Sermon 12 16 12
It’s a Wonderful Life….. Believe it…… by Ami Vielehr

On the Sunday after 911 my family and I went to a church that we had been attending for about six weeks. It was a start up church which met in the local high school and offered a really loud contemporary band which I thought would quiet the complaints of my preteen boys. They had electric guitars, drums and a stellar praise team. We had been going there for about six weeks and though it was very convenient (logistically right around the corner from our house,) we hadn’t yet decided to make this our church home.
I remember vividly the despair I felt that morning when I got my family ready for church, Wrestling with morning sickness and grief it would have been easier to stay at home in bed, but I knew that I wanted to be among believers, to experience community and hope in light of the tragic events that had transpired that week. The pastor speaking that day was visiting from Australia and happened to be one of the key people who help to start this particular church. He got up to speak and began talking about how great the head pastor of the church was. What a Godly man he was, how he had followed God in his call to start this church, how he sacrificed to be a part of this vision of God….yadda yadda yadda. After about 15 minutes or so of him having a praise fest for this other pastor; I looked around at the other people in disbelief and whispered to my husband …what the heck? Is he even going to mention that three planes crashed into three buildings and another in a field in Pa and killed over 3000 people only few days ago, not even a intimation that the entire country was suffering from collective shock and grief? After 30 minutes or so it was evident he was not. In a move I have never done before, nor since, I made my entire family get up and walk out right in the middle of the message…It shocked and saddened me that  he had this entire congregation; a captive audience, hurting, grieving and needing some reassurance that God was still in control and that we could still hope and believe. Yet he did nothing except talk about how dedicated this other pastor was, how important it was to follow the call of God and so on and so forth While I think that is a great topic to preach on…it was highly inappropriate for that day.
Eleven years later, I am here on the other side of the pulpit and though I do have a bit of empathy for the preparation process, ( pastor sometimes painstakingly have his or her message completed midweek) I cannot help but think that addressing a world wide tragedy  trumps any planned sermon….  that in times of collective despair and crisis,  agenda’s need to be put on the back burner. And today I would be remiss and much like that other pastor if I did not address and weave into my message the events that took place this Friday in Newtown Ct.
As the Holy Spirit does, if we let the Holy Spirit lead…. the message will end up being what it needs to be and will impact those who need to hear .

Today I was to preach on  Its a Wonderful Life series taken from the spiritual implications of the famous movie which shares its name… Today was to be : It’s a wonderful life: Believe in it…. And I am keeping that as the title because the essence of that message was and is the realization that amidst the suffering and the pain of this life; we still hold it in high regard, that upon reflection of its loss we value its fragility and we really want to LIVE  as long and as fully as  we can.
As I was thinking about the title,  I became profoundly aware of the irony in light of what occurred at the beginning of this weekend and how for many the wonderful life they were living on Thursday had been forever altered. In fact, much like 911, Friday’s events in Newtown CT will be a pivotal point and a transforming moment in history as we deal with the aftermath of the shock and horror of the murder of innocents…
Matthew Chapter 3 tells us that shortly after Christ’s birth; in response to the Magi’s inquiry about a king born in Bethlehem, Herod the King of Judea; marked by rage and jealousy ordered every male child under the age of two  who lived in Bethlehem to be slaughtered. That horrific day with many mother’s and father’s grieving the murder of their precious children, a prophecy of Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachael weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more” This morning I believe we can also say: “A voice is heard in Newtown, weeping and great mourning, Rachael weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more”…..
The murder of the innocents is not a horrible event distinctive to our time and place in the crazy world which we live. In fact, if we study history, we will see that this type of mass murder, of innocent children has occurred since the beginning of time. If you remember from our Exodus series, Moses was saved from a similar mass murder as he was sent down the Nile in a woven basket only to be found by the ordering murderer’s daughter.
Evil has always been with us, and will continue to  visit us until Christ returns to fully redeems what he has already won when he came to earth as a baby 2000 +years ago…..
So what do we do in the meantime?

How do we pick up the pieces and live?

How do we share the HOPE of God…..

A God who is all loving and all good in a time when evil’s presence is palpable and fresh?

How do we answer that persistently asked question? How can a loving God allow this type of tragedy to occur?

And at first I am fully unable to answer that question….

In fact it is a question that I myself have even asked…often….
And what I believe…what sustains me and allows me to continue to have hope in the presence of so much darkness may not answer the question itself,

but it allows me to rest in the space of the not knowing.

That somehow, someway though I do not understand, though I cannot even imagine … I am able to trust that despite this anguish and fear God  is present with us and God will reveal beauty from the ashes of despair.
When I first began seminary, I have to admit, I had this simplistic, linear view of Christianity which said….”Trust God and you will be at peace”…obey God and things will go your way…behave and act morally and God’s blessings will reign over you”…..
And at some level there is an element of truth to these claims. But in closer reflection this was nor is the Gospel that Christ preached….

My annoying professors kept bursting my happy bubble with the actual written word…with the context in which it was written and whom it was written to…They incessantly drilled into us this great paradox of Christianity: How do we justify evil in the presence of an all knowing and all loving God and how that tension  must be delicately held to preserve the true meaning and mystery  of the gospel…that Christ did not come to bring a Pollyanna peace, that obedience does not guarantee safety, and that we cannot ignore over-spiritualize or trivialize pain and problems with the trite answers like “We live in a fallen world”.  We witness through Christ’s relationships, his  compassion and his personal grief that Christ did not slap a “don’t worry be happy band aid’ on  or accuse one of lesser faith if they did not humbly and graciously accept tragedy as God’s will.

No the Gospel that Jesus preached was much different than a lot of what is being preached today…Christ said…  “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death.  Everyone will hate you because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved….

He said in this world you will have trouble, and not “if” adversity comes but “when” adversity comes….

The truth is, life is hard: people get sick and die, people have mental illness and act out in horrifying ways, innocent children are gunned down in their first grade classroom on the day they were to decorate gingerbread houses….

And our collective response…our uniform reaction is WHY?

Why God Why?

Why them? Why now?

Why during a time supposed  good cheer and glad tidings of great joy….
If we really want to be followers of Christ we have to be willing to look deep into the present paradox of reality, to wrestle with the Goodness of God in light of the reality of pain and suffering….. and know that sometimes …sometimes no matter how much we behave…things happen, no matter how faithful we are, pain still occurs, no matter how obedient we become, tragedy still emerges.
And I believe the only way to look straight into this paradox and emerge unscathed by bitterness or despair is to shift our perspective and look at through the grace of God’s mysterious light..
So there are three things I would like to suggest which allows us to look at this from a different perspective:

Firstly I think

We must fully embrace the paradox: without losing HOPE:
We must lean into instead of away from the tension allow ourselves to  fully feel the pain of loss.  To not shun the grief but somehow become “comfortable with the discomfort” allowing ourselves the freedom to say….We do not know why… that we do not have all the answers… And be alright with the uncertainty of that. We must cry out to God and say….I cannot trace your hand but I trust your heart.  We must not rush to quick fixes and resolutions to try and repair but wait for God to reveal some light in the darkness…. to and trust that God has got this …and for whatever reason and for whatever purpose God has allowed this to happen, here and now…..And in our collective despair comfort each other with goodness and kindness.
I wrote on Facebook yesterday:
The great paradox of joy amidst mourning this holiday season: let it teach us to long for the things which cannot be bought. And to cherish those who remain.
We must embrace this as part of a bigger picture, and trust what Isaiah tells us that God’s ways are not our ways and our ways are not God’s ways……
2 We must understand that Love wins…..Someone once said , “When tragedy happens …look for the light…..look for the response of those who are left to pick up the pieces those who are the hero’s, those who sacrificed themselves so that others could live those who despite their own grief and mourning reached out and forced themselves to not become bitter but to know that Somehow some way in all of this great grief and sadness…LOVE WINS…..
And Finally
3 We must find the Joy…..we crave happiness in this life, we want to be happy. If you ask any parent they will say I want my kid to be happy, but happy is circumstantial; it is dependent on what is happening, it is temporary and elusive as it never matches the expectations which are placed on it…and we often find that the response to unhappiness is despair and cynicism.
But JOY on the other hand is not depended on circumstances , joy is a state of being, an essence of the very manifestation of the Holy Spirit which resides within us that says…..though there is pain, despair and mourning, deep within is a joy which allows us to continue to trust and not lose faith….
It is dispensed in the form of Grace , as we fully realize that we serve a God who is familiar with our sufferings, who is acquainted with our grief….
Last week, I told you that the magi who came brought frankincense and myrrh…two burial spices that were used to embalm royalty…and what an odd gift to bring to a new born baby…but the truth revealed in that gift and the truth we all must face is that this is not our home…while it is a wonderful life here….it is not where we belong…we are aliens, sojourners on a road which eventually leads us home. We were created for eternity with God and this side of heaven we will always feel that tension because we have not arrived in the place which we were created to reside….
I heard a newscaster say yesterday that in the face of all this we look for something to say because words define us but the fact is that sometimes in the face of pain so deep we cannot say anything. This silence is filled with the presence of our collective spirits which acknowledge this fact: life is hard, but God is still good. And while we do not understand, while we do not like it, while it causes great pain…somewhere in the midst… God is present and working to bring light to this darkness, looking to bring. Faith to the hopeless and gladness to the mourning..

As Isaiah prophesied, Luke recorded, and Jesus confirmed in the beginning of his public ministry this incarnational mystery…
“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]
2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the LORD
for the display of his splendor.
It is a wonderful life….and I pray that on this day… this joyous but mournful day you can embrace the paradox that life is hard…very hard… sometimes tragic, but God is Good and though God does not promise to keep us from the adversity God assures us that we will never be without the ability to overcome it… That somehow someday, some way, we will all see face to face the fulfillment of HOPE and that our mourning will be turned to gladness…and while we wait… our purpose, our resolve is to be the light and the love for those who cannot see through the darkness…..