Sunday, December 16, 2012

For a day such as this

The following is the text of a sermon I preached today. My scripture was Matthew 2:13-18.
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In the first and second chapters of Exodus, we read a violent and terrible story of an evil pharaoh whose fear and need for power leads him to murder babies. The command goes out that every baby boy born to the Hebrews should be thrown into the Nile to drown. And Moses’ mother hides him for three months until in an act of desperation and breathless hope, she fashions him a tiny boat and floats him down the Nile. It is a terrible world indeed where a three month old child is safer in the waters of a Nile than in the house of its parents. A terrible king. A terrible world.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.

In the second chapter of Matthew, we read a violent and terrible story of an evil king whose fear and need for power leads him to murder babies. The command goes out that every child under the age of two in Bethlehem should be killed. And Jesus is spared only because an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream and warns them to flee to Egypt. It is a terrible world indeed where a child is safer on the run and in exile than in the house of its parents. A terrible king. A terrible world.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.

On Friday, we read and heard and watched the violent and terrible story unfold of an evil man who murdered adults and children in an elementary school in Connecticut – 20 children between the ages of 6-7. It is a terrible world indeed where a child is not safe in an elementary school. A terrible man. A terrible world.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.

And today is the third Sunday in advent and this is supposed to be the Sunday of Joy – when we remember the angels who appeared to Shepherds who were watching their flocks by night and sang a song of exultation that our King had come. And maybe you are like me and feeling as far from joy as dark is from light. How can we possibly feel any joy when we see the faces of our children and fear clenches our hearts? How can there be joy in a world where children are murdered in elementary schools in Connecticut, in their homes in Syria, in refugee camps in the Sudan?

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.

Our poets have long been lamenting the sorrows of this world, and as I've been laid low with grief by this tragedy, the words of William Butler Yeats came to me: Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. The poet Jeremiah, in his Lamentations, says words that ring very similarly as he lives through the destruction of Jerusalem: My eyes are spent with weeping; my stomach churns; my bile is poured out on the ground because of the destruction of my people, because infants and babes faint in the streets of the city. They cry to their mothers, ‘Where is bread and wine?’ as they faint like the wounded in the streets of the city, as their life is poured out on their mothers’ bosom.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.

Many have been quick with words for the tragedy of this last week – claiming to know the mind of God, the will of God, the purpose of pain, the causes and solutions to this present darkness. Well meaning folk make God an idol of child sacrifice with careless words and misread scripture. Well intended people use tragedy to bolster pet arguments or silence dissent. And many of us sit in stunned quiet, our wounded spirits crying out at the spilling of innocent blood, in voices like the martyrs of Revelation: HOW LONG, O GOD?! HOW LONG?!

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.

I do not have an explanation for what has happened. I know of no reasons, of rational explanations, of sure-fire steps to be taken to prevent further tragedy. I refuse to take this pain from you with easy answers and theological chloroform; children are dead and their bodies are still in the classrooms where they were murdered and Christmas is in 9 days. And today is the Sunday of Joy. And somehow we must hold our grief in one hand and this Advent season in the other and discover a way to negotiate them both. Somehow we must hold our children close and then send them to school.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.

This is what I can say to you. Jesus was born not because the world was so good, but because the world is so broken. The Christ child came not because it was the perfect setting but because the times are terrible. The Messiah entered the world by way of a teenage mother in the company of livestock because we needed to be saved and He is the only one who can save us. The bliss of his birth was followed closely by unspeakable evil, which only served to underscore HOW MUCH WE NEED THIS CHILD. And adds depth to the songs of the Angels who sang: I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

There is joy to be had in this day, and it is nothing like the easy happiness of fortunate times, of full bellies and safe homes and absent violence. The joy in this day is that violence and terror and loss and grief and murder and evil and injustice and inequality and hatred and malice – they are not the final word. The joy in this day is that the story we are hearing, of lost innocence, is not the STORY that God is ultimately telling in Jesus Christ. That God sees our suffering and is DOING SOMETHING ABOUT IT through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That we are more than just grieving family and friends but the community of the Church who have been empowered to go out into a dark and broken world with the GOOD NEWS of JESUS.

Our Joy is that the people languished in darkness for centruies but that the light finally came.  That a young girl could sin a song about God, a God who shows His mercy is for those who fear him, who scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  Who brings down the powerful from their thrones, and lifts up the lowly; who fills the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty.

Our Joy is that God is with Us. When we attend funerals and cry over tiny coffins. When we rail against violence and political apathy. When we search for answers. When we ask impossible questions. When we take a stand against evil. When we sacrifice for the sake of others.

Our Joy is that God is the center and God will always hold, that the kingdom cannot be drowned, that anarchy is not loosed forever.

Our Joy is that Emmanuel was born, is about to be born, is coming, will come again.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.

3 comments:

Marylee said...

Thank you so much for this. I needed it. I've been so overwhelmingly sad and heartsick over this tragedy and thought my church service would help. But no one spoke of it this morning, as though not talking about it could ease the despair etched on all the adults faces who dropped their children off at Sunday School. Faith is questioned on days like Friday, at least mine is anyways, and I wish my pastor had addressed it in this way instead of choosing to ignore it. Thank you. Love you.

Elizabeth Grasham-Reeves said...

Marylee, I'm glad my words were a help to you.

Kyndall Renfro said...

"And somehow we must hold our grief in one hand and this Advent season in the other and discover a way to negotiate them both. Somehow we must hold our children close and then send them to school." I found those lines in particular very moving. Thank you for your courage and compassion.