Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

As you may know, the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut has had a special relationship with the Diocese of Aberdeen and Orkney in Scotland that dates back to 1784, when Samuel Seabury traveled to Scotland to be ordained the first bishop of Connecticut and of the entire Episcopal Church in this country, after the War of Independence. Robert Gillies, current bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney in the Scottish Episcopal Church has written a special collect for the people of the Diocese of Connecticut in this time of their grief and loss after the tragic deaths in Newtown. I want to begin with his prayer, this morning. 

Let us pray:
Sustaining and redeeming God,
In sadness and in the tragedy of awful loss, we offer before you those young lives lost as a consequence of human violence this past week.

We raise in the distress of this time the families of whose children are no longer to share life and joy with them.

We mourn those other families also fractured by the needless killings of that day.
As Jesus first came to his people and lives of the young and innocent were lost in the cruelty of one individual upon others, so now 2000 years on we stand alongside those whose similar grief is beyond our imagining.
Holy and loving God bring all consolation that can be brought to those most in need of your presence today, and never cease to make your presence real in this their hour of need.
To you we voice this prayer, Amen.

We remember the departed: Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Madeleine, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, Grace, James, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Avielle, Benjamin, Allison, Rachel, Dawn, Anne Marie, Lauren, Mary, Victoria, Nancy, and Adam. May they rest in peace, and light perpetual shine upon them. Amen.

 *   *    *

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist.” So says “Verbal” Kint in the 1995 film, “The Usual Suspects.”

But evil is real. At Holy Baptism, we publicly renounced Satan and all the spiritual forces that rebel against God. We renounced the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. We renounced all sinful desires that draw us from the love of God. A three-fold renunciation: we renounce them; we renounce them; we renounce them. Why? In order to turn to Jesus Christ, to put our whole trust in his grace and love, and to follow and obey him as lord of our lives and of the universe. A three-fold affirmation.

And then most of us (including me) promptly begin to order our lives in such a way as to pretend that the devil does not exist, and that evil is not real. At least until we see madness and violence break out in an elementary school classroom, in a town not so different from our own. And, literally, when that happens; it makes no sense, because evil makes no sense. Our hearts are broken and for a time we can barely catch our breath and the darkness is overwhelming. As I heard one commentator put it on Friday night, investigators will figure out what happened at a crime scene, but at some level no one will ever know “what happened in the damaged mind and broken soul” of the twenty-year old perpetrator of such violence. That is what evil does—it damages minds, and breaks souls—sometimes beyond what is even fathomable or comprehensible. 

It is tempting, when we do dare to speak of evil we tend to want to project it onto some villain—people like Adolf Hitler or Saddam Hussein; maybe even Adam Linza. But the truth about evil is that it is far more insidious than that. It’s more like a cancer that leaves behind “damaged minds and broken souls.”  So I have no words of explanation about what happened on Friday morning in Newtown, Connecticut. I don’t think we can “make sense of it.” What I can say, in trying to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in the face of such horrific violence is this: evil is real. 

And then this: love is stronger than evil.

Seventy-one times in the psalms, the Hebrew word selah (:סֶלָה) is used. It’s a very difficult concept to translate into English, but basically it is a musical mark—kind of like a rest. It’s a note to the choir-master that can be translated to mean: "stop and listen.”  The Amplified Bible translates selah as "pause, and think of that.”

So let me say it again and insert a mark for the choirmaster.

Evil is real.  Selah. Love is stronger than evil.

There is nothing easy or self-evident in that truth and at this moment in time we are still in shock; that selah may last a long time. Even so, our faith points us toward the empty tomb, even if getting there will take some time. Sometimes the world feels like Good Friday. Selah. The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia.  

If we believe that, then in the face of tragedy and death we are called to be again and again, and each time at an even deeper level, to become an Easter people, with God’s help; a baptized community who are renouncing Satan and all of the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, and renouncing all sinful desires that draw us from the love of God, in order to turn again and again and again to Jesus Christ and to put our whole trust in his grace and love. With God’s help.

We try to follow him into all of the pain of this world by way of the cross.  Like the principal of the Sandy Hook Elementary School, Dawn Hochsprung did, dying as she lived, for the love of her students. Or Victoria Soto, a 27 year old first-grade teacher who gave her life, a ransom for many.

Our broken hearts go out to the all victims and their families and those congregations and their clergy where funerals will be happening days before Christmas. But there has to be more, going forward. We have to talk seriously about gun-violence in this country and gun control and then move beyond rhetoric to real solutions. And then we must hold our politicians accountable. We have to talk seriously about mental illness and how to support all who suffer before their minds are damaged and their souls are broken. All indications are that Adam Lanza was a deeply troubled soul long before Friday morning.

Have you ever noticed how often, in the face tragedies such as this one that people of so many different faith traditions and of no faith tradition gather for candlelight vigils? There is something deeply human about this instinct: while it is so tempting to want to curl up in a ball and isolate ourselves and curse the darkness, people nevertheless come together and light candles. This instinct takes us to the very heart of Advent: even as the days are getting shorter and darker, we light a candle. And then another. And then another. We come here today to light that third rose candle—the candle of joy—at a time when we are not feeling very happy. But joy is not the same as happiness. Joy takes us to that place where we again put our trust in the God who is with us not only in the manger but on the Cross as well: the God who is with us whenever two or three gather in his name to share the bread and the wine as signs of Christ’s ultimate victory over sin and death, and signs of hope for the journey. Christ has died. Selah. Christ is risen. Selah. Christ will come again.

In moments like this, we need God to be God, because we have no place else to turn. But in such times, the darkness feels overwhelming. We light candles to remember that we are part of a communion of saints who have walked through darkness before, but we have seen a great light. In Holy Baptism that light has been given to us, to let it shine through us. That is why every time we celebrate Holy Baptism at that font we light a candle from the Paschal Candle for the baptized: as an outward and visible sign of our calling to be little lights that shine in the darkness. To walk as children of the light, for the sake of the world.

In our regularly scheduled Advent program, this sermon was meant to focus our attention on the First Song of the Prophet Isaiah. I have to tell you that I gave very serious thought to changing that plan today, and perhaps going with another song, maybe the twenty-second psalm together:  “my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The feeling of the absence of God, with which our tradition is quite familiar—is itself a crying out to God. But this is the song we have been given on the third Sunday of Advent—a song that blesses God, remembers God, and gives thanks to God for doing so many marvelous things. We may not all be ready yet to sing such a song when it still feels like Good Friday, while we are still so numb. But maybe we need to sing it until we can believe it again, and then when we begin to believe it again, to allow it to transform us until we can live it. Even at the grave, we make our song.

It would be tempting to hear these words as an historical statement: the days are surely coming, Isaiah sings, and then we think that since Isaiah sang his song hundreds of years before the birth of Christ that he was making a prediction. And then on December 25, the Year of Our Lord, One, his prediction came true and Jesus was born.

But that is not really what the prophets are all about, and if we read the text that way then Advent is little more than a nostalgic journey back to first-century Palestine, back to the historical Jesus who may or may not have been born in Bethlehem anyway.

If, we mean to join this song, then something more is required of us than going back in time to the days of Isaiah or the days when Jesus was born. So let’s try it another way: surely it is God who saves me. Surely it is God who saves us.  Each of us are invited to make these words own, in our own time. It’s not a one shot deal. It’s not something that happened once upon a time in Bethlehem on Christmas morning or even on a hill outside of Jerusalem on a Friday afternoon or once upon a time in our own lives, maybe when we were baptized or quit drinking or started going to church again. Our salvation is still unfolding. 

To sing it together today is not an act of denial: we come here far too mindful of all the ways that sin and death have a grip on our lives in places like Newtown and Nickel Mines and Columbine—and in places like Damascus and Gaza—and in the violence of poverty and despair much closer to home, including our own struggles against despair and addiction and the dark night of the soul.

Surely, it is God who saves me;  
I will trust in God and not be afraid.
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense,  
and will be my Savior.
Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing  
from the springs of salvation.
And on that day you shall say,  
Give thanks to the Lord and call upon God’s Name;
Make God’s deeds known among the peoples;  
see that they remember that God’s Name is exalted.
Sing the praises of the Lord, who has done great things,  
and this is known in all the world.
Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy,
            for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.

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