Sunday, December 17, 2006

(Advent 3) Stories on the Road to Joy

Advent 3: Love frees from fear
Luke 1:26-38

The third Sunday of Advent is always joy Sunday,
and we light the pink or rose candle to mark it.
It’s one step removed from the darker Advent purple,
that signifies waiting...and wondering “if and when.”
Today we declare a strong, hopeful, confident “Yes!”
God is coming. The Lord is here among us.
And in the presence of the Lord there is joy.
The Gospel truth is that from the darkness, the light of joy emerges.

We just heard one of the Gospel stories, Luke 1:26 and following.
In so many Advent Gospel stories,
something happens that strikes fear into the hearts of people.
Every other paragraph there’s another angel
saying something to the effect of,
“It’s alright! Don’t be afraid.
I know it looks terrifying, and disturbing, and overwhelming,
but don’t be afraid.
God is in it.
God’s love will carry you through.”

Take today’s story of the annunciation to Mary.
Mary just received news that would turn her world upside down.
And she was deeply disturbed!
In verse 29, after the angel’s words,
her state of mind is described by the Greek word dia-tarasso.
The NRSV translates it “perplexed.”
She was perplexed by the angel’s words.
I don’t think that’s strong enough.
My Greek lexicon tells me the word means being in acute distress,
to be deeply troubled, to be very much upset.
Even, to be mentally disturbed.
You might say, Mary had an anxiety attack.
You can understand why she might,
as a young girl, engaged, a virgin, probably still in her teens.
This news of impending motherhood, was truly fearful news.

But there was some other reality at work,
more powerful than this fearful news,
that seemed to take over Mary’s Spirit.
And before the angel left, Mary was able to say with sincerity,
“I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me according to your word.”

I’m sure it wasn’t instant peace and tranquility for Mary.
I can’t imagine she didn’t struggle with it...over and over.
In next week’s Gospel story she runs to cousin Elizabeth,
probably to be consoled,
to have a safe place to deal with her fears.

But in the end, she was freed from fear, and filled with joy,
And she sang her famous song,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

How did her fear and anxiety turn to joy?
How did her troubled spirit come to rejoice in God?
Wouldn’t we all like know how to be freed from our fears,
and sing a song of joy?

At the end of this sermon,
I’ll reflect briefly on how it was, perhaps,
that Mary found her road to joy.

But the bulk of my sermon time this morning
I give to five persons from the Park View congregation.

These are persons with stories to tell about a time in their life,
where they made this journey from fear to joy.
They made this journey in different ways, as you will see,
and at different speeds.
And their fears came from different sources—
illness, violence, conflict, inner doubts, depression.

The reason for listening to their stories is not
to extract a moral lesson to apply to our own lives.
It is simply to allow the story itself to speak.
To enter another’s experience, and hopefully make some connection,
that might spark in us, a vision of hope.

These five persons will come up in the order
that their names are listed on the worship insert.

Speaker One
In January 1986 I was in Haiti as a cross-cultural student with Goshen College. There were curfews imposed throughout the country because of stirring political problems. When we were allowed out, our leaders required that we go nowhere without a “Haitian family member”. Another student and had gone to downtown Port-au-Prince to meet his “Haitian father.” Our little venture coincided with a coup d’etat and Baby Doc fleeing the country. We found ourselves in a war zone. There was looting, vehicles burning, and many people trying to flee the city in anyway they could. One roadblock stopped an ambulance and about 20 people crowded into and on top of the vehicle. Several Haitians came out of the “relative safety” of their homes inviting us in for protection. We declined, thinking that the most important thing was to return to our homes since they would be worried about us, and our leaders had no idea where we were.
As we tried to leave the city ourselves a Ton Ton Macoute (presidential police) was walking towards us, raised his club and began beating someone only feet away from us. We saw people being shot, and bodies in the streets. At one point I even had a gun barrel inches from my chest. As we tried to get back to our homes a truck load of soldiers came towards was us and them. Needless to say we were afraid since we had seen a similar situation where the soldiers opened fire on a crowd of people. Having declined shelter, we tried to remain as inconspicuous as two white guys in Haiti without a hiding place can. We heard one of the soldiers shouting to us “hey blan” (whitey). We ignored him and he yelled it again. As we looked up, there was a soldier with a big white toothy grin and he said “bon jour” as they passed. Whew.
We made it back to our houses, a little shaken.....but definitely rejoicing in renewed life. It was an amazing thing to experience during all that chaos, turmoil and violence, people reaching out to help us, and even a soldier offering us to have a nice day.

Speaker Two
It is a fearful thing, being brought up short with a reminder of ones mortality. Being diagnosed with cancer requiring immediate surgery in late 2002 was not a barrel of laughs in the traditional sense, but through the fervent prayers of you all, God saw fit to turn that fear into a joy that passes all understanding.
Chemo was not fun. I spent most of my time at home on the sofa covered completely with quilts. Into this private womb-world, I allowed a small Jesus head sculpture. I traced the contours of the wooden face, centered on Jesus, and prayed constantly, asking for healing, comfort, and presence. I could “feel” the prayers of the community of saints on my behalf. I listened to religious classical music and meditated on the miracle of life and creation. I was unexpectedly consumed with a joy that vibrated through every piece of my being. I felt I was surrounded by clouds of angels and that if I would reach out I could touch them. I could just hear heavenly music. I became utterly and completely unafraid. It was as if all my atoms vibrated and merged with God’s song of complete acceptance and love.
The last few days of each chemo cycle, I would go in to the school where I was teaching to touch base with my students and make lesson plans for the next few weeks when I would be unable to be with them. The principal, with whom I had worked many years, noticed, questioned me, and affirmed the evidence of and the reality of this work of God in my life. Although I was a believer, before, I am now a new creation. My atoms merged with God and I was created anew.
The deep joy continues to this day. When I stop to listen, I hear still hear spiritual songs of praise in my soul, head, and heart. The Gospel of John tells us that God’s perfect Love casts out all fear. I am a witness to this truth.

Speaker Three
I grew up in rural isolation on a Mennonite family farm in Pennsylvania. At age 11, I was converted—“born again”—cranking the cream separator after a summer evening milking. At 21, I was introduced to Eastern Mennonite School. Without a high school education, I was admitted to the 2-year Bible course at EMS. World War II was looming, and I registered as a CO. Soon after starting school, I was drafted. The dean informed me I could get a deferment by studying theology. With 36 hours to decide, I chose to study rather than enter alternative service.
One summer, I joined a carload of students to study at Goshen College. Attending Guy F. Hershberger’s sociology course led me to comment later, “Theology may reach to heaven, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t reach earth. I will have to study sociology.”
After graduating, I married Ellen and we moved to Philadelphia where I enrolled in graduate school to study sociology. But pressure from the “church fathers” in Harrisonburg brought me back by summer’s end. They told me I got deferment to prepare for church work, not for secular study. In Harrisonburg, two half-time assignments were improvised to assist a local pastor, and teach High School Bible.
By the summer of 1945, my “pot was boiling.” Youthful energy and naivete carried me forward. I grew up separated from “the world.” Suddenly I was in the academic arena, and I was caught in contradiction—suspicious and fearful of religious change, yet sensing that new ways of moving forward were needed. Trends in Mennonite practices seemed more troubling than helpful. My faith was growing energetically. But it seemed the way was blocked for me to resume graduate school.
On Sunday October 21, 1945, mid-way through a worship service in Ellen’s home church, a crystal-clear certainty suddenly gripped me—I am going to Europe on a Mennonite Central Committee assignment. The next morning I promptly reported to the Dean my call to MCC. He looked puzzled. “Didn’t Bro. Mumaw see you on Saturday? MCC asked him to invite you take an assignment in Belgium.” These two life-focusing moments, the first “internal,” the second “external,” became a unique milestone in my life. It brought together diverse and competing strands in my life, and contained seeds that would germinate over the coming decades. Though never repeated so dramatically, this event has been a touchstone ever since. Hardship prepares the way for advance in the Christian journey. Fear and uncertainty can be replaced with joy.

Speaker Four
A former student of ours came to me in the fall of 1997 when my wife and I were in Indonesia. He said our church (the Javanese Mennonite Conference) is split down the middle. Many have tried to help us get back together, but it is not working. In an uncharacteristically insistent way he said to me, “You have to come and help us! For eight years we have not had any conference meetings or assemblies. You have to help us”
I was very uneasy. Even after working with Javanese Mennonites ten years I still felt very incapable of reading their pulse, particularly in conflict situations. I was fearful of getting dragged into a deepening quagmire. But when the MCC administrators asked us to consider working on reconciliation in this church, we finally agreed. Early on we had three points of rejoicing.
The first was when MCC arranged for us to stop in Holland on our way to Indonesia to meet with Dutch Mennonite Conference leaders. Remember, the Dutch Mennonites began the church in Java, and they had offered to send a mediator. But when we met with them, they gave us their blessing and said they wanted to pay half of whatever costs we incurred. We were overjoyed at this attitude of gracious support for our venture.
Secondly, we started by developing on a plan of action to work for reconciliation. I wrote it up and then went to visit the chairperson of the side of the conflict which heretofore had refused to meet with anyone. He was an outsider. I had never met him before. When we sat down he began to spell out his own plan. I was amazed that what he was saying was almost identical with what I had written on my paper. When he finished, I handed him my paper and said, “Do you want to see evidence that God is at work in this?” He wondered what I meant until he read my paper.
The third point of joy came in November 2000 in the “Reconciling General Assembly” which had the single agenda item, to choose a new united conference board. At so many points during my five trips to Indonesia to work for reconciliation, I was anxious, fearful and doubtful. But that day was a day of celebration--weeping and great joy.

Speaker Five
The year was 1991. I had been diagnosed with depression and had been in counseling for three years. I was afraid.
I was afraid I would never feel good again.
I was afraid my illness was damaging my children.
I was afraid our savings would be depleted trying to help me.

When I finally named the deepest source of my pain,
I was afraid I would have to confront my abuser.

I lost my sense of self; I lost the song in my heart,
And I lost my names for God.

My names for God were connected to gender, power, authority and judgment. They no longer worked. One of the last days I had been to church, a women cornered me to quietly tell me that depression was a sign I was not living close enough to God—and I was afraid she was right.

After a particularly difficult counseling session, I came home and retreated to my tiny sewing room. I had been designing dolls—15 inch muslin forms with thin legs and arms and simple faces. I began to work with a stack of neutral prints. From almost colorless fabric I made a dress and pinafore. I gathered eyelet lace into wings and transformed the unadorned doll body into an angel. I painted her shoes gold, glued tiny stars among her white curls, and named her “Angelique.”

Evening had turned into night. Most of my family was sleeping. I scooped up my doll, and woke my husband to show him my treasure. He managed a sleepy compliment. I found my daughter and her best friend still awake and studying. All three of us sat on her bed and looked at every wonderful detail of the new doll with childlike excitement.

I returned to my sewing room, placed Angelique on the work table, pulled out my journal and wrote this:

“I wonder how God felt when He-or-She created me. Was I scooped up and carried all over heaven and shown to everyone? Did the angels find delight in all of my special details? Did God laugh with joy at the sparkle in my eyes? And When God was finished with me did He/She look into my face and say ‘oh yes, this is very good!’?”

From that point on I began to heal in a different, more peaceful way. I knew I could face the fear of the desert, and walk though it. I knew I would someday be better. With my hands I connected to God as my Creator. God had a name, and a song returned to my heart.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise God all creatures here below
Praise God above ye heavenly hosts
Creator, Christ and Comforter

I trust in some small way we encountered, in these stories,
the God whose love casts out fear.
Love, and fear, cannot long co-exist.
For love leads us to embrace and be embraced by another.
And a genuine embrace is something we cannot do,
while we are shielding and protecting ourselves.
Love leads us to open ourselves—bodies, minds, spirits—
to that which is beyond ourselves.
And at the same time drop our defenses.

And that, I believe, is what gave young Mary the power
to accept the will of God for her life.
She knew love.
She embraced the God of love,
and she accepted God’s embrace, as extended by the angel,
“Greetings, you who are highly favored!
The Lord is with you.”

May we, no matter what may strike fear in our hearts today,
open ourselves, and allow ourselves to embrace and be embraced by,
the love of God, and of God’s people.
So that Jesus Christ might shine in us today, and dispel our night.

Morning Star, O cheering sight!
Ere thou cam’st, how dark earth’s night!
Jesus mine, in me shine; in me shine, Jesus mine;
fill my heart with light divine.

—Phil Kniss, December 17, 2006

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