Sermon, Advent 3C, December 16, 2012Canticle 9 (Isaiah 12:2-6); Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
I’ve spent a lot of time this weekend lying on my sofa, covers pulled up to my chin, in tears. Though my circumstances were certainly different than the parents in Newtown, Connecticut, I know that feeling of suddenly, without warning, knowing my daughter wouldn’t be coming home from that school, wouldn’t ever be coming home again. Of all the feelings that the community of Newtown, Connecticut must be feeling, and those bereaved parents in particular, it’s this sudden sense of loss, of absence, of senseless, enormous pain that I can feel like it was yesterday, even though it was nearly 30 years ago. And I know I’m not the only one – probably not even the only one in this church this morning, who has had these feelings of great grief stirred up.
You know how many times I’ve told you how I think John the Baptist “got it wrong” about the nature of God, and of the Messiah he foretold. I still do think he got it wrong. But you know what? For the first time, I understand John the Baptist’s anger. I’m pretty sure that the human race made John the Baptist sick to his stomach. And I get that this weekend. When I see children senselessly slaughtered I think about Herod’s own paranoid rage 2,000 years ago, and I feel sick with anger and incomprehension and sadness. And there is a numerical study that has been done that shows that the world was a much more violent place in biblical times, than it is now. No wonder John the Baptist expected God to smite us all with an axe and with fire. I watch the politicians and the 24-hour-a-day media machine that, lacking facts, just makes stuff up. I see myself and those just like me, unable to take our eyes off that media machine. Millions of us are hypnotized by the slaughter, hypnotized by the grief, stare for hours and days on end, as one would at a traffic accident outside our door. We simply can’t avert our eyes – and that reflects the best of us, the part that feels the suffering so deeply, and also the worst of us – that part that wants to witness the open wounds of the suffering of those others.
And yet… and yet… John the Baptist did get it wrong. God knows the worst of us. As sickened as we are by one another sometimes, God looks unflinchingly at our badness, and loves us anyway. God sees sheep without a shepherd, lost coins, flour without yeast, defenseless souls with evil lurking like a wolf outside the door. God sees lovable souls in need of saving, sees the very best of us, rather than the worst of us. And every time we look at evil with compassion and see the best, we see through God’s eyes.
I’ve read a quote over and over on Facebook this weekend, a quote from Mr. Fred Rogers (remember “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”?) who says, “Look for the helpers. When you find evil and suffering, then look for the helpers.” That’s where God is. And as I glued myself to the television this weekend, I saw lots of helpers. I saw bloodsucking reporters, yes, but with tears in their eyes. I saw doctors and clergy and police with tears in their eyes. I heard the stories of heroic teachers who protected their children, teachers who ran toward the gunman, instead of away from him. I saw our President also wipe tears from his eye as he spoke to us. I heard compassion for the killer’s family from a bereaved parent. God was with us, is with us, grieving as we grieve, looking at us with compassionate eyes, holding us in the palm of God’s hand. Helpers everywhere. Suffering everywhere. Compassion everywhere. God’s in all that.
I hope you don’t believe that God willed the Newtown tragedy this weekend. I do not want you to think this was in any way part of God’s plan. I hope you aren’t struggling too much with the notion that God allowed it. Certainly God did allow it – but we have a God who very seldom intervenes to prevent tragedy and evil – at least as far as we know, because plenty of tragedy and evil happens, for sure. I remember my mentor priest, back in Buffalo, saying to me, “But don’t we pretty much have a God who ‘lets things be’?” And yes, for better or for worse, we’ve got that kind of God. Not one who wills evil, but who lets it be. Who rains on the just and the unjust alike. But also not a God who comes along with axes and fire and winnows us out. No, we are blessed enough to have a God who sees our worst, the very worst we can do, and who still loves, whose judgment is always compassion and mercy.
Finally, on this Rose Sunday, I’m reminded of Mary. I know, we don’t get the “Mary readings” this week – we get them next Sunday: look for them! But when it’s pink (our vestments and hangings) I still think of Mary, and I remember the great grief she bore, there at the end of Jesus’ life. She knows what it’s like to lose a child. She knows what it’s like to have a child who suffers agonizingly, and who is murdered senselessly, because he happened to get in the way of great evil. Mary is my friend in this suffering, and her presence is a comfort.
And this Rose Sunday in Advent is formally titled “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete. It means “rejoice.” This is Rejoicing Sunday. A call to rejoice is hard to face, hard to obey, in a time of great grief. I remember feeling that way in the days after 9/11. How can we rejoice? But it was somehow comforting to me to realize that God is still God, still worthy of praise, and God’s grace is still a cause for rejoicing, even amid great loss and sadness. We can rejoice in the God we see in the helpers, the suffering God we see in the faces of the families, and in the God who is so much greater and more compassionate and loving than anything or anyone we can possibly imagine. So we must listen to Paul when he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” God is with us, God is in Connecticut, God is suffering with us, watching us all with eyes of love and compassion, not with the anger of John the Baptist – not with my anger, even. Rejoice, I say. Yes, even in sadness, rejoice. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds….” Amen.