It has happened in a place called NewTown….and yet, what occurred on Friday of this week was the oldest story known to humanity….Cain killed Abel….Only this time, for reasons unknown to us & frankly, unimportant….And unlike Cain & Abel, no one stood a chance…..According to the play, 6 Degrees of Separation, everyone is approximately 6 or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world…the “friend of a friend” can connect any two people in 6 steps or less….If there is any truth to that, then the shooter, who grew up in the same small, idyllic Connecticut town with these children, was, in essence, killing his own brothers and sisters…..Even more, in the days and weeks and months ahead, we will relive this tragedy in so many random conversations and occasions, that we may well discover our own connection to people whose lives have been directly affected…..But all of that matters little because the truth is: these babies…these “innocents” belong to all of us….Just as we say when we dedicate a newborn infant into our congregation, “they belong to all of us.”…..And so this morning, we gather in heartbreaking grief because these are our babies…
The idea of these being our children is addressed so beautifully by our own Linda Miller Raff in the following poem:
They will walk now
with their bodies forever leaning-
their imagined worlds
tilted and spun
to a lunatic axis.
They will wake every agonized morning
to an unanswerable
shattering their lives
over and over.
They will clutch to their breasts
of left-behind life
and sob and curse and wail and pray
for this please oh please not to have happened,
for one more chance,
for what might have been.
be the same.
Yet in their brokenness today
and in the worse days yet to come
they will be held together
more fierce than any violence,
more deep than any wound.
They will not recognize it,
or maybe even want it,
this love and grace,
in their tilted and shattered world,
but it will be there
standing in strong and holy vigil with them.
As will we.
God, my God, bless these your children.
There are days when sermons flow….and there are days when one stares at a blank screen forever….but there are some days…some moments…where you simply want to run away as fast as you can from the task at hand……Reading these two poems caused me to want to say, “maybe today we’ll just read poetry & grieve”…..I wrote another sermon for Advent Conspiracy…but I threw it away & started over…I tried Friday evening, but it took me until yesterday afternoon to find it w/in myself to stay in my seat & write….I needed to be quiet…to listen…to listen to my own immense sadness AND rage…to listen to Scripture & it’s profound words….to listen to what others in our nation were saying, some helpful, some purely evil….but most of all, to listen quietly for and to, the Spirit of the Living God….
Where was God in all of this….Well, Mike Huckabee, who I knew in a former life & who I once admired even if we differed on some fine points….Mike Huckabee, attempting to answer that question, sought to answer as a conservative politician & not as the pastor he once was….but he gave a theological answer w/ a political twist…God was NOT in that school because we no longer allow prayer in public schools……..What an idiotic answer to give, especially for a Baptist…Baptists NEVER supported prayer in public school because it was COERCED prayer…Which prayers would have been prayed over the intercom at NewTown?....Catholic prayers….Buddhist prayers…Hindu prayers….Islamic prayers….You think in a town that is essentially a short train ride from NYC that ALL of those faith traditions are not represented in that school? Of course they do….But he wasn’t just showing his ignorance as a Baptist…he was making political hay over this…..So, let me ask you….that beautiful woman who was the principal at that school, lunged forward to stop this insane killer and sacrificed her life on behalf of these precious children….and you dare say God wasn’t in that school?....Teachers throughout that school hid the children, held the children, some of them staying with the children as they themselves were being killed…they gave their LIVES for these children?....Is there ANYTHING MORE CHRISTLIKE THAN THAT? …and God wasn’t in that school?....And Brian Fisher, a right wing nut job from the American Family Association…the most poorly named organization in America, saying that because there was no “prayer” over the intercoms that Satan was there and God was not?.....I do not doubt that Satan or Evil was deeply present in this…But where Evil is present, God is there, suffering with us all the more strongly….
Pat Anderson is the Interim Executive Director of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and he writes:
For many who will go to church today, the words they hear will be about the fault of taking God out of the public square, as though this is a thing one can move about at will. REALLY? God can be PUT somewhere? Or REMOVED from somewhere? Who do you think you are, that you have the power to determine the Presence or the Absence of Almighty God?
I do not want or need to hear from religious blowhards who find in every tragedy evidence of God’s absence and our sin of “putting” God somewhere. We need to grieve. Our sins and the role they play in the evil that surrounds us will be evident enough later.
I agree so strongly with Pat….first, we need to grieve….We NEED to grieve…..And grief includes shock & anger & paralyzing sadness & disorientation & leaning on each other & looking to God for strength & looking to God for answers, for a way to be in the world….Those children who survived this event have had their innocence ripped from them….They will need our prayers & the care of their parents, their faith leaders, trained counselors, their teachers…& the healing Spirit of God….as will all those teachers & administrators who were in the midst of the nightmare….And the parents…what will they need?....They will need endless love & caring & they will need permission to be outraged & devastated & permission to express it all….they will need long term care which mostly comes from long term friends & family & communities in which they participate…some of those communities…maybe most, will be faith communities…..They will not need to be told that “God needed another angel” or “they are now twinkling stars in the heavens” or “thank goodness you have other children” or “he/she was on loan to you from God” or “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” (which by the way, is NOT scriptural), or, worst of all, “This was God’s will”….& they will be & probably already have been told those things….& those who say them are at a loss for words & so they say what they think needs to be said….& most mean no harm, but they need to listen to what they are saying….
Mostly they need love….love that hangs in…love that does not abandon…love that endures everything, suffers everything, receives everything, the kind of Love that St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians…the kind of love that is seen in X….
And the first thing that love allows to happen, is grief….Rachel weeps for her children….It was screamed by the Israelites in Captivity as “Rachel wails for the fate of her children….& it was quoted in Matthew, as Herod the Brutal killed boy children under 2 & Rachel refused to be consoled because they were no more”
In Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby Dick
the infamous Captain Ahab
is approached by a desperate captain of another whaler. He's looking for a small vessel that has been lost at sea—a boat whose crew included his own son. He's frantically searching for his lost child. As the whaler turns to leave, Ahab sees the name of the boat: Rachel.
Rachel . . . who was "buried on the way to Ephrath" (Genesis 35) . . . who later is pictured weeping as she "watches" her great, great grandchildren led away into exile by the power-hungry Babylonians (Jeremiah 31) . . . who is remembered by Matthew when mothers around Bethlehem were weeping at the senseless slaughter by a madman (Matthew 2).
"In Genesis, Rachel is not buried in Hebron with her husband and relatives; rather, she's buried out there all alone. Lonely tomb, but alive in the Hebrew tradition.
"She's there in the biblical witness: patron saint of all those who have lost a child, all those who've suffered greatly, all those who think God has forgotten them.
Where is God? According to the extraordinary theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, in his book, The Crucified God, says that God suffers with us…God in Christ, Moltmann reminds us, weeps with us, absorbs evil for us, endures hate & lays down his life willingly…..God in Christ teaches us what Dawn Hocksprung and Victoria Soto and all those other teachers taught us, “Greater love has no person than they lay down their life for a sister, a brother, a child, a parent.”
The other text for this day is that lectionary text of John the Baptist calling the religious fundamentalists of his day, “You brood of vipers! Bear fruit that demonstrates repentance. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the tree; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down & thrown into the fire”
As I said, I agree with Pat Anderson, first we grieve….but from there, we repent….& there is a need for repentance all around us….
I recognize that what I am about to say will undoubtedly make some of you angry….But I am not alone in being outraged at the violence of our culture, fueled by this endless need for revenge found at every level, from the politics to sports to families to business dealings…..fueled by a video game culture that most assuredly numbs us to the sacred value of each human life…and fed endlessly by the easy access to all kinds of guns….Before you close me out, please know that I am a gun owner myself, having a .22 rifle my father left me, a .270 deer rifle I was given for performing a funeral, and a 12 gauge shotgun I purchased for myself to go bird hunting….I enjoy hunting….I’ve had fun firing pistols once or twice…I applaud the need for registering handguns…but the gun culture is out of control….The following statistics are from a report by National Public Radio and war statistics from the various military websites
Almost 40,000 American die each year due to senseless gun violence in this country. To put this in perspective, the Vietnam War claimed 58,000 lives; the Iraq War claimed 4, 486 between 2003 & 2012; the war in Afghanistan, as of September, claimed over 2,000 American lives. In our country we have an average of 150 mass shootings per year (where several or more are killed by gunfire). Time and again, those armed enter shopping malls, college campuses and secondary schools armed with automatic rifles, ready to yet, yet armed to protect themselves. WE criticize the suicide bombers in and from other countries and have spent TRILLIONS to stop them, yet in our own country, we do nothing. One terrorist boarded a plane 10 years ago with a bomb in his shoe which failed…from that point forward, we cannot board a plane w/o taking off our shoes…Yet, 40,000 Americans die each year in senseless gun violence and I repeat, we take no action. WE ARE ALL PART OF THIS MADNESS. Twenty children, between the ages of 5 & 7 died on Friday…Our right to “bear arms” does NOT include this insanity. “Bearing arms” is a military term that was meant for a militia….but now it has become the slogan of the NRA that spends endless amounts of money to buy our politicians conscience while helpless youth and children and adults are gunned down by people owning automatic weapons that should be in nobody’s hands---ever---other than military and police.
Few crimes are more harshly forbidden in the Old Testament than sacrifice to the god Moloch (see Leviticus 18 & 20)….The sacrifice referred to was of living children consumed in the fires of offering to Moloch…..Ever since then, according to historian Gary Wills, the worship of Moloch has been a sign of a deeply degraded culture…..NO OTHER CULUTRE has the terrible record gun deaths that we do…OUR COUNTRY CAN DO BETTER…BE BETTER…. But until we choose to have the courage and spine to deal with this issue, and a whole other sermon could be preached on the issues of care for mental illness….Until we have that willingness to repent that John the Baptist calls for & the courage to change, then the almighty gun will be god Moloch in our midst….
Guns have the power to destroy the reasoning process….It forbids making logical connections…we who worship guns are required to DENY that there is a direct connection between the fact that we have the greatest number of guns in private hands & the greatest number of deaths from them.
Guns have the power to turn ALL POLITICIANS into a class of invertebrate & mute servants of Moloch…If any politician goes against Moloch, they are called un-American, huge amounts of money are spent against them in campaigns, they are accused of wanting to do away with ALL guns (which is not what I am suggesting) & they claim they never entertained such heresy….Up until now, it’s been far better than students or shoppers or movie goers die than that a politician ever risk an election by being against illegal weapons….
But maybe if there is anything redemptive in this tragedy…..maybe the sickening feeling running through this country will be the tipping point…741 mayors of small to large to metropolitan cities around this country (only 4 from Texas…the mayor of Austin, Brownsville, DeSoto and Hurst so far….surely the mayors of Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Waco, Lubbock, Ft. Worth, Amarillo and El Paso will sign on) are forming a coalition announced yesterday to deal with illegal weapons……
Surely, surely, surely we have had enough……Our babies were murdered…..by an assault rifle that was LEGAL….he didn’t even use the guns….Our teachers, the most underpaid & underappreciated professions in the world, are on the front line….You think we don’t need SERIOUS REPENTANCE….we are a broken people….and we cannot just be sad….we must be find courage & organize & speak up & wield our votes & write our congressman & we must hold to that sacred duty of the prophets…righteous indignation….
Our hope for healing lies in the Resurrection of Christ….In the midst of death, there is life….in the face of a culture of death, we must be Easter people who have already died to Christ and find our life in serving him….We are a Resurrection people who, like Victoria Soto, must be willing to risk everything, that our precious children will live & know the peace of Christ….May God give us courage & fill us with hope & may all things be done in love that is willing to suffer for the sake of the Gospel….
Sermon Dr. Roger Paynter, December 16, 2012