December 16, 2012
“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’ve seen these words from Matthew’s gospel repeated over and over again in the last 48 hours. They provide one way for people who have been directly and indirectly affected by the tragic events that happened this past Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut to express their grief and heartache. I’m using them because I also need to find a way to express that grief and heartache. I think we all do. We have all been affected by what’s happened. Every single one of us.
I will be honest with you. I’d rather be anywhere than here right now. I’d rather be home in bed reading the paper or sitting in a restaurant drinking one more cup of coffee. This desire is not fed by my need to be lazy or take a day off. It’s not because I don’t see church as the appropriate place to be in the aftermath of something so monstrous. I feel that way, because too many times I, along with my colleagues and other clergy around the nation, indeed around the world, have had to stand in our pulpits and try to make sense out of senselessness. We’ve had to find some comprehension in what is incomprehensible. And we’ve had to give voice to the unspeakable. I know that this is both the somber and sacred task of pastoral leadership, but doing this even just one time is too much. Yet here we are again. Evil and violence has struck, and we are at a loss to understand.
Bruce Reyes Chow, former moderator of our denomination, stated that if he were preaching today he would try to walk the fine line between what we want to hear and what we need to hear. What we want to hear are words of comfort. But the problem I find is that when we stare in the face of such tremendous evil, I just don’t have those comforting words. None of us do. What words can describe the shock and the horror and the heartache that we feel when we hear about little ones, first graders, and their teachers and administrators being gunned down? There are no words. I don’t have words. To try and offer false comfort seems a terrible disservice to those who have died.
When I have preached on Luke’s John the Baptizer in the past I have tried to paint a picture of a wild man, of someone who was outside of the norm with a message so shocking that we can’t help but stop and think seriously about what he was trying to impart. In some ways John seemed not quite sane. But right now John the Baptizer with his bizarre dress and peculiar diet seems the sanest among us. I do know this, for the people in Newtown, Connecticut it really won’t matter if the world grinds to a halt on December 21st as it has been predicted. For them, the world as they knew it ended this past Friday. The darkness, it seems, has overcome the light.
But as people of faith, even when that faith is faltering or doubting, we take seriously our belief that eventually the light will pierce the darkness; that in the final run the darkness will not overcome, the darkness will not win. We take seriously our hope in the power of God, the goodness and mercy of God, and our belief that the gospel is actually good news. I know I said this just recently in a sermon, but it must be said again. Our faith means that we also acknowledge that hope and optimism are not the same. They are not synonyms. Optimism is the belief that everything will be fine and dandy. Hope is the recognition that life can deal us terrible blows. Sorrow and suffering are real. But hope is the belief that sorrow and suffering is not all there is. Hope is the belief that not only is God with us in our suffering God will bring us through it to something more. Hope is our trust that eventually light will pierce the darkness.
But for now we wait in the darkness. We wait and we grieve with those who grieve. We mourn with those who mourn. Isn’t it in times like this, when the unimaginable has become reality, that we realize our common ground as humans? One of my favorite quotes is from Mother Theresa who said that, “we will never know peace until we remember that we belong to one another.” I’ve heard the essence of her words expressed time and time again in the hours following the shooting. Author and poet, Maya Angelou, expressed that these children were our children and the adults were members of our family. Our president spoke eloquently of this loss of our children, our beautiful children who should not have suffered this fate.
I know that we cannot possible begin to feel the depth of pain and sorrow that those parents in Connecticut are feeling and will continue to feel. I know that the families of the principal and the school counselor and the teachers and staff and the shooter’s mother are grieving more deeply than I can truly grasp. But I think, more than ever before, that what makes us most fully human is our empathy. So we are grieving, all of us. The difference as I see it in losing a loved one who dies at the end of a long, well lived life and a child or a young person, is that we not only mourn the death of that young person, we also mourn the future. We mourn what could have been, we mourn what should have been. We mourn the loss of potential and the fulfillment of dreams. We mourn because whenever our children are taken from us the future is dimmer. And the future is indeed dimmer this day.
We mourn today because if we take seriously the idea that we are the body of Christ made visible to the world, if we take seriously that the world is populated with God’s children, then this terrible evil reminds us of how starkly we are broken. When one of us is broken, we all are. This is not my attempt to answer the question, “why.” I don’t have any answers. I don’t think we ever will. I cannot claim the belief that somehow God made this happen so something better will come out of it. I think that when something like this happens it is exactly the opposite of what God wants. So I don’t know why. None of us do and we will have to live into that not knowing. But even as I say that I also profess that God is present, God is in the midst of it all.
So what happens now? Where do we, as a people, go from here, from this moment? John told the people who gathered around him that the fruits of repentance they needed to bear would be seen in their sharing, giving. If you have two coats give one to someone with none. If you have more food, give some to someone who doesn’t. He told the tax collectors not to take more money than they were supposed to. He told the soldiers to not use their power or their position to extort money or threaten and oppress those who have no choice but to do their will.
In other words remember that these people belong to you and you to them. Remember. For me remember is the critical word we should take with us today. Remember. Not only should we remember what happened in Connecticut. We should. We should remember the names of those who died. We should remember this horror so hopefully we can prevent it from happening again. But even more than that we must, we must remember that we belong to one another. Those babies who were mowed down on Friday were our children. And the children who face violence every day in inner city schools are our children. The children we tutor at Horace Mann are our children. The children who fall through the cracks of our educational system, those are our children. The children throughout the continent of Africa who are orphaned due to AIDS or war or neglect are our children. We belong to one another. Remember.
We have to remember that we belong to one another. The hard working father and the gang member; we belong to them and they to us. The first responders who rush in and, yes, even the one who does the shooting; we belong to them and they to us. And we have to remember. We have to remember. Right now it’s easy to do that. Right now it’s simple to remember. But it can’t just be in the wake of a tragedy that our memory for what binds us together gets reignited. It has to be always. Every day. We have to remember passionately and with great commitment that as God’s children, we belong to one another. And as we remember we must act accordingly. We must love accordingly. We must love fiercely and that love must be reflected in our deeds here and throughout the world. What other choice do we have? We belong to one another. So remember and let us pray…
Your love cares for us in life and watches over us in death. We bless you for our Savior’s joy in little children and for the assurance that of such is the kingdom of heaven. In our sorrow, make us strong to commit ourselves, and those we love, to your unfailing care. In our perplexity, help us to trust where we cannot understand. In our loneliness may we remember those who have died, trusting them to your keeping until the eternal morning breaks; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Book of Common Worship, 1993 Westminster/John Knox Press)