December 8, 2019

“Waiting for Rockwell”


Psalm 30; Luke 2:1-7


Our third passage for this morning is this story about family in Luke 2:1-7. Joseph goes along with his betrothed, Mary to Bethlehem, a place of family lineage to be taxed and take a census. Nazareth was a place of belonging for Joseph and Mary, where their extended family likely was as well. Yet Bethlehem was where Joseph’s lineage originated-He had history in Bethlehem, so there was a sense of belonging there, although his immediate family must not have been there, or he would have had a place to stay when Mary gave birth. In Luke’s gospel, we assume they went back to Nazareth after giving birth to Jesus. I am sure the families gathered to welcome the newborn child into their family, that place of belonging once they returned.


My first place of belonging as a child was a suburb of Sacramento, Ca-Fair Oaks, Ca. Yet the place where my lineage originated was in the Bay Area- Vallejo, Ca. We would travel there every Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter to celebrate the holidays with my Grandparents. Their home was our family of origin home- My great grandfather built it in 1860, and it was in our family for over 120 years, up until the late 1980s.


We had wonderful holidays there together, as our extended family gathered at my grandparent’s home, including my aunt, uncle, and cousins. Looking back at one particular Christmas, when I was around 6 years old, it felt somewhat like a Norman Rockwell painting of Christmas- perfect. I received great presents that year, including a pedal car that I could race down the hill in my backyard.  My grandmother Rosamond was a great cook, and she outdid herself with a perfect turkey, gravy and all the fixings. After dinner and a baked Alaska for dessert, we sat in front of the marble fireplace, slowly digesting our perfect meal. We ended the night by taking a picture together, (shown at the 10 am service), singing hymns around the old pump organ my grandparents had and then attending the midnight service at an old Episcopalian church.  That was about as close as I’ll ever get to the ideal perfect, Norman Rockwell Christmas.


In reality though, as I look back with the eyes of an adult, it was far from perfect. My Grandfather Archie was beginning to have health issues; My father’s job as an Aerospace engineer was becoming tenuous and in the next year, he would lose his job, being part of a 20,000 person lay off at Aerojet. My sister was beginning to struggle with anxiety and depression. My aunt and Uncle were struggling in their marriage, and one of my cousins was in the midst of some difficult mental struggles as well.


One of the difficulties in this Christmas season is, we keep waiting or hoping for that perfect Normal Rockwell Christmas, a time of joy and peace and belonging. It is in reality, however, quite elusive and rare. It does not help that we are bombarded with perfect Christmas family gatherings in commercials and those sappy Hallmark Christmas movies that all work out in the end either. Our expectations get raised higher and higher waiting for Rockwell and joy, instead of more often than not met with the reality of sorrow and disappointment.


Our son Sam mentioned this past Thanksgiving how different and weird it was to have just 4 of us around the table. In past years, we had gathered with grandparents, cousins, Paula’s sister and family, my sister and her family-now it was just us, and truthfully a bit depressing. More often, we find ourselves struggling through the holidays, missing loved ones who are no longer with us, or holding onto memories of how those gatherings were when we were children. That can lead to a time of sorrow and darkness.


That brings us to our second passage for this morning, from Psalm 30. The psalmist recalls a time of deep sorrow in the pit of life when God’s face is hidden. The psalmist cries out for help, and in time, God turns the psalmist’s mourning into dancing. His clothes of sackcloth- clothes of mourning and loss are turned into clothes of joy.


Now you make think in reading through this psalm that the psalmist had an overnight success in going from mourning into dancing. After all, he writes, “for weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Verse 5) Sometimes we look at verses like that and think of that movement from darkness into light as instantaneous. Likely, however, it was not. Mourning does not heal overnight. Depression does not lift right away. It took time, possibly a lot of time before he felt like dancing again, going from being clothed in sackcloth(mourning) into being clothed with joy. I think the idea of weeping at night to joy in the morning was more a poetic figure of speech than overnight reality.


What do we do, when in this holy season of high expectation, we find ourselves weeping at night, or mourning the loss of a loved one no longer seated at the holiday table, joy has not yet come, and our Christmas is a blue one?


First, we can take some comfort in psalm 30. In time, God brings light into our darkness, and our sorrow can turn towards joy. You won’t be in the shadows forever. Weeping may last for a while, but joy does eventually come. Know that God is working to restore you and bring you to a place of joy, as we spoke about last Sunday- calm delight in the knowledge of Christ. In the meantime, may you have some solace in that one day, we will be reunited with our loved one in heaven. John 16:22 tells us, “So now you are sad, but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”


Second, Those experiences we all go through of loss and difficulty change us; they shape our perspectives and in time strengthen our hope. I receive a daily meditation from Theologian Richard Rohr, whose focus this past week was on suffering and struggle. He shared this week a writing from Theologian Joan Chittister on those dark times in our lives. In looking back on such times, Joan speaks of the meaning that is there, even in our loss and sorrow. “The light we gain in darkness is the awareness that, however bleak the place of darkness was for us, we did not die there. We know now that life begins again on the other side of the darkness. Another life. A new life. After the death, the loss, the rejection, the failure, life does go on. Differently, but on. Having been sunk into the cold night of . . . despair—and having survived it—we rise to new light, calm and clear and confident that what will be, will be enough for us.” 


Third, suffering is the school of compassion and love. When we experience loss, pain, and trials, in time those things open us up to the suffering of others around us. We who have been through the darkness can then shine a light for others. Chittister concludes, “Only the experience of our own darkness gives us the light we need to be of help to others whose journey into the dark spots of life is only just beginning. It’s then that our own taste of darkness qualifies us to be an illuminating part of the human expedition. Without that, we are only words, only false witnesses to the truth of what it means to be pressed to the ground and rise again.”


In closing, in those moments of despair and sorrow, we have a place of belonging, here in this sacred space. We gather together as a family- not the perfect Normal Rockwell family, but a family of God and a place of belonging. In this family, we can know peace and even joy as we struggle along together. Joy is not about denying suffering, but rather it is the embracing of the depths of all of life’s emotions, and being led by a sense of calm delight we find in Christ. Here we can pray with and for one another. Here we hold light and joy for others when others cannot. Here we listen to struggles and uphold one another. Are you sad? That is all right. You still have a place to belong. Are you angry? That’s ok. You still have a place to belong. Are you lonely, aching, numb, happy, hopeful, joyful? Whatever emotions you may be feeling in this time of expectation, no matter how imperfect your Advent and Christmas may be, you have a place of belonging here, gathered together, united by the Spirit of Christ. Alleluia. Amen.

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