SERMON ~ 12/04/2022 ~ “Joy and Peace and Believing and Wilderness”

12/04/2022 ~ Second Sunday of Advent ~ The Sunday on Which We Commemorate Peace ~ Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12 ~ VIDEO OF FULL SERVICE:

Joy and Peace and Believing

and Wilderness

“May the God of hope fill you with such joy and peace in believing, in your faith, that you may abound with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” — Romans 15:13

My late cousin, Roseanna Genevieve McCool, was technically a member of my grandfather’s generation, despite being closer to my father’s age, just nine years older. But in my family structure, perhaps because she was in that previous generation, she acted as more of a matriarch or grandmother figure than a cousin.

Rose— she was commonly called Rose, the daughter of Irish immigrants who themselves had traveled to these shores— was born in 1911. She grew up on South Third Street in Brooklyn, New York, near the waterfront on the East River.

Williamsburg, as this area of Brooklyn is called, both then and now, is well known as a Jewish enclave. But Rose lived at the Northern end of that area, an Irish enclave. The next neighborhood to the north, Greenpoint, was a German neighborhood— Brooklyn— both then and now a melting pot.

Before I was born, Rose and the rest of the clan had moved further East to the area known as Bushwick but still in Brooklyn. Now, the Catholic church to which Rose belonged in those early years, also on South Third Street, was the Church of Saints Peter and Paul. The parish still exists.

I have distinct, fond memories of Rose telling me about her childhood. Among those memories were the ones of life at that church. Her mother, to make extra money, took in laundry and also did the laundry for the priests at the church. That is to say Rose had deep personal ties at the church, one reason for all those memories.

By the time I came on the scene things at that church were not in good shape as far as Rose was concerned. Over the years she had been back, seen it and knew about the changes.

Inside the church building the worship space had been changed around. How dare they? They had taken out some of the stained glass windows. How dare they? They were using unfamiliar music. How dare they? The church hall and grammar school were being used in ways which were different than when she was a child. How dare they?

Besides, from her perspective both the church and the neighborhood had drastically changed, been overrun by immigrants… twice! That first wave was simply terrible. (Soto voce.) They were Italians. Then in the 1960s Hispanics moved in.

Being upset by Italians and then Hispanics as they became majorities in the neighborhood might sound like and even be a racist sentiment. But I think there is an additional perhaps more visceral explanation for the reaction Rose had. The key question for her was, ‘why can it not be like it was when I was a child?’ (Slight pause.)

These words are from the work known as Romans: “May the God of hope fill you with such joy and peace in believing, in your faith, that you may abound with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Slight pause.)

Perhaps what got me thinking about Rose and her feelings about changes at her childhood church was a statistic I came across. As I said, Rose was born in 1911 to English speaking immigrant parents. And as I am sure you know, the late 19th and early 20th Century was a time of intense immigration in America.

Now, in that era the prayers of Catholic Mass were recited in Latin. But whole sections of the service were conducted in the vernacular of those who attended. From the perspective of Rose the vernacular was English.

But the statistic I found from the United States Census Bureau said in 1906 there were 4,711 Catholic Parishes in America with 6.3 million people where the vernacular was not English. The language spoken at those churches depended on the parish. Take your choice: the language was Polish or Lithuanian or German or Italian, etc., etc., etc.

By 1916 that number had grown to 6,076 parishes or 57% of all Catholic churches in America. So at more than half of the Catholic parishes at that time a language other than English was the dominant tongue. [1] (Slight pause.)

All these immigrants had left their native land, left their roots. It’s likely they felt as if they were in a desert, in the wilderness. So they sought to find some assurance in familiar things— like a church where their native language was spoken. (Slight pause.)

Well, the vernacular in the 1970s at that church in Williamsburg was Spanish and only Spanish. But today that section of Brooklyn is becoming gentrified, going upscale.

So in this changing neighborhood, things have changed things yet again. The Masses are no longer just in Spanish. The Masses are now in both English and Spanish. (Slight pause.)

There are many reasons for people to feel disconnected. Certainly one is being disconnected from a heritage. But disconnect is most often imposed on us from the outside, imposed by change going on around us or migration, immigration or, as was true for Jews in Roman Palestine because of the presence of an occupying army— a daily reminder of the threat of change.

Indeed, we can readily picture the Baptizer in the wilderness eating Locust and grasshoppers as being disconnected. It is, perhaps, not as easy for us to understand that Paul is in the wilderness also. But that’s because we tend to view the era in which Paul lived as a time when somehow, magically, the entire Mediterranean Basin was converted to Christianity.

In fact, most historians believe by the year 100 of the Common Era, some thirty-five years after Paul died, there are still less than 10,000 Christians in the world. Historians also say in the year 315, when Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire, less than 10% of the population of the Roman Empire is Christian.

It is also believed the churches to whom Paul wrote were gatherings of 50 souls or less. Think about that: in writing the Letter to the Church in rome Paul was writing to maybe 50 people. So Paul faces reality: this small group will not get much bigger in the near term.

Still, despite the truth of small size and slow growth, the Apostle writes about… hope and joy and peace and believing the presence of the Holy Spirit. Paul is not self delusional. But Paul also knows something about the wilderness. (Slight pause.)

The words from this passage are not the final words of the letter we find in our Bibles today. There’s another whole chapter. But these are the final words of the letter found in the oldest manuscripts we know about. So it’s likely the passage we heard today was at one point meant to be the final words, meant to sum up, to recap this letter.

And Romans is said to be Paul’s masterpiece. So I think the letter and the passage can instruct us today on who we are and where we should be going.

Hence, if we are not self delusional perhaps we should ask if we are in the wilderness, in the desert, right now? I want to suggest if we are in the wilderness it is not because of changes to church buildings or the taking out of stained glass windows or use of unfamiliar music or even a changing population. These are things about which people might be nostalgic or even argue about but they are all quite temporary.

You see, the promise of the Dominion says we will live in a world where the hungry are fed always, the homeless find shelter always, the sick have access to care always. And the Dominion of God being near is a real world promise toward which we are invited by God to work. Paul understood that, because when read what Paul wrote carefully, Paul always looks forward not backward.

The Dominion of God, you see, is a promise. It is forward looking, filled with anticipation. Put differently, the Dominion of God is not about nostalgia.

And as a congregation I do think we are trying to head toward the Dominion. After all, look at the mission work of this church. It reflects working in the vineyard.

So I think we do know about joy and peace and believing in the wilderness— and joy and peace and believing in the wilderness does have everything to do with this Season of Advent. But it has nothing to do with things temporary or nostalgia.

It has to do with the work of the Dominion of God— the Dominion of God, where joy and peace and hope and love are both eternal and in the process of being fulfilled. And forward is the place toward which we are called as we do the work of the Dominion. Amen.

Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Benediction. This, then, is an précis of what the pastor said before the blessing: “At the Bible Study on Monday— and by the way you are all invited to Bible Study— at the Bible Study I shared this quote from theologian Richard Rhor. The folks in attendance found it relevant so I’ll use it. (Quote:) ‘For centuries, Christianity has presented itself as an “organized religion”— a change-averse institution… that protects and promotes a timeless system of beliefs that were handed down fully formed in the past. Yet Christianity’s actual history is a story of change and adaptation. We Christians have repeatedly adapted our message, methods, and mission to the contours of our time. What might happen if we understand the core Christian ethos as creative, constructive, and forward-leaning— as an ‘organizing religion’ that challenges all institutions (including its own) to learn, grow, and mature toward a deepening, enduring vision of reconciliation with God, self, neighbor, enemy, and creation?’— a quote from Richard Rhor. As I said, Christianity looks forward.”

BLESSING: Let us be present to one another as we go from this place. Let us share our gifts, our hopes, our memories, our pain and our joy. Go in peace for God is with us. Go in joy for God knows every fiber of our being. Go in hope for God reveals to us, daily, that we are a part of God’s new creation. Go in love, for we rest assured, by Christ, Jesus, that God is steadfast. And may the peace of God which surpasses understanding be with us this day and forevermore. Amen.

[1] Page 297, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us; by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell; Simon and Schuster; New York 2010.

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