Friday, November 30, 2012

Preaching During the "Holiday Season," Advent 1C

What follows is a draft of the sermon I plan on preaching this Sunday at Saint Peter's Jazz Vespers Service.  It's on the week's lectionary text from the Hebrew Bible, Jeremiah 33: 14 - 16.  Would love to hear some input from folks... I'm especially concerned that the personal narrative is too long.

Happy New Year! That’s right folks, happy New Year! Some of you may think I either had a bit too much wine at brunch earlier today or perhaps that I simply looked at my calendar wrong, but at least from the perspective of the Western churches, that’s actually what today is… the beginning of a new liturgical year. Outside of switching to a different set of readings that focus more on the Gospel of Saint Luke instead of the Gospel of Saint Mark, as Saint Peter’s and many other churches were doing over the last year, today also marks the beginning of a new church season… the season of Advent. Now, outside of knowing about the wreath with four candles and maybe being familiar with one of those Advent calendars that have a little door for children to open up each day before Christmas, it’s sometimes hard to remember what this season is all about… I mean just a quick look outside on Lexington Avenue makes it seem like Christmas time is already here. All of the stores are decked out in brilliant light displays, wreaths, garlands… the whole works. I was walking by one store a few days back, on 5th Avenue I think, which was completely wrapped up in a giant lighted red bow. It being my first year in New York, I attended the Rockefeller Center tree lighting event this past week and wow, let me say that even from a block or two back, Mariah Carey’s performance was nothing short of stunning.

Ya know, a lot of folks today and throughout Advent will preach against the ills of materialism, the gluttony of American capitalism that rears its ugly head each December… that sort of thing, and while they’re right of course, I don’t think they’re really getting to the heart of the matter. While all the lights, music and celebration may urge us to buy more stuff, they also convey an even deeper and often more difficult message to hear… you have to be happy! This is the time to be happy! And whether it’s by buying Little Johnny an unnecessary iPhone, by getting great seats at the Rockettes or by working all month to create the perfect Norman Rockwell scene on Christmas morn for your family, you got to be happy! And if you’re not happy, then you better figure out how to make yourself and those around you feel that way. Folks, it’s exactly because of that constant pressure to be happy during the holiday season that the central message of Advent is so important. But what, exactly, is that central message?

I’ll try to explain through a story of one of my own Advent experiences, one that coincidently culminates on a regular New Years. Back in Advent of 2008, I certainly wasn’t happy. A recent college graduate in the midst of the worst months of the Great Recession, I was about to enter into a job I knew I’d hate. I was still mourning the loss of a significant relationship and the loss of that youthful sense of invincibility following a close brush with thyroid cancer I had the summer before. Worst of all though, my mother had cancer… late stage III lung cancer. After visiting my family for a very somber Thanksgiving that year, it seemed obvious that Mom wasn’t getting better, but I tried to convince myself otherwise while busying myself with all the typical holiday activties. Amidst the festive decorations and songs of the season, many of the people around me, while well intentioned, also kept up the pressure on me to be happy. Some folks suggested that I celebrate her life in the little time we had left together; others tried taking me out or inviting me to parties. Of course, in the misery of my situation, there wasn’t chance I’d feel “the joy of the season,” which in turn made me feel guilty for not being happy, which of course only made matters worse.

Four weeks of Advent came and went that year… four weeks of the anxiety, fear and terror of seeing my mother bravely battle metastasized, late stage cancer… four weeks of feeling guilty that no matter what I or others might do, there was no use in trying to cheer me up in a season that society was telling me was supposed to be full of joy. Eventually Christmas Day came and we all gathered at grandma’s house for the normal meal and exchanged a few gifts, but it was all just sort of going through the motions. Mom was there but seemed distant the whole time, and when I kissed her goodbye and drove back to my apartment in New Hampshire that night, it was the last time I saw her alive. She died just a few evenings later, on December 30th. Upon hearing the news, I rushed back to Connecticut once again, and found myself a night later, on New Year’s Eve, alone in my family’s house after spending a whole day making funeral arrangements. Instead of celebrating the New Year with friends as I love to do, I felt alone, completely alone, and couldn’t have been deeper in a dark, dire pit of despair. At some point though that night I got a phone call from a close friend, who ended up telling me exactly what I needed to hear… that I didn’t have to do anything, that it was okay to feel whatever it was that I was feeling and that he was coming down early the next morning to help in any way he could. The conversation with my friend that night didn’t make everything better, it didn’t cheer me up really, but it did do something that was much more important… it gave me hope. And hope, my sisters and brothers, is what the season of Advent is all about. Not the hope necessarily that everything wrong with the world will soon get better, but the hope that no matter what, that through Christ you are not alone, that through Christ you are forgiven and that through Christ you are loved.

Hope, a season of hope friends… that’s what Advent is all about, and it’s what today’s text from Jeremiah is all about too. Two Sundays back I spoke about the destruction of the 2nd Jewish Temple in the Gospel of Mark. Today’s text relates to round one of that story, to what was perhaps the even more horrific destruction of the 1st Temple built by King Solomon. The prophet Jeremiah lived in final days of the Davidic Dynasty, preaching against the popular belief that Jerusalem would never be destroyed by a foreign power. Jeremiah was in fact so critical of Judah that he was greatly persecuted by the priestly elite of his time, who cast him into a well thinking he would starve to death. Despite these persecutions however, once the destruction that Jeremiah predicts comes to pass, once King Nebuchadnezzar and his troops destroys Jerusalem, carting off much of its population to Babylon, Jeremiah makes an even more startling prediction. Speaking to an exiled Jewish community, to what is truly a crucified people, Jeremiah makes the bold assertion that God’s work is not yet done, that the days are surely coming when God will fulfill Her promise to the people of Judah and Israel, that the people will be saved and live in safety… in short, Jeremiah proclaims a message of hope.

Similarly my sisters and brothers, in this time, in this city, amidst all the hustle and bustle of the season, amidst all the lights and songs and holiday specials on TV, whether you’ve had an absolutely amazing year and are on top of the world or whether you’re in the deepest depths of lonely despair as I was back in 2008, know that it’s okay to feel whatever you need to feel. And as the days continue to get shorter, as darkness continues to fall, know that through Christ, a light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot, and will not, ever, ever overcome it. That through Christ, God is still at work in our lives during this Advent season and that no matter what happens, through Christ we are not alone, we are forgiven and we are loved. In short, through Christ, we have hope.

Dustin is currently a vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in Manhattan, having recently completed his second year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice building in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

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