Sunday, December 3, 2017

Sermon: "Mud and Rain"

As we heard during the lighting of the first Advent candle, the theme for today is expectation. Strangely enough, the scriptures that we get in Advent - especially on the first Sunday of Advent - are often not what we expect.
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…
    “We all have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth…
“We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away…”
These scripture readings, especially today, on the first Sunday of Advent… aren’t what we expect…
In these early days of Advent, there is pressure to be ready!... for Christmas! There is pressure to feel the Christmas spirit. All the decorations and all the ads grab you by the neck and scream at you: “IT’S CHRISTMAS! FEEL THE JOY! DO YOU FEEL IT? FEEL IT! IT’S TIME TO BE JOYFUL!”
But, the prophet, for one, just isn’t feeling it.
The book of Isaiah can be divided into several sections. (Remember this, we’ll come back to it next week...)
In the first part of Isaiah, the people are about to be led away to Babylon, taken from their homeland, sent into exile and captivity. Most of this section is filled with warnings to repent, and of the doom that is coming.
In the second part of Isaiah, the people are being allowed to return back to their homeland. They are allowed to go back home and rebuild their nation. The second part of Isaiah is the most hopeful, joyful part.
Our reading today comes from the third part of Isaiah. This is after the people have been allowed back to their homeland. Things can go back to normal.
But things don’t go back to normal...
Even though they were home, they had a form of post-traumatic stress from their time in captivity. A post-traumatic stress that led to a form of depression.
So they were home... They should have been happy... They should have been filled with endless joy.
But they weren’t... They were depressed.
In this section of scripture, the prophet is basically saying: “We should be happy, but we’re not. We should be feeling the joy of homecoming, but we aren’t. We’re not feeling anything…What is wrong with us?
“The temple is in ruins… but no one is rebuilding it… What is wrong with us?”
The prophet could have pretended that everything was OK. Or the prophet could have written a poem that says: “Cheer up. Be happy. You’re home!”
But the prophet can’t fool the people into being happy. The prophet can’t fool himself into being happy. The happiness just isn’t there, and he can’t pretend otherwise.
So the prophet doesn’t pretend. The prophet doesn’t pretend to be happy just because he’s supposed to be happy.
Instead, the prophet is real, raw, honest. The prophet is angry. The prophet is YELLING AT GOD: “O! That you would tear open the heavens and come down!”
And then the prophet’s mood swings, abruptly, without warning. “Maybe this is our fault,” the prophet says. “We all have become like one who is unclean; all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.”
In whatever mood he’s feeling, the prophet isn’t pretending. The prophet is angry. The prophet is yelling at God. The prophet is emotionally lost, maybe even emotionally dead, or close to it at least...
And he doesn’t hesitate to be honest about what he’s feeling...
At the beginning of “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, Charlie Brown says: “I think there's something wrong with me Linus. Christmas is coming, but I'm not happy…” There is pressure to be happy at Christmas, and many of us do our best to pretend. Like Charlie Brown, we think there’s something wrong with us if we’re not happy at Christmas.
But after a while, for some of us, pushing the gloom away becomes an exhausting task.
We forget that the comfort and joy and cheer of Christmas is like the rainbow that comes after the rain. You don’t get to see the rainbow, you aren’t able to appreciate just how beautiful it is, unless you’ve experienced the rain falling in your life.
The comfort and joy and cheer of Christmas is like the lotus flower. The Buddhists have a saying: no mud, no lotus. The lotus grows out of the mud. And in that mud are the nutrients that come from decaying plants and decaying garbage. Without the garbage, without the mud, there is no lotus.
Too many try to manifest Christmas cheer without acknowledging the rain, without acknowledging the mud, without acknowledging the decaying garbage.
But only a fake lotus flower, one made of plastic, can exist without mud. Only a fake Hollywood backdrop painted on a screen can show a rainbow where no rain has fallen. Only a fake, pretend sort of Christmas cheer can ignore the pain and the suffering and the sorrow that is a part of human existence.
Much of the Christmas we see all around us isn’t real. It’s fake. The ads with people wearing mittens and scarves and wool hats, playing in the snow, were filmed in July and August! Many of them in warm, sunny Hollywood! And the cheer they present is just as fake. We, too, are expected to manifest that same Christmas cheer and joy, so we do our best to pretend. But pretending becomes way too exhausting.
But in church, if we are authentic and true, we will acknowledge all the pain we feel in our own lives, the darkness that is part of the human experience, and all the injustice and heartache in the lives of others, our neighbors, our community and around the world.
Church should be a place where we can be real, raw, honest, at least with ourselves, and with God. A part of the good news is knowing that our whole selves, all of who we are, can and should be brought into our Christmas worship. Not just the part of us we think is acceptable to the spirit of Christmas cheer and festivities. Every part of who you are belongs here. In God’s presence.
Even - and especially - the dark parts that you keep hidden away.
Here, we can acknowledge the pain, the sorrow, the emptiness of our lives. That acknowledgement is the first step to discovering what it is that can truly fill that emptiness. If we ignore the emptiness within, we end up trying to fill that emptiness with all the wrong things: material goods, anything that’s “on sale;” alcohol; drugs; or endless hours online. What are we searching for in those endless hours spent scrolling through page after page of websites and social media? What are you looking for there?
If your answer is “I don’t know,” then you probably haven’t spent enough time with your sorrow, your emptiness. You need to spend some time there in the mud before you can learn how to make the lotus flower in you blossom.
Only when we acknowledge pain and suffering and injustice and heartache and grief are we prepared to receive the good news. You don’t have to understand everything that’s going on inside of you, you just have to acknowledge that it’s there, and maybe spend a little time with it.
In the movie Inside Out, the main characters are Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness. But just like in the movie, we try to silence Sadness. Especially at Christmas time.
That’s not a healthy thing to do.
In the movie Coco, music is forbidden, because music brings to the surface sadness from the past. But sometimes, we need to let our sadness come to the surface. Sometimes, it is good, and necessary, to embrace our sadness.
Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to treat each emotion as a baby that is a part of us. Even a negative emotion like sadness. You wouldn’t ignore your crying baby; neither should you ignore the sadness within you when it cries out. And you wouldn’t fight your crying baby; so why do you fight against your sadness? That’s fighting a part of yourself.
Instead, hold your sadness in your arms, gently, like a baby, and sing to it. Speak lovingly to your sadness. Say to your sadness: “It’s OK. I see you. I hold you. I will do my best to take care of you.”
When we say that to our sadness, we’re saying it to ourselves, because our sadness is part of us. We are practicing compassion toward ourselves.
And this is especially true at Christmastime. We’re not really ready to hear any Christmas good news until we spend some time caring for these darker parts of who we are.
C.S. Lewis said that “The Christian faith is a thing of unspeakable joy, but it does not begin with joy, but rather in despair. And it is no good trying to reach the joy without first going through the despair."
The color of Advent is purple. We’re so ready for the colors of Christmas: the cheeriness of red and the verdant life of green.
But the color of Advent is purple.
Purple is a dark color. It’s somber. It’s the color of penitence, of deep reflection. It’s a holy and mysterious color.
Outside the church, you don’t see much purple this time of year. The world isn’t ready for that kind of deep reflection. The world isn’t ready for that kind of raw truth.
But in church, we do acknowledge the purple. We acknowledge the mystery. We acknowledge the sorrow and the pain. We acknowledge the mud and the rain.
These things are a part of life. They are a part of our lives. They are a part of our world.

The hope of the prophets is that God will come into our lives, come into our world, that God will be near us, that God will be with us, that God will see our pain and sorrow, see our anger and sadness; that God would do what we fail to do: hold our anger and sadness and care for our anger and sadness; that God would come into our lives and take notice of the emptiness in our lives, and fill that emptiness with the one thing that can truly make us whole again.
Advent is not an easy season. In many ways, it is a season of darkness. It comes when the days are short and the nights are long. It brings with it reminders from the past, and not all of them are pleasant or happy.
Can we be as honest about that as the Bible is? Can we acknowledge that feeling we have of being unclean, can we acknowledge that feeling we have of fading like a leaf - a leaf that has fallen off the tree and is now carried away by the wind, unattached to the tree, disconnected from that which once gave it life?
Can we cry out, like the prophet, for God to tear open the heavens and come down to earth, come into our lives, shake things up, make us come alive?
Perhaps we can learn to not run away from the darkness. Perhaps we could learn to trust the darkness, as Barbara Brown Taylor says. Perhaps we could learn to trust God in the darkness.
I end with some words by Leah Schade, which I came across this week: “If fear comes, listen to it.  If sadness comes, attend to it.  If boredom comes, let your mind wander and whisper.  If you awaken in the middle of the night with insomnia, let the darkness lead you to prayer, to communion with God, to the Holy Spirit who overshadowed Mary in the night.  Let the darkness lead you to the mystery of Jesus who comes to us in the evening, at midnight, at the darkest moment before dawn.”

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