Note: today’s sermon was preached by the Rev. Sue Fleenor, retired pastor of Knox Presbyterian Church in Santa Rosa
After serving primarily as a small church pastor thirty-five years, now that I am retired one of things I miss in this holy season is the wonder and delight of children dressed up as shepherds and sheep, angels and Magi. The prologue of the Gospel of John would be very difficult to do as a children’s Christmas pageant. Unlike Luke, in John’s “Christmas” there is no Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem to register for the census. There is no Mary giving birth to a baby boy and laying him in a manger. And there are no angels singing good news or shepherds who heard their song. Unlike Matthew, in John’s “Christmas” there are no Magi from the east following a star to pay homage to a new born king. And there are no gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And whereas Mark is silent about the whole thing, John does have something magnificent to tell.
John gives glorious testimony to the good and wonderful news that God became flesh and lived among us full of grace and truth. Just as God in the Exodus story commanded the Israelites to pitch a tent in the desert so that God might dwell among them; in the flesh of Jesus God “pitched a tent, tabernacled” among us, so we would know that God is the Emmanuel, God with us. God chose to put skin on and to live and walk among us, to enter fully into the human experience, to move into our lives and neighborhoods, so that we might know what God is like, abounding in steadfast love and mercy, and from that abundance we have received grace upon grace upon grace. Yes, this is the glorious good news of Christmas, news of great joy, as proclaimed by John the Gospel writer.
And yet as we soon exit one year and enter another, I am aware that intermingled with my own Christmas joy is sadness, a mournful sadness concerning our nation and our world, and the lives of so many who are hurting. Actually, joy intermingled with sadness has been my emotional landscape for a while now, perhaps yours as well. Let me give you a glimpse into the ebb and flow of my emotions these past few months.
In September a friend and I walked portions of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, also known as the Way of St. James, an ancient spiritual pilgrimage across northern Spain, dating from the Middle Ages. Our long walk began on the Lord’s Days, September 10th in St. Jean pied de Port, a small village in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. After crossing this jewel of mountains in the rain and the wind, we then walked across the western edge of the Meseta, the central plateau of Spain, known for its wide skies, dry heat and flat lands. We then made our way through diverse forests and small hillside villages, arriving in Santiago on the Lord’s Day, September 24th.
The grand heart of the city of Santiago is the Cathedral de Compostela that soars above the city center in a splendid jumble of spires and sculpture. Our arrival there marked the end of our Camino pilgrimage. With thankful hearts and yes, tired feet, we entered the Cathedral, and at the huge stone-hewn baptismal font I marked my forehead with water and the sign of the cross, and much like Martin Luther, joyfully affirmed anew my faith, quietly whispering to myself, “I am baptized, I am baptized. I am God’s child. I am baptized.”
Walking 14 miles or more a day over the course of two weeks was physically challenging and thoroughly exhausting. Yet, this was counter-balanced with a spiritual exhilaration. Immersed in the wonder and beauty of creation, and enveloped in silence, every step was a prayer. So the walk became a long, interior talk with God.
Removed from the 24/7 news cycle and the world’s distractions, I had never communed with God so deeply. As a result, my emotional barometer was one of quiet joy. In fact, upon my return friends would look upon my face and say, “Sue, you are glowing – you are radiating such joy.”
Within a week my quiet joy faded some and a disheartening sadness began to take up residence in my soul. As you know, on the night of October 1st, a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers at a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip, leaving 58 people dead and 546 injured. This wasn’t an isolated event. A month later a lone gunman entered First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing 26 people. Woefully, 2017 has earned a bitter honor as the deadliest year for mass killings in the U.S. in more than a decade.
A week after the Las Vegas massacre a deadly wildfire raged through the North Bay, consuming 3000 homes in Santa Rosa in one day. No one ever expected the winds would drive the fire over a six-lane freeway and take out whole neighborhoods. Lynn and I have many friends who lost everything. It is hard to imagine all they experienced as they made their way to safety down flame engulfed roads and streets and then returned later to the heartbreaking site of their homes burned to ashes.
“Sonoma Strong” became the mantra in the aftermath of this devastating fire. The community rallied in support of one another. Churches became evacuation shelters. Service agencies provided meals for evacuees and first responders. Donations poured in. Neighbors assisted and comforted neighbors. Volunteers were everywhere with helping hands and hearts. Kindness abounded. “There was more love in the air than smoke.” Again, I felt a quiet joy rising within me as I witnessed friends drawing strength and courage from such an outpouring of love and support and from their faith in God.
Yes, today on December 31st we’re exiting a year that’s been one of intense chaos and deep sorrow. Fires, hurricanes, mass shootings. Racism, sexism. Political turmoil, a divided nation, a polarized society. The arc of the moral universe that has been bending toward justice seems to be stuck, even receding. I am deeply saddened by it all. I suspect you may be as well. Surely, we can’t help but grieve for our communities, our nation, for Mother earth, for ourselves and for our neighbors near and far.
So in this season of joy, my deepening sadness drew me to the little book of Lamentations tucked between two major prophets. The title of the book in the English Bible comes from the Latin Vulgate, lamentia, meaning “funeral dirges”. So the name of the book basically means to be sad, to be mournful.
By tradition the book of Lamentations is attributed to the prophet Jeremiah who is known as “the weeping prophet.” During his forty years of ministry, Jeremiah sought to persuade the leaders of Judah to turn back to God and avoid God’s judgment. When in the year 586 BC. Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, and his military forces entered Jerusalem, Jeremiah begged the leaders to surrender and thus spare the people, the city and the temple. They did not listen. The beloved city of Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. Jerusalem fell, the people were either killed, or taken into captivity, and Jeremiah wept.
Today’s reading describes the prophet’s own personal pain and distress. The sufferings of the people and the destruction of the city and the temple were great causes of pain in Jeremiah’s life. These tragic events would not have occurred if the people had listened to him and obeyed God’s will. Emotionally and spiritually he was in a very dark and suffering place. He records the depth of his despair in verse 18 when he cries out, “My hope in the Lord is gone!” This cry of despair is the turning point in Jeremiah’s lament. He now begins to focus on God and not on himself and proclaims, “My hope returns when I remember this one thing:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is our portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in God.”
Jeremiah certainly teaches us how to lament when our hearts our full of sorrow, our minds are full of affliction, or our souls are downcast within us. More than lament though the prophet teaches us to hope. The theological heart of Lamentations is the good news that God’s faithfulness never comes to an end. God’s love and mercies are new and fresh every morning. Not just one day a year, but every day, every single day, every morning, every single morning! The promise is that with the dawn of a new day and a new year, there comes a new wave of God’s love and mercy.
This doesn’t mean that our sadness will be washed away or that we will never again know sorrow and despair. After all, Jeremiah lamented for two and half more chapters. What it does mean is that even when it doesn’t feel like it God is with us. In this regard I am reminded of the affirmation of faith written on a cellar wall in Germany during the Holocaust:
I believe in the sun even when it is not shining. I believe in love even when I cannot feel it. I believe in God even when He is silent.
Jeremiah surely experienced God’s silence and yet was able to proclaim: God’s love and mercies are new every morning. Therein lay is hope and therein lies our hope. If we are to sustain our hope in God I think we are each called to a daily spiritual practice that helps us each morning to look for God’s new mercies, to name God’s blessings, to soothe our hearts and souls with the wonder and beauty all around us. And then on those days when we are overcome with sadness, heartache, discouragement, despair I think we are called to remember and to whisper to ourselves: “Hey, self, don’t forget. God’s name is love. Hey, self, don’t forget. God’s name is mercy.”
I know that sounds overly simplistic. And yet I can’t help think of my mother who had a very simple yet profound faith. In fact, she was one of the most faith-filled people I have ever known. Every morning of my growing up years my Mom would awaken me and my sisters and brothers with a joyous shout through the house: “Rise and shine! It’s a beautiful day! Rise and shine! God loves you and so do I.” When I left home for college I really missed her wake-up calls and her joyous exclamations of love. Whatever heartaches she faced or struggles she endured, her faith in the love and mercies of God sustained her. And nothing could keep her from celebrating the glorious good news that God’s Love was born at Christmas.
Dear friends in Christ, God chose to wrap God’s very self within the human flesh of Jesus, to enter fully into the human experience, to move into our lives and neighborhoods, so that we might know what God is like, abounding in steadfast love and mercy, and from that abundance we have received grace upon grace upon grace.
So the promise we are called to affirm and claim anew this day is that God’s love and mercy, grace and blessing are new every morning. Therein lies our hope – every morning of every new day. And from this place of hope we can recommit to making this world a more just and loving place in witness to the One who dwells among us full grace and truth. May it be so. Alleluia! Amen!