The path to joy

In my last homily I focused on the idea of a savior and I asked you to wrestle with the idea of what you might need saving from. Symbolically we need saving from the darkness, whatever that may mean for you. Over the past month we have been using the idea of light as a symbol for God and we have explored the meaning of light in our own faith as we have lit the advent wreath and talked about the symbolism of light in our lives. These activities culminated with the lighting of the Christ Candle, which symbolizes the arrival of the long-awaited savior, who brings joy to the world. For many people it is easy to feel joyous during the Christmas season, there are many reminders for them of the joy that they have in their lives, but there are also many people who struggle to see “the light in the darkness”, who struggle to find a source of joy. They may feel alone or abandoned; they may feel as though they are stuck in an impossible situation. For some these situations look like poverty or homelessness; for some it is a struggle with substance abuse; for some it appears as depression or anxiety; and for others it may simply seem like their life has no purpose. Regardless of the reasons, the good news is that Jesus, the light of the world, the Word that became flesh and lived among us, has provided a path to joy.

In The Message, which is contemporary rendering of the bible, Eugene Peterson says “The Word was made flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” What would it look like if God moved into your neighborhood? I can remember living in at least seven different neighborhoods in my life, all of them different, and I struggle to think why God would have moved into any of them. None of them were ever dangerous, I was never surrounded by abject poverty, and I can’t remember ever feeling like my neighbors were in great need, so why would God even need to come there? Well, arguably God needs to be everywhere, because God’s saving presence has little to do with any of the struggles we can perceive. God is not going to end poverty and crime; God is not going to fix our annoying neighbors, not because God can’t, but because these things are human problems that we have created by the collective choices we have made. Jesus did not come to live among us to end these human problems, he came to show us that if we make better choices then these problems will go away on their own. God’s saving grace, in the form of the teachings of Jesus and the ever-present Holy Spirit, can and does provide us with a path to joy, but that path is neither straight nor easy. I have often spoken of the need to put God first in our lives, which does not mean that we need to spend our lives in isolated prayer, instead it means that we need to embrace the Holy Spirit and mimic the life of Jesus as best we can because I have news for us all, God already lives in all of our neighborhoods, because God lives in us. Jesus was the word made flesh and within that flesh resided the wisdom of the God life. That wisdom has been passed to us through scripture and to ensure that we are able to understand it God has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us interpret and act on that wisdom; but in order to do so we have to be willing participants, which is why we need a savior. We need a savior to help us make better choices so that we can live God centered lives. If every person, and I mean every person, chose to live the God centered life as Jesus did. If every person chose to live as we have been called to, then most, if not all, of the problems that lead to the struggle to find joy would disappear.

Let’s not kid ourselves though, the likelihood of every person choosing to lead a God centered life is slim to none, so then why bother? Well, everyone needs to answer that question for themselves, but for me it is simple. Embracing the God life and striving to place God at the center of all that I do has led to the healing of many wounds and it has given me the strength to hope that others will also find the healing power of God. Through God, I have overcome many things, I have emerged from some very dark places and I have found joy in my life and that joy is what pushes me to help God forge a better world. The path to joy is long, it is difficult, and it requires a great deal of effort. It requires that we embrace our role as active participants in the God life, it requires us to be the eyes and ears and hands of God. I think that Teresa of Avila, who was a 16th century Spanish nun, put it best when she said, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassionately on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”  By embracing the God life, by being the body of Christ, we are all capable of helping God bring change to the world. Sometimes that change will be small and we won’t be able to detect and sometimes it will be so profound that we will be awestruck, the degree of change is irrelevant because measuring our effectiveness is a human thing, not a God thing, our job is to just be willing participants in the process. Amen

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The Gospel today is a very familiar one, Joseph is getting ready to quietly dump his girlfriend because she is pregnant and he isn’t the father, but before he does it he has a dream in which an angel tells him it’s God’s baby who is going to be the promised savior and he needs to raise it. I can tell you that scholars have a field day with this passage, but I will not bore you with the details of that because there is a far more important message in this story that I believe are worth spending some time on, namely, God’s work often upsets comfortable social conventions.

Under 1st century Jewish law, Joseph had every right to kick Mary to the side in a very public and shameful way, but he didn’t plan to do that, he planned to quietly dissolve their relationship and move on, which speaks volumes about Joseph’s humility and gentleness as a person and as a son of God. As nothing with God is an accident, it should not be a surprise that God would choose such a person to be the caretaker of the messiah. Joseph, who was clearly a faithful man, was ready and able to provide a good home for Mary, but the fact that she was pregnant had the potential to ruin him socially, which doesn’t just mean his status, it could mean his livelihood. Their community would not have batted an eye at them parting ways over Mary’s pregnancy, but Joseph didn’t do that. Instead, because God asked him to, Joseph stayed with Mary and he adopted Jesus as his own, and he turned his world upside down to love and protect a tiny little baby. Joseph’s actions were not typical, they were rooted in a quiet trust in God, who had asked Joseph to upset his social norms and the amazing thing is that he did it, he trusted that God would have his back and based on that he stayed with Mary and together they raised their family.

As we move towards Christmas, we are going to be tempted to proclaim that the savior has come, but before we do so we should be asking ourselves a very important question, which is why do we need a savior? When Isaiah foretold of the virgin birth of Emmanuel the Israelites were in the midst of their captivity in Babylon; when Mary and Joseph were upsetting social norms their home was under the control of the Roman Empire and a Jewish monarch who was more concerned with his own power than protecting his own people from the Romans; and when Matthew reminded his readers of Isaiah’s words he did so approximately 70 years after the birth of Jesus when the Israelites were under the direct control of a Roman governor. There is a very clear need for the hope that someone will save them in all these situations, but what do we need saving from? We do not live in captivity, we are not slaves to a foreign power, we are not forced to live under the rule of a foreign governor; so why then are we getting ready to shout for joy that the savior, the messiah, that Emmanuel has come? I think that if we dig deep and if we ask ourselves some tough questions; questions that will be difficult to answer, questions that may lead to a need for change in our lives, then we will understand why we need a savior.

The most profound and difficult question I was ever asked was asked within the context of a discernment group. Everyone at the daylong seminar was trying to figure out what God was calling them to do with their lives. So, we sat in groups of three and within our group we each took turns doing one of three jobs, timekeeper, question asker and responder. When it was my turn to be the responder, I was asked the same question as everyone else and after I answered it, the same question was asked again and again, and again, and again, until the time had expired. Every time the question was asked, I found myself digging deeper and deeper for my responses. My initial response was superficial and rehearsed; my second response was less rehearsed, and by the 4th or 5th time responding my responses were beginning to become genuine and far more God centered. The experience was profound and even though it was more than four years ago I can still recall the joy and sense of relief I realized what God was asking of me. The question that changed my life was, what do you want? There was no other context given, just what do you want? By the time you answer this question for the 4th time within three minutes you will find that the thing that you want most in life may not actually be what you initially thought, that was certainly true for me.

The question for today is, why do we need a savior? Well, I needed a savior to help me figure out my purpose and with the help of The Trinity, to make the changes in my life that are necessary to fulfill that purpose, which is to treat every human being with the respect and dignity that they deserve. This is a lofty goal, it goes against the social conventions of our time, which pressures us to compete to be the best at everything and is probably an impossible goal to achieve; but I believe it is the goal that my savior came to give me, so when Christmas arrives I will praise God for giving me the gift of Jesus, who has taught me that no matter how much pressure I may feel to focus my energy on my own desires, there is only one desire that truly matters and that is the desire to share Gods love with the entire world, which does not come from out there, it comes from the Holy Spirit, who resides in here. Joseph chose to follow the path God put before him, instead of what society expected of him, he chose God over self, and that is the key to understanding why we need a savior. Jesus, Emmanuel, represents a way of being that changes lives, but that change will only come if we willingly and consciously participate in the process and put God first. Amen.

Expectant preparation

1298662The readings today point us to the need to be prepared, which is fitting as Advent is a season of expectant preparation, not of the birth of the messiah, but of his return. It is an annual reminder that we must be prepared for Jesus to show up on our doorstep at any moment; but what does it really mean to be prepared for his return? Is it even possible to prepare for such an event? Per usual, I have no real idea how to answer my own questions, and I suspect that they may not be the questions we should be asking because we know that Jesus, who was and is God incarnate, is already here in the form of the Holy Spirit, and the season of Advent is meant to be a season in which we remind ourselves of the things we already know. Much of the scripture chosen for advent is apocalyptic, which means that something will be revealed, it has nothing to do with the end of the world. Will there be a day when Jesus will return and sit in judgment of humanity? Maybe, I don’t know; frankly I don’t really think it matters. What does matter is that we are prepared to see God when we wake up in the morning; when we leave our house to go to work; when we stop to buy a cup of caffeine; when we greet our co-workers; when we sit at the lunch table; when we stop for groceries on the way home; and before we go to sleep. If we are not able to recognize the presence of God in these instances, then we can’t call ourselves ready to do Gods work in the world, because until we can see God moving in our own lives and in the lives of the people we see every day, we will not be ready to see God in the faces and actions of the perfect stranger, nor would we be able to recognize Jesus if he was walking down the street because he is not likely to look like the pictures from the 70’s.

The Presiding Bishop says that “if it isn’t about love, it isn’t about Jesus”, which is a simple way to reference the commandment to Love both God and our neighbors. I don’t know about you, but when I love someone I think about them all the time.  I think about how they are; I think about what they might be doing; I think about what they might be feeling; and I wonder about how much they might love me in return. In our relationship with God, as revealed through scripture, we know that God loves us 100%; God loves us so much that there are no words in any language that could possibly help us understand what God’s love means. Nothing we can ever imagine could remotely come close to explaining God’s love for us; yet, we try to do so and sometimes even claim to understand it; we also claim to understand what it means to be ready, but we will never be ready? We will never fully understand God’s love for us; we will never be fully ready for the return of Jesus; and we will never be fully ready to do as God as commanded us to do; but, that should not trouble us, because when Jesus told us to Love God and neighbor he said it knowing that we would fail, probably most of the time. Accepting that God  loves us, in spite of our failures, is the first step in being ready for God’s active presence in our lives. The second step is accepting that loving our neighbor means loving them in spite of their flaws, and the best part of this step is that we never have to do it alone, because God’s holy presence in the form of the Holy Spirit is ready, willing and able to do the work, with us, through us and even for us, if we just let it.

Advent reminds me that faith is not passive; it reminds me to think about my own love for God; to reflect on whether or not I actively think about God and our relationship, just like I do when I think about my grandparents, my parents, my wife, my children, and my friends. It reminds me to remember that God is not only found in church, God is not only found in the hearts of the people who gather on Sunday morning. God is and has been in the heart of every human being that has ever and will ever exist. While we struggle to prepare ourselves to embrace God’s loving presence, it is also our responsibility, as people of faith, to help others prepare themselves to do the same by being a witness to God’s love in the world.

As we enter our season of expectant preparation, I encourage you to take the time to reflect on God’s presence in your life. Think about whether you are aware of God’s loving presence and reflect on whether you think of God in the same way that you think of your loved ones. We must be ready, for the son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour and we do not know the form he will take. He may look like the pictures, he may look like one of us, she may look like the little girl who is hugging her father so tight he can’t breathe, they may look like the homeless under the bridge. The form Jesus will take upon their return is not important, what is important is the need to prepare ourselves to see and accept God’s presence in every person, beginning with ourselves.