I have a confession to make. In the year of our Lord, 2021 I started celebrating Christmas before Advent was finished. We broke our long tradition of waiting until the fourth Sunday of Advent to get a tree. But it’s even worse than that. I actually celebrated Christmas in October with a tree, decorations, a festive meal, the three kings, baby Jesus and barbecue.
I was in Mississippi at the family home of a devout Episcopalian and her best friend, the daughter of an Episcopal deacon. There were kids and dogs and a big deck by the creek. There was plenty of wine and laughter and some of the best food and conversation I’d ever had. The photo of our hostess with her friend and me is probably my favorite one from our trip. Jessica is in the middle and we’re leaning into her from either side. There is so much love and joy in that picture.
There’s a good reason why we were celebrating Christmas in October. Jessica is dying and may not make it to December 25, 2021. She is 38 years old and she has ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. At that point her lung function was down to about 25% and her mobility was severely limited. There is no cure. Jessica is realistic and determined. She has already decided what treatment she will and won’t accept and has made plans for her wake and what to do with her ashes. It’s tragic. It’s heartbreaking. It’s so very, very sad.
And yet, here we were, celebrating, laughing as her dogs and kids ran around and our husbands sat on the couch watching Mississippi play Louisiana in college football. Because Jessica loves Christmas and this would be her last one, her friends got together and decorated the entire house with her instructions. They helped purchase and wrap the gifts she wanted to distribute. They took care of everything according to her wishes. It was beautiful. It was joyful.
Happiness is not the same as joy. Elusive happiness is based on circumstances. Measurements of happiness vary by geography and other temporal factors. But joy is unbounded, unlimited and certainly not dependent upon circumstances. Joy cannot be manufactured, but it can be cultivated. The act of rejoicing brings joy. Giving thanks and expressing gratitude cultivate a joyful spirit. Faith in the unfailing presence of God even in the most difficult circumstances brings a quiet and unwavering joy.
Joy is demonstrated by many in the Black Church, who when asked how they are, will answer “blessed.” I’m blessed because I woke up this morning in my right mind. I’m blessed because I’ve lived to see another day. Many of the worship services in the Black Church lead up to a crescendo of joy, sometimes expressed in clapping or exclaiming aloud or even dancing in the Spirit. In the midst of trial and great tribulation, the people of God literally kick up their heals in praise, giving glory to God.
Jessica and these dear saints, along with the Apostle Paul, who wrote from prison, from PRISON, proclaim “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” And so, in the midst of the dark days of Advent and the honest reckoning we are called to make with the nightmare that our world has become, we are celebrating Gaudate or Rejoice Sunday. I love this day! I love the pink candle and the pink vestments and the readings that speak of joy, hope, deliverance and the promise of God’s coming.
Lord knows we have mourned and sighed over these past months and years. Our hearts have been heavy and worried. And yet today, we are encouraged to lift up our hearts, to sing, to cry aloud, to move beyond our fear and anxiety and to exult. We Episcopalians may even want to lift up our hands or clap when we are moved by the music of worship today. We may want to smile and sing behind our masks and shockingly, not be afraid to whoop and holler a little bit.
Because God is our deliverer. God is the one who will save the lame, gather in the outcast and bring the people home. God is in our midst, even when we are in great difficulty. God is lifting up the lowly and loving the unlovely. God is executing justice on behalf of those who have been laid low by systemic oppression. “Cry aloud, ring out your joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One.”
Jessica knows she is dying and she wants to spend every possible moment living until that day. The Apostle Paul is in prison, where he will likely die and he wants to encourage and exhort those he loves in his letters. John the Baptizer has provoked just about everyone with his message of repentance and right living, and it will soon cost him his head. He is burning to proclaim the good news. Their faith, hope and joy are not diminished by the brevity of the days they have remaining. For love’s sake, they pour themselves out.
Each of these saints points us to Christ. God’s love for us is made manifest in Jesus and will bear us up in the worst the world can dish out. God’s Spirit is more powerful than we can possibly imagine and will light and guide us through the darkness. And God’s peace, which is beyond all we can imagine, will guard us in every circumstance and deliver us from the fear and anxiety that is all around us.
This promise is for all, even the tax collectors, who were part of a system of greed and exploitation; even the soldiers, who were schooled in the ways of violence and war; even the politicians and lesser sinners. (SMILE). God promises to renew and restore us to right relationship and guide us into more just and ethical living. Repentance and renewal are to be practiced in everyday life. The simple commands that John the Baptizer gives to businessmen, politicians and the police are the same: Collect no more than is your due. Don’t extort anyone. If you have extra, share. If someone is hungry, feed them. Don’t be greedy.
When we have relationships with one another and resources to share, our world begins to be transformed from the nightmare it has become into the dream of God. Sometimes we catch glimpses of this. Maybe you saw some of the news this week. In the Ballard neighborhood, over the past 2 years the business community, city government and politicians, social service providers and St. Luke’s have been working to find a way to provide shelter, sustenance and security for all the people in our neighborhood.
We built relationships of trust with one another and heroic case managers spent months building connections with the most vulnerable. James from REACH and Jen from the Bridge Care Center joined the staff and volunteers of Edible Hope in making deep connections with those who have suffered tremendous trauma both prior to and during their experience of homelessness.
In the meantime, many worked to prioritize those who were most at risk living in and around Ballard Commons. As resources became available, they were directed to those in need. Slowly, first one at a time and then in groups, folks found housing, tiny homes, shelters and rooms where, for the first time in months and years, they could be inside, warm, and safe with a locked door. Over 72 people have accepted assistance. Every day since I’ve been back, someone I have known as homeless has come by to tell me what a difference it has made for them. We all know that there is a long way to go and additional resources, particularly for mental and behavioral health will be needed. But without shelter, people die and there are dozens of our guests who now have a chance.
You know, Jesus had nothing against tax collectors, soldiers or politicians. He simply called them to live into a radical love for neighbor and to work for the good of all. For this neighborhood to live into the vision of Beloved Community, we at St. Luke’s will continue to work with all our neighbors to provide shelter, sustenance and safety so that everyone has a chance to flourish.
To that end, we are excited to announce that the City of Seattle has awarded 9.7 million dollars for our proposal with Bridge Housing to build affordable family housing on our three back lots where the cottages and garden are. This unlocks additional state and federal funding and will provide for at least 80 one, two and three-bedroom units for those making less than 60% of the average median income for Seattle.
This is the first affordable family housing built in Ballard in decades and we are not the only ones who are excited. The Mayor, our City Council member and the Office of Housing are thrilled that there will be a place for essential workers, multi-generational households, BIPOC families and those with limited resources to live in a community with wonderful amenities. We believe this will provide greater racial and economic diversity.
St. Luke’s gave up half the monetary value of the property in order to make this work. Your vision for Beloved Community that is diverse and welcoming has been the guiding mantra for the Property Stewardship Team as we have pursued this dream. You have been clear that the highest and best use of our land is not financial but rather the greatest good for all. It is such a joy to celebrate this major milestone towards that vision.
As we await, once again, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, we live in hope. Optimism is not hope. Hope is the gift of God to help us live into a vision we may never see fully realized. Hope is never giving up on the least, the last and the lost. Hope is believing that we are loved, not in spite of who we are but because of who we are. Hope is celebrating Christmas in October. Amen.