Sunday, December 11, 2016

Finding Joy in a Time of Trouble

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
December 11, 2016

Year A: The Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:4-9
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Finding Joy in a Time of Trouble
            I’ve lived my whole life in the United States, so I’ve never lived under a totalitarian dictatorship.
            I know that some of you, some of our own parishioners, grew up and lived in countries ruled by brutal dictators, places where the great freedoms of speech and assembly and religion were not respected – just the opposite.
            I’ve never lived in that kind of brutal place, but I have visited one.
            Back in the late 80’s, I had the chance to visit East Berlin, the capital city of East Germany, which was ruled by a ruthless government, puppets of the Soviet Union.
            You’ll remember that things were so bad in East Germany that the government was forced to build a wall to keep its own people from fleeing to freedom and opportunity.
            The wall was surrounded by landmines and watched over by guards in towers, guards who were under orders to shoot and kill anyone trying to escape to the West.
            So, when I first visited East Berlin, I was nervous.
            I was nervous at the border crossing, standing in front of a tinted window while on the other side a border guard I could just barely see examined my passport, and exchanged my valuable West German money for almost worthless East German currency.
            Anyway, I was allowed into the East.
            And when I crossed over, to my surprise, I remember thinking how normal it all seemed. Like any other city, people were going about their business, doing their jobs, shopping, eating and drinking in cafes and bars.
            Trolleys and cars made their way up and down the streets.
            It all seemed very normal, but in fact I was visiting a giant prison.
            At the end of the day, with my US passport, I would be able to cross back through the checkpoint into freedom, but all of these seemingly normal people going about their business, these prisoners, could not.
            Over the years I’ve thought about that experience a lot. And, I’ve wondered, is it possible to experience joy in a place like that?
            And, even if our situation isn’t quite so extreme, we all know the challenge of finding joy in a time of trouble.
            Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday we traditionally ease up a little, symbolized by switching our liturgical color from blue to rose (not pink!)
            Today is the Sunday we allow ourselves to recognize that, yes, Christmas is getting close.
            Today is sometimes called “Gaudete Sunday” from a Latin word meaning “rejoice.”
            The problem, of course, is that it’s hard to find joy in a time of trouble.
            And, we live in a time of trouble with our country bitterly divided and about to be led by a kind of government we’ve never really seen before.
            We live in a time of trouble with, they say, a much-improved economy and yet so many of our parishioners continue to struggle and just last week two people who live right here on Duncan Avenue told me that they had to move because their homes are being foreclosed.
            We live in a time of trouble with regrets about the past and fears of the future.
            And, in today’s gospel lesson, we hear about someone else who’s in trouble: John the Baptist.
            Last week we heard about John the Baptist in his prime, dressed up like Elijah, down at the River Jordan preaching repentance to the people, baptizing huge crowds from Jerusalem and the surrounding country, letting the religious establishment really have it – “you brood of vipers’ – and predicting that an even greater one was coming who would baptize – and judge - with fire.
            John the Baptist preached truth to power, and, as usual, power didn’t like it very much.
            The imprisonment of John the Baptist (and his soon to come execution) is a reminder of something we often forget: John the Baptist and Jesus and all the other New Testament people lived during a terrible time, a time when Israel was under the control of the ruthless Romans and their grotesque puppets, Herod and his descendants.
            The Romans weren’t big into freedom for their conquered peoples, and they didn’t tolerate any resistance.
            Crucifixion wasn’t a rare event. Just the opposite. There were times when thousands of crosses stood around Jerusalem, each holding a powerful and decomposing reminder of what happened when you challenged authority.
            So, today we hear that John is in prison and while earlier he had recognized Jesus as the Messiah now he seems to be wavering, or, at least having trouble seeing Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.
            No surprise, the imprisoned prophet John the Baptist is having trouble finding joy in a time of trouble.
            The problem may be that John is not able - or not willing - to see what’s really going on.
            Remember how John had predicted that the Messiah was coming with his winnowing fork, to gather up the wheat into the granary and to cast the chaff into unquenchable fire?
            A powerful image, and even maybe inspiring if you imagine the Romans or other brutal dictators as the “chaff” burning in an eternal fire.
            But, instead of pronouncing fiery judgment, instead of taking up the sword and gathering an army to drive the Romans and their allies out of Israel, Jesus the Messiah gives sight to the blind, gives new steps to the lame, gives cleansing to the lepers, gives sound to the deaf, gives new life to the dead, and good news to the poor.
            And, that’s how God works.
            Especially in times of trouble, if we look carefully we find that God is always at work offering good news, offering healing, and offering new life.
             If we pay attention, we can find joy even in times of trouble.
            I’ve noticed that over these past few months and weeks, in the face of so much ugliness and fear, we seem to be taking better care of each other.
            There have been more people volunteering to feed the homeless, more people bringing food for the pantry, more people in church, finding joy in a time of trouble.
            To be honest, each year our Christmas giving tree is kind of a pain in the neck as the church staff tries to get everyone to remember to bring in the gifts that they promised, but this year nearly all of the gifts were under the tree in record time, offering to children we’ll never meet joy in a time of trouble.
            The other night, at our Stone Soup Community Supper, people seemed a little more willing to linger over the meal, to talk, to really listen to each other, to just be together, finding joy in a time of trouble.
            You know, all those years ago when I visited communist East Berlin, a tall TV tower, one of the tallest structures in Europe, dominated the city’s skyline. Like their Olympic teams that won so many medals, the tower was meant as a sign of the success and power of the brutal regime. You’d see it just about anywhere you looked.
            There was – and is - a giant stainless steel dome on the tower, above the restaurant and observation deck.
            And, to the frustration of the communist rulers who built it as a sign of their greatness, when the sun hits the stainless steel dome of the TV tower it makes an unmistakable sign of the cross, a sign of the cross that glowed over the imprisoned city, a sign of the cross that was humorously called the “Pope’s Revenge,” but seriously offered a sign of God’s presence even in a place with very little hope or joy.
            And, eventually, the East German people did rise up - peacefully, yes, but they rose up, led in part by Christians who offered love against brutality, who offered hope against walls and guard towers, who offered joy in a time of trouble.
            And, sure enough, brutal dictators and ugly walls fell.
            Today our country is bitterly divided and about to be led by the kind of government we’ve never really seen before.
            We may find that our Christian faith is going to cost us like it’s never cost us before.
            Many of us are frightened by that – and frightened by the pile of bills on the kitchen table, the threat of layoffs at work, frightened by an uncertain and unknown future.
            Yet, just like in first century Israel and twentieth century Germany, just like all the time, God is at work.
            God is at work, casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly.
            God is at work, not using a winnowing fork, but offering love and healing and hope to a hurting world, allowing us, if we look, to find joy in a time of trouble.