Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on December 16, 2012, the Third Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18
“What then should we do?”
It is a very poignant question this morning, 48 hours after twenty children and six adults were murdered in their elementary school in a town, in a country, where something like that should never happen.
I keep thinking we have jumped right over Christmas and landed on Holy Innocents’ Day, remembering the story of King Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem in Matthew’s Gospel, and the haunting words he recalls from the prophet Jeremiah:
A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more. Jeremiah 31:35
The Bible knows this kind of violence. The Bible knows this kind of world. And the Bible does indeed intend for us to ask this question, in the wilderness, when we know something is wrong and we must change.
“What then should we do?”
The answer on many people’s lips this weekend is gun control, and I certainly add my voice as a religious leader that the time has come for people who favor stricter gun control to demand it. The National Rifle Association does not run this country, and their insane interpretation of the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution must no longer shape the law. It is, literally, killing our children.
I want, however, to take this question from a spiritual angle. That by no means signals leaving the realm of the practical. It is, in fact, trying to unite them, because they have become so separated in this culture that when something like this happens, people of faith seem at best irrelevant and at worst completely out of touch with reality.
I want to ask two simple questions about this tragedy:
· Where was God in this?
· What good news do we have to bring to this situation?
Where was God? It is a question that gets asked in any tragedy. The assumption behind it is that of Mary outside of the tomb of her brother Lazarus, when she says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” (John 11:32) If God loves us all and is, as we frequently say, “Almighty,” why do people suffer? Why do people die tragically? After all, the Canticle from Isaiah we just sang says:
Surely it is God who saves me. I will trust in him and not be afraid. For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, and he will be my Savior.
Why does God not consistently defend and protect his children? What good is God if he cannot be counted on to do this? Where was God?
One possible answer to this question is that there is no God, that, in fact, incidents like this are proof that there is no divine being protecting his followers.
Another answer is that somebody did something wrong in order for God to choose to let this happen. This was the stance this weekend of the spokesperson for the American Family Association. He posed the question, “Where was God?”
God is not going to go where he is not wanted…we kicked God out of our public school system. I think God would say to us, “Hey, I’ll be happy to protect your children but you’ve got to invite me back into your world first. I’m not going to go where I am not wanted.”
That statement takes my breath away and makes me angry. There is nothing remotely Christian in that statement. It is wrong, wrong, wrong, and I think one of the things we should be doing is making that clear. If someone says something like that around you, you have an obligation to ask God for the courage to say, “No. I do not agree with that. That is neither the God I worship nor the God I experience in Jesus.”
I trust for consistencies sake that the American Family Association is adamantly opposed to the celebration of Christmas. The whole message of Christmas is that God will go anywhere. There is no place, and no people, to which God will not go.
Where was God on Friday morning in Newtown, Massachusetts? First and foremost, God was in that school, with those kids, being shot at just like they were. He was with the dead and dying. He was with the fearful. He was with the brave teachers. He was even with Adam Lanza, weeping as Rachel at Ramah, because her children were no more.
What good is that God, who is only with us, and not as a protector? I say this. If there was any love in the midst of that horror, any courage, any strength, any peace that passed understanding, God was in the thick of that. And not a single one of those 20 children or 6 adults nor the gunman himself died alone in that building. They died in God’s embrace.
But we would rather have those children alive at the hands of a strong God, not dead in the arms of a weak one.
I sympathize with that feeling. I have had it in many circumstances myself. But the truth is that Jesus taught us that God’s purpose is to love, not to protect; to accept, not to defend; to be in absolute solidarity with the victim and not be his or her avenger.
That is the God we get. That is the God who saves, whose “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).
So what Good News do we have to bring to this situation? First of all, we do so in humility and solidarity with those who have suffered such horrific loss. We do not bring self-righteous answers or easy declarations that we know how this tragedy could have been prevented.
No. We say God weeps with us. That is good news. And God lifts us up when we are ready, and helps make the readiness happen. The good news is that God is in the muck of life with us, with no worry at all about how dirty his hands are getting. He only cares that love will prevail here and now, in this moment, with these people.
We also examine our own lives, because change is never only about some “them.” It is also, always, about me. We live in a culture soaked in violence. I think we all know that but I also suspect that it is actually worse than we thought. If you want something to do this week, try this. Pick a day as a “violence free day.” I am not going to watch violence. I am not going to speak violence. I am not going to play violence. Perhaps I am not even going to eat violence. I’d love to hear the stories of your experience.
And, finally, I think we learn as a church a fundamental truth. The work of evangelism—the baptismal promise we make of proclaiming by word and example the good news of God in Christ—has nothing directly to do with filling our churches. We do not spread good news in order to get more people in the pews who help us keep the building in good shape, pay the clergy and keep the ministries going. If that is a side effect of our evangelism, we will certainly, happily take it.
So why do we do evangelism? Sandy Hook Elementary School is why. Do you think that gunman knew that God loved him more than he could possibly imagine? Do you think all of those families have the spiritual support they need to get through this time of trial? Do you think those who go to gun shows to purchase weapons especially because they are exempt from background checking are aware that the God of Jesus Christ is absolutely a God of peace, and that peace can never be and will never be achieved with violence
Our duty is not to get people to go to church. Our duty is to offer good news, news that is good enough to live on, that requires change, yes. We don’t want totally to forget John’s call for repentance this morning. Change—we all have to keep doing it, and a lot of it if we want to get out of this culture of violence.
But this good news enables us to rejoice always, even in the face of extreme tragedy. Why? Because we are excellent at denying reality? No. Precisely because our God has so thoroughly embraced it.