I have been preaching sermons for a long time. I preached my first sermon as a senior in high school, on Youth Sunday at the First Presbyterian Church in Ossining, New York. I preached my next sermon four years later when I was a college senior and it was the custom of the minister at the First Presbyterian Church in Marietta, Ohio to invite a graduating Westminster Fellowship student to deliver the sermon on Baccalaureate Sunday.
I studied homiletics at Virginia Seminary and at Drew Theological School. I have preached in West Africa, where a translator stood next to me because although English is the official language of Ghana, most of the ordinary folks best understood a dialect I didn’t speak; I have preached at St. Paul’s within the walls in Rome, Italy.
I have preached at the funeral of a five year-old boy who died of Lyme disease and I preached on the Sunday after the World Trade attacks, 9-11.
Come next June I will have been preaching week in, week out for thirty years – thirty years — and never has a sermon presented as great a challenge as today’s sermon has presented.
So, will you pray with me?
God grant us the courage and the patience and the wisdom, to seek always after the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will. Amen.
Now I suspect I know what you’re thinking: why would we sing a Christmas carol in the middle of November? The truth is, however, that “Joy to the World” wasn’t originally composed for Christmas but was hymn writer Isaac Watts’ attempt to translate psalm 98, the psalm appointed for today, for the next to the last Sunday of the year. We are coming to the end of the church year. Advent arrives in two weeks and the first part of Advent is concerned with Christ’s second coming, not the coming of the baby Jesus on Christmas morning.
All of this isn’t to say that “Joy to the World” isn’t a wonderful Advent/Christmas carol, but just that it fits today’s readings and can help us reframe what we heard in today’s apocalyptic biblical lessons. And, after the week we have been through, after the exhaustion and anger and fear and worry some of us have experienced – correction, are experiencing — perhaps we can use a reminder that we come together today to give thanks for God’s love for the world – the whole world – Republicans, Democrats, rich, poor, women, men, young, old, persons of all races and ethnicities. We are united today not by gender or race or economic status or political affiliation but rather by faith—faith that God created all things and al people, sustains all things and all people, and will redeem all things and all people, all because of God’s overwhelming love for all things and all people.
What makes these passages challenging, of course, is the apocalyptic themes and imagery. And while, popular religious culture tries to teach us to think of apocalyptic passages as predictions – if not outright road maps of the end times – that’s not the way such passages functioned for those who first heard the Gospel of Luke and neither are they to be thought of as speaking of current times – tempting as that might be for some of us. No, apocalyptic passages were offered to help those first Jewish followers of Jesus who were suffering the destruction of their temple put their struggles in the larger context of the universal struggle between God and the forces of evil. In this way, such passages provided comfort that no matter how difficult things became, God would not abandon them and that God would ultimately prevail. We do well to hear Luke’s gospel with the same ears this morning. Believers in Luke’s time were encouraged to persevere in the meantime and to witness to their faith. That is excellent advice today as well.
I want to quote our friend Robin Lawrie who wrote something very wise and helpful on Wednesday. Robin wrote, “It is never okay to be silent in the face of evil – injustice, cruelty, misogyny, or hatred. Even, and especially, if it becomes the law of the land. Truth and honor and justice have their home in us. We are now called to expand that home and to find the courage and opportunity to make a place there for others. Where does hatred stop? It stops here. Right now, with me.” Right, Robin.
I want to promise you that the Episcopal Church in general and St. Stephen’s Church in particular will redouble its efforts to – as Pastor Willie preached last Sunday – live our baptismal promises. We will persevere in resisting evil. We will proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. We will seek and serve Christ in all persons. We will strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.
We will redouble our efforts to stand with, to protect, and to defend all those who are frightened, those who are insulted, those who are other — those who are female or gay or Muslim or Jewish or Syrian or African-American or Hispanic or Mexican.
So, have you registered for the Atlantic Institute’s Thanksgiving dinner? If not, the way to do that is printed in today’s bulletin. Come here to welcome our Muslim friends. Come here to share a meal together next Sunday evening.
Have you volunteered for St. Stephen’s Starfish Ministry, our refugee resettlement partnership with Episcopal Migration Ministries?
Have you thought of joining our mission team and spending a week next June helping the poor in the Dominican Republic?
St. Stephen’s has always, is now, and will continue to be on the front line of social justice. That isn’t changing. It is a leading initiative of “Our Faith, Our Future – 2021,” our new strategic plan.
I like what commentator Nurya Love Parish wrote. She said, “I am horrified … but no matter how I feel I am going to worship God and love my neighbor. I will tell my children that history has its wrinkles but God triumphs in the end. I will send them into the world to be disciples of Jesus Christ today just as they were yesterday and I pray they will be tomorrow.” Joy to the world! The Lord is come. Amen.