconditionally loved.

God is very near to you, the apostle Paul tells us in the reading from Phillippians this morning, "Rejoice, rejoice." This comes from a man who is in prison awaiting a final verdict about his future. He reminds us to not worry even in the midst of our anxiety. It is not as if the anxiety of his life or ours simply disappears but it gets relegated to a more appropriate place where it can be handled. If we give that anxiety first place in our lives, it drains the life from our lives. We are called instead to be unconditionally faithful to God's presence in our lives before we know all the consequences of the future.

Paul also says, "Let your gentleness be known to everyone." Gentleness - that's not a quality many of us would use to describe our lives; hectic, perhaps, or hurried, or full but gentle? This Advent gives us a time to reflect on what it would mean for us to live gentle lives; to consider how we can be gentle with ourselves, gentle with others. If God is our ultimate concern and the true source of our joy, can we rest in that relationship and let go of the tensions that often grip us so tightly?

I end this reflection with this poem by Ted Loder called "Gentle Us Open."

Lord of Life and Light,
    help us not to fall in love
        with the darkness that separates us
            from you and from each other,
    but to watch large-eyed, wide-hearted,
        open-handed, eager-minded for you,
            to dream and hunger and squint and pray
                for the light of you and life for each other.

Lord, amidst our white-knuckled,
    furrow-faced busy-ness to this season,
        we realize deep within us that your gifts
            of mercy and light, peace and joy, grace upon grace
                can be received only if we are unclenched open.

So this is our prayer, God: Open us!
    gentle us open, pry, shock, tickle, beguile, knock,
        amaze, squeeze, any wily way you can us open.

Open us to see your glory
    in the coming again of the light of each day,
        the light in babies' eyes and lovers' smiles,
            the light in the glaze of weariness that causes us to pause,
                the light of truth wherever spoken and done.

Open to us songs of angels in the thumping of traffic,
    in the rustle of shoppers, the canopy of pre-dawn silence,
        in the hum of hope, the wail of longing within us,
            in the cries of our brothers and sisters for justice and peace,
                and in our own souls' throb toward goodness.

Open us, then, to share the gifts you have given us
    and to the deep yearning to share them gladly and boldly,
        to sweat for justice, to pay the cost of attention,
            to initiate the exchange of forgiveness,
                to risk a new beginning free of past grievances,
                to engage with each other in the potluck of joy
            and to find the gifts of a larger love and deeper peace.

Open us, God of miracles of the ordinary,
    to the breath-giving, heart-pounding wonder of birth,
        a mother's fierce love, a father's tender fidelities,
            a baby's barricade-dissolving burble and squeak,
    that we may be born anew ourselves
        into the "don't be afraid" fullness of your image,
            the fullness of a just and joyful human community,
                the fullness of your time;
                    through the eternal grace of
                        your son, our brother Jesus.

*Chasidic story by David J. Wolpe in Teaching Your Children About God