The Christmas songs are playing in the radio and the stores are celebrating already, beckoning our purchases to help us get in the holiday mood. Moreover, it seems our entire economy is dependent on buying Christmas gifts – an annual activity that has, in effect, become our patriotic duty. If our merchants don’t get in the black, if they are left with too much inventory at the end of the year, than the economy slumps and allegedly, everyone is in trouble. Indeed, some of theses merchants are our Church members and friends; family members are store clerks and sales people in the malls. And then, of course, there are the charities with a last appeal for their end of the year budgets. Even if we don’t have the money at hand, we feel obligated to take out the charge cards and run. Moreover, if we are honest, our feelings of self worth are often tied to gift-giving and receiving. Added to this, many of us cling to unrealistic expectations of what Christmas can accomplish in us and in others No wonder Advent and Christmas bring anxiety and frustration. While Spirituality invites us to simplify our lives, to do with less so others who have less may be brought up to our standards, we can feel discouraged, that we are letting many people down if we don’t buy enough gifts and treats to keep the economy going. We want to cultivate spiritual values, explore the values of patience and the benefits of waiting, of delayed gratification at the same time we feel obligated to follow the crowd, summon the cheer, to feel what we are supposed to feel rather than address how we truly feel. The office parties have already started. What are we to do?
To start, we trust in our biblical heritage and allow the past to inform our present. We turn to our ancestors in faith. Exiled by the Babylonians, the people of the tribes of Judah were filled with anxieties and conflicted feelings. They found themselves once again strangers in a strange land. Their beliefs and customs were so very different from that of their neighbors and the societies of Babylon and Persia (today’s Afghanistan, Iraq & Iran. The prophet Isaiah and his disciples articulate a prayer on their behalf : “Why do you let us wander, O Lord . . . for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt.” Did God truly abandoned them OR have they truly abandoned God? The answer is neither: God never abandons His own. Yes, the people are in exile, but didn’t God send Prophets to them? Yes! ISAIAH was there for them. And don’t forget Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Malachi and all the rest. And they had not abandoned God. They brought their questions and expressed their feelings to God- which is exactly what believers are invited to do. And along with their questions, they pondered life’s meaning and purpose, they pondered God’s plans.
Wisdom of prophets and our own human experience confirm that God’s most precious gift to us beyond life itself is free will. It’s the only gift that distinguishes humanity from all other creatures. FREE WILL is the gift that allows us, as the prophets say, “to wander as we will.” And so as Advent begins, faith invites us to make choices that bring us closer to the Spirit of the Living God. We need to set aside time to ponder and pray about what that might mean.
First we must admit that many of our problems and sufferings are of our own making. That includes our Advent anxieties and Christmas dilemmas. Humbly acknowledging our contributions to our own anxieties IS the beginning of wisdom. Wisdom also invites us to come down to earth and acknowledge our dependence upon God. That kind of humility aligns us with all living things who share with us the very air we breathe and water we drink. Never alone but always interconnected with the beauty, majesty and mystery of creation. That’s the mindset that cultivates A “Mindfulness of God in All Things.” That’s the spirit we need for Advent, Christmas and all year round. Seeing a connection between our life stories and that of Jesus will accomplish that, too. And so with these truths in focus I’ve prepared a retreat for you Sunday night to assist you in cultivating humility and awe and wonder in God’s presence, whatever your circumstances, whatever you are feeling these days. And I have tools to offer you that will empower you to see Jesus’ story as your story and your story as His because of God’s care for you and our world.
I’ll start by affirming God cares about you and your feeling — even your discomforting feelings, your sad feelings, your feelings of resentment and hurt and angers. People may not respond well to them, you may not even accept them with in yourself, but God does. Jesus does. It is why he took on the fullness of our humanity to be with us in and through all feelings and corresponding thoughts – not to judge or condemn but to transform them through his loving care, understanding and His wisdom to fortify and alter whatever kind of wisdom we may or may not have cultivated on our own. If you chose not to come to the retreat Sunday night, at least now I am leaving you with this thought: how much God cares about you and your feelings and the situations you find yourself in. And believing how much God cares about you makes all the difference in the choices you make for yourself and the care you may potentially demonstrate toward others. It will make a difference in how you experience Advent and celebrate Christmas.
We prayed with Psalm 80 today: (I’ll paraphrase in more conventional language): make us humble and contrite, O God, so we may and stand in continual awe of YOU who cares for us. Has God abandoned us? Certainly not! Has JESUS abandoned us? JESUS has given us His Word and His sacraments and one another. Jesus has bestowed the Holy Spirit. We are his Church and we are here amidst the malls, the decorated and un-decorated homes and the stacks of bills. DON’t Pass us by or takes the gift of faith for granted. The signs of the times require faith. They require a commitment to Christ and time spent cultivating that relationship to put all of our relationships in proper perspective. Commitment opens our eyes wide to see the many ways JESUS Comes to us, has come to us, will come to us in all hours of the day and night just as He comes to us now in this Word and EUCHARIST so he will come at the end of time. Psalm 80 also articulated this question: “Would that you might meet us doing right, O God! Oh, that we were mindful of you in our ways!” In what state of mind and heart do want to be this Advent, this Christmas and beyond. You have choices before you. Will you choose to participate in the parish Advent retreat and / or spend time in private prayer or other spiritual pursuits? What will they be? One thing for sure, we all need spiritual support to engage in our culture lest our culture engage us in what is beyond our control, in all that is material alone, gratification that is fleeting and disposable like the Christmas trees drying out on the curbs on or after New Year’s Day.
The choice is before you. You have chosen Word and EUCHARIST today. They are God’s gifts of comfort and joy to you in the here and now. If you would like to perpetuate these spiritual gifts and cultivate them throughout your nights and days, make choices like retreat and the many spiritual opportunities offers you here at Saint Sebastian’s in the weeks and months ahead. To use the popular marketing analogy: You contribute to the Church with time, talent and treasure. Do you want more for your money or less? And like our retreat, today’s EUCHARIST is here for the taking and all are invited to see and hear what God has in store for you now and always!
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MP3 available in 2015