“Into Every Experience”
In her book Dakota, Kathleen Norris writes about life on the plains, life in a harsh and unforgiving climate, life under constant economic pressure, life within a small town that is getter smaller by the year.
In this life, says Kathleen Norris, there is something the people do to help themselves keep going. They tell their stories of the past, and from them they take hope. If God got people through those times, God will certainly be faithful to the people now.
That is what Paul is talking about here in Romans. Paul says that everything written in former days was written so that it might give the Romans and believers of every age hope. We hear the stories of God’s faithfulness, and it gives us hope for the challenges we face.
So in these last weeks together, weeks of Advent, we will hear scripture about hope. The stories of the prophets that tell of a coming Messiah and a fulfillment of God’s promises. The story of John the Baptizer saying yes, the Messiah is coming so prepare the way. The story of Mary saying to the angel about her bearing the Messiah, “Let it be as you say,” and then she sings a song of hope about how God is going to lift up the oppressed. The story of Joseph being told by the angel to fear not, for God was in the midst of all that was happening. The story of angels telling shepherds out in a field to fear not, because they were bringing the good news of their savior’s birth who would bring peace on earth and good will to all.
We tell the stories of Advent and Christmas, because in them we find hope.
Today’s story is from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah writes from the dark desperate days of Israel’s exile in Babylon. The people have lost everything, their land, their homes, their house of worship. The younger ones have been taken far from home, put in exile in Babylon, and they feel they have lost their identity and hope. Yet Isaiah tells them there will be a day when they will return to their homeland, and there will be singing, there will be gladness, there will be joy. They would reenter Jerusalem pursued, not by wild ferocious animals, but by gladness. They would be overtaken by joy.
I cannot heard this text without thinking of when my sister-in-law Clare came across this passage in Isaiah, and it spoke to her. It was three years after the death of her son Erik at the age of 27.
For three years she had experienced a period of deep sadness, a grief that welled up from somewhere way down inside, she said. But as time passed she became aware that a companion emotion was also emerging. Springing up from that same place deep sadness inside was much to her surprise a deep joy.
I plan, Claire said, as I return from my exile of loss and grief to be overtaken by joy. And she adopted a rallying cry, a watchword to keep her and us going and give us hope. It was the popular directive, “Party on!” Clare used the phrase when she spoke with friends and family, when she wrote notes and emails, and as a parting wish for them as she said goodbye.
That is my plan, she said, to allow myself to be caught by joy. And it is my prayer for you, that you also will be caught, apprehended by joy. And if you are, she said, surrender to it and party on! Party on till we reach the kingdom, or till the kingdom comes to us.”
This weekend I drove to Charlotte and back in order to conduct the funeral for Ollie Mae Brooks. She was my mother’s best friend. There were four families in the church where I grew up with children the same age.
We children grew up together in church. We went to Vacation Bible School, Sunday School, youth group, church camp together. We did Christmas programs and Christmas caroling together. We also did some other things together, like pass notes in the balcony, sneak out the fire escape and a few other things I will not mention.
But most importantly we learned the stories of the Bible and God’s love together. This weekend as we buried the last of those eight parents, we gathered and shared the stories.
We talked about the pastors of the church some. Some we liked a lot, some we liked o.k., and some we liked not so much. But what was notable was we did not talk about the pastors as those who had influenced us as much as the teachers, the youth leaders, and those who had been like parents and grandparents to us. The pastors came and went, but the people of the church were there for us.
Change in pastoral leadership is hard on a church. But in fifty years when you come back, I am guessing I may be in a few stories, but most of your stories will be about the people of this congregation and how they influenced your lives.
It has been a privilege to get to journey with you in some of the stories here: 60 funerals (that includes active and non- active folks), 17 baptisms, 15 youth confirmations, 12 weddings. 7 stewardship campaigns. 6 sunrise services. 2 major hurricanes. 3 services in the dark without electricity and heat or air, countless surgeries and biopsies. What we have found is Christ comes into every experience of our lives. And gives us hope. Christ continues to be born into our lives over and over, our individual lives, but also our lives together. That is the hope of Advent.
So in this time waiting, waiting for an interim pastor and then waiting for a new leader, how will you find hope and joy, how will you live and hopefully thrive as a congregation during this time?
Robert Fulghum points out that when children start kindergarten they are always told to hold hands as they cross the street or when they go somewhere new. And they are taught to have a buddy.
I want to suggest that you become a band of buddies, brothers and sisters holding hands, bonded together and determined to create a fruit-bearing future for this church.
I have observed something about us that I have not experienced other places. We say “I love you” to each other here . . . all the time. No matter the age, the gender, the situation, on the phone, in person, in text, in crisis or just in the everyday business of being church, we end our conversations this way. Someone will say, rather matter-of-factly, “love you.” The other will respond, “love you, too.” And we mean it.
So these are instructions for crossing the roads into the new places ahead:
be buddies to each other,
keep telling each other you love them
read the stories of scripture written for you about God’s faithfulness
tell the stories you have of that faithfulness
allow yourself to be overtaken with joy
and party on
The Sprit will provide a way through the change, will surprise you with everlasting joy and will bring you hope.
Until you reach the kingdom, or the kingdom comes to you.