I began serving as the bridge interim pastor at Westbrook Congregational Church UCC in Westbrook, Connecticut this morning. I will be there until the Sunday after Easter while they complete their search for a settled pastor. My post to begin my Advent Journal for this year is the manuscript of my sermon. It is specific to their congregation in several spots, but sometime the particular is the best way to get to the larger truth, so I decided to share it here as well.
The text was 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13.
One of the effects of the pandemic seems to be that Christmas stuff has shown up earlier and earlier. Last year, because most of us didn’t feel safe to go in stores, our shopping moved online. Instead of Black Friday deals where you had to be in the store on a particular day, the deals stretched out over weeks. Separate of shopping, a lot of folks put up decorations early because, like the song says, we needed a little Christmas right that very minute. We wanted some relief, some reason to celebrate.
This year, even though we feel a little freer to move about, those trends have continued. If you are Hallmark Christmas movie watchers like we are at our house, you know they started showing them before Halloween. About the same time, a lot of places started decorating and playing Christmas music. Thanksgiving sort of got lost in the shuffle. These are difficult days, so why not stretch Christmas out as long as we can? It feels like the opposite of the line I remember from the Chronicles of Narnia where it was “always winter and never Christmas.” We appear to wish for it to be Christmas and never winter. We just want to feel better right now.
In all of the churches I have been a part of, one consistent question comes every Advent: are we going to sing Christmas carols before Christmas?
The thoughts and feelings behind the question are more nuanced that simply saying we want it to be Christmas already. Music is at the heart of Christmas and, well, I would guess there aren’t many of us who have favorite Advent songs. Still, the question calls us into the creative tension that comes with learning how to wait. Waiting is good practice.
The oldest roots of the word wait mean “to watch with hostile intent, to be on guard, to defend.” Over time, the word came to mean “to be awake, to sit in expectation.” The word has grown from fear to anticipation. One of the songs of my youth that has stayed in my mental jukebox is Carly Simon’s song titled “Anticipation.” The opening lines say,
we can never know about the days to come
but we think about them anyway . . .
That’s pretty good theology. Part of what we do most any day is wonder what’s coming next. As the season of Advent became part of the church calendar over centuries, it has been seen as a season of preparation. The word advent means “to arrive at, come to, to approach.” It differs from the waiting we do in life because we do know what–or who–is coming. We are preparing for the birth of Jesus.
This year, our traditional season of waiting parallels what you are going through as a congregation: you are in an advent season as you prepare for an arrival: the arrival of your new settled pastor. The difference is you don’t know who will come, and you must wait and prepare for them anyway. At the same time, somewhere someone is preparing for you, even though they don’t know that yet. As you prepare to embrace the Christ child, pray daily for the one who will come to embrace you. Make room in your heart for hope.
Our passage for today is from Paul’s letter to the church at Thessalonica, a small congregation in a Greek port city in the north of the country that Paul had helped to start, but then he had to leave. They, too, didn’t know what was coming next.
Just as it is on most any Sunday, our scripture reading only tells part of the story. It is a snapshot, not a movie. The verses we read this morning are filled with words like hope, joy, love, and gratitude. It all sounds warm and inviting. We can hear Paul’s affection for the Thessalonian church, and there is more to the story. Paul had been run out of town for starting the church there. The Roman government didn’t want it; many of the Greeks were against the new religion. Paul fled the city and the small congregation kept meeting despite the hardship. Even though things were tough, they kept going–they kept their promises to God and to one another. Paul wasn’t talking about joy and hope and love because everything was warm and fuzzy. He was grateful for their commitment to God and to one another in the middle of extremely difficult circumstances.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have had a chance to meet with some of you as I have prepared to become your bridge pastor. One of the recurring themes I have heard in what you have said to me and to one another is how you are working to take care of one another. The pandemic has been hard on all congregations. Not everyone feels comfortable coming back in person. Even when we are here, we need to be masked and we can’t hang around and talk over coffee like we used to. Zoom and texts and e-mail messages are great, but they are not the same as being in person. Layer the losses that come with life on top of all of that, and it feels overwhelming. It feels like the relief we are waiting for is never going to come.
In the middle of all of that, we lit the candle of hope this morning.
Hope is more than thinking things are going to get better. Hope runs deeper than wishing for a brighter tomorrow. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians from prison and talked about hope because of the love they shared for one another. Even as we wait for Christmas, we are mindful that the birth of Jesus didn’t change much of anything. Yes, we know about shepherds and magi, but Jesus was born and life went on being difficult. What changed was God joined us in our humanity. Jesus showed us how to love one another, which is another name for hope.
Meister Eckhardt was a mystic in the twelfth century. He said something I come back to every Advent:
What good is it to me that Mary gave birth to the son of God fourteen hundred years ago, and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture? We are all meant to be mothers of God. God is always needing to be born.
It isn’t always Christmas. Life is more than one season, and the season you are going through may not match the one on the calendar. Whatever season is in your heart or mine, we are in this together. Just as Paul told the Thessalonians, the best work we can do is to love one another in Jesus’ name, preparing our hearts for God to be born anew in our time, in our place, in these days. Amen.
We’ll all look forward to your writing as you share this journey with Westbrook UCC. It will surely lead to some great Christmas “gifts”.
Thank you, Milton