Advent 3 December 13, 2009

Zephaniah 3:14-20                                                            

Philippians 4:4-7                                                                 

Luke 3:7-18

So this is “rejoice Sunday,” gaudete Sunday, for those interested in church trivia, which isn’t many of us, thank goodness. It’s the Sunday to light the pink candle on your Advent wreath, if you have three purple ones and a pink one, which we don’t at Holy Cross. The reasons for all this need not concern us this morning. Instead, we take a look at what it might possibly mean to “rejoice in the Lord,” as the reading from Philippians says. What it might mean to live with “our hearts and minds guarded in the peace of God in Christ Jesus.” It is a dark time in the world, an anxious time for many – for all of us, if we really let ourselves think of the challenges our world faces. So “rejoicing in the Lord” and finding security in the peace of God is no easy matter.

But imagine yourself in the following situation. You are born to a poor family, poor in ways that no one in this room has ever experienced. This is Uganda, a poor nation ruled by a cruel dictator, Idi Amin, where life expectancy is short and Christians like your family are persecuted and sometimes murdered. When you and your twin sister are just two years old, your mother dies. Your father, a lay preacher in the Anglican Church, proceeds to raise you and your siblings, to see that you receive an education. This is not easy, but you and your sister become the first women in the whole continent of Africa to be ordained priest. You each marry priests, on the same day, and proceed to have children and then grandchildren.

Now you are in the United States, working as a priest with a tiny congregation of African immigrants down in Lowell. You have already founded such a congregation, which is now large and flourishing, in Waltham. Your husband and family are back in Uganda. You work to send money home to your village, to help educate street children, orphans many of them from the AIDs epidemic that is devastating Africa, to encourage them to return home and stay together with their siblings in families – families headed by children 10 and 12 years old – to keep things together in the midst of chaos. You work to raise money to buy sewing machines, tool boxes, chickens, pigs and goats, so that these families may have a livelihood. You hope to buy bicycles for every priest in your diocese, in memory of your father, who died at the age of 96. And, of course, you are working in Lowell to build up your immigrant congregation, whose members have their own struggles and their own stories of loss and privation.

I don’t know about you, but I can scarcely imagine how I would function in this situation. It makes me ashamed of all the material things I take for granted, of the minor inconveniences and challenges in my life that I complain about. More fundamentally, it makes me embarrassed for my lack of faith, the thinness of my life in Christ. I call myself a believer – what do I even begin to know, compared to this woman and her family, to those to whom they minister?

 This woman has a name; it is Mother Mary Tusuubira. Tusuubira means “hope.” I know of her through John and Fernanda Harrington, who met her 15 years ago and have kept in touch since, visiting her in her congregations in Waltham and Lowell. I hope Mother Mary can arrange to be with us at Holy Cross some day before too long, and that we can become involved in supporting her ministries.

We read a lot about how Christianity is dying in America and Europe, congregations dwindling, churches empty on Sundays. And how in Africa, it is just the opposite. Uganda is the most Anglican nation on earth now. The very persecution that Christians suffered when Mother Mary was young has given life to the Church there, proving once again the words of the second century Christian apologist Tertullian that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

Hearing Mother Mary write or speak helps one understand the contrast between faith in western cultures like our own and faith in places like Africa. Almost every sentence Mother Mary utters refers to the Lord and his blessings. She sees God’s hand at work in everything that comes to pass. She understands her life, and the lives of her family, as a mission for Christ. She knows the Lord is with her as she faces her challenges. In a letter she wrote me, words like love, hope, embrace, care, welcome, pray, faithful, testify and build up overflow from every page.

It must have been that way with the prophet Zephaniah, rallying the people of Judah to pull their nation out of a period of moral and political decay:

Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you with his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.

It must have been that way with John the Baptist, proclaiming the “good news” of the coming of a Messiah who would “baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire,” bringing righteousness and justice to earth. It must have been that way with St. Paul, telling the struggling little Christian congregation in Philippi to “rejoice in the Lord always” and not to “worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

For the great revelation in all of this, my friends and fellow beneficiaries of a spoiled and comfortable life, is that true joy and peace are not about us, not about building up our success and security. The peace that passes all understanding, the peace that “will guard our hearts and minds in Christ,” is centered on God – on his justice, his judgment, his righteousness, his coming in Jesus Christ. Like the “brood of vipers” who stood on the banks of the Jordan listening to John so long ago, we are called to repent and redirect our lives so that they may be one with the life of Christ, with the life of God. In that we will know true rejoicing.

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