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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Advent 3, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
December 13, 2015

Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

‘I say it again: Rejoice!’

Søren Kierkegaard once wrote that “It requires moral courage to grieve; it requires religious courage to rejoice”. On this third Sunday in Advent, Kierkegaard’s journal entry is most pertinent. Our icon of John with eyes downcast and fine blue plumage expresses a similarly complex truth. God be with you

Joy is our theme, and we have a reading from Paul: “Rejoice in the Saviour always! I say it again: Rejoice! … Our Saviour is near.” Yet Paul writes from prison. As one commentator points out, his words do not connote “a Pollyanna religion that ignores the harsh realities”. We are not called to rejoice without regard for the suffering of neighbours or without regard for our own difficulties.

I think Kierkegaard is right to distinguish moral from religious courage. Morally, we ought to grieve and rage “restless for the common good”, for a commonwealth of resources, knowledge, art and wisdom; for the wellbeing of the earth and its creatures. Morally, we are right to mourn missed opportunities for peace with justice.

I sometimes shudder at talk about heaven or perfection the notion of our “being saved” that sugarcoats, evades or denies the ambiguous and fleshly circumstances of life and inter-related struggles for life for freedom and integrity. It’s not right for us to party and to celebrate at the expense of even one poor, suffering soul. It’s not right for us to cultivate unambiguous, positive emotions “in this world of sin”. Morally, it’s not right.

Someone once said to me that she didn’t trust any gathering where all the people were expected or pressured to feel the same thing at the same time. The scene conjured is one of psychological manipulation a fascist youth rally, a meeting of religious fanatics.

It requires moral courage to grieve (I confess gulp! that things are not perfect, that justice is not a reality, that even in my own heart there is unresolved hurt, fear); it requires religious courage to rejoice (I confess alleluia! that the love of God is a mighty draw or lure, a force for good, a buoyancy in my life and in the life of my community; I confess that a pattern of faith, hope and love is woven again and again that joy keeps happening).

Another way to examine our theme is to distinguish this religious courage (joy keeps happening) from mere emotion. It makes a real difference whether we hear Paul’s injunction as a call to emotion or to action.

Deep down we know that nobody can tell us how to feel not really. We know that such a notion is childish as well as dangerous. A person who commands you to feel happy or sad, triumphant or repentant is a person undeserving of trust.

Paul doesn’t say, “Be joyful!” He doesn’t say, “Be happy!” His words “Rejoice in the Saviour always!” can hardly be taken to mean that the Philippians are forever to express a single emotion. So what does he mean?

The word “forbearance” (“Let everyone see your forbearing spirit”) is a clue. He means something like religious courage.

In the context of difficulties and in the midst of “fear and trembling” over salvation (another of Paul’s exhortations to the church at Philippi), the Apostle offers a religious reason for living a religious reason (that is, an underlying, all-encompassing reason), as one commentator says, “for gentleness and for a life unhindered by anxiety”.

Anxiety, guilt, panic, terror in the face of the world and in our own presence these are not, ultimately, cause for despair. For our Saviour is near.

Our Saviour is near whether or not we feel the holy presence. We don’t come to worship because we feel the presence of God. We don’t come to worship when we feel the presence of God. We come because God has promised to be present in Word and Sacrament. Faithfulness is not something to feel (not primarily anyway), but rather, as the followers of John the Baptist understood, something to do the sharing of possessions, and so on.

There was a seven-year-old girl, Stella, here for the art opening last night, whose attitude openness and willingness to help was an inspiration. I told her so, and she smiled the world’s most joyful smile. It wasn’t simply that she felt happy the whole time I saw that she also felt frightened when there was loud yelling at one stage coming from the hall and kitchen. Her openness and willingness to help and then to help again constituted an underlying joy and ability to handle emotional shift, turbulence.

Her joy, on some essential level, and at just the right moment, helped to recalibrate my faith. For faithfulness is not primarily something to feel, but rather, as the followers of John the Baptist understood, something to do the sharing of possessions, and so on.

And so, we do something. We hang artworks, share food and conversation, encourage in one other creativity and respect. We come and we open the Scriptures, we engage in a conversation with them, we give ourselves to God and to others in prayer, we set the altar-table for a thanksgiving, a celebration that is no simple act of celebrating, but a costly sharing.

Perhaps there are other ways we make space and wait on the God who promises to be present …

With the followers of John, we place ourselves (morally) in the wrong, and in need … that is, we open ourselves (religiously) to forgiveness, to grace, to generosity of spirit, to joy and to all the gifts of the Spirit. Sometimes we feel the truth of it. Over time, and within it, we are truly changed.

We are truly changed.

Chaff, then, we might say, represents the self that wants simply to party and to be happy, and to be right thus, the anxious, guilty, terrified or terribly deluded self. Wheat represents the self, filled with the joy of a promise.

Chaff might be our efforts to sustain hope for ourselves and for the world on the basis of emotion (positive thinking) alone, or on the basis of our own moral behaviour. Wheat can be our Christ-like grieving and dying … and rising again.

As we place a grain of wheat on the purple cloth, let us share a story of God’s joy. Is there a time we’ve been made aware of that in some way? Perhaps in spite of our feelings, in spite of our efforts to be good and just? What does it mean to be caught up (with all our moral concerns, grief and longing) in God’s joy?

I was discussing this with Cathie Harrison during the week, who suggested that God’s joy (or godly joy) has to do with openness and discernment remaining open to godly potential in, with and through the Spirit of Jesus. The opposite of joy is a selfishness that closes in fear, arrogance, judgement or timidity.

Little Stella bore witness to just this kind of openness and discernment alive to different emotions but steady with regard to generosity, trust, eagerness, brightness. Dressed in purple and pink, she’d never heard of Advent candles but her face lit up at the mention of Hope, Peace, Joy, Love and Christmas.

What does it mean to learn courage for grieving and rejoicing? What does it mean to rejoice in the Saviour always? …