Sermon for Sunday, December 16, 2012
The Third Sunday of Advent, Year C
Zephaniah 3: 14-21; Canticle 9; Philippians 4: 4-7; Luke 3: 7-18
The Rev. Margot D Critchfield
Words fail. Yet they keep struggling to shape something—anything with a modicum of meaning—out of the overwhelming emotional assault of the past few days. Words are everywhere…in the paper, on television, in conversations overheard on the street– and, on our hearts.
Words in The New York Times described Newtown as, “a picture-perfect New England town where neighbors are quick with a friendly hello and know one another by name.”
Words from a Newtown teacher told a CNN camera that, “Stuff like this doesn’t happen in Newtown.”
And in words remarkable for their almost clinical detachment, Reuters reported that based on 2011 crime statistics, “Newtown was ranked the fifth safest city in America by the website NeighborhoodScout.com.”
I am sure that the parallels between Newtown and our own Currier & Ives-like South Shore communities have not been lost on any of us.
Perhaps the most haunting words reported in the past few days might have been the anguished “whys” of an overwrought woman as she walked, in a daze, up a road from the school. Haunting, because her “whys” are the only words that seem to make any sense at a time like this. Haunting, because her words provide no answers, but give new urgency to the most fundamental of human questions. And haunting because, try as we might, we can find no words of our own with which to answer them.
The words of our scriptures today seem jarringly ill suited. This third Sunday of Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday. “Gaudete” is a Latin word that means, “rejoice.” So the words of the prophet Zephaniah urge us to rejoice with all of our heart; Isaiah’s words exhort us to rejoice as we draw water from the springs of salvation; and St. Paul insists we must, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice.”
But there will be no rejoicing in Newtown this morning. Not even, I dare say, among those families that are safe and intact. They know all too well the truth of their governor’s bold words: That evil has visited their community, that it’s too early to speak of recovery, and that they’re all in this together.
The deeper truth is that we are all in this together, as members of God’s most precious creation, the human family. We are One Body, and at times like this, we know it beyond any shadow of a doubt. We feel it intuitively.
And how petty, by comparison, seem all those artifices that separate and divide us like nationality, political or religious affiliation, or economic status. We know there is a gaping wound in one part of our body, and we cannot but feel its pain.
What then shall we do?
I wonder if these are not the very words that have been struggling to be formed in our hearts these past few days. “What then shall we do?” What then shall we do for our brothers and sisters in Newtown? What then shall we do in the face of such tragedy and evil? What then shall we do when there is no answer to the anguished “whys” of grief?
What then shall we do?
Curiously, these are the very same words uttered by the crowd in this morning’s gospel when John the Baptist tells them to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” — which is to say, to live their lives in such a way that bears witness to their commitment to God’s word.
Yet despite the obvious difference in time and place, despite even the difference in theological context, God’s word is a living word, and God’s word is good. God’s word does not fail. And that word speaks to us today with great power and poignancy.
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none,” John tells the crowd grappling for answers, “and whoever has food must do likewise.” To us John speaks this word: “Whoever can pray must pray for those who can’t; and whoever has hope, must hope for those who have none.”
Newtown, Connecticut needs our faith. Our brothers and sisters there need the strength of our faith, now, while theirs is under fire. This is the gift we can give them. This is what we can do to help in their and our own healing.
We can pray for those too grief-stricken to pray; we can hope for those too devastated to hope; we can lift up before God those too broken to stand; we can rejoice— yes, we can even rejoice–in the sure and certain knowledge that a Light shines in the darkness, and that the darkness will not and cannot overcome it. And we can join with others throughout the world to be that Light in the darkness for the people of Newtown.
We are One Body. They will know we are with them. They will feel it intuitively.
This then, is what we will do: We will let our faith be their faith; our hope, their hope; our prayers, their prayers. We will hold their faith, and their prayers, and their hope for them in the Light of God’s redeeming Love– until they can embrace the light of new life themselves.
Until then we will offer them ours– by bearing witness with our lives to the truth of Zephaniah’s words, that God is in our midst renewing us with His love. By affirming with Isaiah that it is God and none other who saves us, that we trust in him and are not afraid. And by daring, with Paul, to “rejoice in the Lord always.” Yes, we will dare to speak the word: Rejoice!
We are, after all, One Body.
So in the days ahead, I pray we will all remember that the peace of God– which surpasses all understanding– is guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. And when our words fail, I pray God will help us to remember His.
Because the Lord is our stronghold and sure defense, and He will be our Savior. Amen.