12/11/16: Homecoming, Isaiah 35:1-10
First Lesson: Luke 1:46b-55
Second Lesson: Isaiah 35:1-10
Rev. Scott Dickison
Rev. Nancy Butler was the founding pastor of Riverfront Family Church in Hartford Connecticut, which is part of the American Baptist Churches.
In February of 2015 Rev. Butler was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, that terrible, incurable disease that attacks the central nervous system. Over the last several months she, her family and her church endured the agonizing progression of the disease, as she slowly lost the use of her legs and then her arms, until over the last serval months she was kept alive by a feeding tube. Yet one of the many indignities of the disease is that while the body wastes away, the mind remains sharp, and so Rev. Butler was able to communicate with the help of some special technology that read the blinking of her eyes and transcribe it into words.
So two Sunday’s ago, on the first Sunday of Advent, Rev. Butler surprised her congregation when she appeared in worship with her congregation for the first time in quite a while. Riverfront has a tradition of leaving space in worship for the offering of testimony, and Rev. Butler had come to offer her’s. She offered it in the form of a letter she had composed for the church to be read by one of the other ministers. It was to tell them that after much heartache and tears and prayer, she had made the decision with her husband and children to remove her feeding tube, and, as she put it very plainly in the letter, which seems to be her style, “die.”
“I knew my suffering would reach this tipping point and caring for me would become impossibly demanding,” she wrote them. “What I didn't know was whether or not God would want me to suck it up for some unseen purpose or end my life this way.”
“I am a little surprised God is confirming this decision. It’s nice to know he isn’t a sadist [she joked]…He is oh so tender right now. He tells me my work is done and it's the right time to come home…After I made this decision to stop the feeding tube, I was cruising from my bedroom to my bathroom in the usual uncomfortable slump…when God reassured me. Just as the mythical stork carries a newborn into this world in a sling, I am going to carry you out of it.”
Her feeding tube was removed a few days later on December 1, and early in the morning this past Wednesday, God made good on his promise and carried Rev. Butler home.
You can imagine how the timing of her decision will make for an especially tender holiday season for her family and her church. But in another way, for a person of profound faith, as Rev. Butler clearly was, the timing of these things makes so much sense.
That she would make this painful and devastating, but incredibly faithful decision in the days following Christ the King Sunday—the final Sunday of the Christian calendar, when we draw to a close the story we tell throughout the year and proclaim that Christ is Lord of all—Lord of life and of death. And that she would offer this testimony to her congregation in worship on the first Sunday of Advent—the Sunday of hope. And that her congregation, having laid her to rest yesterday, the final day in the week devoted to peace, is gathered at this moment, on this Sunday proclaiming God’s promise of joy amidst a world of sorrow.
How deeply moving. How painfully, perfectly, fitting.
These are such hard, hard things, but they’re also holy things. And it’s exactly the interplay between these two, the hard or painful or heartbreaking and the holy, the life-giving or the vital, that we mediate upon in this season of Advent.
Advent is a season of tenderness. Of, course, this is true in our lives outside the church—whether we like it or not—when we’re bombarded with so many memories and traditions. So much life happens in this time of year, and so its also a time when we feel loss most acutely. Whether it’s the loss of a loved-one, a relationship, a job. Maybe even simple the loss of your childhood. A loss of faith. The celebrations that happen outside the church are not well-equipped to handle this kind of tenderness—it’s not often a welcome response to the lights and colors and warmth and cheer. But in the church this tenderness is not simply welcome, it’s at the heart of why we’re here.
If Christmas is when we celebrate the truth of “Immanuel,” God’s presence in the world, then we might say that Advent is when we meditate on God’s absence; when we wait expectantly for God to come. It is, in a sense, a time of great theological and spiritual vulnerability—a season that reminds us while Christ has indeed entered the world, all is not yet perfect. If Christmas celebrates light coming into the world, Advent, as we say, remembers the darkness that makes this light necessary.
It’s a season of tenderness, but also tension. Tension between candle and shadow, love and lament, “already” and “not yet.” The tension between gratitude and longing. Or even the tension I suspect Rev. Butler’s family and church felt yesterday when they laid her body to rest: which is that as much as we talk about God coming to be with us in this season of Advent, the truth remains that we—and those we love—are far more likely to first go to be with God. And so this, too, must be a part of any talk we have about preparing ourselves to receive Christ in Advent. Our preparation must be for an arrival, but also for a journey. New birth is without question an important image for this season, but so is homecoming.
It’s an image that’s mimicked in our own travels around this time of year. And as we know, while there’s a sweetness to it, going home is a complicated thing—another way the tension and tenderness of this season comes to bear.
Even this scene from the 35th chapter of Isaiah, in which the prophet looks ahead to when God will deliver the Israelites from exile in Babylon and bring them home to Jerusalem, their home, which on the surface seems to be an image of pure joy, has a hidden tenderness as well. Yes, barren places are coming into bloom and waters are springing to life. The eyes of the blind are opened, the deaf are hearing. Weak hands are being strengthened and feeble knees being made firm—image after image of new life and the righting of wrongs; making whole what has been diminished. This vision of homecoming is beautiful. It’s hopeful. It’s peaceful. It’s joyful. But it’s only part of the story.
You see, when Isaiah penned this vision of miraculous homecoming, the Israelites were still very far from home. They were still very much in exile; images of the armies of Babylon sweeping over their homeland still very much alive in their memories. Their homes being laid to waste, the Temple desecrated, so many hauled off to Babylon and so many more left for dead. There’s history behind these images of joy. There’s a pain. A wound. And this is what separates the Biblical testimony of joy from others that we find in the world, which is that biblical joy always and only happens in the presence of sorrow.
Biblical joy is very different from happiness. There’s nothing wrong with happiness, happiness might actually be an underrated thing. We usually settle for something less, something like ambivalence, or numbness, or whatever feeling it is when you suddenly become aware you’ve been starting at your phone for the last 20 minutes and you have no idea what you’ve been looking at. We usually settle for whatever passes our time instead of seeking things that give us life. Genuine happiness is rarer than it should be, and is a very good thing.
But happiness is not joy.
Joy is something more, maybe something beyond happiness. Happiness is not a Christian condition, but joy is. We’re never promised happiness, exactly, but we are promised joy. This is something many people of faith confuse. Christians are not called to be happy. We are called to practice joy. The best way I know to describe the difference is that it’s impossible to feel happy amidst pain and suffering, but it’s quite possible to feel joy. Happiness, is something very much apart from pain of suffering—in fact, it may be their opposite. But joy is not the opposite of pain or suffering. Joy might be their completion.
It’s a great mystery of life that our capacity to feel joy is often directly related to the level of suffering we have known. This is because joy—like hope and peace and love for that matter—is born out of vulnerability. It’s the reason why our risk of heartbreak is proportional to the depth of our love. Or why peace is sweetest after a bitter fight, or why hope is so precious when it’s all you have. Being stretched in one direction, in the direction of pain or loss or heartbreak, has a way of also stretching us for these other, life-giving things. As the poet Mary Karr puts it, “As deep as the wound is, that's how deep the healing can be.”
As deep as the despair, that’s how deep the hope can be,
As deep as the conflict, that’s how deep the peace.
As deep as the sorrow, that’s how deep the joy.
This is the Christian testimony about these things.
This is the testimony of Advent.
It’s a testimony the world desperately needs, and so I wonder how you’ll find a way to give it this season.
What testimony will you give this Advent? Don’t worry, we’re not about to introduce a new feature into our worship, a time for spontaneous sharing. Although I do wonder sometimes what would happen if we did…
What will be your Advent testimony? It doesn’t need to be spoken exactly, in fact, the best testimonies are simply lived.
Will it to be a testimony of hope? How will you show it? Will it be in the gifts you give, and not the ones in wrapping paper, but the other gifts we gift this time of year that are far more precious. The gift of time. Of prayer. Of presence. Is your testimony of hope simply that “here you are?”
And what of peace? Will it be in seeking forgiveness? In offering it? With whom must you reconcile? What small sword will you beat into a plowshare?
And what of joy? That elusive of gifts. Perhaps your testimony will be that while joy is not something you feel in this moment, you believe that one day you will. That it doesn’t seem out of the question. And it may be that this is the real power behind the story we tell in this season, of light and of love—of God with us. Which is that by simply speaking of these things we bring something of them to life. To tell the story is, in some small way, to live the story, and to have the story live in you. To speak of Christ’s coming is, in some way, to bring Christ closer. And to speak truthfully of going home is to prepare our way.
What will be your testimony this Advent? Be gentle with yourself as you ask yourself these things. But what will your testimony be?