Preached on December 17, 2017
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are better heard.
Every angel we encounter in scripture this advent season seems to use “do not be afraid” as an opening line.
For those of us who have been losing sleep, carb-loading, drinking too much--or in my case--reading the internet from the beginning to end in order to try and manage my anxiety about the world, this declaration might not necessarily be helpful. Do not be afraid? Really? Never in the history of calming down has someone calmed down because they were told to calm down, Angel of the Lord.
Do any of you google your symptoms when you get sick, or when some new weird thing pops up in the wrong place on your body? The amount of times in a year I have diagnosed myself with various forms of rare disease has ruined so many days of my life since the invention of Web MD. I wish I could get those days back.
“PUT DOWN WEB MD AND GO TO THE DOCTOR!” My husband always yells at me, which is easy for him to say since he’s young and has his whole life ahead of him.
“I don’t need to. I already know that I have congenital adrenal hyperplasia. It says it right here.” I say, and then begrudgingly make an appointment and find out I have swollen glands from a common cold virus.
“Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow,” Leo Buscalglia says. “It only saps today of its joy.”
We need this message this year now more than ever. We have been weighed down in collective worry as a country. You can feel it; I can feel it. Everyone is afraid. It seems like all of the people we encounter are more on edge than normal; anxious and depressed.
That’s because this year was hard. You’re not crazy, it was just hard. I don’t care what political persuasion you are or if you think all news is fake news. I don’t care who you voted for in the last election… 2017 was a hot mess, and I can’t wait to throw it in the dumpster fire of history.
2017 was the deadliest year for mass shootings in 10 years. Hate crimes jumped by nearly 20 percent. The Atlantic hurricane season was among the top ten most active in history. Deaths from suicide have increased 24% from 1999 to now. Trump tweets, Russian collusion, nuclear war with North Korea, sexual harassment and assault, flooding and other hurricane devastation, mass shootings, terrorist attacks, deporting DACA recipients, the spread of high profile neo-Nazi gatherings, the tax plan and its effect on the middle and lower classes, and so much more, flooded the news and crept into our psyches this year.
And we have a contempt problem, on top of it all. Sociologists say we have never been more divided as a country since the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.
This is all causing actual mental health problems. And right now, the whole country fits the DSM V criteria for generalized anxiety disorder. So if you have felt less joyful this year, there’s a reason. We are anxious and exhausted from worry.
It turns out, I’m not the only one who googles when I’m anxious. And apparently, when we are most afraid, we ask how. The top Google searches in 2017 were dominated by a number of “How to” queries. The top three were: how to make slime (parents, can I get amen), how to make solar eclipse glasses, and how to buy Bitcoin.
Apart from those, Google notes that the world also asked more consequential “how” questions in google searches this year, as well.
Google made a moving commercial about search trends in 2017….
This year more than ever we asked how.
How do wildfires start?
How far can North Korean missiles go?
How much will the wall cost?
How many refugees in the world?
How do hurricanes form?
How to board up a window.
How to calm a dog during a storm.
How to help flood victims.
How to help refugees.
How to help Puerto Rico.
How to help Mexico.
How to help Las Vegas.
How to make a protest sign
How to run for office
How to watch the eclipse
How to make a difference
How to be a strong woman
How to be a good parent
How to be a superhero
How to be fearless
How to move forward.
We are prone to ask “how” because when we are afraid, we want to solve problems. Worry is the illusion that we can somehow prevent tomorrow’s heartache, but it can also spur us into action. We ask “how” when we are trying to fix.
When we live in worry, we live not in the present but our minds keep us tending an unknown future. It is our job with the help of God to repair the world, yes, but when we are busy fixing and solving and fretting and googling, we often miss the joy of what is occurring right now. We miss opportunities to be fully present to others with our attention and support.
Fear and worry are joy-killers. They are an anathema to faith.
And so it makes sense that every angel we encounter in scripture seems to use “do not be afraid” as an opening line.
Perhaps no one needed to hear that more than Joseph.
Everyone who has been told they are about to have a child knows the special combination of joy and worry inherent in this particular news. And so it makes sense that Joseph is especially worried when he hears Mary is pregnant.
First of all, Joseph knows the baby is not his, since they have not yet consummated their love. Those of us who have lived through the revelation that a spouse or significant other was cheating on us know how painful and traumatic that feeling is; the loss of trust, the feeling that your life with one another up to that point had somehow been a lie.
What was happening to Joseph was the stuff that ruins lives. As a man in that culture, he had all the rights to abandon Mary and preserve his dignity. He is called "righteous" in our scripture, which means “just” or “law-abiding.” And so it is significant that he is unwilling to “turn Mary in” to the authorities for the crime of adultery. He knows that she will be publicly humiliated and then stoned to death, so he plans to "quietly" leave her to save her dignity and her life. We can tell already that he loves her more than he has need for retribution. Joseph, even in his anger and sadness, chooses the law of love over the letter of the law: a foreshadowing of God’s grace born into their soon to be son, Jesus.
And then the angel intervenes in a dream, telling Joseph not to be afraid. He instructs Joseph to take Mary as his wife. The messenger assures Joseph that he will be helping to birth God into the world. He tells Joseph to stay and name the baby “Emmanuel,” which means “God-is-with-us.” He asks Joseph to be God’s stepfather—and to hold this God-with-us tenderly in his arms and raise him as his own.
Joseph chooses to believe the angel messenger despite his doubts. He chooses to believe that things would be alright. He chooses to stay with Mary and help bring God to birth. That’s faith.
The stakes were high– but Joseph chose joy over worry; faith over fear.
And you and I have this option every day, because every day we have the chance to help birth God into the world. Every day we have the opportunity to choose joy over worry; faith over fear. Every day we have the opportunity to see God-with-us.
Thomas Merton recalls an experience he had one day when he needed to leave the monastery he lived in for a medical appointment in Louisville, KY, and found himself in a crowded shopping district:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being (hu)man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
We cannot stop the in-breaking of God in the world. Joy happens anyway, despite, in spite, like the bubbling up of God in the most unlikely places.
Yes, 2017 was a hot mess. But, also in 2017--JOY.
Babies were born, most notably among us: Hannah, Nathaniel, Ryan, Arrow.
We added 37 new members to First Church in Sterling’s roles.
We gave away $5,000 in a reverse offering—money that literally spread all around the world and inspired other giving to match.
We fed hundreds of people in our community lunches. We gave away thousands of dollars from our deacon’s fund to people who need it most.
We brought 40 women to the women’s march in Boston, and 40 women on retreat in the fall. We became open and affirming to the LGBTQ Community by unanimous vote, eliminating that barrier to our welcome in joyful celebration.
We provided water filters and medical care in the little town of La Romana in the Dominican Republic. Lives were changed as a result of our presence there.
We baptized babies and we married young couples, and we married couples brave enough to try this marriage thing again.
We greeted the sun in the cemetery on Easter morning next to Jeff Cranson’s stone bench, and shouted Alleluia despite the fact of death. We had brass and tympani in the sanctuary. We declared that Love wins.
Our young adult group grew to 71 on Facebook. We found a new bar to have pub theology in, and the amount of laughter at the Mill far surpassed the seriousness of the subjects we studied.
We learned together at Eat, Pray, Learn: about opioids and oceans; listening for understanding and our collective tendency toward cognitive bias.
We planted and tended gardens that would die and return again in the spring.
We raised $30,000 in our treasures of the community auction, and we got to see each other dressed up in our fanciest attire.
Our youngest Sunday School class grew from 15 to 45 children, and the joy that we receive from this sanctuary literally crawling with kids is alit on our faces.
We confirmed six young people in the Christian faith, asking them to help us build the world we dream about.
We filled our bellies full of ice cream and watched children bounce with glee in bouncy houses. We hired a new full time Pastor for faith formation who will start next month.
We celebrated two 100th birthdays of two congregants!
We blessed a slew of animals including alpacas and sugar gliders; snakes and dogs.
We caroled on the common and partied hard. We sang. We ate. We ate a lot. We laughed. We laughed a lot.
Crosby Stills and Nash sings one of my favorite lines in rock music: “rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice.” Joy anyway. Joy despite. Joy in spite of. Joy beside. Joy although.
Beloved, I know you are afraid. I know there is good reason to be. I know that right now is very, very dark. But remember what Valarie Kaur asks: “What if. What if this is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if this is our great transition?” What if God is getting ready to be born, yet again, in a most unlikely place? Look! this year, just like every year, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and we shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not over come it.
So, as we roll into Christmas week, choose joy. Like Joseph, choose joy over fear; love over retribution. Choose joy because worry does not change tomorrow. Choose joy because our loved ones we have lost would want us to. Choose joy as revenge. Choose joy as resistance. Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice.
And do not be afraid. You are all walking around shining like the sun.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.