After Newtown: “Gathering at Home”

“Gathering At Home”

a sermon by Catherine Taylor, Blacksburg Presbyterian Church, Blacksburg, VA

Isaiah 12: 2-6; Zephaniah 3: 14-20

What unwelcome events this weekend has brought. For many of us it began happily with the Open House at my house, and the enjoyment of being together in a festive atmosphere. Immediately afterwards, Rob and I bundled up in warm clothes and drove out to John and Martha Dillard’s in the country to watch the Geminid meteor shower away from town lights. With one break for hot chocolate, we watched until midnight as bits of cosmic dust broke into the atmosphere and streaked across the sky. Just seeing so many stars themselves was glorious; the shooting stars were icing on the cosmic cake. I know that others of you did some star gazing of your own.

The next morning the news began to come in about Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown (Connecticut). Today we are dealing with unwanted reminders of April 16, 2007, with feelings of disbelief, sorrow, and anger that such a thing has happened again, this time, unthinkably, involving an elementary school. What are we to make of living in a time when the expectations and pleasantries of Christmas, the wonders of the skies, and the pointless deaths of children can collide within twelve hours? And what does it mean for our faith?

I hope some of you are familiar with the poet Ann Weems and her book Kneeling in Bethlehem. Here is one of her most popular poems, calling Star Giving. Listen:

What I’d really like to give you for Christmas is a star… Brilliance in a package, something you could keep in the pocket of your jeans or in the pocket of your being. Something to take out in times of darkness, Something that would remind you what Christmas had always meant: God’s Advent light into the darkness of this world. But stars are only God’s for giving, and I must be content to give you words and wishes and packages without stars. But I can wish you life as radiant as the Star that announced the Christ Child’s coming, and as filled with awe as the shepherds who stood. And I can pass on to you the love that has been given to me, ignited countless times by others who have knelt in Bethlehem’s light. Perhaps if you ask God will give you a star.

When Weems wrote that poem she was a young woman the mother of four children, on her way to becoming a successful and beloved poet of the faith. The dedication of Kneeling in Bethlehem reads “To my children, Stuart, Todd, David, and Heather in celebration of all our treks into silent December nights in search of stars, and the wondrous times we’ve spent singing our joy manger-side.” Some years later Weems’ son, Todd, was killed in an accident less than an hour after his twenty-first birthday. Weems was devastated. Although she was surrounded by the loving community of faith and grateful for every act of kindness, her heart was shattered deep within, and she was angry at God. For a long time her poetic voice was silent. Theologian Walter Brueggemann was the one who urged her to grieve by writing poetry again. After a long time in which Weems would write poems and angrily stuff them in a drawer, her sorrow was gathered into an astonishing book of poems of grief, entitled Psalms of Lament. The dedication of this later book reads: “To those who weep and those who weep with those who weep.”

A middle-aged woman now mourning for her son, living in a land of grief and deep deprivation, she wrote differently about the stars. Listen:

The sky has fallen and no one seems to notice. Mountains have fallen into the sea and people are oblivious. Everywhere I look there is nothing but devastation and yet, everyone goes about their business as usual. O God, my life is destroyed, but people go to the bank and to the store. They eat and drink and I crumple under the weight of my heart… Please, O God, rebuild my world. Have mercy on me, for I am all alone. No one sees that the sky has fallen. No one, O God, no one, but you. All knowing God you are the only one who can put the stars back in place. Take pity on me and hold up the sky…

If that were the end of the poem I would not be reading it today, and certainly there are poems of lament in the book that begin and end in pain, which is as it should be. I have no doubt at all that someone will place Weems’ Psalms of Lament in the hands of some of the parents who awoke yesterday to unaccustomed silence from their little one’s bedroom. And as one of you mentioned yesterday, it is not just parents, but siblings and grandparents and extended families whose lives have been forever changed. As I said, Weems is a woman of faith, a woman who held the hands of four children through many Advent nights, star gazing. So her poem does not end in deprivation. Like the voice of a prophet long ago, she changes tense, and makes a sudden unexpected shift into a joy she does not yet feel, cannot possibly feel, but which she knows is real because of the memory of Advents past. Listen to the end of the poem, as she addresses God.

I will walk by the river of hope, and you will find me there, and you will reach out your hand and push the heavens back into place and I will kneel and give thanks, for you will be with me. You will put the stars back in the sky.

“How can anyone hope in something she doesn’t feel?” you may well ask. It is an Advent question, and an especially appropriate question for this day. According to the calendar, we are supposed to be feeling Advent joy but even before Friday’s news a lot of us were simply feeling stressed, busy, and worn out. Don’t joy and rejoicing mean unalloyed happiness or lightness of spirit? Fortunately, as Weems’ story suggests, the answer is no. Joy and rejoicing are not primary emotions, writes Harvard Chaplin Peter Gomes, They are an elusive consequence of something else. To some extent you can decide to feel pleasure or even happiness but no one can conjure up joy– by its very nature it comes as a surprise. “We must realize,” says Gomes, “that the context of Joy is not delight, but deprivation. The experience of joy reminds us, by what we have momentarily gained, of what we did not have before.”

Consider this story told by the preacher Herbert O’Driscoll about his English uncle at the end of World War II. His uncle was in London about to be discharged from the royal Navy and he bought tickets to see an American musical that was new in town. He didn’t know, says O’Driscoll, that Oklahoma! had “burst onto the dark world of Europe like a sudden blaze of sunshine…. It came from a land not exhausted by war, a land still strong, with almost infinite resources. It sang a song of the future.” At the theater he was immediately astounded by all the bright lights. For months, years, he and his fellow combatants had been hunkering at night in places where lights were dim or not used at all, and here was light, bright light, and happy commotion in a city getting used to the idea that war had ended. He was not prepared for the wave of feeling that swept over him when the curtain opened on a scene of fields reaching to the horizon as a voice electrified the audience singing “O what a beautiful morning, O what a beautiful day, I’ve got a wonderful feeling everything’s going my way.” O’Driscoll’s uncle never forgot the joy he felt in the theater that night as a musical swept away, at least for a time, the memory of war.

Hearing that joy is more closely aligned with sadness than with happiness is especially helpful right now. As a nation since 2001 we have fought two official wars, and one is still ongoing. In 2007 and 2008 we witnessed the near total collapse of the national economy and have been in staggered stages of recovery ever since. We have just come through national elections that have left us barely able to stand in the same rooms together, much less speak. Our ability to have much needed national conversation about the many challenges ahead is almost nil. Now the second worst school shooting in our national history has taken place. And you know all too well the location of the worst. Still all our scriptures on this third Sunday of Advent exhort us to joy and rejoicing.

Perhaps when you heard the wonderfully joyful words in today’s reading from Philippians you did not remember that when he wrote these words Paul was in prison. From a prison cell he writes “Rejoice in the Lord always again I say rejoice!” The same is true of the context of the book of Zephaniah. Almost every word in the book of Zephaniah is frightening. The prophet is telling of God’s anger with a faithless people. Or, to put it another way, they have been wearing lamp shades at the office Christmas party but not turning up in church. Spending time at the mall, but not at the local homeless shelter. They will sing Good King Wenceslas around the piano, about the noble king who slogged around in the snow to take food and firewood to the poor, but they aren’t gonna get their good shoes wet, or risk catching the flu before the big ski trip. Throughout the entire book of Zephaniah God is outraged at the behavior of the people, promising destruction. It’s not that God is petty because things haven’t gone God’s way. There’s something much more emotional going on. The name Zephaniah means something akin to “God protects,” or it may be more powerful; it may mean “God treasures,” God treasures the people, cherishes Israel, the name reminds us. God’s threats are the howls of someone who feels great depths of rejected love. So for most of the book of Zephaniah we hear things such as “I will bring such distress on the people that they shall walk like the blind.” But then, at the end, the only part we read together, all the pain and hurt and threats are over and we hear instead a song of joy and hope for the future. Listen to the words again:

“The Lord has taken away the judgments against you… The king of Israel, the Lord is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.. and I will save the lame and gather the outcast… At that time I will bring you home…” “The Lord is in your midst,” says Zephaniah in the present tense even as he switches tenses to say “And I will save the lame and gather the outcast.”

That mix of the future and the here and now captures another great mystery of Advent. We lame and outcast are anticipating the return of Christ, who we also believe is alive and already here. How desperately we need to be reminded of that today! Priest and writer Walter Burghardt speaks of it this way: “I do not see him as Mary did, bundled in straw,” writes Burghardt. I do not reach for him as Peter did, walking on the waters… I do not grasp him as Magdalene did, risen from the rock I do not see the smile part his lips, the tears moisten his eyes. I do not hear the music of his voice, trace his wounds with my finger. but I know he is there, body and blood, soul and divinity. A hidden Christ, yes, for he hides his face from me. But he is there as truly as you and I are here.” “This is what Advent hopes to accomplish,” says Burghardt. He is here, and yet the day of homecoming has yet to come.

Joy and rejoicing, say all our texts today, is the way to experience the homecoming day that will come in the here and now. That is why Scottish liturgist John Bell could write his beautiful hymn “There is a Place” following the worst school violence in his nation. Listen:

There is a place where hands which held ours tightly now are released beyond all hurt and fear, healed by that love which also feels our sorrow tear after tear. There is a place where all the lost potential yields its full promise, finds its true intent. Silenced no more, young voices echo freely as they were meant. There is a place where God will hear our questions, suffer our anger, share our speechless grief, gently repair the innocence of loving and of belief.

We have already said that no one can be joyful on command. Rejoicing is a surprise even to those who feel it when it comes. So what do we do this Advent in a year that has been hard for many and devastating for some? We read texts like these that speak of rejoicing. We sing hymns and songs that speak of the promise to come. We remember the genuine kindnesses that emerged in the midst of tragedy here in April 2007, the tiny moments of resurrection in the midst of so much loss. We sit in the dark, like Driscoll’s uncle, waiting for the curtain to open on a bright stage and we hum tunes while we wait. When someone asks, “How? How can we sing in such a shadowed time!” our reply is in our songs, which say “We sing because of our teachers, teachers named Isaiah, and Zephaniah, and Paul, who stepped out of their own shadowed times and personal suffering to sing wildly joyful songs of praise. “Sing, shout, rejoice,” they tell us, from prison cells and shadowed corners. “Sing, shout, rejoice,” they tell us, yes, even today. And so we do, because we hold fast what they held fast— that we are the people of God who can put the stars back in place. Amen.

1. Peter Gomes’ comments come from his The Good Book: Reading the Bible With Mind and Heart (William Morrow, New York, 1996).

2. Herbert O’Driscoll’s comments come from Living the Word for Sunday Dec 14, 2003 in the November issue of Christian Century.

3. I have lost the reference for the quote from Walter Burghardt!

4. John L. Bell, There is a Place, Words © 1996 WGRG, Iona Community, Glasgow G2 3DH, Scotland.