Tomorrow Christians will mark the third Sunday of Advent, at which time we light the Candle of Joy. Although Advent can be a somber season of preparation, the text I’ll be preaching from invites us to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4). In light of yesterday’s events in Newtown, Connecticut, that joy may seem out of place. At the very least we’ll have to reconsider what we mean by joy in the face of tragedy and acts of extreme violence.
Advent is a season of anticipation and hope. Over the course of four weeks we speak of hope, peace, joy, and love. In lighting the candles each week we find ourselves invited into God’s vision of shalom and wholeness for the creation. We wait upon the fulfillment of our hope that God would inhabit our world and make things right. Yesterday’s events, however, remind us that there is much brokenness in our world. There is a great need for God’s healing grace to be made visible in our world, and an invitation to participate in God’s work of healing.
In recent days the biggest topic of conversation nationally was the Fiscal Cliff negotiations and locally the Right to Work legislation. These remain important topics of conversation, but today they rest under the shadow of lives lost in a moment in time in a Connecticut school. We’re still learning what really happened. We do know that a young man (20 years old), entered an elementary school building, shot and killed twenty children, along with the principal, teachers, and other staff. In the end, he shot himself – much like another twenty year old man in a suburban Portland mall just days before this shooting. And before he ever went to that school, he had shot mother. It’s too early to know exactly why this shooting took place, but questions will be raised and should be raised about this young man’s mental health and his access to these particular guns (apparently owned by his mother). Without trying to politicize this conversation, can we not have a conversation that covers access to guns, the reality of mental illness and a lack of resources to treat mental illness in our country, the stigma we attach to mental health issues, and the extent to which our nation seems to idolize the possession of guns?
I’m part of a coalition of congregations that is wrestling with a number of related issues – there’s a health care task force that is taking up the question of mental health, and I’m part of a task force focusing on the problem of gun violence in our nation. It’s clear that these two issues – health care and gun violence go together. So I invite you to join us in the conversation undertaken by the Metropolitan Coalition of Congregations.
Let’s return, however, to the theme of joy that this third Sunday of Advent proclaims, and to the word of St. Paul to the Philippian church that were written from a jail cell. He had every right to be angry and frustrated at his lot in life, but instead he found joy in the presence of God. The word he shares with this congregation seems fitting for this moment in time. He tells them: “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near” (Philippians 4:5 NRSV). We need a lot of gentleness at this moment. We need to embrace each other and listen for the voices of those who cry out in pain and in anguish. As the President suggested, parents should hug their children close. The question is – where do we find this gentleness?
In words that seem naïve, Paul tells his readers not to worry about anything, but instead they should make their requests known to God in prayer with thanksgiving. He concludes this brief passage with a blessing – He asks that the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Worry and anxiety are rampant in our society, and this breeds fear, and fear keeps us from being gentle with each other. It causes us to draw back from one another. I am as susceptible as anyone to worry, anxiety and fear. I too am susceptible to the tendency to lash out at my neighbors. But I find hope and strength in the promise of God, that God’s peace will guard hearts and minds so we can join hands and change the dynamics of our society.
Even as I express my trust in God, I recognize that there is a desire to find answers for the questions plaguing our hearts. People want to know – where is God in the midst of all of this? Some answers are repugnant, such as the suggestion that God doesn’t go where God is not wanted. Other answers seem benign but are equally repugnant – that God is short of angels in heaven and needed these children. I don’t have all the answers, but the only way I can experience joy in this moment of tragedy is to know in my heart that God is walking in the midst of those who grieve and are hurting at this moment. I believe with the Psalmist that God will “heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds” (Ps. 147:3). And I pray that I will have the wisdom to let go of the burdens that threaten to consume us to the God who will bring true peace to our lives, and as we do this, then we can find the spirit of gentleness we’ll need to tackle the challenges of the moment and of the future.
In the midst of our grief and our anger, my we all find a place of joy – always and forever.