"Graceland" is the name of my favorite song and album. It's by Paul Simon, but more importantly, it's what "home" sounds and feels like to me. We always listened to this album as we traveled from my home in Tennessee to my parents' childhood homes in Florida. But today, it's also a pretty good snapshot of my theology. Somewhere I really believe that the Christian journey is all about a wild trip to Grace-land. As I see it, Grace-land is the place where God is waiting to meet even us–with all the baggage and brokeness that we tote with us. Grace-land is the place where we will be received with open arms, even though our attempts at “getting it right” have been miserable failures at best. But, I think, every step we take is a step on the journey to Graceland.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

{In response to the shootings in Conneticut on 12/14}

Advent 3c
Zephaniah 3:14++

            Like the sermons that many churches will hear today, this is not the one I was planning on preaching today.  I was dutifully slogging away with the name-calling John the Baptist and his good news that didn’t feel like good news.   When I woke up in the wee hours of Friday morning, I had several things on my mind:  finish a sermon, make our house spotless so that you would think that’s how we keep our house, and prepare some dishes for you to enjoy as you’re at our house this afternoon.  But by 1 or 2, the whole world felt like a different place.  None of those things that seemed so pressing mattered much in the wake of the news that came out of Connecticut.  28 people lost their lives in a massacre.

            There just aren’t words.  There are no beautiful words that can make any sense out of it, no words that can make it ok.  There are only prayers, the kind that are beyond words, the kind that comes in gasps and broken utterances.  There are only tears that weep boldly for those that have lost—that dare to express a hope that Christ reigns even in the midst of all the things

  Long before the world woke up yesterday morning, I was sitting in front of the fire—with its lights and two stockings.  The dogs were snoring beside me, and as I opened up my computer, trying to figure out what to say, the Vienna Boys choir began singing Silent Night.  It was the perfect picture of a quiet Advent morning.  And it undid me.  Because juxtaposed with that was the headline that showed up on my news feed:  Connecticut school shooting: Witness inside school: 'I've got bodies here'.  And juxtaposed with that  was my virtual Advent candle that was waiting to be lit.  Yesterday’s candle still heralding peace, today’s—the one that we haven’t lit yet here either: joy.

On Tuesdays during Advent, we’re praying through the Advent candles. I shared with the people that were there last Tuesday as we were talking about peace that in 2011, during the second week of Advent, several things happened in the world and in my community.  The 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor happened.    There was a bombing in Afghanistan that killed 56 people.  And in Fayetteville, just a few weeks before, there had been a shooting at our mall on Black Friday.  How do you begin to talk about or pray for peace when those things are happening around you?

How do you begin to talk about Joy, when the sound of mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and grandparents weeping can be heard all across our country? 

And even if that weren’t the case, how to you begin to go there with a congregation who has lost so many of its loved ones within the last year?  In the horrible words of the headlines, “We’ve got bodies here”.  The sense of loss in this congregation is strong. The names you’ve named for me have become a litany of grief—because those that you’ve lost haven’t just been people that you casually worshipped with.  They’ve been dear friends.  They are the people that you still almost see when you take your regular pews—the ones who were such a fixture of the church that you can’t imagine how life in the church can go on without them.   And not only is the church in mourning, but many of you as individuals have faced great loss this year.  You’ve gotten devastating news that has rattled everything you thought you knew.  You’ve been touched by the very frailty of life.

How indeed do any of us begin to talk about joy when the grief is just so great?  Do you simply light a candle in hopes that the sentiment given to that candle will one day be true?  Do you read scriptures that feel just a little bit too glib to be helpful right now?  Or do you sit with the things that break your heart?  There’s a verse in the book Jeremiah, that’s later quoted in Matthew, that says, “This is what the LORD says: "A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more."  And maybe that’s where we are right now.  I’ve never done this before, and I have no idea how it will work or what will come of it.  But I’m going to stop preaching for a few minutes—and leave some space.  And maybe this is the time to name some of those things that are just too heavy—whether you want to name them outloud or silently.  But maybe this is the place to name the places where you are broken hearted, to name the ones that you miss, to cry out to the Lord.   So I invite you to do that, to shape a word or two into a prayer—to lift it gently to this holy space.

We long for the Lord to redeem our broken places—to comfort us, to hold us tight, to promise that we won’t be left alone to defend ourselves from the world.  And we admit that sometimes it’s hard to hold on to our joy.  Sometimes, it feels like it’s gone from us all together.

I had an experience in my former church that I swore I’d write about sometime.  We had oil-filled advent candles—which were great.  They lit without a problem.  Except the pink joy candle.  Every year, for four years, we had to fight with the pink candle to get it to light…the church folks laughed and we had some good natured, but awkward moments trying to light the candle of joy. 

I’ve kind of begun to see that as a metaphor—sometimes Joy is the thing that’s hardest to get started in us.  We can do love and peace, and on most days hope—but it feels like joy takes a bit more work for us.   It takes a lot of work to ignite joy within ourselves.

But here’s the thing that I didn’t tell you.  The pink joy candle was not only contrary at the beginning of the service.  It was also contrary when we tried to put it out.  It was like one of those trick birthday candles that you thought was out, but would slowly come back to life.   And maybe that’s as much a metaphor as the fact that it was hard to light—it’s just as hard to make it go completely out, once you’ve gotten it lit.  Maybe that’s something important.  Because maybe we know that we aren’t the ones who make joy.  We don’t make it at the holidays, or at the times when we need it most, or any other time.  But there is something that lives deep in us that tells us that we bear witness to a joy that shall soothe all the tears, that the Holy God of Israel is working to redeem all the broken places.

Our weeping last for a night, but doesn’t joy come in the morning? It comes, when we open our eyelashes that have become stuck together with tears—when we peak out and see that the Lord isn’t finished. It comes, when we have wailed to the Lord—and a voice whispers back to us from the silence “Do you know how much I love you?  Do you know that I won’t leave you—not ever?”  Joy comes when we’ve been emptied out by the world, and our neighbor scoots a little closer to give us a hug and make us smile.  Joy comes when all we’ve known is the night terrors—the silence that last for hours, the questions that speak louder than anything—when we feel a presence that will. Not. Let. Us. Go.

I wrote something several years ago after I went to pray with a woman who was going into surgery—a woman whose life was shattered by violence.  But it seems to fit today—after the events of the week—after what has surely been a hard year for this congregation.

It's darkest before the dawn, or so they say.
Before even the surgical waiting room has been opened, or anyone is ready to wait.
Before she has been taken back.
Before the visitor's desk is staffed, or the parking deck, for that matter.
Before the cafeteria has opened.
Before the nurses are fully awake.
Before the rules are thoroughly enforced.
Before the sun (or son) has started tinting the world a lovely shade of pink.
It's darkest then.

But it's there, in the before, that God feels closest.
Because the light of love is waiting to break in.
And for the ones, waiting and watching,
the great divide between heaven and earth seems a little thinner.
Because we need God just a little more,
and we're a little less guarded and a little more vulnerable.

It's darkest before the dawn.
But not really.
Because in that great darkness a voice gently whispers in my ear,
"I am the light of the world.  And the darkness has never, will never, put the light out."

Weeping lasts for a night, but Joy always comes in the morning.  That is the very real presence of Christ in our midst. 

God rest you, troubled gentle ones—let nothing you dismay.
For I bring you tidings of comfort and joy.