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First Sunday after Christmas

December 30, 2013

After we heard the Gospel lesson for the day, we listened to a story that aired on National Public Radio on December 19: “11, 420 Children Dead in Syria’s Civil War, So Far.”

Sermon for the first Sunday after Christmas,  December 29, 2013. Pastor Anne Edison-Albright, preaching. Today’s texts: Hebrews 2:10-18 and Matthew 2:13-23.

When I heard this npr story 10 days ago I knew I had to play it for you today, the day we hear the story of the death of the holy innocents and the holy family’s flight to Egypt.

It’s easy enough to hear the Gospel lesson and not really hear it, or to dismiss it as just a story: something that may or may not have happened a long time ago. But whether or not Matthew got the facts right, it’s clear that the story he tells is true, and sadly, timeless: a ruthless dictator orders the deaths of children. Children are killed, not by mistake, but on purpose, as the actual targets of violence. To protect their children from that violence, families are forced to leave their homes and become refugees. To save their lives, children are exposed to even more violent upheaval and uncertainty. The survivors keep their lives but lose their childhoods.

We don’t have a clear picture, really, of what’s going on right now in Syria, in part because conditions are so bad that accurate reporting isn’t possible. But what is clear is that right now, in Syria, there is a war on children, and a war on childhood. The story of the holy innocents and the flight to Egypt is real, and it’s going on right now.

Like I said before, when I heard this story I knew I had to share it with you today. But I wasn’t sure what to say about it, other than “this is happening, and it’s terrible.” And maybe that’s all we really can say.

I don’t like feeling helpless. I’m guessing most of you don’t like that feeling, either. Sometimes I think we are so afraid of confronting our own helplessness that we jump too quickly to try and force a solution, a resolution, a happy ending of some kind. In my sermons I never want to leave you feeling hopeless, because you and I both know and need to hear every week, maybe even every day, that God IS hope, and that we can always have hope, no matter what.

Today’s sermon will be no different; there is always Good News to tell. But when we go from bad news to Good News in the space a few minutes, it’s going to sound easy, when in reality, getting to the Good News and finding the hope in the face of such terrible violence and loss is not easy at all.

In the story from Matthew we heard today, we get hear these poetic, sad words:

‘A voice was heard in Ramah,

wailing and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

she refused to be consoled, because they are no more’

Some of you know that I worked as a hospital chaplain before becoming a pastor here at Redeemer. During that time I accompanied many families through the deaths of their children. Every time was different, every time was heartbreaking, and every time we prayed together, we prayed using those words:

‘A voice was heard in Ramah,

wailing and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

she refused to be consoled, because they are no more’

I don’t know exactly what makes those words so comforting, but they are. These words about a woman whose grief refuses to be consoled have provided consolation to more families than I can count.  I think it might be the power of shared experience, of knowing that all of us who have experienced such a loss, we are all so different, but we are also all Rachel.

Whether it in a war or a school shooting or a car accident or a still birth … Rachel weeps for her children. Through the centuries, in every time and place, she weeps.

Even if you have not faced the tragic loss of a child, if you love children, you have probably felt helpless. Helplessness is one of the defining experiences of parenthood. You love them so much and you can’t control them and you can’t control what happens to them.

God is not helpless. God is never helpless. But through the life and death of Jesus, God experienced helplessness.

That’s what our first lesson was about today. God doesn’t just have sympathy for our loss and suffering; God has empathy. Whatever you are feeling or experiencing, whatever is going on right here in your life or in the lives of people in Syria or anywhere else, God has been there, God knows what it’s like, and God is with you. God is with the children and the parents and all the people of Syria.

That’s where our hope begins. And our hope continues because, when we allow ourselves to feel hopeless and to realize how helpless we are, we also allow ourselves to realize that we need God. And that God is at work and bringing hope and peace and even joy in ways we can’t see and can’t even imagine.

I want to play a video for you now that I found on the ELCA youtube channel. It’s called Song of Syria.

What I find remarkable about this video is the archbishop’s insistence that even in the midst of this most terrible situation, he has hope, and the people he serves have hope.  You don’t get to see or hear the person who is interviewing him, but it’s clear that the interviewer asks the archbishop: “What can we do?” We always want to do something to help, and the more active the doing, the better we feel. Part of what’s so frustrating about this situation and many others where children are at risk is that we can’t just hop in a plane and go over and fix things for people. But what we can do is pray, and as, Archbishop Kawak notes, use our voices to advocate for peace in whatever way we can.

Praying often doesn’t feel very active; it feels like something we do when we can’t do anything else. But that’s how I felt about those snowflakes we sent to Sandy Hook Elementary School last January. I wondered if they were something anyone actually wanted, if they’d really get to the people they were intended for, and I wondered how such a small thing could make a difference in the aftermath of such a terrible tragedy. But it’s clear from the thank you letter I read during the children’s message that the snowflakes we sent and that people around the world sent were received. And with the snowflakes the messages we sent, messages of love and comfort and hope.

When we pray, it might feel like putting a paper snowflake in the mail and never hearing anything about it again. But those messages are received. And it does make a difference. God hears our prayers. And any messages of love and comfort and peace and hope we send toward the people of Syria will be received and will make a difference.

The Geneva II peace talks are scheduled to begin January 22. It looks like all the key players in Syria are planning to be at the negotiating table. As we get closer to the date of the talks, the violence in Syria has increased. The violence is getting worse because all sides want to show how strong they are before sitting down together to negotiate for peace. If things in Syria are going to get better, and I pray they will, chances are still that it’s going to get worse, first.

So I’d like to ask you to join me in praying every day, once a day, for 22 days, between January 1 and 22nd, for peace in Syria.

When the Geneva II peace talks begin we should obviously keep praying, but the time between now and then is especially critical. I’m going to post prayers on our facebook page and on twitter using #prayforsyria, which is already a widely-used hashtag around the world, and I’d invite you to do the same.

If social media isn’t your thing, I’d invite you to pray at the same time every day, maybe at dinner time, or when you first wake up in the morning. I’m going to say a prayer when I’m nursing Sally before she falls asleep each night. It’s the most peaceful time of my day, and a time when I feel deeply connected to my baby daughter, and when I pray during that time I feel connected to mothers all around the world: to their fears and helplessness and peace and joy and connection to their children.

I will pray for hope and consolation for grieving parents in Syria, and for the safety of Syrian children, and that refugees may live in safety, and most of all, that there might be an end to the conflict, and peace.

There’s not a lot that we can do, but we can pray, and that’s actually doing a lot. God hears our prayers, and the prayers of the whole world, and God does what we can’t do: God brings hope to the hopeless and help to the helpless, and consolation to hearts that cannot be consoled. Amen.

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One Comment
  1. Pastor Jayne M. Thompson permalink

    I love this because it’s the gospel truth and you tell it very well. I’m sure it was better to hear you, but reading this spoke to me, preacher-woman. Thanks for this blessing.

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