This sermon was preached at a liturgy of Holy Eucharist centered on the themes of healing and hope. In past years this service had been called “Blue Christmas,” honoring the fact that many people carry heavy emotional burdens at this time of year.
Do you need forgiveness? Have you done something you regret, and for which you need another person, or God, to forgive you?
Do you need to forgive? Has someone done something against you that grieves you, something for which you need that person to apologize, and make amends? Maybe that person is gone, or unwilling, or otherwise incapable of meeting you in your sorrow about what happened. Then what? Now what?
The holidays are upon us, and for some reason, they tend to deepen the feelings people have about many things. Everything is heightened. Everything is more intense. The darkness is deepest at this time of year, and the holiday lights twinkle the brightest. Joyful reunions are more powerful in December, it seems, but grievances and sorrows cut the heart deeper, too. This year I carry a grievance on my heart about someone, and I am certain I am far from alone.
A lot of people believe that the holidays, and Christmas in particular, are only about joy. Someone on the VTS campus has hung a neon sign in their dorm window that says, simply, “joy.” This isn’t bad or wrong. I like that sign! (It’s also written in cursive, so sometimes I read it as “dog,” which also makes me smile.) Christmas is about joy. The angel chorus terrified the shepherds, but their message was joyful. Mary pondered many troubling things in her heart, but her spirit rejoiced in the Lord, her Savior. We proclaim “good news of great joy,” for all the people.
But we need only glance at the life history of today’s saint, Lillian Trasher, to see that joy is only part of the mix. Joy is rarely present without sadness, regret, anger, resentment, fear, sorrow, and anguish. Our sister Lillian dedicated her life to helping orphans and widows in Egypt, and as such, she makes for a good Advent saint: in Advent, we wait for the coming of the One who once came as a helpless, homeless refugee. He stretched out his arms on the cross to embrace widows and orphans, the sick and the outcast, the weakest and most vulnerable in all the world. Christmas isn’t a dreamy adventure on the Polar Express. It is the joining of God to humanity in all of its complexity, its sorrow, its despair.
We glory in this; we revel in the majesty of God’s justice; we rejoice at the empty tomb; we share in the enthusiasm of the apostles, upon whose heads danced the fire of the Spirit.
The darkness is deep.
This year, a family is reeling from the death of their son by suicide on December 4th. I read some of their story in a recent news article about their son’s funeral. They were furious with their priest because they had expressly asked him to preach only about their son’s life, and to frame the whole funeral as a celebration of that life; but the priest went ahead and mentioned the suicide in his sermon, and spoke at some length about the mercy of God, a mercy that embraces their son and draws him close, even now, to the heart of God. That sounds nice, but the family was incensed. They were probably retraumatized. The priest had failed to talk with them before the service about his responsibility to preside over a funeral, not a “celebration of life.” He had failed to communicate to them that he was obligated to proclaim the Good News, which is not just about joy. We encounter the Good News when we encounter the risen yet wounded Christ. The first people to arrive at his tomb were terrified when they discovered that it was empty. God certainly holds the dead son of this grieving family tightly in God’s embrace of resurrection and new life; but this family’s grief is no joke, and God is there, too, in the midst of that grief.
Can that family ever forgive that priest? I do not know. And it is not my business to say. It may help this family to keep him in their sights as a harmful person, even a contemptible one. Whether or not they forgive him, God is with them, and also with him. All of them are living out stories with many chapters to follow this one.
Today, Jesus tells us that we “must forgive.” He is uncompromising about this. I like this about Jesus. I have done things in my life that arguably should never be forgiven, simply because they grieved the heart of someone, and that is undeniably wrong. But if I wholeheartedly and honestly ask for forgiveness, I receive that forgiveness, if not from the person I harmed, then certainly from God. God also can help me forgive those who have harmed me.
But we hear all this at the same time we hear words of consolation from St. Paul, who wrote this to the church at Corinth: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.”
“For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.”
Suffering is abundant at this time of year. But consolation is abundant, too. Forgiveness is offered here at this table, the bread of forgiveness and new life broken again and again, until all are nourished by the grace of God. But there will always be need for more forgiveness. We do not leave here magically transformed into cheerful saints. Like the risen but wounded Christ, we proclaim something more complicated than pure joy:
We proclaim Christ crucified, a free gift of God to a world overwhelmed with sadness and sorrow. We pray that God will send us from here as the Body of Christ in this world: wounded yet made new; broken yet forgiven; hurting, yet consoled by the God of all mercies.
We wait for the One who is already here. We long for the forgiveness that has already been proclaimed. We rejoice, even in a time of deep sadness, that the longing of our hearts is not in vain.
Preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill (Episcopal), Alexandria, Virginia, December 19, 2018.
The Commemoration of Lillian Trasher, Missionary in Egypt, 1961
2 Corinthians 1:3-7