Saturday, December 15, 2012
Here's my homily for 3 Advent. For obvious reasons, this is a challenging preaching occasion: one on which I find myself, as I've so often been before, infinitely grateful for poetry.
The readings are Zephaniah 3:14-20 and Luke 3:7-18.
Today is the third Sunday of Advent, also known as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means “rejoice” in Latin. This is the day when we’re called to put aside the somber, penitential business of Advent to revel in the Lord’s impending arrival. “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.”
I don’t know about you, but after the terrible news from Connecticut on Friday -- right after that other terrible news from Portland only a few days earlier -- I don’t feel like rejoicing and exulting. I don’t feel like the Lord has turned away my enemies, and I doubt that any of the survivors of those mass shootings, or their families, feel that way either. I fear disaster as much as I ever did, if not more.
Usually I don’t like John the Baptist, this grumpy prophet with his locusts and wild honey, howling at the assembled crowd to repent, telling them they’re a brood of vipers. He’s such a downer, right before Christmas. Where’s the good news here, exactly?
But in the middle of so much bad news, I need this morning’s Gospel. John doesn’t sugarcoat anything, but he still offers hope. The good news he brings is that we are capable of kindness, of good deeds, of the love of neighbor that is Jesus’ greatest commandment. When the crowd asks John, “What should we do?” he says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise.” In this wide, wild world where there is so much we cannot control, we still have free will. We can choose love.
In the past few days, many people have been sharing something Mister Rogers once said. I’ve talked about Fred Rogers from this pulpit before, and I ask your indulgence as I do so again. This quotation has gone viral because it so perfectly fits the situation.
“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 this world.”
Fred Rogers’ tone is very different from John the Baptist’s, but they’re saying the same thing. Choose love over despair. Choose love over violence. Choose love over vengeance. Even in the darkness, choose love.
And, on Gaudete Sunday, we are also called to choose joy. That may seem impossible right now. It may even seem disrespectful, a sign that we don’t care about all those dead children and their families. How can we find joy in the middle of so much sadness?
Here is a poem about that process. It is by Jack Gilbert, and it is called,“A Brief for the Defense.”
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
Choose love. Choose joy. And listen. There will be music despite everything, even in the midst of tears. And in a few weeks, if we listen very carefully, we will hear another kind of crying: the thin wailing of a hungry, newborn child lying in a manger, bringing light and love and peace even in the darkness.