Christmas sermon #2

(Eve, 10:30pm)
In this service, with so much beautiful music of darkness and light, there’s one that didn’t get included. Here are a few of these words anyway:
To us, to all in sorrow and fear
In darkest night his coming shall be,
when all the world is despairing
Though a line claiming that winter is “dark and cheerless” may be an overstatement—indeed, we are likely still to find plenty of cheer these days—nevertheless we probably relate strongly to words of sorrow, fear, and a desperate world.
 
The part about being in darkest night has been particularly on my mind for this service, because this has to seem peculiar. Most obviously, this isn’t when we’d usually be at church. Indeed, it’s the sort of schedule when most of us are not likely to be anywhere except at home, and maybe nestled in bed.
 
Those who are at work now tend to have the disparaged title of “3rd shift,” seeming to indicate it’s not a first choice, that they’re not first rate or first class. That’s not to say those roles aren’t extremely important, for the nurses caring ‘round the clock, and firefighters ready at a moment’s notice, and those maintaining systems or security of buildings. Yet that those are extraordinary roles highlights again that it is unusual to be here in the dark middle of the night.
 
Venturing homeward in a bit, it’s the hour we might expect the only others driving are heading home from the bar or are long-haul truckers still making their way ‘cross country.
 
The unusual fact, though, is that even our being out now is not as strange or scary as it had been. We’ve got well-lit roads and reliable vehicles. But looking back in history, night was not a time to be out and about. Thieves and marauders lurked to attack travelers under the cover of darkness. It’s unsurprising in our Christmas story that shepherds were the only ones to show up to welcome the newborn baby; either they were tough enough to fight off the unsavory characters, or they themselves were the unsavory characters, rugged, stinky and unsociable, probably a bit uncouth.
 
So here you are, gathered in the middle of the night, repeating the pattern of those sketchy characters, the unsavory shepherds. You’ve left comforts of warmth and enjoyment behind to wander through the darkness to be here at this service.
 
Which begs the question: why? Why stay up late? Why adjust schedules? Why put off other types of celebration? Why venture to be here?
 
I know some of you’d answer that it’s your tradition, this is what your family has done. You may find it beautiful, the quiet and peacefulness of night. Again, we know that the line about winter being “dark and cheerless” is wrong because we long for that iconic scene of the “moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow.” We enjoy the notion of the “o holy night” with brightly shining stars. Ken Koscik would say that we still have enough of our ancestral genes in us that we are drawn to gather around the warmth of fires, even of small candle flames.
 
But I suspect there’s another, true explanation for being here and being here now. That is hope. Because of sorrow and fear in a despairing world. We are people who get scared. Of things that go bump in the night, sure, but not afraid only of the dark as afraid in the dark. In quiet seclusion of sleepless nights is when our minds are troubled, when our thoughts fret through details. Those worries can almost be overwhelming because the night can be so isolating.
 
Quiet moments of reflection can also intimidate since there really is much too much wrong with our world and the existence that surrounds us. We stare into the void of not knowing what to do about bad news—about violence and conflicts, about those with whom we disagree and whose opinion threatens to overpower us, about the collapse of things we’ve held dear, about deaths in big planetary ways and also the deaths and losses and longings we confront in an emptier holiday, and even just the no-big-deal but still-accumulating frustrations. Those become terrifying things to hold onto.
 
But this here isn’t just for distraction, not just sweet lights and pretty songs to take our attention away from being bombarded by things we’d prefer to ignore. No, actually we come to church to face those things more directly, and to be met by the good news that confronts the worst and changes it, transforms us, that saves. Our songs and lights aren’t diversions but are how we face the darkness of despair. And on this night, we don’t abandon each other to lonely worry, but gather together, united to face our troubles as community, joined by hearts and hands.
 
We come out into the darkness—into the middle of the night—partly because we long to hear this message. We need the proclamation that a savior has come. Our hope is desperate, is tenacious, is so very fragile. Our hope is so fragile that we can even cling to this baby born tonight, devoting ourselves wholeheartedly in him. We’re so eager to receive good news that we’ll cradle this one in our arms and in our souls.
 
While we wouldn’t just say that life is dark and cheerless, that we are wholly fearsome and worried folk, still we should notice a detail in this story: the shepherds feared and trembled. When the angel showed up, they were sore afraid. Is it that the darkness hides our rough edges, that we’re not really ready for change from the devil we know? Does any bit of blessing or actual good news catch us off guard? Or did those shepherds stop being scared as soon as they heard the amazing message, “Do not be afraid.” Don’t fear the angel chorus. Don’t fear this news. Don’t fear anything at all anymore—Jesus is born.
 
We venture into the darkness quite possibly as a bunch of raggedy shepherds who are now ready for this message, eager to hear the news. We’d probably also feel like saying we’re here because we yearn not just to receive but to embody this for others. We want to share and to practice this peace that has come to earth. We are filled by the Holy Spirit, blessed to be the blessing, offering compassion and love. That is the kingdom task we’re brought to by this newborn king.
 
And we’re people of joy. Our songs ring out into the darkness and candles keep shining against it. Together we have the confidence that, in spite of all that is wrong or we wish would be different, for all the precarious moments of life seeming at risk and even when it’s too late, still we celebrate. Our lives and our world have been entrusted into the arms of a savior, a redeemer. Be not afraid; Jesus is born!
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Saints, Death, Weeping

sermon for All Saints Sunday (John11:32-44; Isaiah25:6-9; Rev21:1-6a)

A fair question to ask is why in the world would we think of this facing death again today as a joyful festival?

Memories, even of those we really admired as saintly, are helpful and to be cherished, but are no celebration.

On the worse side, some of us can’t walk into church without it calling to mind those we miss. It may be you can’t help but dwell on losses you grieve, the people who shaped you and brought you to church in the first place. Or that one of the last times you were in a place like this was to say goodbye at a funeral service. There are such intense emotions that it’s painful even to come through the doors, that it’s almost too much to face. I understand that, and some of that feeling is exactly what we’re dealing with today.

But before we go into more of that, I also want to put aside a different idea. Some feel uncomfortable in church because of grief and overwhelming sadness. But there are also those who feel uncomfortable at church because they suspect it’s not a place for them. If I could weed out one persistent comment and stop it from crossing people’s minds or lips, it would be the idea of being unwelcome at church or that God would be opposed to you. Too many times to count, I’ve had people say that if they walked into a church, lightning would probably strike or the roof would cave in. It hasn’t happened.

I’m not sure where that view of God comes from or how it gets fueled, but I’d wish never to have to hear it again. Because whatever causes it, that is not the God we have, not the God of the Bible, not the God embodied for us in Jesus. If you think God is out to get you or doesn’t like you or thinks you’re not good enough to be around, then you’ve got the wrong idea of God. Just the reverse, if you’ve got that notion, then God is eager to be with you, already on your side, particularly when things are bad.

That, then, brings us back to the hard confrontation of death today. Being at church can be tough because we face this mostly head on. When you’re watching sports or reading a book or working on a project, mostly you can keep distracted, with death out of your mind. Even following the news—and even when it’s just awful news—still that can mostly seem far away and not need to be dealt with. Even in late autumn days, turning chillier and darker, when trees are getting bare, still we divert our focus to the colors of beautiful leaves. Or we think about compost, and somehow separate that distinction, that leaves break down to become new soil that will nurture future life. That’s a gain, but death in our families isn’t. That kind of death is loss.

At church, we don’t talk around it. We don’t say you need to brighten up and act happy, as if you’re not actually torn up. That’s an important distinction. Sometimes this faith gets manipulated into some sort of antidepressant or motivational poster. God gets misused to whitewash over the pain or to skip ahead. We end up with trite phrases like, “she’s in a better place.” I don’t have to tell you that consolation is crap. For the people around me who have died, the place I want them to be is still with me. That would be better. I’ve also been there with too many of your loved ones whom we’ve placed in the ground, buried in a cemetery, kept in an urn. That’s not a better place. If we ignore that part of our reality then our faith becomes some escapist lie. It isn’t that we don’t hope for more, but if we jump too quickly to the end—or, still worse, if we impose that on others amid the despair of death and brush aside their sorrow, then that is not honestly our faith.

So, again, just as we don’t have a God who is out to punish those who haven’t been in church or feel like they’ve done something wrong, as God won’t ever withdraw a promise of blessing for you, neither do we have some sort of fairy tale God who always has a smile on and watches cute cat videos while ignoring our reality and dreaming that we’re all living happily ever after. That is not our God.

This takes us into our Gospel reading, where Jesus encounters the death of a dear friend, one he loved. Here, as in other places, death makes Jesus angry. It says “he was greatly disturbed.” And then he began to weep. In some versions of the Bible, that is the shortest verse. John 11:35 is only two words: Jesus wept. (There is one other verse that competes for brevity, but we’ll have to come back to that.)

For now, we should probably notice this most encapsulated theological statement of our Scriptures. What does it say to us that the briefest conception of Christ, the most summarized synopsis, the tiniest little kernel we can compress God into is this weeping? I’d say that it focuses our belief on a God of compassion. A God who sympathizes with our hurt and sorrow and pain. A God who is absolutely and utterly with us, in dejection and disappointment and despair. Who laments with us and aches with us. One who knows that death stinks really, really bad. When we face that, it’s right to be sad and broken and confused. We can’t ignore sorrow. So God knows this pain and our longing and our tears. Jesus wept.

It struck me as remarkable this week that when our readings from Isaiah and Revelation tell us that God will wipe away every tear, that that includes God’s own tears. God also longs for something else, the time when mourning and crying and pain will be no more and death will be no more.

Again, we’ll come to that. But we ought to reflect a moment more on this God of compassion, because that identity is both good and bad, to be treasured yet also not fully satisfying.

We know the blessings of sharing in grief, of being able to lean on each other. That’s among the central reasons to gather in church, especially when our lives have been fractured. I heard St. Stephen’s described that way this week, that this community helped in time of loss: in the death of a son, as a husband was struggling with terminal illness. It is the blessing of Bold Café and Soup for Schools groups, this intimate support network that can offer care and be there together in the roughest times. This is part of why it’s important to be invested in the life of the congregation, because this compassion, this shared love and concern, is such a reciprocal relationship of harvesting what you’ve put into it.

To have God identified with such compassion is the ultimate in caring proclamation. More, this love won’t fall apart, is not dependent on your investment in it. God doesn’t get distracted or have to leave to attend to other business; God is with you always. You can always lean on God and share with God. The old song goes:

What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!

What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!

Oh, what peace we often forfeit; oh, what needless pain we bear—

all because we do not carry ev’rything to God in prayer!

Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?

We should never be discouraged—take it to the Lord in prayer.

Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share?

Jesus knows our ev’ry weakness—take it to the Lord in prayer.

So for one who encounters your suffering with you, it can’t get any closer and more intimate than that.

Yet—and here’s the part that isn’t so satisfying—compassion only goes so far. Misery may love company, but we need some company that doesn’t love misery. It’s good news that God isn’t against you, that—just the opposite—God is with you especially when you really need it. But having a God who knows your sorrow and your longing is not quite enough. You also need a God who can and will do something about it. A God who not only shares your tears but will, indeed, wipe away those tears, and every tear. We have this sense that death shouldn’t happen if the Lord is with us.

At this point, my proclamation to you falters. There’s a hiccup in this good news. God went into death for you, was killed on a cross to destroy death, and rose on the third day to conquer the grave and give you the victory…but, well, this doesn’t exactly feel very victorious or glorious or celebratory at this point. God, it seems, didn’t decide simply to undo death, to erase it, to make everything suddenly better. I don’t like that. I don’t like that we are still here grieving, that we’re stuck with our tears, that we still have to confront death that destroys our good relationships and steals loved ones away from us, or sucks away our own happiness or wellbeing or life.

I can proclaim to you that death is not the end. It has not won. There is more to come. And that changes everything, even if it’s all too eventual and gradual for what we’d wish here and now today. There’s a promise we have now, but we experience it not yet. Jesus rolled away the stone from his loved one’s tomb. His own stone was rolled away on Easter. And no grave will capture or bind you or your loved ones or any of the beloved of God, any of God’s good creation. That is the promise. God will wipe away every tear, and death will be no more. Then we’ll join together at the feast.

Even as we’re still stuck in the messy middle and it can seem so hard to go forward—to face another day, to get out of bed, to hear what the doctor has to say, to deal with our memories, to worry about forgetting, to live in this world—even though that is so much of our reality now, we trust the end of the story. And that changes everything. We don’t need to pretend things are okay when they aren’t, don’t need to stop grieving.

Instead we grieve with hope. I said we’d come back to the other shortest Bible verse. In the original language, there’s a verse that’s shorter than the compassion and shared sadness of “Jesus wept.” It’s not only shorter; it’s a counterpoint that also looks past our present sorrows, since “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Romans8:18). The shortest verse? “Rejoice always.” (1Thessalonians5:16)

Hymn: In Deepest Night (ELW #699)

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