Saturday, December 31, 2011

Prayer for a New Year

The prayer below can be found in one of Walter Brueggemann's collections of prayers, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth. I share it with best wishes for the year ahead to all the faithful readers of this blog. Peace and good,

Occupy our Calendars

Our times are in your hands:
But we count our times for us;
we count our days and fill them with us;
we count our weeks and fill them with our busyness;
we count our years and we fill them with our fears.
And then caught up short with your claim,
Our times are in your hands!
Take our times, times of love and times of weariness,
Take them all, bless them, break them,
give them to us again,
slow paced and eager,
fixed in our readiness for neighbor.
Occupy our calendars,
Flood us with itsy-bitsy, daily kairoi,
In the name of your fleshed kairos. Amen.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Winter Reading List

I love getting a nice new stack of books at Christmas to carry me through the long winter ahead. Here are the books that are now at the top of my reading list.

Daniel Kahneman is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus at Princeton University and Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs Emeritus at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. The book (which was on my "wish list to Santa") takes us on a groundbreaking tour of the mind, seeking to explain the two ways we think: System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and logical. We need both! Kahneman engages the reader in reflecting on the strengths and limitations of each. 

I love Lutherans and I love Garrison Keillor. This book was a gift from a parishioner. Many people assume that Keillor was and is a Lutheran; in fact he was raised (as he points out in the preface) in the Sanctified Brethren sect. (I have been told he now worships with Episcopalians) In any case, he tells great stories about the Lutherans and I assume some of them are true. I have always been a big fan of Pastor Ingqvist. The book is comprised of 28 stories, including ones I know already (e.g. "Gospel Birds") and others like "Church Organist," "The True Meaning of Christmas," and "Potato Salad."

Hathy gave me this book, also on my "wish list" this Christmas. For my money, Volf (who teaches at Yale) is the single most creative theologian in the Church today. This book seeks points of intersection and overlap between Christianity and Islam. As he writes in the introduction: "A deep chasm of misunderstanding, dislike, and even hatred separates many Christians and Muslims today. Christian responses to Allah - understood here as the God of the Qur'an - will either widen that chasm or help bridge it." Volf seeks to bridge it. (Me too!)

 Another parishioner gave me this book by my very favorite Biblical scholar. (I make a distinction between theologians and Biblical scholars which is why I can say Volf is the most creative theologian in the Church today. Hands down, Brueggemann is the most creative Biblical scholar!) This is classic Brueggemann; anyone who knows his work in the past decade at least will recognize his thesis, the contestation between narratives. On the one hand there is the dominant narrative of our time, a narrative that promotes self-sufficiency, militarism, and consumerism. On the other, the Church offers the Biblical narrative that posits a God who is gracious, uncompromising, and real. What is required of a prophetic preacher? The practice of prophetic imagination!

My brother gave me this book, signed by Monsignor Esseff, a Roman priest of Lebanese descent who is a popular retreat speaker for people in recovery. I have read the first chapter and expect to see echoes both of my own vocation and my roots in northeast Pennsylvania.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Joy to the World!

In their book, What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Birth, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan write these words: 

What would you think of a book that started with the opener, ‘I am going to discuss Mahatma Gandhi as a Hindu saint, but I’ll skip all that distracting stuff about British imperial India.’? Or another with, ‘I am going to describe Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a Christian saint, but I’ll get right to his biography and skip all that stuff about racism in America as background baggage’?

The questions are meant to be rhetorical ones and perhaps even a little bit sarcastic. But the point being made is a very serious one: you cannot understand the birth of Jesus detached from its first-century Roman imperial context.  You cannot understand anything apart from context, including this birth. And yet one of the very real challenges of preaching the Christmas story is that the preacher can assume that nearly everyone in the pews has heard this story from the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel, and almost as certain that most have heard it in ways utterly disconnected from all that “distracting” stuff about imperial Rome. When we skip all that other stuff as “baggage” we are in danger of losing the real meaning of Christmas…

Jesus’ birth took place “…in those days when a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered…” Whatever the historicity of that census may or may not have been, the point is that this is what dictators do: they issue edicts so that they keep an eye on people so they won’t get out of line!

There are signs of Rome’s imperial power everywhere in the Gospel accounts, if you know what you are looking for. Even as we celebrate Jesus’ birth, we do so at the foot of the cross: the Roman equivalent of the guillotine or the electric chair. 

One of the most misunderstood and misquoted of all the sayings of Jesus is the one about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what belongs to God. If you read that pithy response within context, then you realize that Jesus is asking his followers to discern where their allegiance really does lie. Who is Lord of your life? How much of you belongs to Caesar and how much of you belongs to God? Jesus’ comment is rhetorical (and perhaps even a little sarcastic) because it’s so clear that the answer he is hoping for is most definitely not that Caesar gets everything during the week and God gets an hour or so if we have that left in us on Sunday mornings!

I am aware that birthday parties are not necessarily the time for heady history lessons. Even so, birthday parties are occasions for telling stories. I love those cards you get when you turn forty or fifty that remind you of what was happening in the year you were born and who was President and how much it cost for a gallon of gas or a new home. Context matters. It tells us something about who we are, and what shaped us if we lived through the Great Depression or were born the year John Kennedy was assassinated or if are old enough to remember the days before the internet. Context matters, in our lives and in the life of the One whose birth we celebrate at Christmas. And to skip over those parts is to miss so much of what matters.

What matters is that Jesus’ wasn’t born at the center of imperial power. He isn’t born in Rome and sent to the best private schools. He comes into this world as a vulnerable baby, born to a poor, teenage mother who (at least at the time of his birth) is living in a temporary homeless shelter. He will grow up to see the world from that angle.  He’s born in occupied Palestine where the political leader, Herod, (at least according to Matthew’s telling of the story) is so frightened by his birth that he has countless children “disappeared” in an unsuccessful effort to destroy Jesus. His first visitors will be shepherds, who represent the lowest socio-economic strata of society. The scholars may well argue about the historicity of these parts of the story. But just because they may not have happened doesn't mean they aren't true.

The theological point of the Incarnation is that God is with us—that God is no longer confined to the heavens or to our houses of worship, but has come into the world—into the streets. Everything about the particular circumstances of Jesus birth reminds us that, as Mother Theresa put it, you will see the face of Jesus most clearly among the poor and vulnerable. 

Even though Jesus is born into a violent and occupied land, he refused to perpetuate the cycle of violence. His Kingdom is not of this world. But that doesn’t mean that it is only spiritual, or something that we see only after we die. It means that he refuses to lead a violent coup that then becomes what it hates, only to require another violent coup and then another... 

He comes among us as Prince of Peace, and calls upon us to be peacemakers so that the Kingdom might come on earth as it is in heaven. Truly this birth is joy to the world, in every time and place. Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Bonhoeffer Christmas

During this Advent season, along with a daily blog written by the people of my parish, I have been using a compilation of the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer entitled: God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas for my daily meditations. As Advent comes to an end and gives way to the twelve days of Christmas, I want to share two reflections from that collection that I find particularly compelling.  
How shall we deal with such a child?  Have our hands, soiled with daily toil, become too hard and too proud to fold in prayer at the sight of this child? Has our head become too full of serious thoughts...that we cannot bow our head in humility at the wonder of this child? Can we not forget all our stress and struggles, our sense of importance, and for once worship the child, as did the shepherds and the wise men from the East, bowing before the divine child in the manger like children?
And this:  
Joy to the world! Anyone for whom this sound is foreign, or who hears in it nothing but weak enthusiasm, has not yet really heard the gospel. For the sake of humankind, Jesus Christ became a human being in a stable in Bethlehem: Rejoice, O Christendom! For sinners, Jesus Christ became a companion of tax collectors and prostitutes: Rejoice, O Christendom! For the condemned, Jesus Christ was condemned to the cross on Golgatha: Rejoice, O Christendom! For all of us, Jesus Christ was resurrected to eternal life: Rejoice, O Christendom!...All over the world today people are asking: Where is the path to joy? The Church of Christ answers loudly: Jesus is our joy! (I Peter 1:7-9). Joy to the world!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Happy Winter Solstice

Today is the shortest day of the year. Starting tomorrow, the days begin to get a little longer and a little bit brighter. Winter has not really even arrived yet in New England, but no matter how bad this winter gets, spring will come again. Yesterday I was driving through town and saw a bumper sticker that said, "Christianity has pagan DNA." I have no idea how the driver of the car feels about Christianity, but the bumper sticker made me smile. It is true of course. The question is, what does it mean?

My family has an annual tradition of attending The Christmas Revels, which is billed as a celebration of the winter solstice. It is a wonderful mix of music and dance and theater but it is also a recognition of the ways that the solstice is intertwined with Christian tradition. Or, if you will, of how Christianity has pagan DNA.

This is not an appealing thought to all Christians. The Puritans of New England certainly were not happy with Christmas reveling, which led them to ban Christmas in Boston when they had the chance. For the Puritans, Christmas was a bit too much "Church of England" and it carried with it way too much wassailing. But mostly they didn't consider December 25 to be the "birthday" of Jesus.

I remember one day when I was a young campus minister, a student knocked on my door. He had learned in one of his classes that Christians had taken over the Roman festival of Saturnalia and set December 25 as Christmas Day--and the professor had told the class that Jesus was not really born on that day. He couldn't believe that and came to me looking for reassurance. I told him that his professor was right, and that there was no evidence to support December 25 as Jesus' birthday. He was devastated. I didn't know what to say. But he found words before I did. "I cannot accept that," he told me before leaving my office, never to come by again. "I choose to believe that since Jesus had to be born on a certain day, that it could have been December 25 and that when the Church settled on that date they must have been guided by the Holy Spirit in setting it."

For my own part, what the Incarnation means is that God has come into the world, into a particular time and place. Choosing this time of year to celebrate that birth--of the Light coming into the world, makes great theological sense, even if it is not historically "accurate." (Although I have sometimes wondered how my theology of Christmas would be turned upside down if I lived in the southern hemisphere; but that is surely another post for another time!)

As the gospel spreads, it must take hold in different cultures or die. What I love about The Revels is that you see how this Christian story of the dear savior's birth is like a seed that grows differently in different soils: when the birth of Jesus encounters Russian Orthodox culture, or a French fishing village in the sixteenth century, or Victorian England or Appalachia  it births something new and wonderful. When that happens the story is told again, in song and dance and the birth of new "traditions." So, too, with us: as the birth we celebrate in just a few days takes hold in us. Our "traditions" are not merely rigid repetitions of an unchanging past, but joyful surprises of the gift of God-with-us--in this time and place.

My student friend, and the Puritans, may be right to have worried about wanting to keep their story "pure." There is always a danger of the gospel being consumed by or overwhelmed by the culture's own narratives. On the other hand, to keep the story as "our own" runs counter to the whole point; or so it seems to me. Christ comes into this world because God so loves the world  (not only the Church.) This birth is good news precisely because it leads to so many diverse traditions and customs as it takes hold in this great big world. The key is to be discerning, but if Christmas means anything at all it is that God has taken to the streets--not just our houses of worship.

For this Christian, at least, there is no shame in honoring our pagan DNA! It leads us, I think, to remember that many people are seeking the light in what oftentimes feels like a dark world. When the power goes out, you can curse the darkness or you can light a candle. You don't even need to be a person of faith to get that.

This month of December offers us a season of holy-days as many other people of faith celebrate festivals of light, including our Jewish friends lighting those miraculous Menorah candles this week. As a Christian, I embrace the many connections--past and present--that allow the story of Christ's Incarnation to be told in many different and creative ways. And am happy to tip the hat to our pagan roots on this day of the winter solstice.

Sunday, December 18, 2011


Below is an excerpt from the sermon I preached for the Fourth Sunday of Advent at St. Francis. The full text, and audio, will be posted on the St. Francis Church website.

Mary's Song—the Magnificat—is about what is possible for all human beings, female and male, young and old—with God’s help. Her soul magnifies the Lord. I think it means something like, with God we can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. I think it means that when we do a little thing in the name of Christ it ripples out to change the world, magnified to the nth degree! Mary is deeply rooted in her Jewish tradition, drawing for strength as she sings a new song to the Lord on a very old song, Hannah’s Song. (That song can be found in I Samuel 2:1-10—sung at the birth of Samuel, who was a gift from God, as every child is a gift from God.)

Rooted in the tradition, she also points us toward the future, prefiguring Pentecost: that day when Holy Spirit breaks down all walls that divide. For the Holy Spirit there is never “them” and “us” - only us beloved children of God. Mary models for us what it might mean to let the Holy Spirit blow through our lives and make us new in spite of the dominant culture’s expectations. She knew (as her forebear Hannah knew) that God cares about justice and cares especially for the poor. She knew that the deck is stacked and that in this world kids attending inner-city schools or growing up in the third world do not have the same opportunities that a kid going to a school in the suburbs has. That shouldn't inflict guilt; it's just a reality check. God loves us all, but God wants the playing field to be more even, and so somebody has to take the side of the underdog. That is what the liberation theologians mean when they speak of God’s preferential option for the poor and I think Mary is doing liberation theology in the Magnificat.

When Mary riffs on Hannah’s Song, she stands in a long line of Biblical prophets, male and female, who know this. God knocks the proud and arrogant and powerful down a few pegs and brings up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty, not because God hates the rich but because God really does love the poor, the ones who in the Bible are called God’s anawim—God’s little ones. In this dog-eat-dog world the anawim need God on their side because the rich do pretty well taking care of themselves. Mary will teach her child, Jesus, to love the poor as God loves them; and as she loves them. She will teach him how to read the prophets, so that when his public ministry begins his first words will sound a lot like the song we heard his mother singing today.  The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

This text is unmistakably a call narrative. Mary is called by God through the very same pattern that we find throughout the Old Testament whenever God needs to have a job done: from Abraham to Moses to Samuel to Isaiah with his “unclean lips.” The angel says, “I’ve got a job for you.” Like those who have gone before her, she is initially fearful and confused. “How can all this be?” she asks. The angel insists that it can be because with God all things are possible. That’s when Mary sings: I am fully open to the will of God for my life.  

Like all call narratives, including the calls that come to us in our own lives, Mary has a choice. I love the lines in Denise Levertov’s poem, The Annunciation, which go like this: 

…we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent. God waited.
She was free
to accept or refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

Like all of those men, Mary is free to say, “get lost angel!” Like those others, she instead chooses, freely, to say: Here I am! Send me! In so doing, she is the first and model disciple. She is bold and courageous and strong in this moment, and not this one only. She will have to be bold and courageous and strong to raise a son like the one she raises. And she will have be bold and courageous and strong when her son walks the Via Delarosa some thirty years later, as her heart is pierced and her son dies on a tree. Mary has to bury her child, something no parent should ever have to do.

There is nothing passive or submissive about Mary. And while she may not have a starring role in the Bible—her role is crucial in the deeper, wider, tradition. Roman Catholics perhaps say too much about her, but Protestants have not yet said nearly enough. Mary says “yes” to God and the world is changed. She is Christ-bearer, which is precisely the ministry that you and I are called to: to make room in ourselves for Christ to be born; to take on our flesh.

The life of faith is not without its questions, struggles, uncertainties and fears. But with God, all things are possible. God comes to us, as to Mary, not because we are perfect, but because we are willing to open our lives to the radical transformation that the Spirit brings. As we prepare our hearts for Christmas we look to Mary as one who shows us what is possible, even now. May Christ be made manifest—and even magnified—through us, for the sake of this world.


Denise Levertov was born in Essex, England, on October 24, 1923. Her father, who had been raised a Hasidic Jew, converted to Christianity while attending university in Germany. By the time Denise was born he had settled in England and become an Anglican priest. Her mother, who was Welsh, read authors such as Willa Cather, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, and Leo Tolstoy aloud to the family. Denise was educated entirely at home, and claimed to have decided to become a writer at the age of five.

This Fourth Sunday of Advent, in this season when Christians continue to wait expectantly and prepare for Christmas, focuses on the angel Gabriel's message to Mary, and on her response (The Magnificat) as recounted in the first chapter of Luke's Gospel. Levertov's poem on this event is below.

The Annunciation
by Denise Levertov

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lecturn, a book; always
the tall lily.

Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent. God waited.

She was free
to accept or refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

Aren't there annunciations
of one sort or another in most lives?
Some unwillingly undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,

More often those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.

God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes..

She had been a child who played, ate, spelt
like any other child - but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
only asked

a simple, "How can this be?"
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel's reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power -
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.

Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love -

but who was God.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Messy Christmasses

I thought that this "pause for thought" message from Rowan, Archbishop of Canterbury, was right on target. The biggest challenge in my own spiritual journey, over many decades, has been battling the demon of perfectionism and trying to just let it be. I'm making some progress...

Christ is born, whether or not we have our act together. Christ is born, because we rarely do!

Monday, December 12, 2011

What Would Jesus Say?

For those who have not yet heard, Lowe's is pulling its advertising from The Learning Channel's All American Muslim. (If you have not heard this disturbing news, see a news report from CNN here or my previous post here.) The group leading the charge is called the Florida Family Association, led by David Caton. According to their website, their mission is "to educate people on what they can do to defend, protect, and promote traditional biblical values."  

One might assume that people interested in "biblical values" would be interested in the teachings of Jesus. So here is a parable from the tenth chapter of Luke's Gospel, only slightly edited. Let anyone with ears to hear, hear:
On one occasion a member of the Florida Family Association stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’

"You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Detroit to Dearborn when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A pastor of a large mega-church happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by. So too, an Executive Director of a lobbying organization to preserve "traditional family values" - when he came to the place and saw him, passed by.
But a young Muslim high school student, who was running late to soccer practice, as he traveled came to where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He pulled over, knowing he'd never get to soccer practice and went to him and bandaged his wounds and put ointment on them. Then he put the man in his own car and drove him to the hospital. He waited with him in the Emergency Room for two hours until the man's wife finally arrived. And then he stayed with them both until the man's doctor arrived. (Turns out the doc happened to be the kid's mother, one of the most respected surgeons in Dearborn--but that's another story!)

"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The member of the FFA replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

All American Muslims

I've only seen the show once, but I was really hopeful when I did. The Learning Channel's All American Muslim "takes a look at Dearborn, Michigan through the lens of five Muslim American families." It explores their lives inside and outside of their faith community, including customs and celebrations and misconceptions. That goal incensed some Christian evangelicals, who have protested the show and now gotten at least one sponsor (Lowe's) to pull their ads from the show. This in the same week when Newt Gingrich called Palestinians "an invented people."

How can you be a Biblical literalist and then interpret "love of neighbor" to only mean evangelical Christians who greet you with a "Merry Christmas" everywhere you go? This is religious bigotry and it does not serve Christ or the Church. It suggests that the title of the show is somehow an oxymoron: that you cannot be a real "all American" and a Muslim; after all, real Americans are all evangelical Christians, right? (Like the Founding Fathers!?)

Shame on Lowe's for succumbing to hatred, fear, and bullying. If there is ever to be peace on earth, and good will to all (isn't THAT "the reason for the season?") it must begin with us, and with Christians trying to behave more like Jesus. I commend Miroslav Volf's work to you for thinking through the theology. And for my own part I'm going to start watching American Muslim more intentionally. I wish I could also stop shopping at Lowe's, but I can't remember the last time I was there anyway.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

First Thessalonians is the oldest document in the New Testament. It is the earliest of Paul’s Letters, written around the middle of the first century—less than two decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus—and almost two decades before Mark’s Gospel was written. So this letter gives us a glimpse into the earliest years of what life was like in for our earliest Christian forebears. 

In the opening words of this short epistle, Paul writes:

“We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before God your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope…” (I Thessalonians 1:2-3)

Faith, hope, and love—the very same words that Paul will famously unpack in a later letter to a conflicted congregation in Corinth. Paul and the believers in Thessalonica thought that the end of the world was coming soon (and very soon)—that Christ’s return as king of kings and lord of lords was imminent. So this short letter is dealing with questions about how the community can “keep alert” and stay ready for that day. (That is why it makes such good Advent reading.) How to do that?  By waking up to a life of faith, hope, and love.

Those early Christians were a people of expectation who were waiting for Christ to return and to establish the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. They were waiting for God’s peaceable kingdom—that day when lion and lamb would play together and you no longer had to worry about your child being bitten by a poisonous asp. A day when they would no longer hurt or destroy on all of God’s holy mountain; a day when swords would be beaten into plowshares.

So this was the primary theological question those early Christians wrestled with: how to live as a people who were prepared, a people of expectation.

Advent is not Lent. Both are seasons of preparation. But preparing for a birth is very different from preparing for a death. It is true that there is a somber part of Advent and some overlap. This is our second week in a row with John the Baptist, who is all about repentance—which is definitely a key theme in Lent as well. 

But as we light those candles on that wreath, one at a time, we remember that they are associated with words like hope and peace and joy and love. If we make Advent too much like Lent we will miss the boat. Advent is about anticipation. It’s like people who are expecting a child have to get the nursery ready and go to birthing classes. Unlike Lent, we sing our alleluias all the way through Advent. Like John the Baptist we are called to help prepare the way and make the paths straight. Next weekend we will join Mary in saying “yes, Lord, let it be with me according to your word" as we prepare a place within ourselves for the Christ-child to be born. 

At the beginning of chapter five of First Thessalonians, Paul writes:

“Now concerning the times and the seasons, you do not need to have anything written to you…for you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” (I Thessalonians 5:1-2)

Paul being Paul, of course, he does have a bit more to say. But this is important: it’s not to put the fear of God into them. That is sometimes how we hear the preachers on television and in some other places talking about the end of human history: as fire and brimstone, as threat. You better repent or you will be left behind! You better accept Jesus or you’ll end up on the naughty list and not the nice one! But that is not where Paul goes with this. Instead, he offers a word of encouragement. Because you are children of the day, be sure to act like it! Since you are children of light, make sure you walk the walk! And then these words:
·         respect one another
·         esteem one another
·         be at peace with one another
·         admonish the idlers
·         encourage the fainthearted and help the weak
·         be patient with everyone
·         don’t repay evil with evil; instead, respond to evil by doing good!

Those words are in turn followed by the verses we heard today, verses 16-24 of the fifth chapter of First Thessalonians:
·         rejoice always
·         pray without ceasing
·         give thanks in all circumstances
·         do not quench the Spirit
·         do not despise the words of prophets
·         test everything
·         hold fast to what is good

These words are like a mission statement for a parish that is not only in the midst of Advent, but that is trying to be faithful to Christ 52 weeks a year, with God’s help. It’s how we are called to live “in the meantime.” If we keep respecting one another and esteeming one another and are at peace and if we rejoice always and pray without ceasing and give thanks in all circumstances, we will be ready. Do not quench the Spirit! Hold fast to what is good! 

On this day we light the third candle in our wreaths: the rose candle. This third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday – from the Latin word that means “rejoice.” This reading from the earliest decades of the Church’s life goes with the theme of this day as we light this rose candle of joy.  This season is about joy—it’s not something we have to wait until Christmas to talk about, or to experience. If we try to do Advent without joy we miss the point. Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

But if Advent is not Lent, we do well to remember that it’s not Christmas either. We need to resist letting the dominant culture set the agenda. I think that is the big counter-cultural message of this season is for us to stay focused on what really matters. True joy takes us way deeper than instant gratification.  The reason for this season is about way more than whether the clerk in the mall says “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.”

Advent gives us a chance in the midst of a crazy month to reflect on what it means to be the Church and why it matters not only for our sake, but for the sake of this broken world. It gives us an opportunity to ask: how can we be a more joyful, prayerful, Eucharistic, spirit-filled, prophetic, tested community in the midst of so much fluff? How can we keep growing into the full stature of Christ? 

If we keep doing these things—rejoicing, praying, giving thanks—then we will be ready enough to receive the gift that is Christmas.