Of Persimmon Pudding and Advent Joy

This time of year, unless we’ve got COVID-19 or have been served an eviction notice, our hearts turn to the delights of the season.  It may be our favorite dishes, a fond Christmas memory, a special gift you gave someone.  For me, one cherished holiday favorite is Jai’s persimmon pudding topped with lemon sauce.  More about that later.

Memories flood in – the good, the bad and the ugly.  We probably won’t have a tree this year for just the two of us, but one memorable tree stands out.

When I was in junior high, my mom got on this artsy-craftsy kick.  We were informed that we would not be having our usual decorations and lights for the tree that year.  From a holiday season designer magazine, she came upon some gaudy monstrosity to replace our cherished family decorations.  Way too froufrou.  I could see Christmas already going down the drain.

What had usurped the place of honor on our tree were these new creations she spent weeks making out of four-inch Styrofoam balls covered with gold netting and glitter.  God-awful is what I called them. I was soon not on her favorite-person list.  She spent weeks on end putting them together – must have been forty or fifty of these suckers. Boxes full.  As we had just moved into a new house with a eighteen foot high ceiling in the entryway, we could have a really huge tree.

This brings me to the second disaster of the season.  My dad was never one to pass up a bargain.  He figured that if we waited until the very last moment to get a tree, we wouldn’t have to overpay for it.  As time grew closer and closer to Christmas Eve, and my mom had finished her growing collection of these wretched glittery balls, my brother and I were increasingly fearful that all the trees were going to be sold out.  Snarkily, I suggested that if we waited until Christmas Day, they’d probably PAY US to haul one away.

It was either Christmas Eve, or maybe the night before, when we drove from empty tree lot to empty tree lot.  My brother and I were about in tears.  This was shaping up to be the WORST CHRISTMAS EVER.

We finally found a lot with lights still on and one or two sales clerks.  Not much of a selection left.  And then my dad spied it.  A tall, fifteen-foot, white, flocked tree.  The price must have been right because Dad snapped it up in an instant.  As we drove home, he went on and on about what a deal he’d gotten.  “Let that be a lesson, boys.”  Yeah, Grinch.  A really memorable lesson on how to ruin Christmas for everybody.

It did have, though, more than enough space for Mom’s creations, and multiple strings of white lights.  I still missed our old-fashioned colored ones.  Especially the ones that bubbled up like little candles. This ersatz tree would have looked most handsome in some bank lobby or maybe a Sears department store.  But I didn’t say that, as we set about distributing presents around it.

Ready or not, the time draws neigh.  Our collect for this morning expresses the urgency.  “STIR UP YOUR POWER, O Lord, and with great might come among us…”  With Isaiah we proclaim, “…the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

STIR UP YOUR POWER, INDEED!   In England, this is called “Stir-Up Sunday” – the reminder for the women (I guess men don’t make the puddings)  to stir up their Christmas puddings.

In our family, it’s about persimmon pudding and joy.  We light the third candle.  You notice, it’s pink.  Actually, in your Zoom-isolated home you might not actually have a pink candle.  But pretend.  It’s pink.  Got it? 

It’s pink because the third Sunday in Advent is known as “Gaudete Sunday,” from the Latin first word of the ancient introit, “Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, Gaudete — Rejoice in the Lord always: again, I say, rejoice.” – BE JOYFUL.  Be of good cheer.

When I had asked my friend, Dick, how was it even possible, with our country in such a sad-sack state of affairs:  a pandemic with Americans dying like flies, rampant conspiracy theories, homelessness, hunger, and the flat-out denial of electoral reality – how was it at all possible to have any good word to say this coming Sunday about JOY?  I recalled my preaching professor Dr. K. Morgan Edwards admonishing us students, “In scripture it is said, ‘The word of the Lord was rare in those days,’…BUT you have to preach this Sunday anyway!”

I was beginning to wish it was Deacon Pat’s turn to preach again.  Any word from me was going to sound like the really “FAKE NEWS.”   Plastic Christmas brought to you by Fr. John.

And this is the advice from my friend.  When things are looking pretty crappy — when there’s not much good news – look for the small moments of joy that break into your life.  Look for small moments for gratitude.  Great advice.  I probably owe him a beer for that one.

As I said, Jai makes the most scrumptious persimmon pudding ever.  To die for.  Top that with her lemon sauce and it’s an express ticket straight to the Land of Bliss.  As close that we’ll get in this lifetime to heaven.  Well, maybe I exaggerate.  But it’s really, really, really good.  What wouldn’t be a cause for jumping-up-and-down joy?

Being cooped up has had some very good moments.  There has been some excellent programming on television.  It’s not all a wasteland.

If you can get it, watch “The Children of Windermere,” the story of some three hundred child interns rescued from Hitler’s death camps at the end of WWII.  It follows these children from Czechoslovakia to a new home in Northeast England.  There, under the guidance of enlightened professionals and others these children were restored to wholeness as best as was possible.  By the time they were of high school age they went to live with individual families..  That they found fulfilling work, some entering the professions and academia…that they  married and raised successful children – all of it was heartwarming testimony that sometimes humanity out does itself.  We do the right thing and succeed wondrously well.  That program was enough to bring gallons of joy to my heart.  Advent joy.  Watch it with your children.  They need to know of such goodness that springs froth from the human heart.  Find it on your PBS station.  Or order it for Christmas from the PBS catalogue.

Another, most joyful event, was Kamilah Forbes’ adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, which builds on the 2018 Apollo Theater stage production.  Showing on HBO, Direct TV and Amazon Prime.  It is about “The Talk.”  That’s the instruction that parents of color must give their children around their sixteenth birthday on how to survive an encounter with law enforcement.  It’s that necessary talk that will allow them to survive such an encounter.  It is not a talk that white parents need to give their children.  Therein is the racial divide in this nation.  It’s the talk that our son Christopher and Alexis, should they marry and have children, will need to give theirs – and give our grandchildren.  It’s an existential concern.  It is a moment of quiet joy that white families are presently being brought into this discussion.

What I found to be most joyful about such a depressing topic is that such a crucial national discussion could be held on TV.  You know, that cultural “wasteland.”  That some white parents might get a glimpse of what others with teenagers of color must endure. 

As a white kid, I never received a talk like this from my parents.  It wasn’t necessary.  Being white and middle class, most any officer would have treated me with respect.  And they did.  Never once was I harassed, abused, or in fear for my life.  The worst worry I had was how to explain the speeding ticket to my father.  Sixty, in a thirty-five-mile-an-hour zone???  Never demeaned, even on that traffic stop –though, I did get quite a lecture from the officer.  And the ticket.

What I find to be a cause for joy is that now, for the first time, white parents are learning right there in their living rooms, in their own gut, the racial disparities that so many others must endure.  The film is beautifully done – doesn’t pull any punches – but it, in ANY decent heart, causes a surge of empathy to well up.  Such understanding is the essential ingredient to any racial healing in our land.  And that is a cause for the most profound Advent Joy.  Right there on HBO, I think MSNBC also carried it.  Order it from Amazon.  It will leave you hopeful that, together, we can fix this.  Racism need not have the last word. 

To underscore the need, another black man was shot as he was entering his home in Columbus, Ohio.  Carrying two Subway sandwiches, as his two toddlers and 72-year-old grandmother looked on in horror    Casey Goodson, 23, was killed by a sheriff’s deputy, the shooting ruled a homicide by the coroner.

When hearts and consciences are aroused, even by such tragedy, I’m taken back to our first Advent candle – HOPE and, now, our third, JOY – all part of God’s PEACE, our second Advent candle.  With a new administration committed to ending police violence, committed to dismantling Jim Crow — I choose to be hopeful. 

Tears of grief, as flowing in a New Orleans funeral procession, God can turn to joy.  Out of dirge, ragtime JOY can bust out…IF, AND ONLY IF, WE DO THE WORK.  Only if we sing a new song.  Only if we do the organizing, the voter registration and get the souls to the polls.

We can vote for a decent America – an America where #BlackLivesMatter – an America where all lives matter.

STIR UP YOUR POWER, O Lord and with great might come among us.  We hunger for even the slightest smidgen of JOY.

Now that we’re on a Zoom schedule at St. Francis, the most profound joy these past weeks is just seeing your beautiful faces.  We are Advent Joy to one another – a gift of the Lord. 

Whether it’s small family gatherings, if only by Zoom gathering, or persimmon pudding with lemon sauce, whether it’s a documentary that stirs the soul and quickens the conscience, Advent Joy is creeping in “on little cat’s feet.” In ways big and small.

Let us light that pink candle on this Third Sunday of Advent.  Light it, remembering Casey Goodson.  And light it with hearts thirsting for God’s goodness.  Light it with commitment to BE THE CHANGE you seek. 

The Spirit of the Lord is abounding in the land with Good News to the oppressed, the poor, the hungry…not only those of whom we read of in the papers and see on TV, but also for folks right here, right now. 

Light a candle for JOY.  And stay away from tacky Christmas tree ornaments. 


December 13, 2020, Third Sunday of Advent

“Of Persimmon Pudding and Advent Joy”

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Canticle 3; 7; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24;
John 1:6-8, 19-28

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