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“In Belonging We Discover Joy”
Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-45
Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 23, 2018
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labour has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’
And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.
According to sociological research:
*Those who regularly attend religious services are happier than those who do not.
*Those who say “God is important in my life” are happier than those who cannot say those words.
*People who engage in “selfish altruism” (doing things for others for the joy that it brings them)
are happier than those who do not engage in such activities.
*Tolerant people tend to be happier than the intolerant.
*Those who trust their neighbors are happier than those who do not.
*It turns out that materialistic people are less happy than those who are not so enamored with things.
They claim that happiness is most often tied to circumstances and relationships.
*And last, but not least, research claims that eating chocolate makes the great majority of us happy.
(reported by NPR correspondent, Eric Weiner, in his 2008 book “The Geography of Bliss”)
It is good to be happy, to enjoy happy feelings.
But those of us gathered in this place know, from our worship and our study of Holy Scripture,
that the Christian experience is far broader, deeper, and most lasting than “happiness”.
The goal of any even half-hearted disciple of Jesus is more than simply to “be happy”.
My friend, Rodger Nishioka, has been reminding the Church for years that we should not merely say
to our children as they mature: “we just want you to be happy”.
The end of the Christian life is not mere happiness, but something more like the Hebrew word hesed,
which means steadfast love and faithfulness.
When we practice hesed, we discover fruits that are deeper, richer, and broader than happiness.
When we live with hesed, steadfast, faithful love for God and others, we discover the gifts of Advent –
hope, peace, love, and joy.
These promised gifts we receive from the Christ- child are independent of our circumstances;
they can be enjoyed even in the most challenging of situations or relationships.
The prophet Nehemiah claimed that the joy of the Lord is our strength. (Nehemiah 8)
Whether in the deepest pit or the darkest valley, we still find hope, peace, love, and joy
when we recognize that we are being upheld by the steadfast love of God.
Joy makes human life worth living, but for many, joy seems hard to find.
Far too many complain that their lives are sorrowful and depressing.
Strange as it may sound, author Henri Nouwen claims that we can choose joy.
He reminds us that two people can be part of the same event,
but one will choose to live their life quite differently from the other.
One may choose to trust that what happened, painful as it may be,
holds some sort of promise for the future. The other may choose despair and be destroyed by it.
What makes us human is precisely this freedom of choice.
At first sight, joy seems to be connected with being different from others.
When you receive a compliment or win an award, you experience the joy of not being the same as others.
You may be faster, smarter, or more beautiful than others,
and it is that difference that might bring you joy.
But such joy is temporary, such joy is more like happiness.
True joy is discovered when we realize that we are the same as other people.
Discovering what we have in common leads us to the joy of belonging –
not to the rat race – but to the human race.
Remembering that we are all mortal, fragile even, guides us into the joy of being in relationship
with others – not as constant competitors – but as true friends.
Rediscovering that we are interdependent reminds us of the joy we can find –
not in pointing out our differences or in building walls – but in thriving together
as companions on a common journey.
Henri Nouwen wrote that “this is the joy of Jesus, Emmanuel: God-with-us.”
This is what happened when he emptied himself and became one of us.
He shared our fleshly mortality and depended upon the kindness of strangers.
As Eugene Peterson wrote in the Message: the Savior of the world “moved into the neighborhood”
He called us friends as he deftly tore down the walls of hostility between us.
He lifted up to the highest level the commandment to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
It turns out that the gifts of Advent, including joy, are found in compassion.
The word compassion literally means, “to suffer with.”
It may seem quite unlikely that suffering with another person would bring joy.
Yet being with another human being in pain, offering simple presence to someone in despair,
sharing with a friend a time of confusion or uncertainty… such experiences can bring deep joy.
These experiences will not likely bring happiness, or excitement, or even great satisfaction,
but there abides quiet joy in being present for another human being.
Joy is found in living in deep solidarity with our brothers and sisters in this human family.
This solidarity is often found in places of weakness, of brokenness, of woundedness,
but these are the exact places that just may lead us to joy.
(From Robert A. Jonas’ book, published in 1998, on Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s writings)
Did you know that we are all related?
Baby Clark is not only related to eight generations of family who have worshiped in this church,
but he is also related to the rest of us. He belongs to us.
While his particular DNA makes him a unique individual,
and closely tied to Clark’s family and Allison’s family,
he is more related to the rest of us than perhaps we realized.
There may be three million differences between his particular genome and ours,
but we are still 99.9 percent the same, DNA-wise!
Looking at it another way, Diana Butler Bass writes that:
“Every family tree intersects with other family trees. Our (family) roots are intertwined.
Our ancestors are not independent of one another, (but they were related). We are all related!
We belong to each other.
The math is intriguing,” she writes. “Because of the exponential nature of family
(two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, etc),
after ten generations all lineage reaches “the inflection point”, where,
according to science writer Steve Olson, “the number of your ancestors explodes
to be most of the population living in a specific part of the world.”
For example, almost all European-background individuals share at least one common ancestor
in the last five centuries. Based on mathematical models and DNA comparisons,
scientists speculate that most living human beings are all somehow related…”
(Diana Butler Bass, Grounded)
So our lineage is anything but a straight line; its more like a great web,
a great web of belonging with neighbors near and far.
That great web of belonging will be lived in this place as you watch over baby Clark in the nursery,
as you teach him timeless stories when he goes to Sunday School,
as you accompany him in future years on youth retreats.
That great web of belonging is lived each day as you care for one another in grief and suffering,
as you listen to one another in small group gatherings,
as you serve one another with great hesed, steadfast love and faithfulness.
Carl, one of our Threshold Ministry guests, understands the great web of belonging.
Several months ago, Carl met a young woman on the benches in front of our sanctuary
and quickly realized that she did not need to be living on the streets.
She was young, inexperienced, and vulnerable,
so Carl contacted his sister and convinced his to take her in.
Carl followed up by helping the young woman get connected to a new job.
He proudly told me a few days ago that he thinks that this young woman is going to be alright,
that she now has a fresh start in life.
Shelly, one of our volunteers at Threshold, understands the great web of belonging.
Shelly has been increasingly frustrated over the past few years
at how few resources are available for emergency and transitional housing
for those experiencing homelessness.
Shelly began talking about this issue with others and eventually, along with her neighbor Rob,
she convened a small gathering to talk about housing needs.
Over the past year, Shelly has pushed me and others to keep meeting and keep talking
and keep working on the problem.
Due to her efforts, we now have a new collaborative effort called “A Home for Everyone Dekalb”.
The longer term goal will be to provide stable, transitional housing that helps people transition
off the streets, but for now, the shorter term goal has been to open cold weather shelters.
We have dozens, if not hundreds, of persons in Dekalb County who have no place to go on cold nights.
Every winter, a surprising number of people in our city will not survive a cold snap
simply due to exposure to the weather.
Thanks to the efforts of Shelly and Rob and others, several new cold weather shelters will be opening
in the coming weeks, and people living on the streets will have somewhere to go
when the temperatures drop.
This great web of belonging extends throughout the relationships in our sanctuary, extends through the
Threshold Ministry across the street, and even extends far away, across the globe, to the communities
served by our missionaries.
One of the line items of our annual mission budget is call “ECO” for extra commitment opportunities.
Each year, we email missionary partners around the world and ask them how they would use
an extra gift for their work – this year the amount was not large, only $400 each.
But when Jeannie Mehlhop, our Mission Chair, reached out to them, they were thrilled.
Jim and Jodi McGill in central Africa became very excited about using the funds
to purchase a mobile ear irrigation system, and the possibility of training their nurses
to use this helpful tool as a part of their mobile clinics
In Madagascar, Dan and Elizabeth Turk reported that one of the critical needs is educating pastors.
The rural churches are incredibly underserved and often get off track when pastors are untrained.
Their extra commitment dollars will help provide training for one of their educators.
In South Sudan, Shelvis and Nancy Smith-Mather were very glad to receive the funds as well.
Along one of the fault lines of violence in Africa, the Intra-governmental agency of South Sudan
has asked the Church to continue and to increase their peace-teaching efforts.
With your mission dollars, more persons in South Sudan will learn how to be peace-makers.
The great hope of the prophet Micah was that a ruler would be born who would bring peace.
He would be a king of peace, not of warfare and conflict.
Under this new king, the great flock of Israel would be fed and would live secure.
And when that king was born, he taught his followers that the great web of belonging
extends beyond borders of nations and ethnicities.
Jesus taught that God’s hesed, God’s steadfast love, is meant not just for some, but for all people.
Jesus taught that, as the prophets had foreseen, out of Israel could arise a light for all nations.
I love our Christmas Eve services here at Decatur Presbyterian Church.
The music we will enjoy tomorrow evening will be uplifting.
The mood in the sanctuary will be bright as we greet friends new and old.
The candles will be glowing as we sing Silent Night.
I will close the services, as I typically do, with a Christmas Eve benediction.
The benediction ends with these words:
“And may Christmas morning find us all happy to be children of God.”
I do pray that “Christmas morning may find us all happy to be children of God.”
But beyond that, I pray that the coming year will find us all joyful – full of joy to be children of God,
full of joy to share God’s hesed, God’s steadfast love, with all whom we meet,
full of joy to live in solidarity with fellow human beings, particularly those in great need,
full of joy to participate meaningfully in that great web of belonging to God and others.
The One of whom the prophets spoke would be the one of peace, of hope, of love, and of joy.
His kingdom will never end. He shall be great to the ends of the earth,
and in his strength, one day all people shall live secure.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church