Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Third Sunday of Advent.
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor 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.”
I found it disconcerting that one of the most painful books I read in seminary was also one of the most joyous ones. It was a memoir of sorts, written by Lutheran pastor Heidi Neumark. Rev. Neumark became pastor of Transfiguration Lutheran Church in the South Bronx in the mid-1980s, at a time when that neighborhood was devastated by urban decay and all the struggles of bone-crushing poverty. The Bronx lay in ruins, and her new church—the home of a tiny Latino congregation running on fumes—was hardly in better condition.
Rev. Neumark began with a problem she could fix—the graffiti covered front door. Every morning, she found new graffiti on the doors to the church, and so, every morning, “[she] repainted the door. After a few months,” Neumark said, “I’d come to the bottom of a second can of paint and grown tired of my dispiriting morning chore. [Then,] In walks around the neighborhood, I began asking teenagers and children I met if any of them would like to be part of an art class a young friend had offered to help lead. It wasn’t long before a group of enthusiastic young artists came through our doors. Together we read stories from the bible, which they then illustrated right on the doors.
At one time, the members would have insisted that the proper place for such artwork was on a bulletin board somewhere inside, but no one could deny that this beat the graffiti. Week after week, the youth painted their hearts out on those doors. It was a joyous, messy process. In spite of all the newspapers taped down, some paint always splattered on the sidewalk, but no matter. It soon faded under the parade of feet that daily passed by, feet of people who stopped to look, to check out what was going on, to offer compliments and suggestions, and to inquire about the church. There has never been another stroke of graffiti on those doors. Even when closed, the doors shouted a new word of openness.”
The stories Neumark tells of the community are often horrific. Nightly gunfire, domestic violence and abuse, gang warfare, city services understaffed and under-resourced. Addiction and illness and isolation and all these things compounded on top of each other. If you took out all the faith from her stories, any sense of God’s presence in this neighborhood most would call godforsaken, I don’t know how you could stand to read it.
Except Neumark and her congregation saw God, shared God, found God around every corner. And most often where they found God was in joy.
What amazed me about Neumark’s memories was how often she and her church celebrated. She recounts lavish parties, for mother’s day and baptisms and weddings, parties with an overabundance of food and dancing. Even when every member there carried scars and trauma, they still took time to dance. They took joy in the small victories too. If a member was four days sober, they celebrated it. If a confirmation student showed up wearing gang colors, they celebrated that he was back in their presence, and not lost to them yet. If a teenager seven months pregnant showed up for her solo on Christmas Eve, they celebrated her voice.
I remember a part of me feeling it was almost irresponsible, or naïve, all this celebration. How could they take joy when they didn’t know how things would end up? And sometimes the ending was not worth celebrating. Sometimes people slipped away, back into addiction or violence. But it did not take away the joy that they had shared. This was a congregation that knew that you cannot wait for everything to be just the way you want it. You cannot wait for everything to be perfect and surefire. You cannot wait for results and visible successes. You just take joy where you can get it, because God is easy to feel then.
To take joy in what God is doing is in some real sense to cede control. It is to admit that we don’t see the whole picture—that we don’t know what will happen to people after they leave our sphere, or whether today’s victory will be tomorrow’s sorrow—or whether today’s sorrow might just turn into victory tomorrow. Isaiah, when he imagined ancient ruins rebuilt, could not be sure it would happen. He could not be sure that there would be more righteousness tomorrow than there was today. But he trusted God, that God was a God of justice, a God of hope, a God of new beginnings, and so he allowed himself to rejoice in the possibilities.
Mary, too, chose joy over control. Whatever plans she might have had for her life went out the window the minute she told the angel Gabriel that she would do what God had asked her to. I would not have blamed Mary for a panic attack the minute Gabriel left the room. But instead what happens is that Mary rejoices, because she is partnering with God to do the most amazing thing no one thought was possible. Facing down nine months of gossip, rejection, morning sickness and swollen ankles, Mary rejoices, because she knows what God has done, and can’t wait to see what God will do.
There is a wildness to this kind of joy, the kind championed by Heidi and Isaiah and Mary. It’s not tame. It’s not careful. And maybe most importantly, it’s not only about them. Isaiah and Mary both begin by talking about themselves—Isaiah, that he experiences God’s anointing; Mary, that she will be considered blessed—but they soon move to the joy of the whole community, all the nations, a joy known only when God comes to upend the poor and the rich and even out the proud and the lowly. This is not a personal, I feel good kind of joy. This is the joy of a world where the happiness of some is not procured at the expense of others. It’s the idea that with God, our joy is not in wealth or status but in each other.
Sometimes I think being joyful is the most rebellious thing we can do. In the face of cruelty, in the face of poverty, in the face of depression, in the face of emptiness, we stand and sing our glorias into the night. We declare that we refuse to be ground down, to be captured in chains of despair. We refuse to believe that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, because we know in whose hands the world actually lies.
To rejoice is to trust in God. It is a messy, unsure business. Any time we throw our hearts into rejoicing there is the possibility that they will be broken. It is easier and safer to hold back a little. To only find happiness in the things that are within our control, that we can be sure of. We have done this with Christmas, I think. We have made it something tame and sweet and domestic. We know what makes us happy at Christmas, and we do our best to make it happen. Christmas becomes ours to create, to manage, to control. And I think in all that we sometimes forget to leave room for God to surprise us.
I know I’m a broken record on this, but it bears repeating—we don’t have to create Christmas. It isn’t up to us. Our job isn’t to wrap Jesus up in a shiny bow and stick him under the tree, but to go out and experience God incarnate in the most unusual and unexpected of all places. Two thousand years ago, it was a manger. Where might we find Jesus today?
At the end of her book, Rev. Neumark offered a joyful reflection on almost twenty years of working alongside God and the congregation of Transfiguration Lutheran church. She reported that “today, the corner lot is not a place of overgrown weeds and abandoned cars used to hold and sell guns. Countless homes are restored and inhabited. Real curtains hang in real windows. The field of rotting buildings down the block is now a green park where children play baseball and men play soccer. The outlook on my block is repeated on many blocks around the south Bronx. Numerous groups have invested time, money, and passion in this renewal. The New York Times delivers—most days.”
It was not a fairytale happy ending. There were still massive struggles to overcome. But Rev. Neumark did not cheat herself of joy when it came.
We are headed for the homestretch of the Christmas season. I hope your week is filled with things that bring you happiness—with cookies and carols and family and favorite movies.
But even more, I hope that if God surprises you with an unexpected visitor, or opportunity to serve, or story that touches your heart—I hope you won’t cheat yourself of joy. It may not be on the schedule, but take time to celebrate what God is doing in the world. There is always more to be done; God’s story is not over. But there is also so much God has already done, and for that we can be endlessly thankful.
For the God who has scattered the proud,
fed the hungry,
lifted up the lowly,
sent the rich away empty,
blessed the peoples,
and will again
we give thanks,
and we rejoice.
 Neumark, Heidi. Breathing Space, 11.
 ibid 269-270.