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.