Redemption and joy figured prominently into my thinking and ministry this week. It is no small surprise, given our readings and our prayers. Joy, of course, is the focus of the Advent reading for the lighting of the candle this week. We are reminded that joy grows from hope, peace, and love through the servant ministry of Mary, the mother of Jesus, whose spirit rejoiced in God her Savior. Though she could not possibly understand the cross and the Resurrection at this point in her life, she could understand that she had been given a role to play in salvation history and that her son, His Son, would be central to that plan of redemption. And, lest we forget that it was always His plan to save His people and that He could accomplish that redemption, we were reminded in our Bidding Prayer to “read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this holy Child.” Yes, it is no small wonder that they figured heavily in my thinking and ministry and, I am betting, upon yours, after some reflection.
A few of you have asked why I have not shared more about the Community Meal experience this month. It’s not that I am avoiding it. I am still trying to process and discern many of the conversations into which I was drawn or given the privilege to observe or to overhear. So much happened that I am certain I will be using it as an illustration for the rest of my time in ordained ministry. Speaking with some of the volunteers of that night, I know it has marked them for a lifetime as well. And my problem becomes “how do I communicate another sacramental moment in a brief time (either through a sermon or through a few paragraphs in the Bulletin) with people who did not see, did not hear, did not feel the in-breaking of the Kingdom in a homeless shelter that night?” God will answer that question; He always does. But He may wait to give me the way the stories should be shared.
I will say, however, that our faithful witness has had an obvious effect on others, that of joy. Though we ministered to the homeless that night, others were fed in ways you and I never foresaw. For example, the meat department at Fareway is still talking about us with what can best be described as silly awe. I was purchasing meat for my own Christmas dinner and other meals on Saturday when the guy behind the counter asked me who I was. He knew he knew me, but he just could not place me. I told him why he probably knew me. “That’s it!” And he turned to two of the other guys behind the meat counter and yelled excitedly, “This is the pastor of the church that [the manager] was talking about. He’s the priest there!” After the bloody high fives and greetings (they were working, after all), they got down to business. “Thank you and your church for that story this Christmas Season. We have been talking about it for two weeks now. Some back here think you wasted your money or that it could have been better spent. Others of us think you gifted them with a Miracle of 34th Street kind of gift. I know they will never forget it, because I will never forget it. Thank you all for taking the leap of faith and giving abundant hope where there is none at a time when we all need it.” I teased him for being so eloquent for a butcher, but I thanked him for letting me know of its impact and for trying so hard to explain one of the points of the Incarnation. Misunderstanding me, he started to explain that many who work for Fareway are Christian, or at least go to church. I reminded him that Christ came that we might have life more abundantly, and that our ministry to them that night was to remind them of His promises even to the least among us.
I got a bear hug (they have been crushing this month, as well) in the Parish Hall. “Father, I just heard the story of what you did last week last night.” Not focused on the Community Meal, and having some difficulty breathing, I asked which thing he was talking about and whether he was glad or mad at me. A friend of a friend in the gutter still, literally and figuratively, had eaten our meal and listened to our songs (some of our volunteers sang carols and hymns that night). It and some of the conversations had finally broken him. For the first time ever, he was seeking help on his own rather than having that help forced upon him. “And you know: that’s when the help has a chance to really help.” He stuffed some money in my hands and told me to use it like I had used the money to help redeem his friend. I reminded him that I was not redeeming, nor was my church. It was our Lord. “Of course I understand that. But He has to work through the ones who give Him a chance. And you guys give Him all kinds of opportunity.” And out of his gift, I was able to help another family with a specific need that I had been forced to turn down a few days earlier (when the funds match the needs, I figure discernment is easy even for the blind like me). And that joy, through small redemptive acts that figure significantly in the lives of others, continued to be spread around our community.
Brothers and sisters--that is our purpose in the world. You and I beseech of God for the opportunity and grace to share His story of redemption with those in our lives. And we share it for the opportunity to share in the joy that comes from such redemption. What you and I do, of course, pales by comparison of what He first did for each one of us, as does the joy that we feel; but, however dimly, however poorly, you and I often serve both as evidence of His grace and as means of relating His story to a world hungering for hope, getting by on subsistence, and too fixated on the darkness. You and I are called to be heralds of His coming and to live as joyful stewards of all that He has given us and to be those little tiny flickers of light in the darkness whose brilliance is overwhelmed by the glory and magnificence and abundance of the One whose birth we celebrate this week, the One in Whom and through Whom all things are indeed possible and through Whom the world might be given abundant life and joy!