"What Joy Brings To Life"
Meditation Delivered By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 13, 2009
Zephaniah 3:14-20, Philippians 4:4-7
Our three Advent candles celebrate how God hard-wired us at birth. We have this remarkable potential inside of us, a potential that is realized when we remember Jesus’ words, “Follow me.” Paul wrote, “May you always be joyful in your union with God. Don’t worry about anything but in all your prayers for what you need, always ask God with a thankful heart.”
A female minister was assigned at conference to one of our United Methodist churches in a small community in the Ozarks. The church had a reputation in the community of having a difficult time making people feel welcomed. It was a lovely church with an ideal location and the facility had a lot of room for expansion and growth. The church, however, seldom gained new members. AND NOW, a woman pastor was assigned to the congregation. Karen was the first female pastor in the church’s history.
The church members greeted her with guarded tolerance. Even the women of the church felt betrayed by the bishop. “Somehow ministers need to be men,” they reasoned, “because that has been our long standing tradition. Women may be good in other parts of our country, but here in the Ozarks, our time-honored traditions rule. Women need to know their place and one of those places isn’t in our church’s pulpit.”
Karen spent her early months feeling as though she were a leper. When she called on her parishioners, the exchanges were awkward. She was not invited to the social gathering of many of the church families over the holidays. She only received two cards during her first Christmas there. Karen, however, possessed joy, a wonderful sense of humor and exhibited high levels of energy so the one thing her people could not do was smother her highly energized spirit.
In the springtime, a stationary low pressure system dropped six inches of rain within three days. Her community had never seen rain this intense. Many of the old-timers called it a hundred-year flood. The creek rose dramatically and by the end of the week the only bridge leading out of their town surrendered to its swift currents. The citizens were horrified because the loss of their bridge meant an additional hour commute each way to the places where most of them worked.
The pastor went to the county seat to see how quickly the bridge could be replaced. One estimate was two years. The county planners told her that there wasn’t any money in anyone’s budget for a bridge replacement.
Her request became more complicated when she tried to deal with the Missouri State Highway Department. Officials told her that the bridge she was talking about was not part of any state road. This issue clearly belonged to the county. They told her that the bridge would remain a low priority because its destruction represented an inconvenience and not an emergency.
Karen called a hasty meeting of the Administrative Board and told them, “We can build this bridge ourselves.” Some laughed at her naïve idealism. Another said, “What makes you think anyone would let us do it?” Another said, “We pay taxes to the county for this kind of thing; it’s their job to fix it.” The meeting ended in a crushing defeat for her and she went home dejected and feeling hopeless that anything could be done. Those feelings, however, did not last long. She had another idea.
She decided to express her ideas to the Community’s Council. After listening to her thoughts, she was greeted with silence. She hoped that Council members were thinking. Then a God thing occurred. One of the newcomers to the community stood up and said, “I believe the new preacher has a good idea. Before I retired and decided to live in your community, for the last twenty years I managed the construction of bridges all over our country. Our fifty-foot bridge should be no trouble to replace. The concrete pilings are still in place. I would be happy to help with this.”
One of the Council members said, “Who is going to pay for it.” Karen, who was still standing, said, “We will! If each family will buy as many planks of lumber as they can afford, we will have the bulk of the materials. Some of us can supply the labor.”
After weeks and months of planning meetings in her church, finally her skeptical members became involved. The enthusiasm began to build as visionary attitudes were shared. In the springtime in much the same fashion that the Amish farmers raise a barn in one day, the town’s people slowly rebuilt their bridge that had been destroyed ten months earlier.
The community praised the members of her church for their vision, their leadership, for their perseverance in the face of all the state and county regulatory agencies, the permit requirements and for being such an assertive, persistent voice to get this project done. Karen only smiled when her church family got the credit. The community began to perceive themselves differently. A number of un-churched people in the community decided to attend the church to hear what else this aggressive female preacher had to say. Within a short period of time Karen had to add a second service.
Karen was asked to write her story for The United Methodist Reporter. She explained in her storytelling that the driving force that helped her community to build the bridge came from the joy of knowing that God had anointed her to bring healing to her new church family and to be a witness to God’s power in her community. She wrote, “Tears formed in my eyes when a man I did not know stood up and told the Community’s Council that prior to his retirement he had superintended the building of bridges all over the country. I knew, then, that God was at work.”
When we read the story of Mary and Joseph and relive their experience of the Roman taxation, of the long journey to Bethlehem late in her pregnancy, of experiencing no room in the inn and of having to give birth to Jesus in a stable, we know why Mary pondered all of these things in her heart.
All of the potentially discouraging experiences of Mary and Joseph were very similar to what Karen experienced when no agency wanted to take responsibility for building a bridge for her community that had become isolated.
Unfortunate and inconvenient circumstances made no difference to Mary because she had a vision. She knew that the baby she was carrying would eventually change the thinking and attitudes of everyone in the world. Why would this happen? It would happen because nothing else works when we were designed by God to live with hope, love and joy. Nothing else works! Mary also was told in that vision that his kingdom would never end. Why should Mary be alarmed about anything? She knew she could trust God for the outcome of all things. That kind of awareness and understanding produces an inner joy.
One of the stories that many of us enjoy seeing during the Christmas season is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The story causes us to look at ourselves in light of the truth that is portrayed about the human condition. We see how wealth, power and control dominated the life of Ebenezer Scrooge. He focused his life on desiring those qualities and sure enough, those qualities of spirit controlled his life. Then as the three spirits of Christmas past, present and future visited him, more and more understanding of whom he was became visible in his consciousness.
In one scene, Scrooge is lying on the floor. He had just discovered that everything he had experienced during the night was a dream. None of it happened. Ebenezer felt a laugh building inside of him, an experience that he had not had since his youthful days. During most of his adult life, he had forgotten what it was like to laugh. Suddenly, a laugh seized his spirit and he could hardly stop from laughing. He absolutely went wild with laughter so much so that his maid thought that he had taken leave of his senses. She had never seen him smile, let alone laugh.
Suddenly his life took on an entirely new meaning. Ebenezer Scrooge experienced resurrection as though someone who was dead was given back his life. He danced around with complete and utter joy. He threw money out of the upstairs window to a young boy passing on the sidewalk below and told him to go to the market place and to buy the largest available goose and take it to Bob Cratchit’s home. And, yes, he could keep the change.
In this remarkable story, Dickens holds a mirror in front of us. The spirits allowed Ebenezer to hear what people really thought of him. He heard all the gossip. At the end, he got a glimpse of his future and how no one cared that he lived or died since he radiated a totally self-absorbed life.
It is joy that turned him into a generous giver. It is joy that motivated him to give his employees a raise. It is joy that enabled him to help tiny Tim with his medical problem. When we are in union with God, the joy of having that experience causes every dark moment to have a silver lining.
One of the student pastors at our church in Capitol Hill was Rebecca Vardiman. Last year during Annual Conference, the inexplicable happened. She was walking by a construction site when a multi-ton dumpster suddenly cut loose from its anchor. It hit Rebecca and carried her for quite some distance with her foot caught underneath of it. It was headed to a building where the impact would have crushed her to death. The loaded dumpster, however, hit a concrete barrier just prior to slamming into the building and her life was spared. Workers hurried to her aid. It took a considerable time for the men to free her.
No one was certain if she would ever walk again. Rebecca was just like Karen in my earlier story. Lois and I stopped to visit her while she was in an extended-care facility in Baltimore and she was radiant with joy. Teasingly she said, “Just look at all the attention I’ve been getting!” Even the bishop called me. She was thrilled that she was still alive. She talked about her “dear doctor” who worked miracles with his surgical skills. He spent many hours working on rebuilding her foot.
Rebecca has always possessed joy that radiates to everyone. That is one of her gifts. She was absolutely the same as when the two of us worked together eighteen years ago. Now she is the pastor of Frostburg United Methodist Church. To Rebecca being hit by a runaway dumpster loaded with steel and concrete debris was just one of those things. She is a walking miracle. Her spirit knew that everything was going to be fine, even if she has a limp for the rest of her life. In other words to Rebecca, damaged bodies do not need to translate into damaged spirits. She has always known the results that come from keeping her heart and mind safe in union with Christ Jesus.
The joy of knowing that each of us is safe in union with God is what gives us vision, laughter, purpose, meaning and a light-heartedness concerning life’s events. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. When we embrace that understanding, each of us will remain fully aware that God is growing a crop of new believers from the seeds we sow by our deeds, our love and our compassion.
All we have to do is live with joyful abandon and allow the definitions and details of our creativity up to God to germinate the seeds we are sowing. Like Karen understood, we can build bridges. Like Rebecca understood, we can tell our story as a miracle rather than an unfortunate accident. Paul writes, “May you always be joyful in your union with God.” Never forget that.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
As we continue to prepare our minds for worship through our focus on Joy, we are aware of the countless life-events that have the potential to create sadness. We remember what happens to us when we neglect being hopeful while viewing world events. We remember what happens to us the moment we perceive others without love. We become frustrated when our raindrop of hope and love appears to become lost in the ocean of uncertainty. Yet, there is joy that comes when we remind ourselves that you are the creator who will fashion our future through what we evolving angels are becoming. Spare us from allowing the tyranny of little things to control our mind, emotions and spirit with thoughts and feelings that cannot reveal the light of your presence. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Our days continue to pass so rapidly, O God, and we find ourselves in our place of worship once again as we continue our journey through Advent. We count every moment of these days as a blessing if our walk has helped us to think more creatively, if our walk has helped us to reflect with greater clarity the love we have for others, and if our walk has helped us to recognize all the angels in the flesh who are helping our world to become a brighter and more peaceful place for men and women to live.
We have learned that just as a candle can illuminate a large room, so one life ignited a burning desire in the hearts of millions of people over thousands of years to make his message visible all over the world. Thank you for your presence in us. Inspire us to learn that in every circumstance we have within us what is sufficient not only to survive but also to thrive. As we increase our trust in your leading, help us to understand that we are in a unique place to become a tool of your will as life unfolds around us. Help us focus our consciousness on the reality of Emmanuel – You are with us.
Loving God, please inspire our world’s leaders to look forward to a day when war will become an ancient symbol of humankind’s immaturity. Help us to develop community where peace and mutual support become our highest priority. Truly then, your Kingdom will be near. Help us to realize that lighting the candle of Joy this morning is more than a symbol. Joy can be a way of life. We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .