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Advent 3: Searching for Joy

Speaker: The Rev. Dr. Ginger Brasher-Cunningham

December 13, 2020

Sermon Sunday, December 13, 2020  Third Sunday of Advent
Rev. Dr. Ginger Brasher-Cunningham

In Search of Joy

Recently I have been searching for joy. In that process, a song from Vacation Bible School came to mind. I loved VBS. Amidst the hanging ferns in the courtyard, the butter cookies, and the interesting stories about Jesus, the echoes of

I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart
Where?
Down in my heart . . .

visit me from the past. The imprint from those days calls me to pause and ponder what is down in my heart. What sparks that inner flash of breakthrough even though the outer world feels overwhelming?

Those joyful moments spent learning about the love of God, the life of Jesus, the presence of the Spirit, feeling the care of engaging teachers-mentors in the faith, hearing the delightful laughter of kind friends, and the simple song serve as a reminder to both search for, and act on, the power in joy. We have joy--where? Down in our hearts.

Today’s scripture--the one verse about Epiphany when the wise ones experienced the joy of finding the baby Jesus under the star may seem out of order. However, travel with me a bit, if you will.  Our trip will be somewhat of a winding road filled with events, thoughts, characters, choices, and vignettes of life spanning years.

First, let’s move to the Christmas story, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Our celebration is still a couple of weeks away, as is an interesting cosmic event.  Have you heard that during this year’s winter solstice, Jupiter and Saturn will line up to create what is known as the “Christmas Star” or “Star of Bethlehem.”  These two largest planets will be separated by 0.1 degrees. About every twenty years something similar occurs, however an astronomer from Rice University stated that these two planets haven’t appeared this (relatively) close together-- from Earth’s vantage point--since the Middle Ages. In 2020 what better than to actually see a star reminiscent of the story of joy and hope, love, and peace that we hold dear. Maybe December 21st can empower us to reset our internal clocks to ignite a new life of joy birthed out of isolation and collective struggle. May it be so!

In life there are moments, and there are people and stories, that serve as guiding stars. They help us find and do the work of joy. Theologian Dr. Willie Jennings is one of those people who brings out joy as he offers insight to the complexities of oppression, systemic evil, as well as cluelessness. In summarizing some of his observations we hear that joy work is resistance against despair and death. He reflects on the lessons he was taught by those he describes as “sharecropper ancestors who moved from the Jim Crow South to racist north.” He says that whenever one lives in limited places with limited resources there will be despair.  He continues that joy under pressure is oppositional joy—the art of making pain productive without glorifying it! It’s not just making meaning out of tragedy, but finding the joy as well.

Think of those who were enslaved. They sang messages about travel and escape and they sang for joy. Or perhaps you recall the movie Life is Beautiful? The film was inspired by the story of one who survived the Holocaust. In the story, the couple Dora and Guido are separated. Their son remains on the camp side designed for men. The basic premise is that Guido tells their son the camp is a game. He makes up game rules to keep the boy alive and he finds unique ways to tell Dora he loves her. Certainly, people had to practice great creativity to keep themselves and joy alive in slave quarters, in concentration camps, and in times of frightening moments of life. 

We find a different vignette of struggle when we think about the story Mary and Joseph. Both were probably frightened, bewildered, ashamed, conflicted, as well as in awe. Angel-type-beings appeared to scare them (sure!), but then to comfort them, assure them, and tell them about the joy their journey would bring to the world through the birth of Jesus, the Christ who would become the Messiah of radical love. Through them Jesus joy enters the world. 

Dr. Jennings says that Jesus joy is in contradiction, not resolution. The depth of Jesus joy exists in strained conditions, and joy work is always body work. We negotiate reality: dancing above the line of survival, we posture, move, and do something different in the midst of pain or suffering. To deal with life, some will dance it out. Some will march. Some will exercise, some will sing (just not together right now). Some of you might have heard me say that when my dad was in hospice I wore sparkly earrings every day. It may sound somewhat silly, but it connected me with the spark of his spirit in the midst of his death. 

There are those around us who help guide to our star of realization, our epiphany, our choice to seek Jesus joy. We need those people, the children, loved ones, friends, family, and the actions, the movements that empower us break through the muck and find joy. Our stories and lessons thereof are diverse and plentiful.

On a different note, another image took me by surprise this week. One of New England’s beloved go-to-winter-attire-stores recently featured a picture of a cuddly pup wearing a red bandana leaning out a truck that was carrying Christmas tree. The slogan beneath read, “Give Comfort. Share Joy.” While we aren’t purchasing their clothes today, the limited number of folks who gather in our open-air sanctuary on Sunday are probably wearing some of their cold-weather garb. Like the ad, we are seeking to give comfort and share joy. Ours is not through material gratification, but through traveling the challenging terrain of life that brings an internal joy that is more experienced than explained. 

In the gospel of Luke, that struggling girl named Mary who was to face the painful and fearful aspect of childbirth said, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, who is mindful of my humble state. From now on all generations will call me blessed.” 

Bless Mary. Bless the enslaved. Bless the holocaust victims. Bless those who guide us and teach us about joy in tension and contradiction. Bless all of us, like the travelers from long ago who followed the star of wonder to seek and practice the art of joy. May we, too, look up on this winding and twisting road of life discover the hope, peace, joy, and love of Christ anew—down in our hearts.

Amen

The Rev. Dr. Ginger Brasher-Cunningham

Lead Minister

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