"There is an intellectual desire, an eros of the mind. Without it there would arise no questioning, no inquiry, no wonder." Bernard Lonergan

"It seems clear that humans cannot significantly reduce or mitigate the dangers inherent in their use of life by ccumulating more information or better theories or by achieving greater predictability or more caution in their scientific and industrial work. To treat life as less than a miracle is to give up on it." Wendell Berry

"Do not be afraid, my little flock, for it is the Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." Luke 12:32

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Glorisously, or Really, Again, Really?

Note:  the following is the sermon I preached on Sunday.  It is also available on the WMPC Website in video or written format.

The link to the video is here:  http://www.whitememorial.org/pages/page.asp?page_id=168214&programId=140090

Sermons change names over time


This sermon was first called: “Meditation for Music Sunday.”


Then, this title became “Gloriously” because we are singing glorious music in church today and the Isaiah text says that God acts gloriously.  “Gloriously,” which is much more inspiriting, is printed in your bulletins.


But that was all before Wednesday, the day when we learned of the death of a child of our church, only in his mid-twenties.  We fulfilled our Baptismal promise to him and to his family as we celebrated his memory, and testified to the strength of the resurrection.  That was Wednesday. 


And then Friday came.




I have a child in kindergarten. 


So small, trusting, and innocent. 


A friend of mine who teaches at the law school in Chapel Hill wrote me that she did not envy me trying to make sense of what we saw in Connecticut on Friday.  But that it is true of all of us.  This is hard to take much sense from….


So if I could retitle this sermon this morning, it might be – “really, again, really?”  Really we have to bury one in this community too young to have to bury?  Again we have to hear the story of another killer who wages a personal war on the innocent?


Today, the third Sunday of Advent is joy Sunday, so these remarks were supposed to be about joy for its own sake:  joy, glorious joy!  Joy which gloriously allows and inspires the people of God to let joy, joy, joy, joy, joy get down into their hearts (just like the children’s song echoes).


But then last week happened. 


Then we heard a chaplain in Connecticut talk about how there are families there who have had joy ripped away from them.  How do we share joyfulness and talk about Christmas in the face of such terror, where nothing seems unsafe?


Because it is hard to feel very safe anywhere when the safest place in the world, kindergarten is no longer a haven.  As a father of children their very ages, I don’t want to imagine a day in our nation when the curriculum for our little ones includes survival skills training.  The lessons in kindergarten are about milk and cookies, about letters and numbers, about stories and sharing.  Terror and death are supposed to be kept far, far away.   


Today I lend my voice to the rising chorus of voices, many of us religious leaders, who are calling us, each of us, to look deeply at our own lives, our own community standards, and our own national practices and ask “what is wrong?”  I lend my voice to those who declare it is time we examined our relationship to the myth of redemptive violence, and I decry acts of violence against those who are weakest among us. 


Each time I baptize a child, I say in the words of one of my mentors, “we are called to build a city and make a society which is safe for all of God’s children” – and so I have to wonder if that is what we are doing?  Are we building a safe world for the kids?


I am not in a position to offer solutions today, and I do not want to demagogue when the grief is still so very raw, but I will say this:  whatever it is that we are (or are not) doing isn’t working.


A society that cannot keep its children safe is one that has no hope for a future.


Even more so, it is impossible to imagine much joy in the world, it is hard to imagine much glorious rejoicing in any society until the children are safe and they are whole and healthy.


So, today’s sermon was supposed to be about joy, joy for its own sake.  But as soon as the headlines broke, and the governor of Connecticut said what we all knew, that his people had been visited by evil, this sermon and this worship became a vigil for the presence of God in all goodness and a moment to proclaim joy in the face of evil itself.  I realized this yesterday as I was leading a Witness to the Resurrection service, a memorial service, and we were singing the great hymn by Martin Luther, A Mighty Fortress is Our God.  The third stanza caught my soul off guard, and I began to weep as we sang:


“And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us;
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us.”


We have no choice as a people of hope and joy, but to proclaim God’s truth and gifts even in the face of unimaginable evil.  No matter how great the evil confronting us, we must press on because if we don’t then evil wins.


And no matter how dark the darkness gets we are the people who proclaim the light that overcomes all darkness.  It is a light of hope.  It is one of peace.  It is one of joy.  Yes joy.


And wherever there is joy, evil cannot be present.  This point is made by C. S. Lewis in his book The Screwtape Letters – in the book Lewis reminds us that the devil, the personification of evil itself, has many tools at its disposal:  envy, shame, spite, malice, anger.  But the devil can’t use joy, evil cannot employ it…joy is one of the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit, which means that joy belongs to God!


I do not know what evil dwells in the hearts and minds of men who do violent things.  I only know that I think their lives must be devoid of joy.  It is hard to be evil when one is joyful.  It is hard to hurt someone else when there is joy in the heart.


Joy is a spiritual antidote to scorn and shame, to despair and lament, to the very things that fuel evil’s fire.


My friend, we know joy comes from God, and as God’s children we are called to pay witness to it.  We are called to know, who and whose we are as children of God, as creatures made for joy, wherever and whenever we experience beauty.  To let joy come and go without acknowledging that it is a divine gift is a mistake too great to make.


In 2007, following the terror at Virginia Tech, the editors at the magazine the Christian Century offered these profound words– “In the story of Jesus Christ …the two mysteries of good and evil converge in the deepest way.  Jesus Christ is the One who engages evil at its worst and can be trusted in any event, no matter how terrible.”


 “For in the story of Jesus,” they wrote, “we find a story about how God’s son engaged evil and found a way through to where we can find our own story.”


So we must stand by the prophet Isaiah, whose own people knew something of terror and shame and evil – a people exiled and suffering – we must stand by Isaiah and gloriously proclaim:


With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

4And you will say on that day:
Give thanks to the Lord,
call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations;
proclaim that his name is exalted.

5 Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
let this be known* in all the earth.


So we must give ear to the apostle Paul who though imprisoned, could write the great hymn of joy of the New Testament in Philippians 4.  We must listen to him, lean in close, and drink in the words of praise:


Rejoice* in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. *5Let your gentleness be known to everyone.

9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.


In the promise of Christmas we have a cause for joy.  No it is not a joy that will bring back those lost in Connecticut, nor will it bring back our innocence (whatever is left of it).  It will not allow our illusion that our smallest children live outside the bounds of adult things like pistols and rifles, or adult problems like mental illness.  No it won’t do that.  But the joy we proclaim today can give the tears we cry a purpose and it can remind our hearts that we are NOT built for fear or evil, but we ARE built for faith and joy.


A longing for joy in the wake of evil will allow our hearts to hear the choir in a few moments as they sing in the next anthem,


Ageless the holy promise, God’s word will come to pass,

Fleeting is human nature, like withered, fading grass.

Ageless the holy promise, God’s word will come to pass.

And with a shepherd’s arms, God gathers and sustains us

Close to God’s heart so vast.


On the front of your bulletin is a remnant image – a stump with one branch going out.  Our Christian story is one that says from this remnant hope the world can be changed.  So we hold onto joy today, even if it is a remnant.  Yes, we hold on, even if a remnant is all that remains.


And what of those who feel no joy today, whose loss is too deep?  Well, then those of us one step removed from the most intense pain, we must keep joy.  We who possess the remnant must preserve it for them.  We must hold onto joy for them until they can find it and be held by it again.


Joy is a miracle.  And we need a miracle.  And I am ready for a glorious miracle.  I am gloriously ready for the miracle of joy.  I really, really am.  So again we are called to seek the manger and behold God’s miraculous joy there.


Joy that the Savior comes to give to people.


In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.






[1] I have since learned the children affected were 1st graders. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Pray and listen....

I had prepared a string of Christmassy blogs for the next 10 days or so...

But I have just heard from many sources of death in Connecticut.  If there is a working definition of a hell-on-earth scene, surely something like this must be it.

I'll confess it is terrible, and as the father of three it at elementary school it gives me a chill and a tear in the eye that I will not easily shake.

So, I had prepared a string of Christmassy blogs for the next 10 days or so...

In light of what has been a tough week at our church already, and what is a terrible day for our nation, I ask all members of our church, White Memorial Presbyterian, to pray today. 

Pray and turn to grace, listening for a voice of guidance as to how and what we might do as a people of faith to confront these tragedies which keep befalling our children and our people.  Pray and listen, friends. 

Pray and listen....