Tonight’s the Night the World Begins Again

Christmas Eve Sermon, 2016. 

I’ve been thinking about some Christmas gifts…and by that I mean some of the gifts that Christmas gives us.

It’s a season of giving – yes, it’s over-commercialized –but in the right spirit that can help us develop a habit and spirit of generosity.  And that’s a gift.

The months leading up to Christmas are a good time to practice delayed gratification.  Don’t buy that now…Christmas is coming.   I know I need to practice that sometimes.  So that’s a gift.

For some it’s a change of habit just to be thinking about what to get for other people, thinking more about others—who they are, what they need.  It can feel like an obligation but it can become a healthy, joyful, even life-giving habit.  That’s a gift.

At Christmastime we are intentional about asking people what they want.  That’s a good exercise for keeping us from being “curved in upon the self.”

Christmas, itself, is a gift.  It’s a change of focus.  It comes with some built-in themes that are important.  Giving.  Receiving. Gathering.  Family.  Peace. Hope.  Joy.  Love. Remembering.  Birth.  The Presence of God.  Wonder.

I don’t know about you, but I  really need the gift of Christmas, itself, this year. It’s been that kind of year.

I need to be reminded to stop and breathe and think about giving and receiving and gathering and family.  I need time to stop and remember.

I need to let words like hope and peace and light fill up my soul for awhile.

I need a time to stop and listen to songs about beauty and joy and angels and promises fulfilled…and God showing up in surprising ways and surprising places.

I need the wonder of it all.

I need the songs.  I especially need the songs and carols… because the music goes straight to my heart and heals me and rekindles my hope and my joy and my faith faster than words alone can ever do. “Those who sing pray twice,” said Martin Luther.

Do you have a favorite Christmas song or carol? Is there one—or maybe there are several?—that touch you in some particularly powerful way?

There are a lot of Christmas songs and carols that I dearly love and I listen to them over and over and over again.  But there’s one Christmas song in particular I keep coming back to these past few Christmases.  And this year, especially, I’ve been listening to it a lot.  In fact I’ve been listening to it off and on all year long.

It’s fairly recent—it came out in 2005, so by Christmas Song standards it’s almost brand new.  It’s called Better Daysby the Goo Goo Dolls, written by John Rzeznik.  Yeah, I know.  Goo Goo Dolls.  Silly name, but a great band.  And a powerful song.  Listen to these words:

And you asked me what I want this year

And I try to make this kind and clear

Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

 

‘Cause I don’t need boxes wrapped in strings

And designer love and empty things

Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

Better days.  When all is said and done, isn’t that what we all want?  For ourselves, for our families and friends?  For….  Everyone? Better days.

I need some place simple where we could live

And something only you can give

And that’s faith and trust and peace while we’re alive

Those are some pretty good gifts we can give to each other.  For Christmas.  For every day.  And the song is right… we’ll only have faith and trust and peace while we’re alive if we give those things to each other.  Faith.  Trust. Peace.  But the song knows we need something else if we’re going to be able to give each other faith and trust and peace…

And the one poor child who saved this world

And there’s ten million more who probably could

If we all just stopped and said a prayer for them

The one poor child who saved this world. That’s why we’re here tonight. That’s what we’re here to celebrate. But we’re also here to be reminded that because of that child, Jesus, Emmanuel, God With Us, we have the example and the power to save the world together.  God came in person to give us what we need so we can give each other the gifts of faith and trust and peace. 

 I wish everyone was loved tonight

And we could somehow stop this endless fight

Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

The thing is, everyone is loved tonight—loved by God, at least.  But they don’t all know it and they certainly don’t all feel it.  If they did, if they all felt loved, if we all felt loved, maybe it would stop the endless fight that seems to be the curse of the human race.  But the only way for that to happen is if we take the love God gives us and let it be real and meaningful in our lives.  And then give it to each other in real and meaningful ways.

Brené Brown said,  “Jesus comes to show us what love looks like.  God is love.  But God knows that if God just comes down and says I am love and I want you to love each other, we’re going to go straight to hearts and unicorns.  We know it’s difficult and we don’t like difficult, so we’re going to romanticize it.  Hearts and unicorns.  But love is difficult.  So Jesus comes to show us how to do it.  He comes to show us that love doesn’t tolerate shaming.  Love doesn’t exclude people because they’re different.  Love reaches out and touches and embraces all the people we don’t want to touch or embrace. Love does the hard work.  Love does the hard things.”

But there’s something else that God shows us about love by coming as a baby, by coming, especially, as a poor baby.  Right at the beginning—Jesus shows us, God shows us, that love is willing to be vulnerable.  Love is willing to let down all its defenses.

When you think of all the ways that God could have come to us–all the ways we imagined throughout history that God would come to us—most of that imagery is all about power and royalty and thunder and smoke and lightning.  And then God shows up as a baby.  A poor baby. In a poor country.  A homeless baby.  A migrant born on the road on a journey his parents were forced to take.  A refugee baby forced to flee for his life.

One poor child who saved the world.

I haven’t quoted the refrain that runs through the song.  It’s repeated twice between the verses, but the song ends with it, too.  It’s both a promise and a call to action:

So take these words and sing out loud

‘Cause everyone is forgiven now

‘Cause tonight’s the night the world begins again

Take these words and sing out loud.  That’s the call to action.

‘Cause everyone is forgiven now.  That’s the promise. It’s also another great gift of Christmas.  In this baby, who is God With Us, we have a chance to start over with a clean slate.

In this baby, who is love itself coming to us in its most human and dependent and vulnerable form, we can find forgiveness and we can learn to give forgiveness— and if we can forgive and be forgiven, if we can let go of old hurts and forgive others, then we really can give each other the gifts of faith and trust and peace while we’re alive.  And then there really is a chance that maybe we’ll find better days.

So take these words and sing out loud,

‘Cause everyone is forgiven now.

And tonight’s the night the world begins again.

 

Tonight’s the night the world begins again.

A Nation Possessed

Last week was very difficult for me, as it was for a great many of us. I get up early on Sunday mornings, so the very first thing I saw when I turned on my computer at 4 a.m. was the news of the massacre in Orlando. It was still an unfolding story when I saw it; the body count was still being estimated. I confess that I was at a loss as to what to do with that horrible news at that early hour.

For a number of reasons I didn’t mention Orlando in worship that morning. The biggest reason was that I was pretty sure that few, if any, of the people attending would have heard the news yet and I didn’t want such horribly shocking news to cast a pall over worship and especially not over our farewell to two much-loved members who were moving across the country. Also, I needed time to process it before trying to deal with it pastorally and theologically.

By Monday morning Orlando was the stark lens through which I was seeing the whole world. I was filled with a deep sadness tinged by more than a little anger. In an effort to shift gears I clicked over to read a sermon written by my friend and colleague, Pastor Jennie Chrien who serves in Oxnard.   Her sermon was on the same lectionary text I had preached on the day before but she had taken a very different approach from mine. In addressing the Gospel of Luke’s account of the woman who washes and anoints Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36-8:3), she had focused on the moment when Jesus turns to Simon the Pharisee and says, “Do you see this woman?” From that simple question Jennie had built an eloquent, powerful and moving sermon.

That important question, “Do you see?” wouldn’t leave me alone, jangling up against the ragged wound of Orlando as I turned my attention to the Gospel text for the coming week, the story of Jesus’ encounter with the wild, demon-possessed Gerasene man running naked among the tombs (Luke 8:26-39). I was also remembering anew the horror from almost exactly a year before when a crazy young white supremacist murdered 9 African Americans after sitting through Bible study with them.

Do you see? The question still hangs in the air.

As I read the Gospel for the week with all these things echoing in my heart, I realized that we, the good old US of A, we are the demon-possessed man. We are the man made crazy by fears and anxieties and bigotry and scapegoating. We are the man made crazy by blind rage and unreasoned hatreds.

We are the man with a hopelessly divided mind, made bipolar and schizophrenic by a cacophony of opposing inner voices—entrenched political parties with no common ground—conservatives vs. liberals and ne’er the twain shall meet on any common ground of common sense, putting our party identity or our ideology ahead of everything else that’s supposed to define us, making even our faith subservient to our chosen place on the ideological spectrum. We are so blinded by the ideological lenses we wear that we see only what we’ve decided in advance that we want to see. And since our biases rarely completely align with or truly resonate with the Gospel we hear and profess, our cognitive dissonance creates the first degree of our madness.

Do you see? Do you really see?

Oh, we have our moments of clarity but then the rage wells up in us and we explode in violence.

For most of us it’s just a violence of rhetoric and attitude, but it opens the door and for those who would turn it into a horribly tangible violence of death and destruction. Even among the most enlightened among us, our racism or our discomfort with sexualities that are different from our own our anxieties about those other religions—all these things creep out in unguarded words and give permission to the violence that is always waiting to happen. We breed the craziness.

Do you see?

We cloak our prejudices in our religions. We project our own craziness, our own fears and anxieties and hatred onto the most vulnerable and marginalized then drum up a sacred text or two to support our bigotry and give us permission to treat them horribly.We are so blinded by our own interpretation of our religions that we can’t see children of God standing right in front of us.

Do you see? Do you see that more than a little of our craziness comes from being caught in the middle of an epic struggle between love and hate?

Do you see that if you’re not actively and passionately on the side of love then you are at least passively on the side of hate? Do you see that if you are not generating light then you are opening the door to darkness?

Do you see that we are not just the crazy man among the tombs? Do you see that we are also the craven townspeople afraid of our own shadows. We recognize our own craziness and try to lock it up, to bind it with chains but we know, deep down that that’s not going to work.

Do you see that even when God works a miracle and restores one of us to our senses we respond with more anxiety because that is just so different from our usual experience?

Do you see a way out of all this?

Do you see how Jesus sees? Can you see the way Jesus sees? Can you put aside your politics, your ideology, your biases and prejudices, the less savory voices of your childhood, your inclination for self-protection, your fear of the “other,” your anxiety about a constantly changing world—can you put aside your own demons long enough to see the person in front of you?

Do you see how Jesus sees? Do you see that Jesus doesn’t see a prostitute washing his feet but a woman beaten down by the world who has had to make horrible choices in order to survive? Do you see that Jesus doesn’t see a crazy man running amok among the tombs but a human being bedeviled and enslaved by the legion craziness of the world?

Do you see that in Christ we are all children of God through faith, that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave nor free, male or female, gay or straight or trans or bi, us or them?

Do you see that Jesus is our common ground even with our Muslim brothers and sisters? Yes, we understand Jesus very differently, but he is a central voice in both or our traditions and if we’re ever going to find peace with each other, Jesus, not Abraham, is our most likely common ground.

Do you see? Do you see that we are all going to have to learn to see differently?

No, we can’t afford to be stupid. No we can’t afford to be blind to real threats. But do you see that we are going to have to first recognize and deal with the real threats that arise from our own hearts and minds and souls?

Do you see that we’re going to have to stop listening to all the voices that divide us and pit us against each other? Do you see that we’re going to have to switch off the news channels and radio voices and web feeds and political voices that want to tell us how awful those “others” are, who want to tell us that “they” are not the real “us”?

Do you see that we’re going to have to really listen to Jesus—not the Old Testament—not even Paul, but Jesus—if we’re ever going to be freed from our own demons, our own contagious craziness?

Do you see that we are all of us, each of us, going to have to have at least one “come to Jesus” moment if we’re ever going to be freed from our demons?  Or to put it a more scriptural and Lutheran way, do you see that we are all, each of us, going to have to take off the lenses of our preconceptions and put down our guard long enough so that Jesus can come to us and cast our demons into the sea of God’s love?

Do you see? Can you see? Do you see that love—the love of Christ, the love exemplified and perpetually renewed by Jesus whether you know that’s where it comes from or not, is our only hope of ever being able to sit with each other calmly and in our right minds?

Do you see?

When John Came A-Wassailing

So here it came a singing toward us, the third Sunday in Advent. Gaudete Sunday. Rejoice Sunday. The Sunday we light the pink candle in the Advent wreath, the candle of Joy. As I looked at the lectionary texts for the week, it was easy to pick up the theme of joy. Well, it was easy to find joy in the first two readings anyway.

The first reading was from chapter three of Zephaniah. I think we only hear from Zephaniah maybe once every three years in the lectionary, but it’s worth waiting for. Did you hear that marvelous line in verse 17? “He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing!” What a picture!  Have you ever imagined God singing about you? To you? I sing to my dog sometimes just because he makes me happy. He seems to like it.  It’s kind of fun to think of God singing about us, to us, like that. So there’s some joy. That one was easy.

And then came the second reading from Philippians, that wonderful passage from St. Paul’s love letter to the church at Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say Rejoice!” Well that’s pretty clear, too. So okay! Right there in those first two texts I’ve got plenty to work with to lay the groundwork for Gaudete –Rejoice- Sunday.

But then comes the Gospel reading from Luke 3, and, frankly, John the Baptist kind of sucks the wind right out of rejoicing. “You brood of vipers.” “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” “The axe is at the root.” “The chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire.” Yeah. That’ll take you right to your happy place.

So I’m thinking about these texts and about Rejoice Sunday and about trying to tease some joy out of grumpy old John the Baptist, and in the middle of all that I found myself thinking about… wassailing.  What can I say?  It’s that time of year.

When the pagan Anglo-Saxons migrated to Britain in the middle of the 5th century, they brought with them the tradition of wassailing. Wassailing, of course, eventually became Christmas caroling, but it started out as something very different.

The word wassail comes from the Saxon phrase Wæs þu hæl which means, “be thou hale” or “be thou healthy” or “be thou well.” At their celebration of the Winter Solstice, the Anglo-Saxons would go out into their orchards and sing to their cider trees, their apple and pear and cherry trees, to wake them up from their winter sleep and to encourage them to be healthy, to produce good fruit so that they could have a plentiful harvest of good cider. “Wæs þu hæl!” they would sing. “Be thou healthy.” And it occurred to me as I thought of all this, that this is kind of what John the Baptist was doing as he was preaching at the Jordan. He was wassailing. He was singing out that it was time to wake up and be healthy. So maybe there is some joy there somewhere between “You brood of vipers” and “the chaff will be thrown into the fire.” Or at least a calling to joy.

With all that in mind, I began to re-imagine my picture of John preaching by the Jordan. Instead of seeing him as a voice of foreboding, instead of hearing him cranky and impatient, I imagined him singing. I imagined him wassailing to wake the people. So I decided that this was what I would do in my own orchard, my own parish, on this third Sunday of Advent. I wassailed to them.  I sang to them.  And it went like this…

When John Came A-Wassailing

In the fifteenth year of sovereign rule of the Emperor Tiberius,
In a time of ruthless potentates and wrongs both small and serious,
The Song of God fell into John, the son of Zechariah,
And he sang it out so strongly they thought he might be Messiah.

But he said, “No, I am not the one you all have been expecting.
I am just the song that sings out where our paths are intersecting.
I’m not worthy to receive him or to tie his sandal thong!
He is the Maker of all Music and I am just one simple song.”

Like a wassailing in the orchard to wake the cider trees,
The song of John cut through their crust and brought them to their knees
As they heard a new reality and began to realize
That the reign of God might now unfold before their very eyes.

So he sang them to the river, saying time was of the essence,
And immersed them in the cleansing flow of forgiveness and repentance,
And his song filled up the wilderness with a Word to spear the heart
Until the crowd was all convicted as their masks were torn apart.

He sang, “You children of the covenant, you children of the promise,
You children of the circumstance and times that are upon us,
All you questing, anxious seekers, all you folk both awed and flawed,
Are you ready to stand naked in the searching gaze of God?

“All you tax-collecting schemers, all you servants of the sword,
All you noble trees and saplings in the orchard of the Lord,
Yes, your roots go deep as Abraham and you’re clothed in your tradition
But that’s not enough to save you from your pathway to perdition.

“O you brood of sneaky vipers, O you children of the snake,
Who warned you of the wrath to come? Who told you what’s at stake?
Did you think that life was something you could skate through or could fake?
Well, my sleeping trees of Zion, it’s time for you to wake.”

Then in dismay the people cried, “John, tell us what to do!
If our heritage means nothing is our fate left up to you?”
And he said, “No that’s not in my hands, but it is somewhat in yours,
For the Winnower we’ve waited for is at the threshing floor.

“So now’s the time to change the way you think and see each other,
Now’s the time to change the way you treat your sister and your brother,
Now’s the time to change your heart and mind and show it by your fruits
With more honest and more decent and more generous pursuits.

“So give away your extra coat to the person who is shivering,
And give up half your sandwich to that hungry kid who’s quivering,
Don’t take more than what you’re meant to take, don’t lie, extort or cheat,
For the Winnower is coming and he’ll sift us all like wheat.

“Yes, the time has come to bear the fruit of new life and repentance
For you’ll reap the harvest that you’ve sown, you’re writing your own sentence.
Even now the axe is at the root, even now your options dwindling,
So will you produce good cider? Or will you be so much kindling?

“For the One who fashioned every soul finds a use for each and all.
Will you be the cider in the cup or the fire that warms the hall?
Will you be the sweet aroma drawing others to the table
Or dissipate as so much smoke in a cautionary fable?

“And I know this all sounds frightening– to be assessed, appraised and weighed–
Every one of us has cause to fear, but I sing, ‘Be not afraid!’
For the one who does the winnowing, the one who does the sifting,
Is the Soul of grace and love and life, the Giver of all gifting.

“And I’m simply here to tell you in this wild and holy place
You have another chance to be made new, a chance to live in grace,
For one who does the sifting does not come here to condemn
But to find every seed of love and good and make it grow again.

“So this song that sounds so ominous, it really is Good News!
For the God of second chances hopes that you will not refuse
To change your heart and mind and ways and show it by your fruits
With more loving and more honest and more generous pursuits.

“For the one who does the winnowing, the one who does the sifting,
Is the Soul of grace and love and life, the Giver of all gifting.
Yes, the one who does the sifting does not come here to condemn
But to find every seed of love and good and make it grow again.”

—–

So now as the lights of Advent, hope, peace, joy and love light your way to Christmas, Wæs þu hæl!  Be thou hale.

When the World Won’t Go Away

When the World Wont’ Go Away

Mark 6.30   The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.  31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.  32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.  33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.  34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things….

Mark 6.53   When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat.  54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him,  55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was.  56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed. 

———————————————————

There are a lot of nuggets we could look at this morning in our gospel lesson from the 6th chapter of Mark. We could talk about the disciples’ enthusiasm as they return from their first mission. We could  look at the parts of the chapter that are cut out of the middle of this morning’s text— how Jesus uses the disciples to feed 5000 with  a few loaves and fish.  Right after that, also pulled out of this morning’s chapter and saved for another day is the story of Jesus walking on water.  There’s a lot in this chapter we could talk about.

I was planning to focus on those words, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” I was planning to talk about how important it is when you’re doing the hard work of ministry to take a retreat now and then, even if it’s a mini retreat.  I was going to talk about how even when you plan your retreat with the best intentions and take steps to protect that sacred time alone with Jesus, the world can run ahead of you and be waiting for you when you get there.  As people who bear the compassion of Christ we need to remember that even in our retreat places we will probably run into the world’s great, never-ending hunger in one way or another because even today the people of our world are like sheep without a shepherd.

Sheep without a shepherd. That’s actually a veiled political statement in Mark’s gospel, and it would be worth a conversation some time to talk about the Messianic promise hidden in that terse little phrase and how no emperor, no appointed governor, no high priest, and nobody we elect can ever fill that slot— it’s a space created by God to be filled by God—  by Emmanuel, God with us.

I was going to talk about what to do when the world won’t go away, about how Jesus still finds time to go up to the mountain to pray. I was going to use this time and this text to talk about Gloria Dei’s Strategic Planning Team and how we are now thinking of ourselves as the Mission Discernment Team because we’ve realized that our very first and most important job is to take time to listen to Jesus, to listen to the Spirit, and carefully to try to discern what Christ is calling us to be as a congregation, where Christ is calling us to go, what Christ is calling us to do. We realize that when we know more about that we can get on with the business of strategy, but if we don’t know where Christ is calling us to go, then even if we do a meticulous job of planning we’ll be planning a trip to nowhere.  And we realize, of course, that the Spirit may change our plans midstream.

Things happen that change your plans. That, too, is a lesson from today’s gospel. The disciples never do arrive at Bethsaida. The wind fights them all night. They make no headway at all, stuck in the middle of the lake until Jesus gets in the boat with them— and that’s worth noting— we don’t make any headway until Jesus gets in the boat. Notice, too, that when they give up on getting to Bethsaida and pull ashore at Genessaret, Jesus seems perfectly okay with that. And there’s a crowd waiting there, too.

I was going to touch on all those things this morning. I was going to talk about how the need of the world is always there and it’s our job in Christ to meet that need, but that it’s also important to take a break. I was going to talk about how to take a deep breath and get on with it when the world won’t go away.

And then the world did something worse than simply not go away. On Friday morning the insanity and anxiety of the world exploded in our faces once again with horrifying violence in a mass shooting in Aurora, CO.

I confess that part of me wants to use this moment to talk about our nation’s love affair with guns and what it says about us that so many followers of the Prince of Peace have such a passion for these lethal instruments of mayhem. I would like to raise the question about why it is that so many followers of Jesus, persons of genuine faith, resist efforts to more effectively register and control these instruments which are, quite simply, designed for killing. I would like to tell you about my own experience with guns, about the death of my friend, Dennis, when we were only 12 years old, about the death of Meri’s Uncle Orren.  I would like to ask how many times we have to live through Aurora and Seal Beach and Columbine before we insist on some kind of stronger preventive action.

But now is not the time to start a conversation that would almost surely be divisive and the fact is, we have bigger questions in front of us because of Aurora.  The wounds of our own grief over what happened here in Seal Beach only 10 months ago are reopened for many of us this morning. I suspect that many of you feel the way I do this morning— not so much like a disciple of Jesus, full of adrenaline for our mission— but like one of those sheep without a shepherd.

I want to share with you an article that appeared yesterday in the Huffington Post. It’s entitled An Open Letter to All Who Suffer From the Shooting in Aurora. It was written by Pastor Meghan Johnston Aelabouni, the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Fort Collins, Colorado.

You don’t know me. I’m a pastor at a Lutheran congregation 65 miles north of you, in Fort Collins. You may have your own pastor, or rabbi, or imam. You may not believe in God. But I am also your neighbor–and like many of your neighbors in Colorado and across the country, my heart breaks for you today.

We, your neighbors, may not have been in that movie theater, but we could have been. It could have been our children, our friends. We want to share words of sympathy, but we know no words can erase what has happened to you, as you grieve for the dead and wait in hospitals for news of the injured. What words we do share may bring little comfort.

I am only one of many voices who will speak to you, and about you, in the days to come. As a pastor, a parent, and a neighbor, here is what I want to say.

To the victims, the survivors, and their loved ones: I am so sorry. I cannot imagine the terror of being inside the theater in those deadly moments, or the anxiety of not knowing at first whether someone you loved was among the victims. I pray for the hospital staff and emergency personnel who continue to treat your wounds, and I pray for your healing. And for those who have received the worst possible news, the news of death, my head bows in sorrow.

In the coming days and weeks, you will probably encounter well-meaning people who will say to you, it is all part of God’s plan, even if we don’t understand it now. Everything happens for a reason. If these words are helpful for you to hear, I’m glad. But if these words tear at already-raw places in you and fill you with anger or despair, please know this: not all people of faith believe these things. I do not believe them.

The God I know in Jesus Christ does not use natural disasters or human-caused massacres to reward some and punish others. I believe God is able to reach into sin and death and pull out healing and life; this is a different thing from engineering tragedy for a so-called greater purpose. The God I serve and proclaim to others does not cause or desire human suffering.

I also suspect many of you, like us, may be asking why. Why did this happen? The media and the justice system will do their best to answer this question in the literal sense, trying to determine why James Holmes apparently entered a movie theater and began shooting at random. In a sense, however, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, because even if we get a “why”–an explanation from the shooter, or a more comprehensive understanding of the circumstances that comes with time–these answers will still not be enough.

In its deepest sense, the question “why?” is not a request for a logical explanation; no logical explanation will justify or make sense of what is indefensible and senseless. It is a cry of the heart, an expression of grief. It is a cry as ancient as it was new again this morning. In the Bible, it is “Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15).

As a person of faith, I say to you: there is holiness in grief, in tears and in anger. In the refusal to be comforted, there is the understanding that these bullets have torn a rent not only in individual lives but also in the fabric of life itself, in an understanding of community as it ought to be. Such refusal proves that we have glimpsed and can imagine a better way of being together in the world. The fact that this event is one of many tragedies and episodes of suffering around the world doesn’t diminish its magnitude; in many ways, it makes it sadder.

One of the twelve dead in the Aurora shooting was aspiring Colorado sportscaster Jessica (Ghawi) Redfield. On June 5, after she had narrowly missed being present at a similar shooting at a Toronto mall, she blogged about the event, asking, “Who would go into a mall full of thousands of innocent people and open fire? Is this really the world we live in?”

Is this the world we live in? Yes. And no. It is a world in which evil and tragedy erupt with shocking frequency and brutal intensity. It is a world in which, despite our attempts to separate “good people” from “bad people,” the truth in writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s words stands: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.”

And yet, this is also a world in which immense kindness and compassion can wash over us in times of greatest need. For those whose trust in humanity has been shattered today: as you remember a young man bursting into a place of supposed safety and turning it into a place of destruction, may you also remember communities, places of worship, neighborhoods and individuals bursting into this situation with love and support. May these times testify not to the power of evil to destroy community, but to the greater power drawing a community together to stand with one another. I call that greater power God; but whether or not we share the same faith, let us share that commitment to life and love that render hatred and evil ultimately powerless.

In the end, whatever his motives, Mr. Holmes will have neither the first nor the last word. Nor will I. That honor belongs, I believe, to the indestructible love of God. It belongs also to Jessica Redfield, whose life was ended, but whose witness was not destroyed:

“we don’t know when or where our time on Earth will end. When or where we will breathe our last breath…every moment we have to live our life is a blessing.”

To Jessica and our beloved dead: rest in peace, and may perpetual light shine upon you.

One of my heroes, Fred Rogers— we all knew him as Mr. Rogers— Fred Rogers once wrote, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers— so many caring people in the world.”

Look for the helpers. When tragedy erupts, when violence explodes in our faces, look for the helpers. In fact, as followers of Jesus, we are called to be the helpers. We are the ones called by God to wade into the mayhem to help. It is our hands God uses to care for the wounds. It is our voices God uses to speak comfort. It is our arms God uses to embrace. It is our shoulder that God uses to receive the tears of those who weep.

In his address to the nation in the aftermath of this horrible violence, President Obama said, “If there is anything to take away from this tragedy, it’s the reminder that life is very fragile. Our time here is limited and it is precious. And what matters most at the end of the day is not the small things; it’s not the trivial things, which so often consume us and our daily lives. Ultimately, it’s how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another.”

Ultimately, what matters is how we treat one another, how well we love one another. That means that we who follow Jesus, who try to love the world as he loved and loves the world, will always have our work waiting for us. We are the helpers. We are the ones who carry the compassion and love of Christ into the heart of disaster. The world is still full of sheep without a shepherd. There will always be disasters. There will always be insane acts of violence. The world won’t go away. It is always there, reaching out with its hungers and its needs. And yes, as we do this work of Christ and reach out to the world’s never-ending hunger, sometimes we need to take a break. But if the world suddenly explodes even when you’re trying to take that break, then stop, take a deep breath, and find a way to love it.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Get Used To The Water

Get Used To The Water

Jesus’ birth is described in only 2 books of the New Testament: Matthew and Luke. His baptism, on the other hand is talked about in six books: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts and Romans. The Scriptures place more emphasis on his baptism than on his birth. Brian Stoffregen suggests, “Perhaps that should be a clue for us. Perhaps we should not only give greater emphasis to Jesus’ baptism but also our own baptisms. Should we not publicize baptismal anniversaries of our members as we do birthdays and wedding anniversaries?”

James R. Edwards (The Gospel according to Mark) makes this important point: “As the inaugural event of Jesus’ public ministry, the baptism tells us not what Jesus does but what God does to him” [p. 34].

Baptism is not about what we do. It’s about what God does. It’s not about my decision for God, it’s about God’s decision for me. God tears open the barrier between heaven and earth, God alights on me, possesses me and fills me with the Holy Spirit, it’s God’s voice that declares, “This is my child.” The only decision I can make is to get out of God’s way, to stop resisting God and to receive the gift that God has been trying to give me all along, the gift of my true self as God has always intended me to be. And even that decision is not entirely an act of my will; I come to that point of decision because God has enticed or nudged or shoved or dragged or persuaded or gently led me to that point. 

 There is an important difference between John’s baptism and Christian baptism which is often–too often–overlooked. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance and a washing away of sin. Christian baptism is about receiving the power of the Holy Spirit and a initiating a special relationship with God. 

 Baptism, from the Greek word baptidzo, means to dip under, to dye, to immerse, to sink, to drown, to bathe, to wash. When we are baptized we dip under the surface of religion and into the depths of faith. We are dyed the color of Christ. We are immersed in the life and love of God. We sink down into the depths of God’s compassion. We are drowned in the death of Christ so that we might be raised into his eternal life. As St. Paul says in Romans 6.5: For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” We are bathed in God’s cleansing grace. We are washed in the the flowing waters of new creation.

 Writing about baptism in Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott writes: “Christianity is about water: ‘Everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters.’ It’s about baptism, for God’s sake. It’s about full immersion, about falling into something elemental and wet. Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry, looking good, not going under. But in baptism, in lakes and rain and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that’s a little sloppy because at the same time it’s also holy, and absurd. It’s about surrender, giving in to all those things we can’t control; it’s a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched…. In the Christian experience of baptism, the hope is that when you go under and you come out, maybe a little disoriented, you haven’t dragged the old day along behind you. The hope, the belief, is that a new day is upon you now. A day when you are emboldened to take God at God’s word about cleanness and protection: ‘When thou passeth through the water, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee.’”

 Baptism is not a one-time event. It is a way of life. Baptism is not fire insurance. We don’t baptize babies so that if, God forbid, something awful should happen they won’t go to hell. We baptize them so that they can be immersed from the very beginning in a life where they are always seeing and experiencing the presence of God, ideally within the family of faith–within the community of all those sisters and brothers who have also been given what St. Paul calls “a spirit of adoption.” We baptize adults because it is never too late to begin that new life as God’s child, never too late to become a new creation, never too late to receive that “spirit of adoption,” never too late to be embraced by and enfolded into the family of faith.

 There is always that hope, that desire, to be new, to start over, to be whole. Crosby and Nash in their song, Lay Me Down say it this way:

Somewhere between Heaven and Hell
A soul knows where it’s been
I want to feel my spirit lifted up
And catch my breath again 
Lay me down in the river
And wash this place away
Break me down like sand from a stone
Maybe I’ll be whole again one day

Baptism is all about God’s amazing grace, but it is not a “Get Out Of Jail Free” card. In fact, if you’re living out your baptism, it just my put you in jail.  Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonnhoeffer, Daniel Berrigan, St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Perpetua, the 285 Muslim converts–including children–who were arrested in Iran last year, the 42 Ethiopian Christians arrested in Saudi Arabia on December 17… Baptism put them in jail. 

Romans 8:15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!”  16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Baptism may call us to suffer with those who suffer for the sake of Christ. Baptism may call us to suffer with our brothers and sisters who suffer. We are God’s children. The heirs of God’s dominion. Baptism brings us not only privilege and blessings, it brings responsibilities. We have joined the family business–God’s family business. We have a job to help realize God’s vision for the world, to transform the whole world so that God’s justice, God’s shalom, God’s idea of equity and equality, God’s generosity and God’s compassion are the standard and norm “on earth as it is in heaven.” Sometimes that means we have to stand up to the powers and forces in this world that are in opposition to God’s vision. But baptism can give us the strength to do that, too.

Some of you no doubt remember how during the civil rights marches the authorities  in Birmingham tried to stop the marchers with fire hoses. Martin Luther King, marching at the front, felt the full force of those hoses. When he spoke about that later, he said that he and the other marchers had a common strength that gave them the courage and the power to keep going.  He put it this way, as “we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were a Baptist or some other denomination, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water.”

Brett Blair wrote, “You and I know the water. All of God’s children know the water. We share by our faith this common symbol, this initiation, this rite, this power of God over the deep and often raging chaos of life. We know water!”  All over the world baptism unites us. We are children of God… and it’s a very large family. That means that no matter what we’re facing, we never face it alone. We have Christ. We have our Abba. We have the Holy Spirit. And we have a whole world of brothers and sisters.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.