The Garden of Advent 3: Rejoice Always
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Third Sunday in Advent/B • December 17, 2017
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
“I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart…” You know this song, probably. It’s often sung around campfires; I learned it at church camp in August, maybe you did too. It’s easy to sing around the campfire, in the midst of that adolescent mix of exhausted, energized, ecstatic about friendships and crushes. Yet today ought to be the real day for this song; this is the Sunday in Advent when the theme is joy and the candle is pink. It’s a little harder to sing it today, isn’t it? No campfire, no warm days, and a Christmas coming that for so many is an ambivalent presence, lurking just off stage. For those grieving, for those lonely, for those in the darkness of depression, the relentless demand of this season to be happy can become a barrier to even going out. Yet if we look at the meaning of the joy of Christmas, we will find it is quite different than the happy faces our culture puts on Christmas
I usually draw from the gospel reading for inspiration but today’s reading again offers John the Baptist. We’re going to come to him in a few weeks, so I’d like to turn with you to the reading from First Thessalonians. Just the word is hard to say! The letter from which we drew is actually the oldest document in the New Testament, earlier than any of the gospels, earlier than any other epistle. Paul wrote it about 51 CE, less than 20 years after Jesus’ earthly ministry. Thessaloniki is a city in Macedonia, the northern part of Greece; today it is the second largest city in Greece. In the first century, it was a port that sat on a major highway. The city had a great diversity of religious groups and participated in the cult of the Roman Emperor. Because it was a port, people from many nations passed through. Doesn’t such a richly diverse cultural diversity sound like our city? The people of the church to whom Paul writes are mostly new Christians, former pagans. In this section of the letter, Paul is teaching them—and us!—the basics of Christian life and he begins with these three principles: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.
There are some things to notice about these things. First, they are all things we do sometimes; Paul is expanding them to all the time. Second, they are not a creed, they are a program for mindfulness. Mindfulness means noticing our internal conversation; mindfulness means consciousness of what’s going on inside as well as outside us. Our yoga instructor always begins instructions with one word: “Notice” and frequently goes on to say, “Notice the breath”. Now to talk about mindfulness, we must talk about the one for whom it is a pillar principle, the Buddha.
These past few weeks in Advent, we’ve been using other religious practices and faiths to hold a mirror to our own. Surely Buddhism does this. Like Islam and Christianity, Buddhism comes from a historical individual, a man named Siddhartha. Born about 600 years before Jesus in Nepal, Siddhartha lived a life of luxury in a princely family. Just as we have a cycle of stories about Mary and the special birth of Jesus, Buddhists look back to a special birth for Siddhartha. His mother died seven days after his birth and his father received a prophecy that he would become a religious leader. For this reason, it is said, his father kept him isolated in the palace. Still, Siddhartha managed to go on a trip to the village where he was profoundly affected by the suffering he saw. At 29, he left his sheltered life, determined to seek a solution to the suffering he had seen by seeking enlightenment.
Siddhartha followed the path of his culture in living a life of extreme asceticism. That means he sought to free his spirit by disregarding and torturing his body. He is said to have lived on a grain of rice a day and he soon gathered a group of disciples. But he didn’t find enlightenment in his practice and one day when a little girl offered him a bowl of rice, he ate it. His disciples were shocked and scandalized and soon left. Siddhartha, for his part, had come to an insight: neither the relaxed life of the palace not the extreme discipline of fasting had produced enlightenment; another path was needed. He called this the Middle Way. Soon after this, Siddhartha sat under a large Bodhi Tree and determined to meditate until he found enlightenment or died. After a long struggle in his mind and soul with temptation, he awakened to find that he had become an enlightened soul, now called the Buddha. He had a new awareness. He announced a set of truths and principles and began to preach them. The former disciples returned to him and became the foundation of a community of monks that also admitted women and was open to other classes and races.
The heart of Buddhism is solving the problem of human suffering. Buddhism’s foundational ideas are called “The Four Noble Truths” and they say that there is suffering, that suffering is caused by our desire, suffering has an end, and that there is a path to that end. The path for Buddha begins by understanding that we live in an illusory world; in that world, our lives revolve around desires for both things and happiness. Instead, Buddhism invites each person to an intense focus on what is happening inside us. Called mindfulness, it means watching ourselves be ourselves; it means listening to our internal conversation. “Notice the breath”, a Buddhist says and means: start with the littlest, most common thing. Give thanks for it; be conscious of it.
This is what Paul means as well when he says, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” To give thanks in all circumstances may seem impossible or flippant. How am I to give thanks when things are falling apart? How am I to give thanks when I’m angry or hurt? The first step is often to stop: stop what you’re doing, stop the rush to the next thing. Notice the breath; notice where you are, why you are angry, what wound hurts. In that moment, notice other things, things that don’t hurt—and give thanks for them. Surely this letter came from Paul’s experience. He was a man beset by so many troubles. In one of his letters, he lists the number of times he has been arrested, beaten, dragged before magistrates. Yet he’s also the one who never stopped preaching the love of God in Christ, never stopped opening doors to new Christians, never stopped giving thanks.
Eugene Kelly was an aggressive CEO of a major corporation when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and told he had only a few months to live. He says,
Before the diagnosis, my last thought every night before falling asleep usually concerned something that was to happen one month to six months later. After the diagnosis, my last thought before falling asleep was…the next day.
Kelly goes on to say that he attained a new level of awareness. It’s strikingly like Siddhartha: his life is enlightened by a clear understanding that desire and the next thing are not sufficient.
If we truly begin to consistently give thanks, surely it will lead us to a different kind of prayer. Annie LaMott famously said there are two kinds of prayer: “Thank you, thank you, thank you” and “Help me, help me, help me”. If we make the first our constant prayer, it produces a growing appreciation of simple things and then of those around and then of all of creation. And in that appreciation is joy. “Rejoice always”, Paul says: the path to joy leads from noticing to appreciating, to giving thanks. Walking the path, we find the joy God intended.
That joy waits to become an exuberant presence in us when we stop seeking happiness through our own desires. David Grayson says in his poem, Mornings Like This,
Mornings like this: I look
about the earth and the heavens:
There is not enough to believe—
Morning like this. How heady
The morning air! How sharp
And sweet and clear the morning air!
Authentic winter! The odor of campfire!
Beans eighteen inches long!
A billion chances—and I am here!
Mornings like this: rejoice always!