A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr C ~ Advent 1 ~ 1 Thessalonians 3:6-13 (MSG)
Let’s set some context. 1 Thessalonians was written in the early 0050s by the apostle Paul. That’s a couple decades after Jesus. Paul had planted the church on one of his journeys, but he was not the resident pastor there. Most of his letters in the bible are actually him writing in such contexts. He wasn’t there so he was worried about them, and wanted to make sure they were doing ok. Especially, it would seem, because he knew they’d be facing persecution, and trouble, and hard times, just for being a church.
So he sends his friend Timothy to check up on them, and when Timothy reports back that the Thessalonians are doing well, Paul is elated, and relieved. And Paul gushes to them in the letter about how he hopes to be able to “see their faces again” soon – a phrase which today we are probably hearing much more deeply than when we may have read this passage in previous times. It’s clear that Paul loves this church. Not all ministers feel that way about their churches, sadly, but it’s wonderful when you do…..yes, I do – I love my church! (Awwww).
You may be wondering what on earth this has to do with Advent, aside from a brief mention in the final verse about Jesus coming. And why are we looking at a persecuted church when we’re here in free and easy Canada with seemingly no obstacles to worship at all? And what the heck is up with the title of this sermon: Xmas – Cancelled? Well, hang on for a few minutes and I hope to tie all that together.
Advent is the church season during which we anticipate Christmas, and we prepare ourselves for the day we celebrate the monumental arrival of Jesus on the scene. It’s always a struggle in church during this season because ‘out there’ folks are already in full-blown Christmas mode. Radio stations are playing Christmas music, stores are decked out in boughs of whatever (and have been for weeks already), and it seems like the world is immersed in Christmassy stuff. Except the church, aside from a few lovely decorations. Liturgically, I hold my nose a little and we have one Christmas carol each week in Advent. I know some of you out there want many more. Sorry! (not sorry). 😊
Curiously, just when the church is ready to finally celebrate Christmas – starting on Christmas Eve and going for, oh, 12 days or so – the world is ready to stop. Out there Christmas is pretty much over on Boxing Day – for us, we’re just getting started. So, once again, the church is out of step with the wider culture. Another example of how we are a ‘counter-cultural’ body. We stand ‘against’ the culture in this way. Here’s the big question: is that a good thing? Should we stand against the ‘Christmas culture’ or just give in and go with the flow? (I bet you already know my answer!)
The problem is that most of the common Christmas culture is actually commercial Christmas culture. It’s possible, and bizarrely for many people even desirable, to celebrate Christmas without ever once mentioning or thinking about Jesus. (I feel a rant coming on!) You may recall that one of my favourite musicians is jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall. She put out a “Christmas” album a few years ago. I was so excited when I heard about it, and I bought it immediately. And then I was so disappointed. Not in the quality of the musicianship – she’s wonderful. But on this entire Christmas album there was not one single reference to anything to do with Christmas! By that I mean it was completely secular – decking halls, and jingling bells, ho-ho-ho, but no-no-no hint of Jesus.
I’m sure you’ve seen the culture wars going on about how supposedly horrible and offensive it is to have ‘happy holidays’ on a coffee cup instead of saying ‘merry Christmas’. “They’re cancelling Christmas!” they howl. “They’re persecuting us!”
Persecuting? Really? I think not!
But I will acknowledge that Christmas has been ‘cancelled’ in some ways – just not in the ways they think. This word ‘cancel’ is all the rage lately. To cancel something, or someone, is to turn your back on them and act as if they no longer exist. Celebrities who do or say some horrible thing may get ‘cancelled’ – meaning not only that no one will hire them in the future, but also that people will stop watching any of their work at all. In olden times they called it shunning – when the community decides that someone is persona non grata.
Like Jesus at Christmas, apparently.
The literal meaning of the word Christmas is to celebrate and worship the birth of Jesus, the Christ. So you could say, and I will, that anyone who celebrates Christmas without Jesus has actually cancelled Christmas! And that goes for a lot of those howlers who with one breath scream about taking the ‘Christ out of Christmas’ and with every other breath demonstrate by their unloving and un-Christlike lives that there’s not all that much Christ in them to begin with. (I warned you I was gonna rant!)
My sermon title is “Xmas (spelled with an X) – Cancelled” – and maybe you’re thinking that I’m doing it too. Actually, the X in X-mas means Christ. It came from the Greek word for Christ which begins with the Greek letter “Chi” which looks like an X – and then was used in the early days of the printing press as a short-form for spelling out the whole word. Ironically, some people may think they’re taking the Christ out of Christmas when they spell it Xmas, but they aren’t. Turns out it’s really hard to excise Jesus from the story! Amen!
Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians to a persecuted church to encourage them.
Can we relate? Are we persecuted? No, not really, not in the classic sense, but consider this.
Covid isn’t exactly persecution, but it certainly has limited our ability to be together, and infringed upon our ability to worship as we might choose. But I think maybe the worst persecution we experience is kind of a ‘reverse persecution’ – when they all utterly ignore you. It ain’t just Christmas that’s been cancelled, friends – it’s also us!
We, Christians, churches, aren’t being persecuted – we’re being cancelled!
What terrible thing did we do or say that got us cancelled by so many people? Sadly, the list is pretty long!
Literalist bible interpretations.
Embedded white privilege and racism.
Exclusion of the ‘other’ in the so-called name of holy purity – whether that be because of 2SLGBTQ identity, or race, or social class.
Shall I go on?
Now, clearly and importantly, we are trying to do better, and ARE being better. We are trying to face head-on those short-fallings with things like reconciliation, and anti-racism, and being an Affirming congregation. But, for example with that last one, despite all the United Church’s clamouring for all these years our denomination still has fewer than 10% of our churches that are Affirming. So yeah, many churches are doing better – and Faith United is probably doing better than many – but we still have a very long way to walk out of the woods.
The sad thing is that ‘out there’, especially in social media land (where the ‘younger’ generations congregate), there is little to no distinction made among churches, or flavours of Christianity. We’re all just lumped into one giant pile of supposed hypocrisy and ridiculousness, and dismissed with a ginormous eye roll. Like or not, we’ve been cancelled. And it will take a great deal of intentional, patient, loving effort on our part to even hope to rehabilitate our character, and make our way back. And despite my earlier rant, the last thing we probably ought to do is rant about ‘taking the Christ out of Christmas’!
So where the heck does that leave us? Let’s listen to Paul…1 Thessalonians 3:3-13
3-5 Trouble should not come as any surprise to you. You’ve always known that we’re in for this kind of thing. It’s part of our calling. When we were with you, we made it quite clear that there was trouble ahead. And now that it’s happened, you know what it’s like. That’s why I couldn’t quit worrying…
6-8 But now that Timothy is back, bringing this terrific report on your faith and love, we feel a lot better…In the middle of our trouble and hard times here, just knowing how you’re doing keeps us going. Knowing that your faith is alive keeps us alive.
9-10 What would be an adequate thanksgiving to offer God for all the joy we experience before God because of you? We do what we can, praying away, night and day, asking for the bonus of seeing your faces again and doing what we can to help when your faith falters.
11-13 May God our Parent and our Teacher Jesus clear the road to you! And may they pour on the love so it fills your lives and splashes over on everyone around you, just as it does from us to you. May you be infused with strength and purity, filled with confidence in the presence of God…when our Friend Jesus arrives with all his followers.
May God and Jesus and Spirit pour on the love so it fills your lives and splashes over on everyone around you!
THAT is how you get un-cancelled. You love, love, love.
You listen to and accept the criticism, even if it feels like they’re criticizing some unrecognizable church, and you humbly commit to doing better.
You model the kind of church and Christianity that you know is the most faithful and loving, and hope that it’s enough to do some influencing.
You gently but confidently name your truth, and your reasons for the season, without judging or lecturing someone else for not sharing them – even if your minister can’t seem to stop himself from doing so in church! (Just like Paul, my message is meant for the insiders today – I hope that’s ok.)
Advent is our season of waiting, preparing, looking inward, and striving to not only put the ‘Christ into Christmas’ but also to put the Christ into our every moment. We anticipate celebrating a special birth – a birth hopefully within us!!!!
And instead of worrying or fussing about commercialism, and how or why people are doing gifts, we focus on how through this miracle of incarnation, of God’s Spirit being born in us, we become the gift – of love – to the world.
This first Sunday in Advent has the theme of hope. It’s not about wishing for something that might happen. Biblical hope is a confident expectation of God’s kingdom, presence, and love.
We may at times feel pretty discouraged and beleaguered as a church – it’s hard when the world ignores you, or cancels you.
But we do live in hope – hope that we can trust in God to see us through – and hope that the love of God will continue to fill our lives and splash over on everyone around us.
The next few weeks we’ll continue to look at this idea.
We’ll move from cancelled, to circumspect, to celebrate, to conceive.
And as we go we’ll hope that we are splashing love on everyone around us.