Thursday, December 19, 2013
Folks, here is the sermon that I preached last night at my internship's Blue Christmas Worship Service. May it provide you with some comfort and healing during this holiday season. Scripture text was Matthew 11: 28-30
In this passage from the Gospel of Matthew, we hear Jesus say, “Come to me all that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.” I don’t know about you but I sure would like to do that. The holiday season can be a very rough time for many people. I’m sure it might be that way for most of the people here tonight, which is why you are here. We hear songs of joy and peace and we feel neither joy nor peace. When you are having a difficult holiday season, hearing a song like “Joy to the World” does not make you feel very joyful. In fact, it can make you feel very unjoyful and even, dare I say it, grinchy.
Yet, all around us, we see nothing but happiness and joy and mirth. The grief that many people feel at this time of the year is almost never acknowledged or appreciated. It is almost as if society would rather not think about it and expects us all to just get over it and be happy and cheerful for a few weeks. Yet, for many of us, that’s not the reality we face. In 2004, my father passed away after several years of declining health. I still have fond memories of spending Christmas with him so every Christmas since his death has been tinged with sadness. In 2005, my mentor/friend/surrogate father-figure killed himself a week before Thanksgiving. That same week, my mother fell and broke her leg and had to have major surgery. Thanksgiving that year was spent at the hospital with my mom. In 2010, I was violently mugged for the first time ever a week before Thanksgiving. Needless to say, I was having a hard time finding much to be thankful or jolly about that year. This year, I received word that a dear friend and surrogate grandmother passed away after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer and in the same week also experienced the dissolution of another failed relationship.
I think it is safe to say that when it comes to the holiday season, I know something about not feeling all that joyful or merry. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Christmas. I listen to Christmas music obsessively. I love watching Christmas movies, decorating Christmas trees, drinking egg nog, opening presents, the whole bit. However, I’m also keenly aware of the fact that for so many, Happy Holidays are anything but.
In the song, “Hard Candy Christmas”, Dolly Parton sings about the end of a relationship but her words really could be about anyone who is experiencing a difficult holiday season for any reason. “Hey, maybe I'll dye my hair. Maybe I'll move somewhere. Maybe I'll get a car. Maybe I'll drive so far, they'll all lose track.” What we hear here is a desire for escape, for a fresh start. Doesn’t that sound so great for so many of us? When we are faced with difficulty, we do feel the need to escape or run away from it. That can take many forms. It can look like us getting on a plane and traveling across the country for a few weeks. It can look like us selling our home and moving far away from everything that reminds us of our grief. It can look like staying in our bed for three days straight and refusing to leave the house or answer the phone. It can, unfortunately, also look like us retreating into drugs and alcohol. Our grief can and does take many forms.
“I’ll be fine and dandy. Lord, it’s like a Hard Candy Christmas. I’m barely getting through tomorrow but still I won’t let sorrow bring me way down.” Here, we hear conflicting emotions. On the one hand, we hear Dolly say that she has hit rock bottom. She can barely make it through her days. On the other hand, we hear her say that she won’t let her sorrow bring her down. She will rise up and stand tall. The line hard candy Christmas is often regarded as a reference to Dolly’s childhood. She grew up in poverty and had 11 siblings. Since money was tight, at Christmas, rather than receiving presents, she and her siblings would receive hard candy instead. That was what their parents could afford to give them. It wasn’t much at all but it was all they had to give. The term “hard candy Christmas” has come to symbolize those times when we aren’t able to provide much joy to anybody so we have to make do with what we have, even when that is just a piece of hard candy.
For many, the idea of a hard candy Christmas resonates. For those who can’t afford to give their families the presents that they want. For those who can’t afford to fly home to be with their families and instead are spending it alone. For those who are just one paycheck away from being homeless. For those who are already homeless. For all these people, a hard candy Christmas is about right. For them, there will be no presents under the tree. For many, they won’t even have a tree because they don’t have a home to put a tree in.
Yes, there will be plenty of times in our lives when we too will experience a “hard candy Christmas.” It may be because we recently lost our job and cannot afford to spend extra money on presents for our loved ones. It may be because we are facing this holiday season without someone we deeply cared about. It may be because we are dealing with mental illness or an addiction of some sort. It may be because we are grieving the end of a relationship that meant so much to us. It may even be that we are lamenting the fact that we are once again facing the holiday season alone due to our spectacular inability to maintain a relationship for longer than a month! For any or all of these reasons, this could indeed be a “hard candy Christmas”.
This past weekend marked the one year anniversary of the school shooting in Newtown, CT. There’s no words to express the grief that the parents of the victims have experienced over the last year. I can’t even comprehend what emotions they’ve been dealing with every day since the shooting. I’m sure that for many of them, it was and will continue to be a “hard candy Christmas”. Songs of joy and peace probably haven’t been very comforting to them over the last year. Where is their relief? Where is their rest? Who can they bring their burdens to?
“Take my yoke upon you. . . For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” What comfort can we find in these verses? What Jesus is saying here is that when we trust in him, we will find ourselves with a lighter burden to carry. Come, bring your burdens to God as the song says. Does this mean that our burdens will suddenly cease to exist or that we will forget that we have them? Surely not. My dad is still dead. I still miss him almost ten years later. The families in Newtown, CT still miss their children. The homeless are still homeless. As Lea Michele, star of the TV show Glee, so eloquently stated it on “The Ellen Degeneres Show” recently, “Grief goes with you every day, whatever you’re doing.” Our grief, our sadness, our struggles will still be there. What has changed, however, is how we deal with the grief. Rather than wallowing in self-pity and refusing to leave the house, we go outside and take a walk in the fresh air. We hike up a mountain. We go visit friends. We reach out to our communities of support and they help us process everything. “Maybe I’ll learn to sew. Maybe I’ll just lie low. Maybe I’ll hit the bars. Maybe I’ll count the stars until dawn.”
It is at our darkest moments when we have to learn to keep going because we can’t let sorrow bring us way down. We trust in Jesus. We trust that God is there to comfort us in our grief, no matter how bleak things might seem. We trust that when we bring our burdens to God that God can handle them. We trust that even in those moments when we feel so completely lost, alone and afraid that God is there walking with us and perhaps even carrying us on God’s shoulders. Our mourning shall turn to dancing and our lamentation shall turn to joy. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. Maybe not even next month or next year. But one day, you’ll see, you’ll wake up and the sun will shine again and you’ll feel a sense of joy and peace again. You, too, will be “just fine and dandy” even if it has been a hard candy Christmas.