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Sunday, December 16, 2018

What then should we do?

A Sermon Preached for Gaudete Sunday
Advent III C - December 16, 2018
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

Happy Advent, you brood of vipers!

Well, three down, one to go. It’s the third Sunday in Advent. This is sometimes known as “Stir up Sunday” – because of the words of the collect for Advent III. (“Stir up your power and come among us.”) It’s also the time when one is to ‘stir up’ the fruit which has been soaked in whiskey for the Christmas fruitcake.

It’s also known as Rose Sunday or Refreshment Sunday – especially when Advent was considered a “mini-Lent” (Which is no longer the case in most churches, so it’s okay to say “Alleluia”. You don’t have to use the Kyrie but you can use the “Trisagion” instead, just to make the point.(

Today is properly known as “Gaudete Sunday” from the Latin word for “Rejoice” – the first word in the Introit for the day, taken from the lectionary Epistle reading. In some churches, the vestments are a pink color and, of course, we light the pink candle on the Advent wreath.

Does anyone know why?

Haven’t you not heard? It’s because Mary really, really, really wanted a girl, of course.

Well, we get no relief from John the Baptizer who makes yet another appearance this week, scolding and yelling and scaring the pants off of everyone.  

People were so scared they asked, “What then should we do?” Even tax collectors and soldiers asked what they should do to “bear fruits worthy of repentance”.

The answer they got was not exactly what they expected.

Got two coats? Give one to someone who needs one.

Got food? Share.

Be honest.

Don’t be greedy.

It sounds almost too obvious, doesn’t it? Sometimes, the obvious thing is the most elusive.

I want to tell you about a brilliant friend and colleague of mine who learned this lesson. Her name is Laurie and I met her when she was a seminarian from Princeton and doing an internship at All Saints, Hoboken, NJ, to be Missioner to the West Side.

Now, I don’t know how much you know about Hoboken, NJ. You probably know that it’s the birthplace of Frank Sinatra. You might know that it’s part of the Hudson Waterfront and a bedroom community for New York City. 

It’s also uniquely one mile square and has the best Italian café on Washington and Eighth where they make their own mozzarella and amazing hot, fresh bread and zeppoli to die for. It was known as a real blue collar town but now it’s pretty upscale Yuppie/Buppie.

Except for the west side. That’s where all the Section 8 housing is, the crowded apartment buildings where all the poor families live, most of whom are Hispanic and people of color.

Laurie’s job was to just go and be with the people. Talk with them. Be in relationship with them.  

Understand their needs. Don’t judge them. Just get to know them and let them know you.

Now, that’s generally NOT what churches do, is it? We pretty much decide what we think people need and then we do that thing. Sometimes, we get it right – mostly because people who work with families and know them tell us what we can do, and we do that thing.

But, Laurie’s job was to just be with people. Not just serve them. Understand them. Be in relationship with them before deciding to do anything. Until ‘they’ stopped being ‘them’.

It took her about three weeks to figure out that one woman in the west side housing projects was the unofficial “mayor”. Her name was Rose and her apartment was a magnet for everyone in the neighborhood – people who needed help with rent, help with food, help with a cranky, fussy baby, with a kid who got kicked out of school, with a job or school application – and so forth.

So, Laurie dropped by one afternoon to have coffee. Rose, was a feisty Puerto Rican woman with sad eyes that still occasionally twinkled or flashed with passion. She had a deeply lined face which revealed that the last couple of miles of her journey in life had been particularly rough.

Rose was immediately suspicious of this young, well dressed, very earnest, very srubbied-up clean, very white girl.

To say that Rose gave her a hard time is to make a bit of an understatement. Poor Laurie reports that she was so rattled she lost her cool and composure under Rose’s scrutiny and went immediately to her comfort zone and instantly offered the church’s help.

Because, you know, if you're offering help that means that you are superior and they are inferior - you have stuff they need and supposedly want, so as long as you are offering things you can think of yourself as being in control - or, at least, changing the level of the playing field. 

“You want to help?” Rose asked, incredulously. “You and your nice church and nice people want to help? You don’t have enough time or money to help the people on the west side!”  

“Well,” said Laurie, “we can do an after school program for the kids. We have basketball court. We can set up a computer lab. Anything you need. We can help.”

Rose poured another cup of coffee for herself and Laurie. After shifting her weight in the chair as she stirred the sugar and milk in her coffee, she said, “You want to help? I’ll tell you how you can help. You give me your church for one night. Just one night, that’s all.”

Laurie cleared her throat and said, “Sure…. Um…and, um… what would you do?”

Rose smiled as her eyes twinkled and said, “We’ll have a fashion show.”

“A fashion show?” asked Laurie. “Well . . . I mean . . . I guess .  . . I’ll talk with the rector but  . . . I mean . . . a FASHION show?”

Rose looked at her straight in the eye and said, “Anything? Is that what you said? Anything you need? Well, I need a place for a fashion show. Can you help with that?”

Well, long story made very, very short:  Laurie had feared that her rector would think she had lost her mind, but learned he was actually THRILLED and was very supportive of the idea.

The date for the fashion show was set for 8 weeks hence, and the west side housing projects were suddenly whirring with sewing machines and sequins, glitter and sashes, bow ties and bowler hats.

The night of the fashion show finally arrived. The church had been completely transformed. A curtain had been hung in front of the altar and some of the men had built a runway from the chancel steps, through the rows of pew chairs, to the beginning of the narthex or church entry way.

The church was filled with people – most of whom had never been into that church or, perhaps, any church in Hoboken, NJ.  Rose found Laurie in the sacristy, helping with the microphones and sound system.

“Do you see,” she asked. “Do you see what is happening here?”

Rose led Laurie to the door to look out into the congregation. “Look! Look at all those people. Those men are the fathers and uncles of these girls and the boys who are their escorts. They are seeing their children all dressed up, looking like the beautiful young girls and women and handsome young boys and men that they are. They are seeing the results of all their hard work and sacrifice.”

“They are seeing their future,” she continued. “They are seeing hope. And, isn’t that what the church is supposed to be about? Hope?”

Laurie watched as those young girls, all dressed up in lovely dresses that had been specially made for them, get escorted down the runway by one of the young boys, also dressed in a proper shirt and tie and vest – some wearing bowler hats.

She had to admit, they looked spectacular. So proud of themselves – head held high, chest out, walking with pride and confidence.

As a surprise, when each girl neared the end of the ramp the young girl’s father or uncle stepped out from behind a screen and stood waiting to hand her a long-stemmed red rose.  

And then, he shook the young man’s hand.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Sometimes, the thing a person needs is the thing that is so obvious that you miss it.

Sometimes, the greatest thing you can give to anyone is a sense of their own dignity.

Surround them with a reminder that they have worth as human beings.

Allow them an expression of beauty and luxury, even if it’s homemade.

Remind them that they are special creations of God who loves them unconditionally.

Give them opportunities to give and receive love.  

Allow them to feel confidence in who they are and what they have to offer the world.

If you read through the lines of Luke’s Gospel, if you tone down the sharp rhetoric and all the scolding and all the yelling, John is only saying the obvious to those who wish to prepare the way of the Lord: Be as generous as you know how to be. Be honest. Don’t abuse your power.

It’s so simple, so obvious that we could easily miss it. Especially in this world filled with the anguished sounds of poverty and starvation, and the terrible noise of violence and hateful rhetoric and threats of war.

There is a wonderful poem by Madeline L’Engle from her book “The Weather of the Heart”. The last line  goes like this:
On this third Sunday in Advent, I ask you to consider how you might “stir up” your own soul to see the obvious in your lives.

Maybe you don’t need to buy another thing as a Christmas present.

Maybe someone in your life – very young or very old – needs the gift of your time and attention.

Perhaps someone needs the gift of hope.

Maybe someone needs to be reminded that they are special and unique and worthy so they may find the gift of confidence in themselves.

Maybe someone really needs an opportunity to give and receive love so that love may take the risk of birth in the manger you have prepared in your heart.

To quote Rose from the west side of Hoboken: “After all, isn’t that what the church is all about?”    



MarkBrunson said...

It reminds me of the Buddhist concept of making enlightenment a quest, a life-or-death struggle, because, otherwise, it would be so laughably easy that no one would believe that they already knew the answer.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

YES! Thanks for that reminder