The Rev. Dr. Seth Weeldreyer
Isaiah 35:1-10; Luke 1:39-55
Third Sunday of Advent
So, friends, how are we all doing on that little matter of Christmas gifts? Lots of ideas for techy toys or books or clothes or food? Delighted with progress in purchases or distracted by other events? Feeling behind and stressed? Calendar days flying by, possibilities running dry? Tis the season, when we want the perfect gift—to please a longing heart and bring a smile to beloved family, friends, or colleagues. Perfect gifts that fit the person and the circumstance. Inasmuch as gifts try to express our love and nurture relationships, they are a good and meaningful part of the season. Tis the season … when expectations can increase the fun and satisfaction or by contrast, the frustration and even sadness.
We had a little fun at our staff Christmas lunch a week ago. We nurtured our relationships with a white elephant gift exchange. You know, something from cupboards or basement that’s been around a while unused, lifeless. Illuminated gift boxes as outside decorations. Plug-in melted wax air-fresheners. A holiday plate for cookies or party food. An Art-Van wood furniture polishing kit worth $149.95! I opened a piece of blue glass in the shape of Michigan, with a heart over Kalamazoo. Beautiful! Really someone else didn’t want this? I imagined it catching light in my window. But according to rules of this exchange, each person could take an unopened gift or someone else’s. Yep, Ann Johnson took it. Now I could open a last package, or in turn, take someone else’s. Louise Taylor had Mike Noteboom’s miracle of syrup from maple tree sap. “Do you mind?” I asked with covetous longing. “Actually no,” she answered. For some reason she couldn’t use it. So Louise got to open the last package – Christmas themed picture holders. Others exclaimed. Turns out, it was the gift Louise brought! So she was quite pleased to offer them to others and go home with the gift of nothing at all!
It’s more blessed to give than to receive, the Bible tells us. As long as we keep all the stuff in perspective, gifts can be a joyful expression of relationship. And as we prepare for Christ to come, sometimes we know there are more important things in life—more eternal, spiritual than material? Doesn’t that become clear in our hearts like that red shape over Kalamazoo, especially when the festivity of lights and ribbons and bows gets tarnished or torn by troubles? You may know, my sister-in-law’s husband Joe died suddenly this past week. And so among us surely we have many who have lost: a beloved to death or their health or a job or a broken relationship. Maybe you feel something poignant in your life or someone you know. What could be the perfect gift in such circumstances? Is joy really possible? What can we give to touch another’s life with love? Maybe, really, the question of living faith in this season is how to open our hearts to God’s love we know in Jesus; how to give and receive this most holy gift which transforms all barrenness, loss, and fear into abundant life.
Isaiah and Mary lived through troubled times to share joy that is true abundant life amid exile and anxiety. Isaiah writes to people who were conquered, captured, and carted off across the desert to be slaves in a foreign land. In fact, large portions of Hebrew Scripture from the earliest chapters of Genesis through many prophets were all written or compiled while the people were in exile in Babylon. Their fundamental question, friends, as we feel often in our wilderness places when life seems lost or threatened, seemingly captive to powers beyond our control … longing hearts across generations ask: is God with us here or not? Can the land scorched by our enemy, can all the buildings and social institutions of our beloved cities now in rubbled ruin, can our hearts which seem as parched and shriveled, dried and dusty as desert sands … can this life we share together again blossom and bear fruit? If it’s true, how do we return to that place and experience of peace and joy?
Luke begins the gospel story of Holy Grace with two women at opposite ends of the life spectrum. Elizabeth is old and esteemed, yet never before with child. Mary, her distant cousin somehow, is young and unremarkably unknown, and now with child in very unorthodox fashion. For each, their very lives could be threatened by complicated delivery and labor, or by the deadly condemnation embedded in social norms. Yet this visitation scene they share is filled with joy. Even the child in Elizabeth’s womb, we’re told repeatedly so we don’t miss it—the promise of life growing inside her, leaps with joy. You see, as the child twists and turns doing somersaults in the Spirit, so Mary sings of Holy Love overturning the world. “My Spirit rejoices in God my Savior!” Yes, I want to know how that can be true for the divine life growing inside me and you, the pregnant possibilities within all of us and those we love and those for whom we pray and for all people opening to God’s presence and promise. How can we prepare the way in Zion and Kalamazoo to sing with joy?
Friends, holy joy is deeper than momentary humor, and more enduring than satisfied appetites and creature comforts. Holy joy arises out of dark or difficult times. The light of God’s love we’re privileged / gifted to share often pierces through precisely those places so shadowed with fear. Holy joy radiates in lives touched and transformed, and God promises that so it can be true for every person in living faith. Here’s how I saw it this week.
At Presbytery meeting two candidates for ministry shared their journeys of faith. She was homeless as a child, passed among relatives. Life began to change when she was adopted in her teens. Skeptical of faith, yet seeking, she first got to know Jesus in a college Bible study. Then her view of life and our world really transformed through service as a Young Adult Volunteer in mission through our Presbyterian Church (USA). She served in New Orleans after Katrina, then Northern Iraq, and on her own to Standing Rock. At the heart of these experiences she was touched by the gift of communities at prayer.
During college, he served a church in Southwestern Pennsylvania, a place of poverty like Appalachia. He remembers a young high school girl whose big goal for the next year was to get pregnant. I wonder if her name was Mary. What these youth needed, he realized, was a change of paradigm. That’s inspiring—changing the paradigm. That’s precisely what I think Isaiah and Luke envisioned. After graduation, he could have gone anywhere, but stayed there to help that change. At heart, he cherished a community of shared faith with hope, boldness, dignity, hospitality, justice, creative innovation—that is, grace, he said, extended even to people who can sometimes seem to get grace wrong.
Our two candidates radiated joy and inspiration—the expectation of future possibility, nurtured by past experience of transformation. It’s personal. And it’s communal. So friends, for all of us, doesn’t true deep joy often arise from the gift of reframing realities in life? Changing the paradigm. Bringing hope in the darkness. Life where it’s barren or lost. How can every heart receive it in this season? How can we help ourselves and others prepare to receive this gift like Mary?
I like how another Mary, well Marilyn McEntyre, expresses it. Joy, she says, is a gift of life in God’s love even in the midst of sorrow, failure, and disappointment. Joy fills us as we receive a gift of hopeful certainty and trust beyond even explanation. “Joy is the fruit of practical faith … endurance and patience,” McEntyre concludes, “Fostered in communities of people who care for each other, laughing over each other’s foibles, listening to each other’s stories, investing in each other’s children, grieving each other’s losses … human connections forged and tended in love.”[i]
Exiles return home to reconnect with long-lost relatives and build a society of relationships again. Precisely through and out of the wilderness places of our lives, Isaiah promises in the voice of God, there will be new life. Trust that barrenness will bloom. Trust that a highway, a Holy Way of grace and peace will appear on which even fools cannot go astray. Eternal joy will fill the minds and hearts of all who travel this way as they share joy and gladness with all sorrow and sighing flee away.
That’s the gift of the Holy Spirit I received, as like Mary visiting Elizabeth, we shared the wake for my brother-in-law, Joe. Catholic, northern New Jersey, father chief of police, a classic cultural experience of community … we sat in chairs right behind my sister-in-law, Dani. For hours, an incessant stream of people filed past—neighbors when he was a boy, friends and colleagues of all kinds—teachers, custodians, lunch room servers at various schools he administered, coaches from whom he learned and whom he mentored, even dozens of students … all come like magi from near and far. Of course, there were tears … as we sat silent witness to testimonies of condolence offered from the treasure chests of their hearts. What touched me most deeply were stories of Joe’s impact from people completely unknown, or when Dani recognized someone special, leaped up for a hug and leaked a little, and the few times during Mass when someone came forward, received communion, then turned to see Dani and their daughter Katie, and the split-second of vulnerable connection in the eyes spoke volumes. Real human connections. A visitation, a gift of the Holy Spirit, indeed.
As we drove the highways home yesterday, maybe not far from that part of Southwestern Pennsylvania in which one ministry candidate served, we talked about how the occasion was so sad, and yet so full of life, and even dare we say a kind of holy joy that is gratitude and cherishing relationships. We imagined how Dani must feel at this moment in the Advent and Christmas expectations. All the plans and preparations suddenly interrupted like the garland half-hanging around her front door. Gift preparation suddenly, utterly changed. If there’s one or two missing, of course it doesn’t matter, we agreed. When we travel that Holy Way again in two weeks, it will be to bring the gift of ourselves that life again may blossom amid grief.
Dear friends, I hope we all find the perfect gifts for all those people we cherish, and even the family member or colleague to whom we feel more obliged than cheerfully inclined. May they be gifts of love and grace extended even to people who sometimes seem to get grace wrong. And through it all, maybe even more important than it all, may we feel the gift of love shared in relationship. In our communities of prayer and purpose, in the institutions of society, when too often it may seem we are taking from one another. May we find like all of our staff exchanging white elephants in God’s grace, and most especially like Louise Taylor, that often that greatest gifts we receive are how we may give to touch others and come home empty (as Mary sang), with no thing of our own.
So as we give in ministry and mission, we are inspired by the people we touch in return. Like the man who helps with our Wednesday CTV meal and claims with a broad and radiant smile, “I’ve never had a bad day!” When I saw him in Meijer and asked about a recent incident he said, “Oh sure, there was a little trouble, but not a bad day!”
Soon we will commission members of our Associate Pastor Nominating Committee to search and find the person with gifts of Holy Grace to serve among us. It is a moment, a period, a process pregnant with possibility. On the Ministry Information Form to share something about ourselves and the position with candidates, here’s one part of what the APNC wrote. “An exciting aspect of a new Associate Pastor is what the individual will bring as they find their way with us. We pray that, with unique contributions toward our shared vision and mission, the individual will feel a deep spiritual fulfillment as they enrich our congregation and our community.”
So may it be true for all of us in this community of faith, dear friends, amid our places of beauty and barrenness. May we find joy in giving and opening our tender hearts to receive even amid recent difficulties and deeper griefs. And amid times when it seems there’s a lot of taking in ways that aren’t quite right with God, may joy come to all the world, as every heart prepares room for the gift of Holy Grace and Love and then joins in the living song of Isaiah and Mary long ago, sung anew even now.
Thanks be to God.