I’ve not posted to this blog for many months. Back from sabbatical for Advent 2012, I’m posting today a copy of the sermon I preached yesterday at Disciples Christian Church in Cleveland Heights — a sermon that underwent all sorts of revisions given the events of Friday in Newtown, Connecticut. It’s titled, “Rejoice” Based on the passage from Philippians 4:4-7, the audio can be found at http://discipleschristian.org/site/sermons.
Do you remember the children’s book, Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No-Good Very Bad Day? It’s a story of a day in the life of young Alexander. A day when from the moment he wakes up things do not go his way. He trips on a skateboard. He drops his sweater into the sink while the water was running. At breakfast, he gets no prize in his breakfast cereal. He doesn’t get the window seat in the carpool. His teacher criticizes him for singing too loud and doesn’t like his picture of the invisible castle (which actually was just a blank sheet of paper. There’s no dessert packed in his lunch, and his brother pushes him down in the mud. And when he punches his brother, he’s the one who gets in trouble.
That should be the stuff of a child’s life. Instead, Friday happened in Newtown, Connecticut. As someone wrote on Twitter Friday evening: how do you write an obituary for a five year old. And then how do you write 19 more?
The events of Friday morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School have interjected themselves into our worship this morning. It is not what we planned. But there are Sundays when there are situations we can’t help but be thinking about when we are here together. This is one of those times.
A tragedy of absolutely frightening intensity struck on Friday. As tough as it is to think about what I ought to say or what it is we’re supposed to do about any of this – I would be nowhere else. You?
We’ve changed some things about worship today. While also leaving most of worship intact. We still lit the candles of Hope, Peace, and Joy. This sermon – though it’s undergone many revisions – is still titled Rejoice. I hope to make the case for that. There are many appropriate scripture passages we could have read, like: Passages God wiping every tear from every eye. God binding up the brokenhearted. A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled because they are no more. And yet, these words of rejoicing are the ones calling out loudly.
Rejoice, again I say rejoice. Do not worry about anything. God is near.
The words are Paul’s. It was the Apostle Paul who wrote these words. He wrote them in a letter to the people of the church he used to pastor in Philippi. He wrote these words from a jail cell where he was imprisoned for crimes against the state, preaching a radical gospel of Jesus Christ. Facing the death penalty, he still feels a responsibility for these churches that he started back in his days as an evangelist. These churches weren’t having an easy time of it either. These 1st century Christians – many of whom were poor, some were slaves, and few enjoyed any sense of security about their lives. Don’t forget that it wasn’t exactly safe to be a Christian in the 1st century. Anyone identified with a church was marked for possible persecution and many shared Paul’s martyr’s fate.
And yet, it is Paul in prison who writes this letter of joy to a struggling church about rejoicing. About not worrying. Praying and trust that God is near. Tell us, Paul – how did you manage this yourself and however did you convince the people in your churches to do likewise? Seriously. We want to know. We want some of that for ourselves. We need us some of that.
I wish he were here to ask, but since he is not, here’s my take for this morning. The rejoicing and the praying and all of that have nothing to do with Paul’s imprisonment. The rejoicing and the praying and the trusting have little to do with the current unfortunate circumstances of the people in his church. The rejoicing and the praying are about relationships. The circumstances were a given. Life had dealt Paul and his people some tough blows. But the relationships that were built along the way? Like the Master Card commercial – the relationships were priceless. Paul truly loved these people, and sure there was distance and iron bars between them, but that didn’t lessen the commitment they had to each other. Paul’s affection for these people is obvious throughout this letter.
The feelings are mutual. It’s not always one big happy family – no church ever is that. Just back up a couple of verses, and you’ll see that people have made Paul aware of an ongoing argument between two women in the church. It may have been something petty enough that no one could remember how it started. But it had built to a terrible horrible no-good very bad situation. Paul had the right to say something like: you do know that I’m in prison – and still you want to bother me with this? But he did nothing of the sort. Without insulting or browbeating anyone for sweating the small stuff, Paul reminds them that it is the relationships that matter. Encouraging them to do whatever it took to just surround these two women with love and to work towards reconciliation. Again and again in the letter Paul encourages everyone to get along, to work together, and to …
Rejoice, I say. Rejoice.
Speaking not about some forced cheerfulness, but to a deep and abiding joy in what God has done in Christ to have brought them all together in the first place. A deep and abiding joy in what God has done in Christ to have gotten them through all sorts of troubles. A deep and abiding joy in what God in Christ will continue to do through them. It’s Paul’s belief – it’s his theology that through Christ all things are possible, and it’s Paul’s passion that through Christ happens when we are together in a faith community. Today we call it church. A place where people connect with each other at the intersection of their connection with Jesus Christ. An intersection that happens when there are two or three – or many, and always with room for the next person. Finding that intersection is cause for rejoicing.
A word about the title slide: Chosen last week prior to Friday’s events because it illustrates Paul’s sort of rejoicing. Perhaps you’ve seen this painting before – it’s part of a series of 31 depictions by artist Jacob Lawrence. Depictions of the life of Harriet Tubman. He did a similar series about Frederick Douglass. Documenting the struggles and the achievements of our country’s brave abolitionists. The rejoicing is unrestrained – even though the struggles were far from over, and the circumstances are still very much a part of life. Lawrence said of his paintings that they were not conventionally beautiful; rather they were an effort to express the universal beauty of man’s struggle for justice with the added dimension of his spiritual being. Perhaps this illustration is even more appropriate to the day than I anticipated when I chose it.
Because where do people go when they are searching for justice? Where do people go when they need to know there is something larger than their current circumstances? Where do people go when confronted with tragedy such as what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary? Church. As soon as arrangements can be made – and it’s amazing how quickly churches and other houses of faith can be ready – there are prayer vigils and candles. I remember as if it were yesterday when 9/11 happened – within hours we knew – we just knew – that we had to worship. The sanctuary was packed. On March 19, 2003 when the United States declared war on Iraq – again, where were we but in the sanctuary praying and singing songs of peace. When the shootings happened at Virginia Tech – that Wednesday night, some of you were here with us in our Chapel, lighting candles, singing, and coming to the Lord’s Table. February 27, 2012 – not even a year ago – it was a Monday – our Young Disciples were here at church as soon as school was over for the day. Tomorrow evening – again, we will gather.
We are hesitant to call such occasions of being together rejoicing. But that is what we are doing. Rejoicing not in the circumstances that brought us here – of course not – rather we are rejoicing that we can find each other – we can connect with another human heart – at the intersection of our connection through Christ. At the prayer vigil at St, Rose Catholic Church in Newtown, the sanctuary was full and hundreds of people who couldn’t get in stood silently outside, holding hands, praying as a group. Monsignor Robert Weiss said – many of us today and in the coming days will rely on what we have been taught and what we believe, that there is faith for a reason.
A mother from Chardon said: The vigils and church gatherings were the most powerful step in healing – no matter what the faith. We learned that though God cannot always keep our children safe, God will be there to help us through each step beyond.
Rejoice, again I say rejoice.
So we light the Joy candle – even if we’re not feeling particularly joyful. Because that is what we do here. And with each word spoken and note sung and handshake exchanged and prayer offered – we search together for that intersection where we connect with each other in our search to connect with Jesus Christ.
You can believe in God all by yourself. But once we profess Jesus, we can’t be a solo Christian. Who would want to be? Because the real heart and substance of the Christian life is not private –it is communal. It’s meant to be shared. And not just with each other who are already here – I know there is someone you know who yearns for such a connection. To have a reason to rejoice.
As many of you know, we have a family in our church right now with a really tough situation going on. Bonnie and Russ Goldner’s 13 year old grandson, Andrew Bobbitt has already had one brain surgery with more surgeries to come. He’s out of ICU but not out of danger. He’s doing well in rehab but has much further to go. I hope you are reading his mother’s updates on Caring Bridge. I want to read an excerpt of one of them because it describes perfectly the sort of rejoicing through tough circumstances that Paul is talking about:
We have a lot of time to think and pray and through this I realize there are very distinct journeys going on. The most significant is Andrew’s journey. There is the family’s journey. And, there is also the journey that each of our friends and those in the community both known to us and unknown are taking with Andrew. We feel the love and support and at times it overwhelms us and brings us to our knees. As a parent, you love your child unconditionally and whole heartedly. When you see and feel the overwhelming support for your child from outside your family circle, it is beyond uplifting.
This is going to take a long while and we don’t actually know where we’re going. But, we know that wherever we get to, it’s where we are supposed to be, because God will get us there. Andrew never has a bad day, and when this is all a distant memory he will share why even this was a good day too.
It’s nice to know that outside of these hospital walls there is a village looking out for us. I also know for every one of you I hear from there are 2 more that don’t know what to say, or are struggling with dilemmas of their own- we hear you too, and pray that you find comfort in whatever challenges you face.
Hug your kids and your parents for me. Tomorrow is another day in the journey… Jenny Bobbitt
All journeys lead to the intersection where God’s people meet each other while also encountering Christ.
I truly believe that we can be happy – or sad – all by ourselves. But to rejoice? For that, we need each other.
Rev. Kristine Eggert
Disciples Christian Church
December 16, 2012