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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Joy to the World!
December 13, 2018

The third week of Advent focuses on the theme of Joy. The prescribed epistle reading traditionally associated with the third Sunday of Advent in the western Church is taken from Philippians 4, and begins, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” (Philippians 4:4) Thus this Sunday came to be known as Gaudete Sunday, the Latin word for “rejoice” that begins that reading.

Advent announces the joyous prospect of a cosmic realignment of things under the rule of the One who comes to right all wrongs. This is truly joyful news, except for those who have a stake in preserving the current arrangement of things in this world.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is, per capita, the wealthiest denomination in the United States. We have more to lose than any other denomination if the economic tables of our world are overturned. And that is precisely what Mary announces when she learns she will bear the Messiah. She exults that he will bring down the exalted and lift up the lowly, feed the hungry and send the rich away empty. (Luke 1:52-53) What causes Mary to rejoice makes people who enjoy privilege in the current order shudder.

Jesus teaches that wealth is an impediment, rather than a benefit, for entry into the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19:23-26) The joy of embracing Jesus seems to come primarily to the losers and the lost of this world, rather than to its movers and shakers.

How can we rejoice at the prospect of Jesus coming to turn our world upside-down? We find joy in this news only to the extent that we understand how broken the current world order truly is, our privileged place in it notwithstanding.

A broken world breaks the heart of its Creator. It ought to break ours as well.

When people seek refuge from societies in which their lives are endangered, we need to rejoice at the possibility of their finding a new place of well-being. When those who live in poverty through no fault of their own find fresh hope for economic viability, we need to rejoice at their new prospects for gainful employment and support. When those whose ill health has blocked their pathway to security, we need to rejoice at new options for care that enable them to return to wholeness.

Presbyterians have often been in the vanguard of those calling for reforming a system that disadvantages the poor. We should be proud of that. Standing strong for social justice is always right. Let us keep our commitment to that firm and bright. But I worry a bit whether we really mean it, if it means we could lose our place of privilege in the process.

I counsel regularly with Pastor Nominating Committees and pastoral candidates. I have discovered that often when a church tells its candidates it desires change, “It ain’t necessarily so.” It wants some things to change, such as its decline in membership or financial support or youth ministry. Don’t we all want such things to change? Of course. But are we ready for change to the way we’ve always done things? Too often churches want to change their outcomes, but not the actions that have precipitated them.

The coming of a Messiah that changes everything brings great joy to the downtrodden and dispossessed. But it is much harder for those in places of comfort and privilege to find joy in his coming.

And so I invite us, regardless of our material wealth and social comfort, to consider what it means to embrace a spirit of poverty. I’m not asking us to be ungrateful or morbid, only to realize that our possessions and privileges are nothing compared to the glory of the kingdom Jesus has come to inaugurate.

A change in how our world works is good news only for those who realize that our current order is not working. Joy to the world? Abundantly yes! But only for those who are ready to let go of the world as we know it, confident that Jesus’ new order is far better for all of us than what we have now.

Joyfully yours,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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