Sunday, December 15, 2013

Rejoice! God's Around and We Can Find Him

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
December 15, 2013

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

Rejoice! God’s Around and We Can Find Him

            When I first showed Vanessa Foster the rose-colored vestment that I’m wearing today she said, matter-of-factly, “That’s not really your color.”
            And, she’s right, it’s not really my color.
            So, I’m glad that rose is a color that we only use in church on two Sundays. One is a Sunday in Lent. And the other is, obviously, today, the Third Sunday of Advent.
            This Sunday actually has a special name. It’s called “Gaudete Sunday” from a Latin word that means “Rejoice.”
            In the past, Advent was a much more somber, more penitential season than it is now. We used to – and many churches still do – use purple for Advent, just as we do for Lent, the most somber, the most penitential church season.           
            So, for a long time, since the Middle Ages, it’s been the custom that the Third Sunday of Advent is set aside as a break from all that purple penance – a Sunday to rejoice – a Sunday to rejoice that Christmas is getting close – a Sunday to rejoice that God is soon to enter the world as a helpless baby born to a couple of nobodies in an out of the way place in the humblest of circumstances – a Sunday to celebrate that God loves us enough to come among us to live, teach, heal - and die and rise again.
            But, although Advent has lost most of its penitential feel, maybe it’s good that we still set aside a Sunday for the rose vestments – that we set aside a Sunday at this time of year for rejoicing.
            Because, let’s be honest, a lot of us - for many real and good reasons - may not feel much like rejoicing.
            We might not feel like rejoicing because we’re stressed out by the holiday.            
            A lot of us are stressed out by all the running around – stressed out by the long list of the things that we need to do – the stuff we need to buy to get ready for Christmas. A lot of us are stressed out by the fact that we don’t have the money to give our children and grandchildren all that they’d like – all that we’d like to give - for Christmas.
            We might not feel like rejoicing because the holidays make us sad.
            For a lot of us, Christmas makes us painfully aware of all that we’ve lost. Some of us have lost jobs and a sense of security and hope for the future. Some of us grieve broken relationships. Some of us worry about family and friends who are sick. Some of us mourn family and friends who have died. At this time of rejoicing we remember and miss happier Christmases.
            We might not feel like rejoicing because of all the suffering in our community and around the world.
            There’s the violence.
            Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. One deranged young man, armed to the teeth, slaughtered twenty little children and six adults before killing himself. After the massacre lots of politicians talked about finally doing something about gun violence. But, a year later not much has changed. There was another school shooting in Colorado just this Friday. Since Newtown, at least 194 more children in our country have been killed by gunshots.
            Then there’s the poverty.
            When I dropped off our toy donations at Garden State Episcopal the other day, I spoke with someone who works there who was visibly upset. He was upset because so many people – more than ever, he said - were coming to the office desperate to find shelter for themselves and for their families. They were looking for shelter that just doesn’t exist here in Hudson County. He told me the story of one man who works for UPS but doesn’t have enough money for rent. So, what does he do? He catches sleep in a McDonald’s that’s open 24 hours.
            This past week The New York Times ran a remarkable and heartbreaking story about an 11 year-old girl named Dasani. (Yes, she’s named for the bottled water.) She and her family are caught up in the mostly hidden and totally horrible world of homelessness, living for the past couple of years in a squalid and dangerous shelter in Brooklyn. It’s an extraordinary piece of journalism and I urge you to read it.
            At one point in the article, the smart, strong and sensitive Dasani says, “God’s somewhere around, we just can’t find him.”
            “God’s somewhere around, we just can’t find him.”
            Those words have haunted me these past few days.
            “God’s somewhere around, we just can’t find him.”
            I bet that most, if not all of us, at least some of the time, and maybe especially at this time of year, feel just like Dasani.
            “God’s somewhere around, we just can’t find him.”
            Last Sunday, we were reintroduced to that wild and powerful prophet, John the Baptist. John was dressed in camel’s hair and eating wild honey and locusts, preaching repentance, baptizing people in the River Jordan, and calling people to prepare for the more powerful One who is coming.
            And remember how John the Baptist described that more powerful One?
            "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
            Well, in today’s gospel passage we meet up with John the Baptist again, but this time under very different circumstances. He’s in prison. And we know – and probably he knows – his fate. John will be executed.
            So an imprisoned, maybe despondent, and certainly not rejoicing John the Baptist sends a question to Jesus:
            “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
            In a way, like Dasani, John knows that God’s around, but he just can’t find him.
            Maybe part of the reason John can’t find God is because Jesus isn’t exactly what John had expected. Jesus doesn’t seem to be winnowing or burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.
            Listen again to Jesus’ reply: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
            Yes, there is stress and suffering and violence and despair all around us. The world is so broken that we may find it hard to rejoice. And, like John the Baptist, and mayble like Dasani, we may have all sorts of preconceived notions that make it hard to find God.
            But, Jesus tells us if we look and listen, we find God at work in and through Jesus himself. And if we look and listen, we find God at work right now healing our broken world – we even find God hard work in and through us.
            If we look and listen, if we help each other to look and listen, we find God - and we find plenty of reasons to rejoice.
            Some examples.
            Not even a year ago the Roman Catholic Church chose a new pope – a South American Jesuit who through his gentle and loving example has reminded the world that the Christian life is a loving and joyful life. Pope Francis has declined to judge others and has stood up boldly for the poor and the defenseless.
            This new pope has unexpectedly captured the imagination of much of the world – and just this past week was named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.”
            Rejoice. God’s around and we can find him!
            And, this week the world said goodbye to one of the giants of our time. Leaders came from around the world to pay their respects to Nelson Mandela, this remarkable man who took a free South Africa down the roads of goodness and forgiveness. And his reconciling example and the joyful celebration of his life seems even to have led President Obama to shake the hand of Raul Castro, the leader of our old, old foe, Cuba.
            Rejoice! God’s around and we can find him!
            And, right here at St. Paul’s, so many of us have responded so generously to buying Christmas gifts for needy children, donating small mountains of groceries for the food pantry, and offering over 200 tubes of toothpaste, giving the poor and the homeless the basic dignity of clean teeth.
            Rejoice! God’s around and we can find him!
            So, yes, it’s the Third Sunday of Advent. The rose candle is lit and I’m dressed to match. It’s “Gaudete Sunday,” a day set aside to rejoice.
            And, yes, for many of us, for lots of real and good reasons, it’s hard to rejoice.
            Yet, if we look and listen – and if we help each other to look and listen – we discover signs that God’s around and we can find him.