Sunday, December 13, 2020
Advent I Homily
To say that my mom has had a tough last decade would not be an overstatement. As many of you know my dad died of Alzheimer’s disease earlier this year. My mom was his main care taker for about 14 years. Part of that time she also cared for her mom before she died. And during all that time she woke up every morning and read this psalm— Psalm 126 from this translation of Psalms Now. She began each day with this reading and got to where she could recite it by memory. Instead of focusing on all that was wrong, she would focus on what was right. In the midst of a difficult time her lifeline was considering joy.
She got good advice from a friend early on when dementia first crept into their lives. The friend said, “He’s going to do funny things. And you should feel free to laugh.” And so years later when my dad was getting antsy in the house… he was waiting on my mom to do something. She was trying to get some work done and so she told him to just walk around the house for a minute; she’s almost done. Well, a minute later she saw something pass by the window outside her office. Then again she looked up another moment later and my dad passed by the window outside. Evidently, he was literally walking around outside the house. Doing laps around the house. Instead of focusing on the mental state he was in that led to this scene, she gave her nerves and muscles the healthy exercise of laughter.
What do you do when things don’t go according to plan and you’re not really sure what happens next?
My uncle Bob used to work for the book publisher Houghton Mifflin. He told me a story this week about an awards ceremony they had several years ago. They had one of the award-winning authors do a reading from his award-winning children’s book. The book was about a coyote who learns a lesson about sharing. But, as it turns out the author didn’t know how to say the word “Coyote”; he kept saying “coy-yat”. Finally, when half the audience was laughing he looked up from the pages of the book and said, “Did I say something funny?” Some brave soul answered, “You keep saying Coyote wrong.” And he says, “Oh. I always thought it was coy-yat.” And then as he readjusted his chair on the platform he accidentally moved it back a few inches and fell off the back of the platform. The event was a full blown disaster. Uncle Bob said it became known around his office as the “Coy-yat Day.”
Some disasters deserve laughter along with tears. Christmas reminds us of the joy that can lead us through difficult times, even when we aren’t sure about the direction we’ve chosen and how things are going to turn out. And that kind of joy requires a certain amount of faith in something beyond our self.
The journalist Arthur Brooks asked Dominique Dawes, a former Olympic gold-medal gymnast, how normal life felt after competing and winning at the highest levels. She told me that she is happy, but that the adjustment wasn’t easy—and still isn’t, even though she won her last Olympic medal in 2000. “My Olympic self would ruin my marriage and leave my kids feeling inadequate,” she told me, because it is so demanding and hard-driving. “Living life as if every day is an Olympics only makes those around me miserable.”
Life is messy and will certainly fall outside the lines of our expectations. The Christmas story is a perfect example of the way we must search for joy even in the midst of the darkness of history. Mary and Joseph didn’t want to go to Bethlehem— they went because they had to. Because Rome wanted to know who to tax how much. And don’t you think Mary’s pregnant belly got more than a few stares around the village? I mean, we’ve heard the story so often that maybe we forget the indignities of the moment— birth in a barn. A crib where cows and sheep munch and mix in their saliva. And yet, with so much uncertainty the angels sing. Shepherds get excited and grown men run to tell good news.
Every year on this Sunday we light the candle of joy. And it always seems too soon. I remember the year we lit the candle of joy a few days after the shooting in Sandy Hook. Or what about years were we light the candle of joy after a divorce or breakup? A death? Can we really find joy this year? Will the candle even light?
And every year as it lights up we are reminded about the nature of joy. That it isn’t dependent upon circumstances. That joy is more than happiness. Joy is connected to a deep trust that God is at work in all this mess. Joy can laugh and sit with pain and grief and endure because it is a fruit of the Spirit. And as fruit of that Spirit it must be cared for and tended. Joy relies on memory and thrives when practiced. So if you need a word of joy, Psalm 126 for you. Begin this day and every day by rejoicing. Joy comes from considering that the Lord has done wonderful things for us; let us be glad!