Advent 2C 2018
Today is the Second Sunday of Advent and, as I said last week, one of these (Advent Wreath) candles, though I’m not sure which one, represents Joy. I was joking then about the Advent Wreath having different traditions and I’ll reiterate today that it doesn’t matter how or when we celebrate the Advent values of Hope, Joy, Peace, Love, Purity and waiting, as long as we remember them.
But today I want to talk about Joy specifically and I want to talk about the difference between Joy in the Lord and the joy of sentimentalism.
To set the stage I’ll remind you of the Scrooge story.
The Ghost of Christmas past was the second ghost and almost as scary as the Ghost of Christmas future when Scrooge saw his own death. But the Ghost of Christmas past showed him Mr. Fezziwig and his sister and a love interest. People from his past who loved him. These memories are bitter sweet for Scrooge. And memories can be that way. That is some of the stuff of sentimentalism.
Fezziwig is a character developed by Dickens to provide contrast with Scrooge's attitudes towards business ethics. Scrooge, who apprenticed under Fezziwig, has become the very antithesis of the person he worked for as a young man. Fezziwig would close shop early on Christmas Eve and stay closed on Christmas Day and he would have a party with his employees and dance and laugh. Scrooge though this nonsense and chose to never share these values when he set up his own business.
Scrooge also gets to remember his dead sister when they were young and the ghost also shows him his neglected fiancé Belle. so there is melancholy in these scenes of the sentimental memories and awareness of loss. It’s difficult in this part of the Scrooge story to remember that you are deep into a Christmas story. What could this sad scene have possibly to do with the Joy of the Incarnation?
The other prominent emotion in the Scrooge story is fear. Scrooge is frightened by these ghosts who show him past and future losses, including the loss of his life. This is the motivation for him to change and start living in the present.
But fear is as common as sentimentalism in our culture still. Daily we face fear mongering from politicians and salespeople and doomsayers. Fear is used more and more as a manipulation. What does that have to do with the Joy of the Incarnation? Nothing.
But there is fear in the Bible.
There is a difference between fear mongering for political gain and the fear of the Lord. The people around Zachariah and Elizabeth and Mary and Joseph felt this sort of awe type of fear. The shepherds were afraid too. But the angels all say, “Fear not.” So, how do we respond to the ways of the world which insist on fearing things like economic and health care doomsday scenarios?
The difference in both cases is faith.
Last Spring, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preached in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor for the liturgy of Holy Matrimony of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. If you watched all of that then you will remember that sentimentality came crashing in. And Bishop Curry had something to say about it.
I have done a lot of thinking about sentimentalism and the Church over the past few years and I feel strongly that it is a major land mine for us. We long for something meaningful in our lives so we go to church and then we try to turn everything about the Church into a social club. Don’t get me wrong. Fellowship is very important and relationships are of utmost importance but the church (at large) has lost her focus on prayer and sacrament through recent decades.
Or . . .
Folks leave the Church and hate the Church because the Church doesn’t give us enough of that warm-fuzzie-feel-good stuff we get from movies, and pop songs, and apple pie and popcorn.
So, I think the Church of the 21st Century needs to step up to the mic and explain what the “love of Jesus Christ” is all about and we need to differentiate that from gooey-feel-good kinds of love.
Oh, wait. Michael Curry did that last Spring.
And all the world was a buzz that week about his sermon and all that it meant to all who heard it. Some were fixated on their lack of understanding of his exposition on images of “fire” and “raging flame” which came from the text on which he was preaching from the Song of Solomon (2:10-13; 8:6-7 ) which is one of the scripture choices for weddings in the Book of Common Prayer.
6Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. 7Many waters cannot quench love.
I’m not sure why he lost his audience there. That’s lovely Biblical poetry. I’m also not sure why he captured their hearts when talking about the “power of redemptive love,” though clearly that is an easier topic to digest.
What no one was talking about was what he said about sentimentality, and I was struck by the many times he repeated statements like, “There's power in love. Don't underestimate it. Don't even over-sentimentalize it,” which he said in the sermon and later in interviews. He said in one, “this is not just a sentimental thing, this is actually a way of life.” This was in the context of his explanation that his sermon was simply about love, not the sappy love of romance movies but the love of Jesus Christ.
The parish that formed me in my youth was a church of about five hundred active United Methodists who were struggling with the social issues of the nineteen-sixties and nineteen-seventies. We struggled with issues such as civil rights, feminism, disability, sexuality and prayer in schools. We did this in small group discussions and Sunday School classes. We sometimes heard our preachers speak to these issues in the pulpit, though not very often.
As a young person, I witnessed a certain silliness come over the adults on high feast days. There was an added excitement with the increase in pageantry like at Easter and especially on Christmas Eve. I can remember getting all choked up over a favorite song, or tradition or shared laughter. One particular memory is of the Christmas plays - or even the Easter passion plays - when something would go wrong like the fake beard of a wise man falling off or the real baby in the manger crying loudly or that one time when for some reason fat Jay Holloway danced around in a grass skirt and coconut bra. I kid you not. The pictures surface recently and went viral on FaceBook!
These are all good things. We were a community sharing life together and the laughter part is really important. And what does that have to do with the Joy of the Incarnation? Well, I can’t say nothing. But something was missing.
The true meaning of the Love of Jesus Christ did not seem to meet with the excitement and silliness. Nor did the solemn mood of the liturgy connect with mission - the good works we do when the Sunday morning service is over and we go out into the world. I did not understand this at the time. I have come to understand it recently as a misplaced affection for the community itself. An affection that is and was good in and of itself but was not and is not a motivation for faith in action.
In our diocese we have focused on the work of Dwight Zscheile who argues that The Episcopal Church must move past enlightenment and establishment thinking into missional thinking. In order to do this, we must practice changing our language as the means to changing our ideologies.
Rather than the church being focused on private spiritual needs, (he says) it can be a community of conversation and practice for the common good. This means gathering around the important questions and challenges of the day and interpreting them together in light of the biblical story, the Christian theological tradition, and the best thinking from various fields of human inquiry.
In this way, Zscheile holds that we can move past sentimentality, as well as the pursuit of individual enlightenment or feel-good sustenance, by pursuing shared ministry through open conversation. He does not believe we need to do this outside traditional celebrations of the Holy Eucharist. He contends that this is the way to gaining an awareness of what we might leave behind when we move toward this sort of open and shared way of being the church. We must name what we need to leave behind and then leave it.
Is that possible? If so, what on earth does it have to do with the Joy of the Incarnation? Everything.
I think sentimentality as the thing we need to leave behind. If the church can return to inclusive common prayer then we might come to a place of true mission. As Rowan Williams succinctly puts it: “Sometimes, after receiving Holy Communion, as I look around a congregation, large or small, I have a sensation I can only sum up as this is it - this is the moment when people see one another and the world properly: when they are filled with the Holy Spirit and when they are equipped to go and do God’s work.” This is not a moment construed by our efforts to remain segregated to our own sentimental ways of worship and mission, it is a moment of openness to the Holy Spirit and willingness to listen anew to our calling as the assembly.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of spending a few minutes of my day over at the Elf Shelf. I chatted with Ann Walker and Penny Sweet who were working the event. They gave me a tour and told me the history of this community effort to make sure every kid in Radford gets something from Santa. They left me alone to wonder around and check out all the gifts that were lined up on tables. And there was this moment when I looked back across the room and watched them helping a young mother choose some things for an infant daughter. And I realized what was happening. We were in a shared space of people from all walks of life and we were reaching out to each other and breaking down the cultural rules that keep us segregated and afraid of each other.
And at that moment I got a lump in my throat. But it wasn’t a sentimental moment. I didn’t feel all choked up because we were in that “here we are again” place. I had never been to Eld Shelf and still don’t know most of the good folks who gather there. And it wasn’t because we had somehow recreated Christmas 1965 through music and costume and talk of how great things were then, in those simpler times. No, this moment of feeling moved was because of the realization that Christ is alive and working in and through us right now, right here, in Radford, at Grace Church, in this larger community of which we are a part. It is the realization that we already share the love of Christ with all these other folks who work and care and yes laugh and eat and celebrate together. We celebrate life. We celebrate the love we have for each other. All this is good. But celebrating Christmas takes spending some time in Advent waiting and pondering all these things.
That, my friends is how we will learn of the true Love of Jesus Christ. That is how we will be motivated to turn to Him, to repent and follow and share that love.
 Dwight J. Zscheile, People of The Way, Renewing Episcopal Identity, (New York: Morehouse, 2012), 67.
 Rowan Williams. Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 58.