Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem December 13, 2020
The other night, my sister and her family got all bundled up and went into the cool Georgia air to cut down their Christmas tree. Her family tradition reminded me of when my sister and I were young. How we would get all bundled up and go into the cool Michigan air to cut down our Christmas tree. On those nights, my father would carry the old rusty tree saw. The one he used only once per year and we would all go to the tree farm together as a family. There we would joyfully search for the perfect tree – the one which was tall – but not too tall. Full and green without too many holes. At least not more holes than you can hide in the back. The tree had to be exactly right; so obviously, it took hours to find. Sometimes we would even sing Christmas carols as we wandered through the rows of trees. Finally, we would choose one that we all liked and that one was always perfect, because we would bring it home to be part of our Christmas celebration that year. Afterwards, we would have hot chocolate with the little marshmallows to warm up. Now, when I heard my sister is still maintaining that joyful tradition with her family, it brought a smile to my heart and the concerns of the world seemed to be so much farther away for the Joy I knew as a child was being passed down to another generation.
Then, I thought about our theme for this year. Our theme of caring for the environment and I wondered if this tradition passed down to me from my parents’ generation is moral. Is it ethical to continue this practice of cutting down trees for Christmas in a world which is struggling to survive? Although not specifically, this question is being asked by our younger generation as they lead the way to environmental care.
In this between place, I found my heart wanting to embrace the joy of the generation before while living into the just and ethical innovations of the younger generation. It seemed to be an impossibility – but, beloved, through God all things are possible – there is a third way – a Way through the middle to the divine light of Christ – a way we can prepare our hearts for the light of Joy through embracing the blessings of all our generations.
Before we begin, would you pray with me,
Holy Creator who created in all Creation – life – Let us be witness to the Joy you bring through the generations – allow our hearts to question and our lives to be faithful as we discern the ways to celebrate this Christmas with You. May our hearts listen to the soul of one another as our words speak of Your truth.
Now beloved, I bring this issue up for over the last few years many Christians have felt that our faith is being attacked – Christmas itself is under assault – with everything from the use of “Happy Holidays” in order to be more inclusive to cancelling the cartoon “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer” due to the bullying overtones in the story. If you have not heard about these controversies, I invite you to listen with your soul to the generation which is speaking. The generation called the ‘millennials’ which has found their voice and is bringing up awareness of justice which many of us in older generations did not consider. This awareness though is not just around Christmas. We have received a slew of innovative ideas which are challenging many of our traditional ways from democratic socialism to pro-choice being racist. Ideas which range the spectrum and invite us to engage them as a people of faith. Many of these ideas we will discuss in the years to come. However, today, let us focus on the joy we discover while cutting down the Christmas tree and the reality that this may not be ethical considering our faith which calls us to care for our environment.
That said, this thought of the ethicality of the Christmas tree never crossed my mind. I never considered this issue may not be best for the environment – that this tree’s life is ending while I walked through the snow with my family. Rather, I just enjoy the beauty of the tree with lights, garland, and a star – on top. But it is true that even though we grow these trees specifically for Christmas in all 50 states; we are killing them. We are taking them away from a long life of providing oxygen for us to breath – and homes for the many critters of the world. I witness this new generation’s awareness and do not wish to destroy our environment. I want my life to be faithful and just for all of Creation.
Yet – I also do not want to stop having a tree at Christmas – I enjoy those memories from my parent’s generation. So, where does this leave me? Somewhere stuck in the middle, I am afraid. Somewhere, that we cannot act – and thereby become aimless – letting the guilt or frustration fill our heart. When this happens, beloved, there is no room for Joy in our hearts. No room for the light of joy which is coming. For, we are stuck in a generational quandary between morality or joyful traditions.
This type of aimlessness was happening to the people of Thessalonica. They had been taught by the generation before, specifically Paul, that joy would come to the people during their lifetime when Christ returned to the world; yet the Thessalonians were dying, and this belief of joy to come was being challenged. Now, this issue is why the apostle wrote The First letter of Paul to the Thessalonians around 44-51 AD according to the theologian David Horrell. The letter though does not speak of false teaching or immoral conduct which is common amongst the other Pauline epistles. Rather Paul continually speaks of this community’s faith and Joy; his concern for their loss of joy; and many instructions on how to remain joyful and faithful when there are quandaries in life.
And this passage is the good news – beloved – the good news of instruction which teaches us how to push away the aimlessness, guilt, and frustration in life and prepare our hearts for the light of Joy which will come – no matter what the quandary may be. Paul reminds us to rejoice always. Rejoice in God by not quench(ing) the Spirit. What a profound and prophetic instruction that teaches us joy can be found when we do not destroy the Spirit in others. In other words, listen – not just with your ears but with your soul to the joy discovered by one generation and the moral quandary revealed by another generation. Listen with your soul; so, you may discern how to live as a joyful disciple living a just life. It means hearing the needs of one generation to protect the environment and the joy discovered when the generation before took us out on to the tree farm. Hear them both, without silencing – without cancelling – without ignoring – hear them so their Spirit will not be quenched.
Paul goes on to offer the beautiful and clear instruction – do not despise the words of the prophets – Hear the words of the Bible – the generations who came before – the traditions of our past. Hear these words and let them guide your discernment. But also test those traditions, test everything – question everything like the younger generations. Ask how cutting down a tree at Christmas helps the environment – bring to light those conflicts you see but balance them against scripture.
finally, Paul gives us the solid, simple instruction on how to remain joyful: “hold fast to everything which is good and abstain from everything which is evil.” What a beautiful instruction – simple and encouraging. A blessed phrase that we can each carry today and every day to come as we discern these struggles between generations – between tradition and innovation – between the joy we remember as a youth and the just faith we are called to live into today. Discern that which brought you joy and is good.
For me, those excursions for our tree were joyful because it was a time of family, caroling, and decorating of the tree. It was the hot chocolate and the lights which brought me joy. But the joy – for me- was not in the actual cutting of the tree. So, wait maybe that is the way – maybe the good news is right there – abstain from those things which we consider evil, unnecessary, or unjust like the actual cutting of the tree. Not that I am saying that cutting a tree is evil; rather, I am suggesting that in light of our knowledge – our awareness of the environment revealed through the millennial generation – maybe cutting trees down for Christmas is unnecessary as there are artificial trees.
This good news, beloved, is what Paul brought to us as a way – an instruction – a teaching of Christ Jesus that joy is discovered throughout the generations – through the traditions of our parents and the innovations of our children calling us to find the way in the middle. This good news is how we will prepare our hearts for the light of joy not just today with this quandary around our Christmas trees. But it is a teaching we can carry into every part of our lives.
So, as we live into this advent season, let us take time to listen with our souls to the generations of people – the traditions and the innovations. Do not quench the Spirit of any but hear these generations speaking and then discern the good – the joy – the just ways and leave behind the evil or unnecessary ways. This middle way beloved is the way of the divine – the way God is calling us too – the way which will push away our aimlessness, guilt, and frustration; thereby, preparing us for the light of Joy to come into our hearts throughout the generations. May every day of this Advent season allow you to hear with your soul the cries of the generations as we discern the way to prepare our hearts for the light of Joy together. In the name of God’s divine Joy, we pray. Amen.