I picked the title for today’s sermon weeks ago, long before I knew how heavy today would feel.
Once again we sit under the weight of tragedy. Once again violence has cast its shadow over a town and over all God’s people as we sit in sympathy with families who have lost a child, a parent, a loved one.
As God’s people do, we seek help from scripture, comfort and answers.
I must be clear, as you have heard me say before: I DO NOT AGREE WITH THOSE WHO SAY THIS IS ALL GOD’S WILL.
I DO NOT BELIEVE GOD WILLS SUFFERING AND MURDER. I DO BELIEVE GOD CAN USE PEOPLE DURING times of GREAT TRAGEDY TO HELP EACH OTHER to help EASE the PAIN.
Keep that in mind, we still seek answers, or at least a message of comfort as the gathered community today.
At first hearing the joy and celebration expressed in some of today’s scriptures, it seems out of place. We have to seek diligently to find the enlightenment we need. It’s as if God was saying sit with it all just a minute. It’s ok to feel what you feel. If you will just be still you will FEEL ME - nearby. . . Just Listen.
(if not read already, read Zephaniah 3:14-20 here)
I sat and realized again that scripture has to be read in community to be understood FOR a community. It is here, together that we can truly hear the message God’s people need to hear.
It is in our own stories, that we learn how to understand the stories pivotal to our faith. It is in these stories (BIBLE) that all human experience is reflected and related to the gift of God’s wisdom.
We call this process, discernment. It’s hard work. It’s the weight, the responsibility of the gift of Christmas. It’s given to us...to share.
When I was discerning, if I was being called away from one church (‘call’ has multiple parts, 1st you must be called away, before you can be called ‘to’). I met with the district executive.
There were the typical conversations about gifts for ministry and the needs of other congregations. Practical notes about the many places not open to women in the COB. Questions also about experience and interest.
And then he said, “when you are waiting for God to open the way, sometimes you have to ‘lean’ on the door”.
Lean on the Door. . .That phrase has stayed with me ever since. It popped up this week in a reflection on the Zephaniah passage you heard.
Jennifer Ryan Ayers wrote;
“The Advent season walks us forward toward that birth the angels sang. But Zephaniah assures us that God also comes to humanity in the community of faith. God’s presence heals, enlivens, and challenges humanity to lean into God’s promises for an alternative future.”
It’s not easy to lean into promise when you feel beat down by grief. Perhaps the leaning posture begins on another person’s shoulder at such times when the weight of life is too heavy. Again, within the community, we lean on each other and together find the strength to ‘lean on the door’.
When we do this together, instead of hearing a disconnect in the words, “Rejoice and exult with all your heart...”
We can grab ahold of “I will remove disaster from you. . I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. I will save, ... I will gather, and ... I will change shame into praise. . I will bring you home. . When I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.”
Certainly in Jesus’ day these words would have been read in the hope of salvation from the oppressive reign of Roman rulers.
Just as in Zephaniah’s day the promise was to gather exiles back together from Babylon & return, at least a remnant, to Israel.
So..community of God’s people...how do you hear these words today? In what promises do you trust?
Do you hear a message of hope?
We didn’t read the rest of Luke 3 that began with last week’s scripture, but we heard part of it in our call to worship. When John cried out against the evil found in humanity the people didn’t make excuses. Instead they asked, ‘what then shall we do?’
It helps to have something specific to say, or do. We get so afraid of saying the ‘wrong’ thing that we say nothing and do nothing.
We are Christ’s community and we have a role to play when tragedy strikes. It is not to point fingers, but to encircle others with our arms.
It may be to sit quietly beside someone supporting them while they lean... Or it may be to hold back the tide of evil that comes with trite sayings.
It helps to find help. I read an article that reminded me of many similar pieces designed to help us discern what NOT to say, before we open our mouths.
Rev Emily Heath put these words on her ‘absolutely NOT’ list.:
1. "God just needed another angel."
Portraying God as someone who arbitrarily kills kids to fill celestial openings is neither faithful to God, nor helpful to grieving parents.
2. "Thank goodness you have other children," or, "You're young. You can have more kids."
Children are not interchangeable or replaceable. The loss of a child will always be a loss, no matter how many other children a parent has or will have.
3. He/she was just on loan to you from God.
The message is that God is so capricious that God will break parents' hearts at will just because God can. It also communicates to parents and loved ones that they are not really entitled to their grief.
4. God doesn't give you more than you can handle.
Actually, some people do get a lot more than any one person should ever have to handle. And it doesn't come from God. Don't trivialize someone's grief with a "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" mentality.
(last but not least)
5. We may not understand it, but this was God's will.
Unless you are God, don't use this line.
Seriously, God does not will death, destruction on children, don’t pretend you know what God wills when someone else has suffered such tragedy. AND, take responsibility to contradict anyone who says this!
How many parents have suffered thinking THEY did something wrong to deserve their child’s death or that God WILLED their child to die. YOU represent the message of light. Stop anyone who hear saying such nonsense!
Did that help any? Have you ever been told one of these lines when you were in pain? (answers)
It helps to know how to limit our tendencies to make everything all right when it isn’t. We can’t ‘fix’ this for someone else. We can be a friend, & a loving presence. We can’t make their loved one return from the dead.
We need to practice the self-limitation that John the baptist suggested. He spoke of economic injustice and said, limit yourselves to one coat if you have 2, give one away.
Perhaps we also need to consider limiting our freedoms, which we so love in the USA so that the restrictions we willingly place on ourselves, will also be placed on those who would act irresponsibly. With guns, or other people’s money.
All this will be considered and discussed in the days ahead. But for now, when we are faced with tragedy and we limit our impulse to ‘fix’ by trying not to say the WRONG thing, we still wonder,
“What DO we SAY?”
Rev Heath suggests the following:
And here are five things to say:
1. I don't believe God wanted this or willed it.
A grieving friend or family member is likely hearing that this is God's will from a number of other people. Affirm the idea that it may very well not be.
2. Tell them, “It's okay to be angry, and I'm a safe person for you express that anger to if you need it.”
Anger is an essential part of the grieving process, but many don't know where to talk about it because they are often silenced by others when they express their feelings. (For instance, they may be told they have no right to be angry at God.) By saying you are a safe person to share all feelings, including anger, with, you help the grieving person know where they can turn. God is big enough to handle OUR anger.
3. When everyone else is trying to fix death with words, tell them, “It's not okay.”
It seems so obvious, but sometimes this doesn't get said. Sometimes the pieces don't fit. Sometimes nothing works out right. And sometimes there is no way to fix it. Naming it can be helpful for some because it lets them know you won't sugarcoat their grief.
4. Tell the truth, say, “I don't know why this happened.”
When trauma happens, the shock and emotion comes first. But not long after comes our human need to try to explain "why?" The reality is that often we cannot. The grieving person will likely have heard a lot of theories about why a trauma occurred. Sometimes it's best not to add to the chorus, but to just acknowledge what you do not know.
5. Say, “I can't imagine what you are going through, but I am here to support you in whatever way feels best.”
Even if you have faced a similar loss, remember that each loss is different. Saying "I know how you're feeling" is often untrue. Instead, ask how the grieving person is feeling. And then ask what you can do to help. Then, do it and respect the boundaries around what they don't want help with at this point. You will be putting some control back into the hands of the grieving person, who often feels like they have lost so much of it.
Well Community? Do those specifics help? Do they give you actionable ideas to answer the question, “What then shall we do?”
I hope these give us specifics to work on as we lean on the door of discernment.
Before we go today, We are left with one more scripture, Paul’s message from Philippians that we heard prior to our prayer.
He is giving instructions for prayer which is very much a part of our discernment.
Rejoice and don’t worry sounds callous if we remove them from the reality of Paul’s life. The truth is, he spoke or wrote this out of a life filled harsh pain and suffering.
But listen closely, because He is telling us to ‘lean on the door.’
We are “..in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let OUR requests be made known to God”
It is because these words come from Paul, who suffered and was eventually killed for his ministry, that we can trust the words. Not removing them from reality but facing reality, amidst pain, we can face the future with trust, ...like he did.
And when we have the strength to get up from leaning on each other, together we can lean on the door...with petitions for ourselves and others, we can present all our concerns, our pain, our confusion to God.
Trust . . .In the peace that passes all understanding...
know that it will come.
Leaning together, is how we bear and rejoice in the weight of Christmas.
1 Jennifer Ryan Ayers Daily Feast Year C Bostrom, Caldwell, Riess, eds (Louisville: WJK, 2012)20