A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church of Prairie Village, Kansas. December 16, 2012.
* * *
Natasha was a classmate of mine.
I moved to University City, a suburb of Saint Louis,
just before the start of 7th grade
and Natasha sat next to me in my Algebra class that year.
She was so bright, and we developed a friendly competition.
I don’t remember much of it,
but I do remember doing quite well in Algebra.
I would regularly bring home scores of 95, 97, 100%.
And I was proud of it.
But Natasha, she was always a bit better than me.
We would compare scores,
and she’d trump my marks with her perfect scores—
plus extra credit.
Natasha was my friend.
Friendly, and so chatty.
We’d talk about her inordinate love for Michael Jackson one day
and her affection for dogs and cats another.
That year, fresh from the small farming town of Atlantic Iowa
I had few friends.
But Natasha welcomed me with a smile and a goal:
to beat her, just once, on a math test. I don’t think I ever did.
I can’t stop thinking about Natasha this week.
She was my first introduction to gun violence and mental illness.
Sometime the following year,
Natasha took her father’s legally purchased shotgun
and ended her life with it.
And all the images of that horrible experience:
the Baptist church where her funeral was held,
with the blue neon Cross
and the GOD IS LOVE banner
festooned across the chancel
classmates wailing, and gnashing teeth
our efforts to pull ourselves together
and to make sense of the whole thing,
all of that sticks with you all your life.
And I miss her, my friend Natasha, very much.
A thirteen year old shouldn’t have to wrestle with such profound things.
To say nothing of seven year olds, or their parents.
I’ve never before wished I were Zechariah,
the father of John the Baptist, mentioned in the Gospel last week,
struck mute and unable to speak until John’s birth.
Days like today, that seems like a luxury, being mute,
keeping silent at a time when words fail
and hearts yearn for an utterance of comfort.
Truth be told I’ve been a bit of a mess.
And I’ve been talking with people all over who are the same,
so I know its not just me.
What do you say? What is there to say?
This Friday seems like the exclamation mark on an awful few weeks:
a shopping mall in Oregon
the parking lot of Arrowhead Stadium
and now this: an elementary school in Connecticut.
And the shocking revelation that 30,000 people die
every year in this country
suicide or homicide or horrible accident
at the hand of a gun.
One life every 20 minutes.
Its too much. At some point, we just can’t take it anymore.
Too much grief. Too much heartache. Too much pain.
But talk we must. Even if it is through heartache and grief,
even if it is to acknowledge our pain and our sighs.
Year after year we come to John during advent,
and we hear his warnings and his anger and his pain
and we struggle to understand his angst.
What is he so riled up about, this John?
Why so angry? Why such a downer?
As he vituperates about broods of vipers,
as John paves the way
for the one who shall clear the threshing floor
and burn away the chaff,
so often we are merrily decking the halls
and getting into the Christmas spirit
wassailing and caroling and wrapping gifts.
There’s not anything wrong with that, really,
and if there is anything I want to be doing these days
its enjoying the joys of the season.
Its just that the usual message preached this Third Sunday of Advent
is an effort to get us to see what John was talking about.
The commentators almost all assume
that we are merrily moving toward Christmas day
so they start with words like
“No one wants to be chastised by John the Baptist
this close to Christmas.”
True. That’s the Harder Way to Christmas.
But THIS year, John’s words don’t feel like chastisement at all.
They ring true.
Brood of Vipers? Yes, I feel like sometimes we dwell among them.
Trees bearing bad fruit? They FEEL like they are everywhere today.
And sometimes I feel like I myself am among them.
Too often, its hard to understand why Angry John’s words
could possibly be good news.
Today, I think its far more obvious.
Author Anne Lamott puts it this way:[i]
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it,
although this time, or at least right now,
it has come very close.
My pastor talks often about our dual citizenship,
as children of God, and Goodness,
gorgeous and divine,
and we are also people with human biographies and wounds
living in a world of unimaginable suffering, brutality,
We are lighthouses of sacred love, and we are a violent species;
Cain is still killing Abel.
What do we do today? Lamott asks.
Where do we even start?
I wish there was a site called “Our Plan for the Next Few Days”
in the face of Newton.
b>I can’t find it, but I’ve realized a few things
and remembered a few things
and have decided to share them.
Is it okay to stay glued to the TV? Yes, if you need to.
Is it ok not to watch any TV,
and just do exactly what we had planned?
Yes, anything you are doing, thinking, blocking,
to get through these days, is ok.
Do we go ahead with our plans to make gingerbread houses with our little ones? Of course.
Do we make another visit to a seemingly uncomprehending relative at the convalescent home? Of course.
Do we go through our neighborhood today picking up little,
even as we know there will be more tomorrow? Of course.
Do we plant bulbs in the cold rocky crummy earth? Always!
Do we light candles? Again—always!
John the Baptist, full of spit and vinegar
took upon his shoulders an incredibly difficult task:
In the midst of this hurting, aching world,
John cried out in the wilderness and proclaimed Good News:
Every Valley Shall Be Filled, John proclaimed,
preaching from the prophet Isaiah
Every mountain and hill shall be made low
The crooked shall be made straight
The rough ways made smooth
And ALL FLESH shall see the salvation of God.
And like those who heard John then, we too are filled with expectation.
I don’t know about you, but I’m ready.
Come, Lord Jesus. Quickly come.
The prophet Zephaniah,
whose words today accompany John’s
offered a vision of the time
when God will save the lame, gather the outcast,
and change their shame into praise.
Yes, Lord. Do that.
This world has too much heartache, too much hurt.
We are ready.
Come, Lord Jesus.
Come today. Please.
In the midst of John’s proclamation,
he does something extraordinary.
When we ask John, in the midst of our concern about the world
what should we do?
John tells us to LOVE.
If we have two coats, share with someone who has none.
If our job is to collect valuable things from others,
do so honestly, no more than what is prescribed.
Be ethical, John says. Which is another way to say: be loving
In our loving, we will do our part in preparing the way for the LORD.
In our loving, we will experience paths made straight
and catch a glimpse of the coming Kingdom.
In our loving, we will know that LOVE WINS.
Friday morning, hours before the shooting in Connecticut,
I received an email words from Mother Teresa.
I don’t know how I could have held it together without these words
from Mother Teresa.
Here’s what she once said:[ii]
People are often unreasonable, illogical and self centered;
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends
and some true enemies:
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;
It was never between you and them anyway.
What are we to say? The road to Christmas feels harder this Year.
My friend Jenny, when thinking about today and these texts
and this mess
>offered me an important thought:
What are we going to do today? she asked?
Light the candle of Joy, with stubbornness, conviction,
and celebration that darkness does not win.
And she’s right.
With John, we can stand up and point at all this evil
all this misery
all this pain
all this hurt and say NO
God is coming.
God is LOVE.
And LOVE SHALL WIN.
So this Advent morning, I encourage you to love.
Love your family. Hug your kids or your parents or your partner.
Love your friends, and experience their love too.
Love your neighbors, all of them,
even the curmudgeon who bugs you too often
your weaknesses and your struggles and your flaws.
Love those who hurt, who ache, who mourn
Love those who are sick, in body or in mind.
Love God, and be inspired by God’s coming into THIS MESS
to redeem it and to make it beautiful
Let it be so. Amen
[i] From Anne Lamott’s facebook page accessed December 16, 2012: https://www.facebook.com/AnneLamott/posts/253442941452023
[ii] According to EmergentVillage, accessed December 16, 2012: https://www.facebook.com/EmergentVillage/posts/449586255101874