Joy in Gratitude

This sermon was first preached for a hybrid online and in person service at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square on November 28, 2021.

Relevant lectionary readings can be found here.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

It is the fourth Sunday in our extended season of Advent. We are thinking together about what it means to cultivate authentic joy. And today in particular our theme is finding joy in gratitude. In our Epistle reading, the Apostle Paul is writing to the Thessalonians, giving thanks to God for all of the joy that this relationship has brought in his life, praying for this community of faith, hoping for good things for them.

It is so good to be back with you all, especially this weekend where many of us are reflecting on gratitude. I am so grateful for this community, for all of the ways you have supported me and empowered me and formed me, especially during my pastoral internship here in 2019-2020. By this time next week, I will be ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament, and you all have been especially instrumental in that journey. When I am reflecting on the people and places that I am thankful for, St. Luke’s is near the top of the list. How can [I] thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that [I] feel before our God because of you?

There is so much to be joyful about, so much to be grateful for, and yet that doesn’t erase the fact that this holiday weekend can be so painful for so many reasons. For indigenous people in particular, Thanksgiving is a reminder of the ongoing genocide of native people in this land for the past 400 years. Since 1970 the Wampanoag Tribe has set this day aside as a day to mourn the loss of indigenous lives, land, and culture.

And for others of us, a holiday so focused on family can bring up all kinds of grief, for all kinds of reasons. For loved ones of the over 700,000 people who have died in the United States from COVID, and for anyone who has lost someone, empty chairs at the table are a stark reminder of who is no longer here. For people who are not yet safe to travel or gather, for people who are immunocompromised and isolated, or people who can’t be vaccinated for whatever reason, this begins another holiday season raw with loneliness. And for people who are estranged from family members because of toxicity or abuse, for people going through divorces and having to juggle custody of children, for trans kids whose parents refuse to respect their pronouns, the stress of holiday weekends like this can make the imperative of gratitude seem almost cruel.

For all of us, even when things are going ok, personally, we are still living our lives with the backdrop of a dystopian late capitalist hellscape. Watching the news and hearing about the Rittenhouse acquittal or the tragic deaths in Waukesha or the constant existential threat of global climate catastrophe. Sometimes moments of joy can feel almost wrong in the face of such widespread suffering. State violence. Vigilantes. Pandemic. Economic uncertainty. How do we cultivate authentic joy when the world is ending, when everything is crashing down around us?

Our spiritual ancestors in scripture were living through their own apocalyptic era. They truly believed that they were at the edge of the end of the world. The author of Luke records Jesus talking about a raging climate, earth in distress, a roaring sea. Nations confused, people afraid. Even Paul’s letter of gratitude was written to a newly formed, fragile community of faith that had been targeted by the Empire for persecution and was suffering.

And in the midst of the turmoil, after describing creation in revolt and peoples trembling in terror and the very foundations of Heaven shaking, Jesus says to them and to us,

“Stand up.

Raise your head.

Your redemption is drawing near.”

As everything begins to fall away, as old worlds die and new ones are being born, there will be chaos and there will be uncertainty. There is no transformation without destabilization.

But God in Her graciousness has left us glimpses of what is coming, signs of the future. In moments where it feels like everything is falling apart, She faithfully reminds us of the promise of new life. And She whispers these promises first and most clearly to those that the world would otherwise leave behind.

In every time and place, oppressed people have had their own secret signs and scripts and ways of communicating. These coded messages are clear if you know what to listen for. But they are easy to miss if you don’t. In the plantations in the Deep South during antebellum slavery, for example, the songs in the fields sounded like work songs to the white overseer. But to the enslaved person looking to escape north, these songs included clues, a roadmap on the way to freedom. 

The signs of our coming, liberated future are all around us, if we know how to recognize them. Obvious if we know what to look for, hidden in plain sight. Just as the buds on a tree signify that summer is on its way, there are signs here and now of God’s reign breaking in all around us. But we have to look carefully to notice. Scripture warns us – we have to be alert. To be on guard. It is much easier to be distracted by the immediate boredom and minutiae of our day to day lives or to turn inward and drown in despair than it is to fix our sights on the ordinary ways that God is already here, giving us glimpses of a more realized future. And we are most likely to find these signs when we follow the lead of those who already know the way, those prophets who are practiced in finding flashes of the future in the here and now.

This season is loud and overwhelming. The world around us can be disheartening… until we take time to listen to people who have practice noticing the buds on the tree. It is when we fix our gaze to align with theirs in solidarity that we can see those signs of new life: The activist marching in the streets. The people serving meals in the cold. The mutual aid networks. The quiet ways people find to show up for one another. Even in the bleakest times, these joyful moments of resistance and resilience are ever present, even if they are undercover.

We can be grateful that even when it feels like the stars are falling from the sky, that God has left for us a roadmap to freedom, hidden in plain sight.

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