Sunday, December 16 (Advent 3), 2012
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton
Words for Sunday, December 16 The poet Adrienne Rich writes
“My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.”
Today is the third Sunday of advent when we light the candle on the Advent wreath which stands for Joy. The joy candle is to remind us that even though Advent is a serious and reflective time in the Christian year, a time of spiritual preparation, joy is coming. This is why the candle is pink, in contrast with the others - it is supposed to be a little visual reminder of brightness, of joy.
But how can I speak to you about joy today in the aftermath of what happened on Friday morning at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, CT — an elementary school in a small quiet New England town so much like the ones we live in. As I know you already know, the victims include 20 young children ages six and seven, each one utterly beautiful and beloved, just like our own children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews, just like the children of our communities and congregation. The victims also include six members of the school’s staff including several young teachers and the school’s principal - people who had dedicated their lives to nurturing children, as so many of you have, you who are teachers, and educators, school counselors and librarians and teacher’s aides and principals. So how can I speak of joy today when our hearts are breaking at the immensity of this grief, this senseless, purposeless loss which is beyond understanding, and really beyond words.
So maybe today our comfort and our hope comes, not so much from the words but from Shawn’s beautiful music and the sound of the choir and our voices joined together singing. Maybe our comfort and hope can come from feeling the strength of this sacred old building, which has held so much sorrow and joy over the centuries. Or maybe it comes from the candles we light together. Or maybe it is enough just to be here, side by side, looking into each other’s faces and knowing we are not alone.
My friend Ellen sent me a quote from a meditation written years ago by Rev. Elizabeth Tarbox, who wrote about some of the questions I have been struggling with the past two days. Elizabeth Tarbox writes, “Where is hope, to whom shall I turn, what is faith? What shall I tell them.. what shall I tell these good people who struggle as I do?…” And the answer she receives is this: “… speak the truth, simply speak your truth. She goes on, “And so I say ours is a story of faith and hope and love. I say it is our need for one another that binds us together, that brings us limping and laughing into relationships and keeps us at it when we otherwise might despair at the fix we are in. I say it is the holy we need, the eternal beyond our comprehension, and one place we can find it is here, working and worshipping together. And I say there is a transcendent loyalty, upon which we may set our hearts, and its divine manifestation is love.” (From Evening Tide by Elizabath Tarbox).
Friends, this is all I know for sure. This is what I believe in, that ours is a story of faith and hope and love. We can set our hearts on love. We can set our hearts on this faith tradition we share, which teaches us that each life is sacred, that each one of us is a beloved child of the universe, and that what we do, how we choose to live matters deeply. But mostly, I believe in love and I believe in how we bring love to life in this place.
Some of the most helpful words I have heard since Friday came by way of facebook from Kira’s LaFosse-Baker’s friend Sam Dillon, a young adult from Connecticut who is traveling in south East Asia. Kira thinks he is in Thailand now but she says he moves around a lot so she isn’t sure. Here are some of the words he posted on Friday: He wrote:
We live in a violent world… We live in a culture that perpetuates violence and war, glorifies violence towards women and children, especially those in poverty, and hesitates very little in destroying whole communities … But I don’t want to talk about this. I don’t want to … feed any more energy than necessary into this idea, or the motivations of killers, or war, or violence at all.
What if instead: Every one of us took the time and energy.. that we are focusing on this tragic event, all of our anger and pain and suffering, and instead of just grieving and feeling angry and doing nothing, what if we asked our hearts and minds to magnify that pain and fear, examine it, and invite it to heal within us?
What if we then released it back into the universe in a positive way, however we might do that: in our interactions with strangers, friends, family, or just in our breathing, our voice, our patience with others. What if, in our own ways, we said: “Today I understand there is violence and suffering in the world, but as I take that inside of me, I will transform it. For the benefit of myself and all life on earth that seeks peace, I will take this anger, pain, and suffering, transform it, and put ONLY LOVE back in it’s place. Only love.”
Sam writes: If we all did that, in our own way, in our own time, beginning right now… I think we’d live in a different world tomorrow. I really do.
We can start putting love back into the universe in the smallest and simplest of ways. There is a table with cards downstairs in the big room beneath us and I invite you to write a card to the Sandy Hook school staff or to the children of the school or their parents or the police and firefighters and EMT’s of Newtown so that they feel held in a web of love being woven by people all over the country.
I also want to say I understand the solutions are not easy. We live in a culture of violence. We live in a society where people who should never have guns are able to get them and use them to do terrible harm and where the safety net for those who are most vulnerable, most desperately in need of mental health treatment is torn and broken. Many things will have to change. But we must start where we are and do what we feel called to do, to cast our lost with those who reconstitute this world. As Gail Collins wrote in her op ed piece in the NY Times. We have to make ourselves better. Otherwise, the story from Connecticut is too unspeakable to bear.
Where is God in all of this? For some of you this is not the question you are asking. But several of you have wondered about this with me or told me that you don’t think you can believe in a God if God lets things like this happen. All I can say is that God of my own understanding, the God of my own heart is not a God who controls things, or has some ultimate plan for us, whose meaning we cannot know or fathom. The God of my heart is always with those who suffer, always keeping us company and always taking the form of a love that is deeper and vaster than perhaps any love we can imagine. But the God I believe in can’t make things come out right. We are free to do both great good and great harm. Accidents happen and violence and if there is going to be meaning in these things, we will have to make it. We will have to make it through our commitments and our actions. But if we want to know where God is in any situation I believe we find God when we look for love.
Fred Rogers better known as Mr. Rogers, one of the heroes of my childhood 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 this world.” For me, that is where the holy is to be found, in the helpers, in the caring people, and that is who I believe we are called by our faith to be. We are called to stand on the side of love, wherever love is to be found.
And maybe this is where joy comes in. I believe that the old stories we retell at this time of year tell us something important about the nature of joy -that it can break through like starlight or candlelight in the darkness, but that it is surrounded by the hard stuff of every day life, including violence and tragedy and despair and that makes it all the more precious. The stories remind us that there is still and always joy in this world, but that it is fleeting, and it comes alongside of the struggle and it is most often to be found where there is also love.
Mary and Joseph have to make this long tired journey to Bethlehem, before the joy of the baby’s birth. And then they have to run away to Egypt to escape King Herod’s murderous intentions before there is the possibility of safety and homecoming. Their story is wrapped up in the threat of violence and fear. They have to become exiles, refugees, before they can go come home again. The Magi also make a long and difficult journey eastward to find the infant Jesus and we can imagine their joy at finding him is mixed with surprise and shock - he is not what they imagined. And they are also afraid of what will happen if Herod finds that baby. So they go home, we are told, by another route. The Maccabees of the Hanukkah story were victorious against impossible odds, living in the hills, fighting desperate battles before they won back their city and the oil in the sacred temple lamp burned for 8 days until more oil could be made. Their joy comes, we can imagine only alongside a terrifying struggle for their very lives. Winter Solstice comes in the midst of the deepest darkness. Ancient people gathered, as people still do, to celebrate the rebirth of the sun, to remind ourselves in the dark and cold of the longest night of the year, that dawn will eventually come and spring will slowly return. The joy comes alongside the waiting; it comes alongside the pain and fear and uncertainty.
This makes sense. This makes sense because the only other thing I know about joy is that has nothing to do with ideal circumstances. Joy finds us just as we are and usually in some pretty odd places. My mother was the one who taught me this about joy. She taught me this when she got lost at the Northshore shopping mall. This happened many years ago now but my mother went to the mall with some friends, which was somewhat unusual because my mother doesn’t go to malls very often. She had, in fact never been in the Northshore shopping mall, which, at the time of her visit had recently been remodeled. The design of this mall, according to my mother’s report was very modern and included some striking art-deco architectural details.
I was never able to get the exact details from my mother’s story, so I am not sure I have the facts straight, but I got the impression that the Jordan Marsh, which is where my mother got lost, must have vaulted ceilings with large skylights, because my mother said that the sky was so beautiful she kept looking up at it, which is in fact how she got lost, by looking up at the sky instead of in the direction of her two friends.
In searching for her friends, my mother’s quickly became disoriented, (not that I take after her in this area or anything) and her friends, worried she had become ill or passed out or something, finally had her paged over the loudspeaker, which she didn’t hear, because by that time she was out searching in the parking lot. She was finally rescued by the mall security guards who recognized her by the description her friends had given them and they marched her back to her friends and they all had a good laugh.
My younger brother and three sisters, who were all teenagers at the time this story took place were not laughing. They were mortified when they heard the story. “They paged you over the loudspeaker? They said your last name?” they moaned “what if some of our friends were there.” But I loved the story for its symbolism. What, I thought, could be a more perfect metaphor for the holidays in our culture than getting lost in a shopping mall? But I quickly realized that, while this might be an excellent metaphor, it is not what actually happened. My mother didn’t get lost in materialism or shopping at the Northshore shopping mall,. She got lost in joy.
What seems to have happened to my mother was that she got caught up in wonder, something about the stars of the winter sky shining through skylights that was so beautiful, so compelling, that she got lost in it. And if joy can find its way into a Jordan Marsh at the Northshore shopping mall during the Christmas rush, it can happen anywhere.
I think of Anne Frank, the young Dutch Jewish girl, who spent two years in hiding with her family. At the age of fourteen and after almost two years in the Secret Annex, this cramped little attic apartment with no windows, or daylight, a place where they could not move around or make noise during the day, Anne wrote in her diary, “I have often been downcast but never in despair. I am young and strong and am living a great adventure. Every day I feel that I am developing inwardly, that the liberation is drawing nearer, and how beautiful nature is, how good the people are about me, how interesting this adventure is! Why then should I be in despair?” If joy could happen for Anne Frank, then surely it can happen for us as well.
Believing that joy can happen in the most ordinary and unlikely places if our hearts are open, is at the heart of this season. Joy cannot be forced. It cannot be possessed. It certainly can’t be purchased. It can’t be experienced on demand and it seems to come, not in days or hours, but in seconds and closely related to the simplest of things, the sight of stars on a winter night, the sound of voices singing, the smell of bread or coffee, the touch of a warm hand. Maybe all we can do is learn to issue joy a standing invitation and then start paying attention. We may find that joy is already happening all around us, and it is just a matter of being there to greet it, of opening the door.
Opening the door to joy will never mean denying the pain or despair in this world or in our lives. In fact, I have found that the opposite is true — that the more deeply we are able to experience sorrow, the more deeply we can feel the joy as well, This is part of our work, to believe in joy, to recognize it when it comes to us as the gift that it is and then to keep on bringing more love into the world.
In a poem she wrote to her daughters following 9/11 called Testimony the poet Rebecca Baggett wrote in part these words:
I want to tell you that the world
is still beautiful.
I tell you that despite
children… shot down in school rooms,
… despite the thinning film
that encloses our aching world.
Despite my own terror and despair.
I want you to know that spring
is no small thing, that
the tender grasses curling
like a baby’s fine hairs around
your fingers are a recurring
miracle. I want to tell you
that the river rocks shine like God…
I want to remind you to look
beneath the grass, to note
the fragile hieroglyphs
of ant, snail, beetle.
I want to say…
that I am waiting for
“a great and common tenderness,”
that I still believe
we are capable of attention,
that anyone who notices the world
must want to save it.
“We are capable of a great and common tenderness. We are capable of noticing this world and wanting to save it.” We are capable bringing more love, more hope into the world and opening the door to let in more joy into the world. So let us cast our lot with those who age after age and with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.