O Come, into this Emmanuel Moment

 A reflection on the readings for Advent 3C: Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

When I was in the fifth grade, and living in Wisconsin, we ended the school year with an over-night camping trip.  I remember a long bus ride through the country to reach the camp site. Over the next two days we sang songs and participated in sports and activities. Back then we didn’t have high ropes courses or team-building activities or rock climbing. Instead I learned how to shoot a bow and arrow and how to load and shoot a rifle. 

On the bus ride home I sat near a girl who caught my attention for she was drawn into herself, not engaging in the playful banter of the rest of us. She was pensive and sat staring out the window. Someone told me that her baby brother had died the summer before. He was a toddler who wandered out of the house and drowned in the swimming pool. I said something in response, I don’t remember what. Something that I thought would be astute but came out as sounding snarky and judgmental. As soon as the words were out of my mouth I was horrified. 

I have no idea if the girl heard me. I don’t remember what I said. But I do remember feeling like I had been cruel and hurtful.

This memory is always with me – whenever a tragedy hits. What do we say? Are there any words at all that can reach into the abyss of chaos, shock, horror, and grief and bring comfort? 

We are all stunned by the news of another mass killing.  What in the world is going on? 

The images on the news repel and mesmerize me at the same time. I recoil. My eyes fill with tears. Life is fragile and precious. 

People are saying that evil has come to Newtown, Connecticut. 

This gives me pause to think. 

There is real evil in this world.  Evil manifests in many ways, and human beings can be evil. 

But I think we need to be mindful of what we define as evil in the world. Behind the evilness of a tragedy that manifests through one person there is often a greater evil at play.

I may be wrong but I think that factors contributing to the violence include: a propensity for violent television programs and movies; we live in a society that fails to provide affordable, quality mental health care; the news blasts us with images of violence that desensitize us and turn tragic situations into spectacles of media frenzy, thus diminishing the real story of human suffering. There is usually some degree of systemic complacency – some way in which appropriate interventions are not enabled in a timely manner. 

And, as Martin Luther King, Jr. once said:  

We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.  

To all this we add the grandiose idea that one person thinks their suffering can be ameliorated by causing others pain and suffering. The idea that the individual is more important than the community perpetuates poor legislation and extreme behavior in individuals. 

Truth be told, thinking this way, even if it is accurate, just fills me with more despair.  I feel like one of the people in our Gospel reading today, responding to the exhortations of John, wondering, “What then should we do?” 

What in the world is one person to do in response?

It isn’t enough to recognize that the choices I make and how I live my life feed the very system that enables tragedies like this one.  This makes me feel like I am one of the brood of vipers – more of the problem than the solution. 

I am formed and informed from that experience of being an insensitive young girl – I seek a different way of responding to the hurt and brokenness of people. 

What words can I possible say to help? What actions can I take to make a difference?

Perhaps you are wondering the same thing?

Paul in his letter to the Romans wrote, "Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more."  The love of God somehow finds a way to break into the world, mending the broken places.

Nonetheless,  the damage is done - death, pain, sorrow, loss, illness, violence - all leave gaping wounds and scars. Whatever little healing may come, lives will never be the same. 

From Colorado to Wisconsin to Connecticut, this year alone, many families will live each day without a loved one -  lost to a violent tragedy. In Syria, Egypt, Palestine, and Israel, in cities and communities around the world, violence has taken loved ones. Families and friends live with grief and despair and sorrow too deep for words. 

Broken, people will live with memories they want to forget. People live with memories they are afraid of forgetting, for fear that they will forget their loved one altogether. What one remembers and how one remembers informs the way one moves through a grief that never goes away.  A tragedy of this magnitude enhances the guilt and despair and makes it more difficult to determine what one remembers and how one remembers. 

John calls us to repent, to turn and return to God. This means we are to examine our actions and figure out how to live life differently. But again, what does this mean? How are we to do this?

Paul reminds us in the letter to the Philippians, which we heard this morning: “ Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. …by prayer and supplication …let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Be gentle, trust in God’s presence. 

As William Sloan Coffin remarked following the accidental death of his son, 

"I am sure that the first heart to break was God's."

Today we join with those who are weeping. God’s broken heart embraces our heartbreak.

Maybe silence, 
a deep embrace,
and prayer are the best response we can give in the immediate aftermath. 

Later words might help. 
Later, coffee or tea might help. 
But for now, silence, a hug, and prayer.
We gather to pray with the living active God who cares deeply for all people.  

We gather and pray that the power of God’s grace and love, emanating out from communities like ours, will reverberate in and through the world around us. Prayer unites us, one to another. Where sin abounds, grace prevails and God breaks through. 

God is present in our tears and in our prayers, in our anger and bewilderment, in our impulse to hold our children and grandchild close, in the impulse to hug our parents, friends, and spouses. 

God is present in the fear and the worry, in our loss of words, and in our effort to find words, to somehow respond.  These very feelings are signs that something holy is emerging in and through us. Offering these up to God in prayer further opens us to God’s grace. 

Prayer is a place to begin, where the holy and the sacred overcome evil. 

Let us offer ourselves to God. 
As we sang a moment ago in the sequence hymn:
 O come O come Emmanuel. 
Be with us, O God, in this Emmanuel moment.*  

For God’s presence is a sure and certain promise.
 God was with the dying. God is with the grieving.
 God is with the living. God’s love prevails.*

Let us take a moment in silence and pray.

O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will but also those of evil will. And in remembering the suffering they inflicted upon us, honor the fruits we have borne thanks to this suffering --- our comradeship, our humility, our compassion, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart that has grown out of all this; and when they come to the judgment, let all the fruits that we have borne, be their forgiveness...**
**Anonymous (Found on the body of a woman at Auschwitz.)
from Wil Gafney, at the twitter conversation on 12/14.  


Sharon said…
Your sermon moved me deeply. I can relate to that little girl, too, very much!

Thank you, Terri.
Anonymous said…
Thank you, Terri. This is so helpful.
Robin said…
Beautiful, Terri.

You remind me, among other things, that someday soon I need to address evil with my congregation. I used it rather carelessly in my sermon, and it would be too easy to interpret that as the shooter = evil, rather than that evil works through mental illness, through our failures to care for those who are ill, for our failure to cultivate a culture of peace rather than of violence.

Sigh. Another sermon.
Beautiful, my friend. Thank you.

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