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Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C
The Rev. Vicki K. Hesse,
Director of the Whitaker Institute,
Episcopal Diocese of Michigan
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Detroit, MI
Sermon Preached on December 23, 2018
May the words of my mouth and
the meditation of all our hearts
be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord our strength and our redeemer.
Did you hear that? The child leaped for joy!
When I was growing up,
with five siblings, my momma used to say,
“You kids go outside and play!”
Sometimes we would
go out to the edge of
the canyon behind our house and yell –
listening for the echo back to us.
Oh, we laughed, screamed, and giggled.
My mother would have none of this at home.
Once we got back, we held our tongue.
We were taught not to be too revealing.
We were courteous. We were quiet.
It was not okay to be overtly
expressive in our joy or laughter.
So when I read about
Elizabeth’s child leaping for joy
at the sound of Mary’s greeting,
it made me a little uncomfortable
due to my complicated relationship
with expressed joy.
Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and
she blessed Mary with a loud cry.
Such uncontained extroverted outward expression!
These days, living in Detroit,
my neighbors yell at me from three houses down the street,
“HEY” they wave,
“HEY GREAT TO SEE YOU HAVE A BLESSED DAY!”
I want to say back, hey, get a hold of yourselves!
My neighbors… they are filled with the Holy Spirit
and exclaim their greetings with exposed joy –
and that seems so irreverent
in a world today where so much seems to be going wrong.
Who can be joyful when
· layoffs have been announced at D-Ham, the Hamtramck GM plant and
· government workers wonder if they will be paid by their employer and
· refugees from many countries arrive at borders only to be terrorized as they are seeking asylum and
· climate change threatens more flooding and more record-breaking weather events like the tsunami in Indonesia
Who can be joyful in all this mess?
The thing is, however,
joy never really has to do with
That’s what makes joy different from
happiness, or fun, or pleasure.
Joy does not depend on conditions.
The only condition for joy
“…is the presence of God.
Joy happens when God is present,
and people know it,
which means that joy can erupt”
in a divided political environment,
in a blighted neighborhood,
in someone’s home while delivering water.
See, Mary’s joy erupted the minute she saw Elizabeth.
She barely had enough time to take off her coat,
covering her new baby bump.
We don’t know what Mary expected,
but Elizabeth’s jovial response and blessing
is what Mary got.
And that scream, laughter and giggle inspired Mary.
Mary, who broke out in song.
And, I like to think, she surprised herself.
Mary’s recitation of the song of Hannah
from 1st Samuel in the Hebrew Scriptures
(which Mary of course knew)…
was a hip-hop praise of God’s liberation,
a praise to the God
who turns the world upside down,
who grants favor to someone as low as herself, a nobody from nowhere, and
who brings down the high and mighty,
who lifts up the lowly,
who fills up the hungry and
who sends the rich away.
This spontaneous song of Mary’s,
the “Magnificat” is one of the earliest
and most enduring hymns of The Church.
That surprising joy erupts when God is present,
doing what God does,
and people –
like Elizabeth, like Mary, like my neighbors in Detroit –
“…cannot contain themselves.
They sing and dance, they jump for joy,
they open their mouths and poetry falls out.”
That surprising joy is the surest sign of God’s presence
that cannot be contained.
That surprising joy means that my heart leaps
when I see my neighbors
and yell, - with abandon -
for them to HAVE A BLESSED DAY too.
In these joy moments, our souls magnify God.
Why don’t we express joy more often?
Perhaps because the wounds of the world
seem so overwhelming.
Perhaps because we don’t know
how to break through the political stalemate.
Perhaps because we fear the consequences
of speaking truth to power.
Perhaps because discipleship is inconvenient.
Perhaps because joy is
sometimes hidden in the struggle of disruption,
sometimes caught between the false dichotomy
of despair and optimism.
Like the experience of
15-year-old Swedish high-schooler, Greta Thunberg.
Greta, a climate activist,
addressed the UN plenary session last week
on behalf of Climate Justice Now!
in Katowice Poland.
In her short speech,
she named with Spirit’s power and clarity,
a conviction that can sound like despair
but is grounded something bigger –
in her love of the earth
and her care for generations to come.
“…Until you start focusing on
what needs to be done,
rather than what is politically possible,
there is no hope.
… And if solutions within the system
are so impossible to find,
we should change the system itself.
We [youth] have not come here
to beg world leaders to care.
You have ignored us in the past,
and you will ignore us again.
We have run out of excuses,
and we are running out of time.
We have come here to let you know
that change is coming,
whether you like it or not.
The real power belongs to the people…”
Even in this somber truth-naming speech,
captured in a viral YouTube video,
her surprising joy of possibility comes through.
Through her voice,
inspired by youth from Parkland, Florida
after their school shooting,
she passes on inspiration to others.
Through her voice,
we can glean the poetic pointing towards
“…another way, a way of hope
where circumstances that are dark or difficult
require us to look
beyond ourselves for rescue and relief
so that we might hear again and anew
God’s promise to hold onto us through it all.”
I believe that this kind of joy-through-struggle
is grounded in the Mighty One
who does great things and whose name is holy.
This kind of joy-through-struggle
cannot be contained
God is the only one who can bring life out of death.
God is the one who can
turn the world upside-down
in partnership with humanity.
St. Peter’s, your soul magnifies God’s presence,
in the myriad ways you partner with God
in compassion and justice work:
Care for the earth through recycling and solar panels
Compassion for people
who are hungry through manna meal service
Companionship for people who are lonely through
Sunday gatherings of prayer and the breaking of bread
Charism of justice and dignity for all,
through direct action and voluntary arrest.
Your soul, St. Peter’s, magnifies God.
The only question is
what is being birthed now
through this joyful leaping presence in your womb?
What can happen
through this loving, liberating, life-giving God,
with your hope and blessing?
See, God imagines a world
of mercy, love and forgiveness
for all generations.
Working together with the joy of God in our hearts,
we can invite others along the way.
We can take risks and
proclaim out loud the
uncomfortable disruption that Jesus is birthing
We can rejoice in God our savior.
For God Loves you so much, and
God’s mercy and forgiveness offers joy and liberation
for all people, from generation to generation,
according to the promise God made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and Sarah, and their descendants forever.
And that is enough to make you jump for joy!
 Portions inspired by Barbara Brown Taylor, “Surprised by Joy,” The Living Pulpit, October-December 1996, pages 16-17
 Lose, Ibid.