Gaudate in the Midst of Tragedy

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church

Evanston, Illinois
Advent 3C

Today is the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, named from the first word in Latin of the reading from Philippians – Gaudete in Domino semper  - “Rejoice in the Lord always.” We set this Sunday apart in the calendar by lighting a rose candle on the Advent wreath.  Our Church School curriculum introduces the material for this day by telling us that the Scripture readings assigned “weave together into a song of joy that rings through the universe, a song which both God and humanity sing in appreciation, in love, in awe.”[1]  But, paired with the recent events in Newtown, Connecticut, the streets of Chicago, or even right here in Evanston, lighting this candle of rejoicing and hearing these words of joy seem ironic, at best. 

As I have been thinking and praying about what words the Church might offer to this time, I couldn’t help but imagine the first-responders in Connecticut hearing Paul’s words:  “Rejoice in the Lord always.”  It sounds a bit too carefree and even silly.  I even toyed with the idea of ignoring the texts for today and preaching instead on these words from Jeremiah assigned for December 28th – the date on which we recall the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod who was fearful of losing his throne to the infant King of the Jews:

“Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.”[2]

But, then a wise friend, colleague, and former classmate at Seabury, The Rev. Cliff Haggenjos wrote:

“If we take a hard but honest look at John the Baptist’s exhortations in [this morning’s] gospel reading, I think we will find that 2,000 years ago humankind was battling the same type of pervasive evil that is so present in our world today (an evil that manifested itself in [the] horrific acts in Newton). John’s words confront the way in which evil has transformed the temple rituals of sacrifice and atonement, and he offered a new and different way of standing in relationship to God’s forgiveness, grace and unconditional love (a way that so challenged the institutional power structure of the day that it ultimately resulted in his death as well as the death of the one whose sandals he was unfit to tie.)”[3]

My brothers and sisters in Christ, perhaps the greatest wisdom comes from pressing on.   

Gaudete in Domino semper  - “Rejoice in the Lord always.”   Paul doesn’t stop here, he goes on to say, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”  Do this, “and the peace of God. . . will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”  Paul wasn’t urging the early church to be mindlessly happy; he was telling them to “rejoice” and to be in touch with God – the Holy One - from whom real peace and well-being flow. He writes of letting our requests be known to God in prayer, not as some kind of quick-fix formula for feeling better; but for pointing us in the direction of the One who hears our prayers and loves us.  And the peace of God Paul writes about isn’t a state of being without concerns, but a state of being in harmony with God.

And yet, given the awful things that happen in our world and in our own lives, we might be excused for dismissing Paul’s words as too lightweight or too simplistic. “That’s all well and good for you to say, Paul; but anxiety and worry are not feelings I can turn off with a switch.”  Even with a daily prayer practice, the peace of God can seem elusive.  There is no magic formula that enables us to simply block out all that has happened in our lives.  We must live with our memories – the pleasant and the unpleasant.  

It is easy to imagine Paul writing this letter to the church in Philippi surrounded by loved ones, perhaps warming his feet by the fire.  But, the reality is, that Paul writes his letter from prison.  He, like us, has many reasons to worry and be wearisome, reasons to, in fact, fear for his life, and yet, he chooses to rejoice.  Paul’s incarceration emboldens him to preach the gospel of Christ’s love for the world even more loudly.  Paul’s words to the church in Philippi and to us today seem to exemplify what he prays at the beginning of this letter: “that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best.”[4]

And perhaps that is the message we most need to hear – we must discern the things that matter –the love of God and the ever-present call to look for signs of that love in the people and things around us.  In an excerpt from Mister Rogers' Parenting Book: Helping To Understand Your Young Child
Fred Rogers writes this about tragic events in the news:

“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.”[5]

There is one other thing Paul says in the passage to the Philippians for this day, something I’ve not mentioned yet.  Right before he says, “Do not worry about anything,” he says, “The Lord is near.”  Paul experienced the nearness of Christ in his daily life.  With the approach of Christmas, this season of Advent is all about our prayers for the nearness of Christ, the coming of Christ.  

In January of this year, the Maine Council of Churches gathered in Portland for a vigil for victims of gun violence.  The closing words of their prayer struck me as I read them for the first time in the aftermath of Friday’s violence:

“. . . we are a resilient people, O God. You have made us for one another. You have given us the ability to remember that we do not stand alone, but can lean on one another.

We pray for the strength to remain a resilient and a vigilant people, ever-watchful for signs of hope, for evidences of love and wisdom, for the path toward peace. May we never give up on the vision of a society where gun violence no longer tears at the fabric of community, where there are no more victims, where your Shalom will prevail.”[6]

My friends, I believe in this vision – I believe that even in the midst of tragedy, we do not stand alone.  We stand together, as the Body of Christ.  Come, Lord Jesus. Come.

[1] "Good News Proclaimed," Seasons of the Spirit curriculum, December 16, 2012.
[2] Jeremiah 31:15
[3] Cliff Haggenjos, “Status Update,” Facebook, December 15, 2012.
[4] Philippians 1:9-10.
[5] “Tragic Events in the News,” The Fred Rogers Company¸ accessed online on December 15, 2012
[6] The Rev. Jill Job Saxby, Executive Director, Maine Council of Churches, “Prayer for Victims of Gun Violence,” January 8, 2012 accessed online on December 14, 2012.


Forbearance: Antidote to Polarization

Sermon Preached on October 21, 2012
Proper 24B: Hebrews 5:1-10

“Mitt Romney – a skillful liar – is lying to Medicare Seniors to get their vote – he will end Medicare, as you know it, seniors.”[1]

“How could anyone vote for a man who forces Christians to fund ABORTION, CONTRACEPTION and STERILIZATION and considers this the most important achievement of his life?”[2]

These two statements, paired with less than flattering photos of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, have been floating around the Internet in the past several months.   In Michael Grunwald’s book The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era, he writes that in December 2008, after Barack Obama was elected, Eric Cantor, the new House minority whip from Virginia, called his whip team to a meeting at his condo to plot strategy.  The strategy was to fight – to oppose every Obama initiative and insure that he could claim no bipartisan victories.

Ezra Klein of The Washington Post wrote this on February 1, 2011:

“If historians ever have to pinpoint the day that America lost the future, they're likely to look to last Thursday. That was when Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took to the floor of the Senate to announce an agreement on fixing the increasingly sclerotic, polarized, dysfunctional body they lead. Their agreement? Neither of them would fix it.[3]

Granted these examples come from the past 4 years and do, as a result, paint the Republican party in pretty dark and sinister terms.  But, I want to be clear that polarization in politics has always been a reality and that it crosses party lines.  And, more importantly, what I want to say is that the polarities of our political climate seem to have been infiltrating our churches – perhaps for just as long. 

In the earliest times, polarization in churches led frequently to the declaration of the minority as heretics and the majority as orthodox.  People have been burned at the stake, crusades have been fought and, in more recent times, denominations and congregations have split over the social issues of the day: slavery, the role of women, differing understandings about sexuality – not to mention those congregational schisms that result over the color of the new carpeting in the parish hall and whether or not it is acceptable to check e-mail on the Sabbath (and I don’t mean during church – I hope we all agree on that one!).

To highlight the tragedy, Lark News published this tongue-in-cheek article a while back:

GREELEY — A little Jewish praise word caused a lot of controversy as a Colorado church, divided over the proper spelling of ‘hallelujah,’ split up and re-formed as separate congregations.
The problem arose when the board of elders at Full Gospel Temple budgeted money for a praise banner to hang from the sanctuary ceiling bearing the word “hallelujah,” or “alleluia.” One faction insisted the word be spelled the first way, while the other wouldn’t budge from the second way. Petitions were drawn up, rallies held and late-night threats received by both sides. One man, an “alleluia” supporter, was nearly clobbered by a rock that came through his window. The rock bore a note that said, simply, “hallelujah!”
Both sides were adamant that since they had grown up with a particular spelling, theirs was correct.
“It makes a tremendous difference, when you open your eyes and see it there on the banner spelled wrong,” said a hallelujah supporter. “It’s so jarring to see it without the ‘h’ at the beginning. Nobody spells it that way anymore.”
“I was so sick about it I couldn’t sleep,” said Evelyn Haney, 57, an equally ardent ‘alleluia’ supporter who carried a sign during a recent day of picketing. “To think some people spell this wonderful word with a ‘j’ in it. It’s not something where I question their salvation, but at times you have to wonder.”
The two churches now meet in separate school auditoriums, and each has fashioned a banner to suit its own preference. Worship, says one parishioner, is “much better now.”[4]

So, why are we so “at risk” for polarization? What makes us susceptible?  Anxiety may be the answer.   I’m not talking here about the kind of acute anxiety that comes up as a reaction to a specific crisis or trauma but rather the kind of chronic anxiety that builds up as residue leftover from past incidents of acute anxiety that have never been adequately addressed or resolved.[5]  Violence in our communities and in our world is on the rise; resource shortages and overcrowding in our urban centers continue to stress us out and all of this is magnified as it is mirrored back to us by the media.  We are on information overload as the media bombards us with the harsh realities of our world not only during a 30-minute news segment or in the pages of the newspaper, but on our computers, 24 / 7 news stations, and now even on our phones where we can receive tweet news updates wherever we are.

“The Greek word for anxiety is related to the word for ‘narrow’ . . . [Anxiety] narrows the perceptual focus so that people cannot see all that is going on in a situation, [that narrowing] reduces the options for action.”[6]  In other words, when we become anxious, we lose perspective. We find comfort in being close to people who agree with us and, as a united group, we become less tolerant of those who hold a different opinion. In other words, we become polarized.  Focusing on chronic anxiety helps us to realize that polarization is often not about the content of a division – is red carpet or blue carpet the right way forward? – but rather polarization is about our response to anxiety, an attempt to be comforted, to be comfortable.

If you and I live in anxious times – and I think it is fair to say that we do - where then lies the hope? Is there a path forward for our churches, for our denominations, for our country amidst the polarizing positions present all around us? Perhaps a portion of our reading from Hebrews this morning can lead us toward another way.  “Every high priest,” the author writes, “is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness.”[7]  Now first let me say, labeling the other as “ignorant and wayward” is probably not going to be the best path forward.  In fact, it might just be a way to increase polarization – though to the author’s credit, the verse does go on to say that all of us are subject to the same weaknesses.  Nonetheless, let’s focus on the front part of that verse where we are encouraged to “deal gently” with those “others.” 

The literal sense of the Greek word translated here as “deal gently” is to “moderate” or “to control” emotion.  The word does not appear elsewhere in Scripture; however, where it appears outside of Scripture in the same time period it typically referred to anger – in other words, “controlling one’s anger” or “moderating one’s anger” toward another.  Perhaps it is closest to the biblical notion of forbearance – self-control, restraint, and tolerance.

In an essay on forbearance, Tom Yoder Neufeld writes “Forbearance is the Christian belief that we ought to bear each other’s burdens, weaknesses, shortcomings, . . . and sins.”  He goes on to say that it is “based on a biblical understanding of God – a God whose love, mercy, and compassion far outweigh the word of judgment, a God who loves the world and bears its shortcomings, whose goal is to reconcile all things.”[8]   The practice of forbearance is a practice of modeling ourselves after God – holding back on judgment and beginning with love, mercy and compassion.  It is a practice “fueled by love, motivated by hope, rendered resilient by the practice of patience, and willing to suffer for the sake of reconciliation.”[9]  And, forbearance, dealing gently with the other, calls us to be “deliberately vulnerable, leaving [ourselves] open to … to disappointment and grief – which is the story of God’s love, most especially as it has come to expression in Christ.”[10]

The author of Hebrews, in our passage today, after describing the way humans are to live into relationships by dealing gently with one another, goes on to say that we do this because we are to be imitators of Christ who “In the days of his flesh. . . offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death. . . and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him . . .”[11]

Forbearance is a posture that moves toward the other with interest.  Imagine asking someone with whom you disagree, “can you help me understand how your desire to be faithful to Jesus Christ, to follow him in discipleship, has brought you to this conviction?”[12]  And asking this question, not in a sarcastic or accusatory way, not in a way that suggests you have an agenda, but in a way that shows your honest desire to remain in relationship with them.  Forbearance is the way forward and it is, for Christians, not an option but rather “the required stance of all who would wish to be daughters and sons of God.”

I want to end this morning with these words of The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University:

“We may be entering an Epoch of Forbearance. . . . If we can restrain ourselves, in the future, from making scapegoats of some in order furiously to retaliate against other hidden foes, that is, if we can forbear, we shall find that the community of peoples will see in us a last best hope. We may model, as a people, a path forward into a time of freedom, pluralism, toleration, compromise, and peace.”[13]

[1] “The Pinocchio Press,” (September 4, 2012), accessed online on October 19, 2012 at http://article.wn.com/view/2012/09/04/The_Pinocchio_Press_y/
[2] Image shown during Richard Blackburn’s presentation “A Never Ending Supply of Polarities: Overcoming Polarization in Church and Society” at Advanced Clergy Clinic in Family Emotional Process sponsored by Lombard Mennonite Peace Fellowship, October 15 – 17, 2012.
[3] Ezra Klein, “The Senate vs. the Future, “The Washington Post, (February 1, 2011), accessed October 19, 2012 at http://voices.washingtonpost.com.
[4] Accessed October 19, 2012 at http://www.larknews.com/archives/84.
[5] Richard Blackburn, “The Road to Damascus: The Church and Change in an Age of Anxiety,” presentation at Clergy Clinic in Family Emotional Process sponsored by Lombard Mennonite Peace Center, October 24 – 26, 2011.
[6] Ronald Richardson, Polarization and the Healthier Church: Applying Bowen Family Systems Theory to Conflict and Change in Society and Congregational Life,  2012, p. 75.
[7] Hebrews 5:2.
[8] Tom Yoder Neufeld, “Forbearance: Binding Loosely or Loose Bindings,” in Creed and Conscience: Essays in Honour of A. James Reimer, Pandora Press, 2007, pp. 27-43.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Hebrews 5:7, 9.
[12] Blackburn, “A Never Ending Supply of Polarities.”
[13] The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, “With Malice Towards None,”  Marsh Chapel Sermon Archive, February 20, 2011, accessed October 19, 2012 at http://blogs.bu.edu/sermons/


In the beginning was the big bang and God said that it was good!

Creation Cycle 1 - Planet Earth

“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and earth. . .”; so begins one ancient story of the beginning of things.  “In the beginning was the big bang”; so begins Anglican priest and physicist John Polkinghorne’s story of the ancient beginning of things.(1)  Both stories are true.

Biblical accounts of creation have become a bit of an embarrassment for Christians, especially when we are asked to defend our beliefs to non-believers or skeptics – to friends, co-workers, and even family members.  This morning we’ve heard two such biblical accounts of creation – the first from Genesis and the second in the poetic prologue to John’s Gospel.  But, there are others:  there is, the second story in Genesis – the one which includes stories about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, there is a brilliant exposition of God’s great acts of creating in the book of Job, and yet another in the book of Proverbs which sets Lady Wisdom at God’s side as co-Creator.(2) 

Beautiful as these many stories are, filled as they are with rich imagery of a loving and creative God, these same stories have frequently taken center stage in public debates of creation or intelligent design vs. evolution.  These often very public debates and the related Christian embarrassment has been ongoing since at least the 18th century when Carl Linnaeus realized that the animal kingdom appeared to be a family tree and developed the system of kingdom, phylum, class, and so on down to species to classify animals by shared characteristics. The debate heightened with the work of Charles Darwin and the 1859 publication of his Origin of the Species which led to the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial’ after the State of Tennessee prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools.  More recent still have been attempts to force public schools to give equal time to the theory of evolution and so-called “Creation Science” and current efforts to seek inclusion of Intelligent or Divine Design in science curriculums or to mandate disclaimers as to the factual nature of the theory of evolution.(3)

I will leave it to the lawyers to expound upon the ways in which teaching intelligent design in our schools does or does not violate the establishment clause of the first amendment which mandates government neutrality between religion and religion and between religion and non-religion.(4)  But what I do want to address is how we might faithfully respond to those who think we are slightly off in our thinking as Christians.
For starters, I find it helpful to know where our denomination stands on this issue.  When others ask me about my views on creation, I find it reassuring to be able to stand on the shoulders of Episcopal men and women throughout our country who have been studying and responding to these questions for some time. Two pieces of legislation which have come out of our church’s General Conventions in the past 30 – 35 years include:
  • Resolution D-090 passed in 1980 which “Resolved… [that we] affirm [our] belief in the glorious ability of God to create in any manner, and [that we] … reject the rigid dogmatism of the ‘Creationist’ movement.”
  • And Resolution A-129 passed in 2006 which “Resolved … that God is Creator, in accordance with the witness of Scripture and the ancient Creeds of the Church; and … further Resolved, That the theory of evolution provides a fruitful and unifying scientific explanation for the emergence of life on earth, that many theological interpretations of origins can readily embrace an evolutionary outlook, and that an acceptance of evolution is entirely compatible with an authentic and living Christian faith; and … further Resolved, That Episcopalians strongly encourage state legislatures and state and local boards of education to establish standards for science education based on the best available scientific knowledge as accepted by a consensus of the scientific community; and …Resolved, That Episcopal dioceses and congregations seek the assistance of scientists and science educators in understanding what constitutes reliable scientific knowledge.”

So, this is our denomination’s official position: we say yes to evolution AND we say yes to God as Creator.   We say yes to Scripture and we say yes to our scientists.  Could it be that those who would malign Episcopalians as “wishy-washy, fence-sitters” are on to something? I don’t think so. And here’s why.
A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to hear United Church of Christ minister, Michael Dowd, teach his “Gospel of Evolution” – yes, gospel of evolution. Dowd suggests that there are two types of language: day language and night language. The first “describes the realm of what’s so: the facts, the objectively real, that which is publicly and measurably true.  Night language evokes the realm of meaning in inspiring ways . . . by way of metaphor, poetry, and vibrant images.”(5)

Day language is the language science, the language of evolution, a language of truth.  Night language is the language of dreams, of rich imagination, a language of truth.  When we look to texts like this morning’s creation stories and expect them to answer scientific questions – or worse – to assume that they are, in fact, scientific, we have misclassified the stories and have rendered them all but meaningless. Harold Schulweis, in a passage from his wonderfully insightful book, For Those Who Can’t Believe: Overcoming the Obstacles of Faith, reflects on the first Genesis account of creation and writes:
“The Bible is not geology. The Bible is concerned with the spiritual implications of an event, not with its physical cause and effect. . . . There is hardly a verse in the Bible taken verbatim that is exempt from embarrassment. Take the statement: ‘And God said, ‘Let there be light.’’ If God speaks, does it mean that God has a larynx? In what language or dialect does He speak? Did He speak these words before the creation of the universe took place? How could light have been created before the fourth day when the sun and moon and stars in the firmament of the heaven were created? Blinded by the literal text, the symbolic meaning of light and of the spoken word is invisible.”(6)

Getting caught up in debates that pit creation against evolution runs the risk of our missing some of the beautiful truths of the Night Language of our Scripture.  Spending our time debating whether creation or evolution are true, might cause us to miss the scriptural truth of the intrinsic goodness, of all that is – the biotic and abiotic aspects of the world in which we live.  The light, the Earth and the Seas, all sorts of vegetation, the sun and the moon, living creatures – sea monsters, fish, birds, cattle and creeping things, and wild animals of every kind - “And God saw that it was good.”  God declares the goodness of creation – the value of creation – and invites us to share in that delight.  We humans have a tendency to bias our value of things based on their relative benefit to us.  But, this is not God’s way.  Writing in the 4th century, John Chrysostom said:
Among the growth springing up from the earth it was not only plants that are useful but also those that are harmful, and not only trees that bear fruit but also those that bear none; and not only tame animals but also wild and unruly ones. Among the creatures emerging from the waters it was not only fish but also sea monsters and other fierce creatures . . . Among the creatures produced from the earth it was not only tame animals but also snakes, vipers, serpents, lions, and leopards. In the sky it was not only showers and kindly breezes but also hail and snow.”(7)
All of this, God declares to be good.  And, if you and I can hold on to this truth – to the goodness of creation – and hold it along side the truths of science – then maybe, just maybe we can begin to create inroads to addressing some of the harsher realities of the day language world in which we live: issues like “global climate change, scarcity of fresh water, threats to biodiversity, degradation of the world’s oceans, unsustainable agricultural practices, and deforestation” – issues that threaten the very viability of life, the sustainability of life, on our planet.(8)  Once we reorient ourselves to God by valuing the earth as God values the earth, might we be more apt to recognize our responsibility and our role as earth’s stewards? 

According to systematic theologian and ethicist, Jame Schaefer of Marquette University, the answer is a resounding, “YES!”  Schaefer suggests such a reorientation toward God, toward caring for our planet, can lead us to recognize some of the “functional, historical, and evolutionary limits to the physical world” and God’s abundant grace can give us the ability and the willingness to make changes in our lifestyles that are “compatible with those limits.”(9)  Such a reorientation toward God and toward our planet, can help us to see ourselves “as citizens of” our world “rather than conquerors of [it].”(10)
As faithful followers of Christ, we can say yes to evolution AND we can say yes to God as Creator.  We can appreciate the complexities of our language and acknowledge that the language of the day – the language of science – AND the language of the night – the language of creation can, in fact, inform one another.  

“By the word of the LORD were the heavens made,
     by the breath of his mouth all the heavenly hosts.
He gathers up the waters of the ocean as in a water-skin
     and stores up the depths of the sea.
For he spoke, and it came to pass,
     he commanded, and it stood fast.”(11)

“In the beginning was the big bang!”


[1] John Polkinghorne, One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology (London: SPCK, 1986), 56 in Sallie McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 43-44.
[2] Cf. Job 38-39; Proverbs 3:19-20; 8:22-31; 14:31; 16:11; 17:5; 20:12; 22:2; 29:13; 30:2-4.
[3] American Civil Liberties Union of Utah Foundation, Inc. “The Teaching of Creationism, Intelligent Design, and Divine Design in Public Schools,” (January 2006) accessed online at http://www.acluutah.org/ on September 8, 2012.
[4] For one who will take up this argument, see Anne Marie Lofaso, “White Paper: The Constitutional Debate over Teaching Intelligent Design as Science in Public Schools,” (American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, December 2005) accessed online at http://www.acslaw.org on September 8, 2012.
[5] Michael Dowd, “A Story Big Enough to Hold Us All,” in The Whole World Kin: Darwin and the Spirit of Liberal Religion, ed. Fredric Muir, (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2010), 19.
[6] Harold M. Schulweis, For Those Who Can’t Believe: Overcoming the Obstacles to Faith, (New York, Harper: 1994), 66.
[7] John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 1-17, Homily 10, translated by Robert C. Hill, Fathers of the Church 74 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1986).
[8] “Valuing the Goodness of the Earth: Lesson Plan,” Study Guides for Caring for Creation, (Waco, TX: Center for Christian Ethics, Baylor University, 2012), 13.
[9] Jame Schaefer, “Valuing the Goodness of the Earth,” Caring for Creation (Waco, TX: Center for Christian Ethics, Bayor University, 2012), 17.
[10] Ibid., 18.
[11] Psalm 33:6-7, 9