Preaching the massacre

Updated: with this link to Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's sermon this morning in the Diocese of Lexington. She said, in part:

Given what happened in Connecticut on Friday, is there a place for a precise, even surgical, strike against gun violence? When nearly 3000 young people in this country die every year from guns, wise heads must get to work and find a creative and life-giving response. The deadly snakes out there are peddling and profiting from guns while children die. What is a good news response? Other nations have found ways to limit access to assault weapons while still permitting people to shoot clay pigeons and hunt game.

It is worth noting that she uses snake imagery throughout the sermon. She isn't calling names, just working a metaphor.

Preachers across the country spoke about the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on Sunday. We invite you to share links to and thoughts about the sermons you gave or heard today in the comments section of this item.

Cafe news blogger the Rev. Andrew Gerns and former newsblogger the Rev. Torey Lightcap's sermons are included in full beneath the fold.

Andrew said, in part:

We often think of judgment as something God does to a people for wrongs they have done. But we must be very clear here. God did not do this. God did not need these children more than their parents. While we believe that God is caring for the dead and that in Christ they are held in God’s loving embrace, this is not how God recruits angels. Don’t let sentimentality teach people how to hate God for what God does not do.

No. We are looking at the fruits of the kind of world we have made. We are looking at the consequences of creating (but not talking about) a culture that enshrines violence and makes it easier to buy a gun than to rent an apartment. What happened Friday exposes the consequences of our choice as a people to make the right to bear arms at least as important as the right to health and education. This tragedy lays an axe to the tree of our assumptions that easy answers couched in simplistic media-ready ideologies will do a better job of solving our problems than the hard work of living in community.

But if the consequences of our choices convict us, signs of redemption are also near. If you look closely, God started signaling the solution even before we comprehended the horror of what was going on.

Torey said, in part:

[I]t’s time to have a forthright conversation about all this. If a moment like this won’t bring all parties to the table for real talk, I’m afraid nothing will, and therefore nothing will change, and the whole thing will have to somehow be turned over in our quest to protect life. The last thought anyone wants to have is that further carnage is inevitable because we were unable to prevent it because we were so intractable in our positions.

Even so – even though we are fearful and exhausted and sad for the present and sad for the future – we are still at the Third Sunday of Advent. We remain a people of hope who believe in our hearts that it’s better to live in hope than in despair. And we look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, to come among us and to lift our faces and to show us how.

You'll here from other preachers at the Cafe and from others around the church in the comments.


The Rev. Andrew Gerns:

A little over eleven years ago, a little boy was watching the television and the only thing on was the blanket coverage of the 9/11 attacks. Over and over again he saw the image of those towers collapsing. Finally, his mother turned off the tv and tried to redirect him. But the enormity had set it and he was trying to find the words. As he was drawing a picture he finally asked “Mom, where was Superman?”

I remembered this story as I watched the news unfold on Friday of the mass murder of twenty first graders, their teachers as well as the mother of the shooter and the shooter himself. This is not supposed to happen. Schools are not places where violence is supposed to happen. Classrooms should never be places where children die. Teaching is a profession one gives one life to but it is not meant to be a job where one risks giving her life.

We have seen evil come to life. I want God’s power to be stirred up and to make this all better. If the severity of trauma can be measured by the immediacy of the threat, the vulnerability of the victims and the degree of helplessness we feel then we are all at least a little traumatized even though we are far away from the epicenter—that is, if we have any heart at all. As so, it is natural to ask “then what can we do?”

Well, wouldn’t you know? That very question appears in today’s Gospel. John the Baptist is going around Galilee preaching Good News. But it doesn’t sound very good. He is saying that God’s judgment is at hand. He chides the religious leaders for their complacency and tells people they need to get ready for the coming of the Messiah. He says our history and heritage will not help us escape what is coming.

This has everyone shaken right down to their socks. “What should we do?” the people ask. I mean, if the Chief Priests, the Scribes and the Pharisees can’t pass muster when the Messiah comes then who will?

If you think about it, this question is not so far from our lips either. If a rural-suburban town of middle-class folks far away from the traditional epicenters of crime and violence cannot escape evil incarnate then what can we do?

St. John Baptist’s advice is surprisingly practical. He tells everyone to bear fruit worthy of repentance. He tells the religious leaders to be faithful and don’t count on their status. He tells workers like tax collectors and soldiers to take only what they are owed—in a day long before unions and civil service. He tells people to be honest, to be good, and to care for one another.

If you think about it, getting ready for the Messiah is surprisingly practical. The hardest part seems to be getting rid of the distractions and instead living as faithfully as one can. If our faith is going to make a practical difference then we must choose to be intentional about our faith. Being faithful means being attentive to what is going on around us.

Being attentive means being smart about our choices of not only what we do bur our choices in who we are. This kind of faithful living means being reasonable in our expectations of others and ourselves—cutting each other some slack. John taught that faithful living means taking responsibility for how we live out our faith and that kind of deliberate faithfulness grows out living as if we are in love with the life that God has given us and in love with the God who gives us life.

We get ready for the Messiah when we choose to live life making space for God. This was the point behind John’s baptism. John didn’t baptize people because it was cool or a fad. He baptized people because they needed to change and it had to both start from within and, at the same time, be obvious to everyone.

That’s the thing about the sacramental life. It is God at work in us alone and in community. God takes everyday things like water, bread, wine, and even olive oil becoming and they become signs of the things that God is at work in every part of our living. God places us in the midst of imperfect people and changes us together.
As we try to make useful meaning out of random violence, we can learn from John the Baptist. If we dare to look through the lens of this tragedy, we too can find Good News and we will know what to do.

The first thing we can learn is that while this is a national tragedy with national implications, it is also local. Our pain is our pain. It is nothing like the pain that the people of Newtown are right now experiencing and not even close to the pain of the parents whose child was murdered or of the families whose parent or spouse or adult child was killed. Some of you may have some kind of personal connection to the event or else this tragedy may call up for you memories of your own losses. The feelings that go with that are natural and normal. At the same time, let what is yours be yours and what is theirs be theirs. Our pain and sadness allows us to build empathetic and caring bridges of support and that is very important—essential in fact. But on Monday, we will go back to work. They will have to re-knit lives torn open.

Because what’s theirs is theirs and what’s ours is ours, we have different work to do. For one thing, we can ask questions and frame meaning in a way that the people close to the crisis will not be able to do for a long, long time.

This is where the issue of judgment comes in. But not in the way you think. We often think of judgment as something God does to a people for wrongs they have done. But we must be very clear here. God did not do this. God did not need these children more than their parents. While we believe that God is caring for the dead and that in Christ they are held in God’s loving embrace, this is not how God recruits angels. Don’t let sentimentality teach people how to hate God for what God does not do.

No. We are looking at the fruits of the kind of world we have made. We are looking at the consequences of creating (but not talking about) a culture that enshrines violence and makes it easier to buy a gun than to rent an apartment. What happened Friday exposes the consequences of our choice as a people to make the right to bear arms at least as important as the right to health and education. This tragedy lays an axe to the tree of our assumptions that easy answers couched in simplistic media-ready ideologies will do a better job of solving our problems than the hard work of living in community.

But if the consequences of our choices convict us, signs of redemption are also near. If you look closely, God started signaling the solution even before we comprehended the horror of what was going on.

One man chose to do evil. That much is clear. But notice that when the chips were down hundreds of people when the chips were down chose to do the good. One man did unimaginable evil. Hundreds just showed up and performed compassionate acts of humanity—even bravery—beyond our imagining.

This is where we find God in the midst of horror: the teacher, principal and the therapist who put themselves between a gunman and children; in the people who rushed to the firehouse to find and care for their kids; in the first responders who came in droves to secure the school and care for the injured; in the police and the caring professionals who were paired up with families whose children died and shepherded them through those terrible hours. People who filled churches, synagogues and parks to keep vigil, write names, hold and hug each other, sing pray, and just cry with each other were at once tangible signs of good overcoming evil and the presence of God bringing life out of chaos. In the days to come, every funeral, each flower given, every casserole delivered, each child baby sat, every hug given and even the space given to allow for private grief will make real the ways that God pushes back darkness and reveal light. Much of what we will see will be very sad, beyond heartbreaking. God will be present to that heartbreak in a myriad of ways; many of them small, tender, and spontaneous.

Watch. God’s power is already stirred up. Good is defeating evil just when it looked as if evil won the day. We Christians believe that in Christ’s life, death and resurrection God has defeated sin, death and evil once and for all. Yes, after the empty tomb of Easter, evil still breaks out and still deals death, but we live in a creation where everything evil does is a rear guard action against the healing God is bringing to creation every day. As we move towards Christmas, our job will be to hold that truth both close to our hearts and up for the world to see. It will also be on us to surround the people of Newtown…and all the people we know who have suffered a loss by death, or who are facing a dread illness, or who are the victims of injustice or are just trying to get by after life has knocked them off their feet… and hold these people in love prayer and practical compassion.

As John the Baptist said when he was getting people ready for Jesus, we can choose. We can intentionally make room for God and that will change us and it will change the world for good.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Rev. Torey Lightcap:

It is a common hallmark in the life of a preacher that in times of distress, well-chosen words and well-dissected thoughts must be dispensed with. Many a manuscript has been tossed aside at the last minute, and the preacher begun anew, struggling, as always, against time, yet working with time, to try to say something helpful that blesses the name of God and moves the people on ahead.

Sometimes, people need meaning. Sometimes they need comfort. Sometimes, challenge. On a good day, all three. And better than these, they need to know that God is always and everywhere; and deeply loves the creation; and that in Jesus, God comes to us as one well acquainted with suffering.

On Friday something happened that in a sense has already happened before, unfortunately in many times and in many places, on bigger scales and on smaller scales. Simply put, in Connecticut, a man named Adam killed 26 people – 20 children and six adults – before turning his gun on himself.

The priest in me wants to try and make sense of this. The writer in me longs to understand and to help others understand. The counselor in me wants to rush in and somehow fix an unfixable scene. The father of two small children in me can only turn away in disgust and fear. Honestly, right now very little of me is willing to sit with these facts and to let them sink in.

And I know that I am not alone. Denial can be useful, but only for a while. After that, how do we even begin to wrap our minds around such terror against some of the most helpless in our society?

For myself: today I am tired all the way to my bones of taking up the search for meaning within terrible, violent acts. I am as tired of it as I am sure that there will be more occasions to pursue it, and this thought all on its own is beyond exhausting, beyond frightening. For surely such acts are evil, and who wants to stare at evil for very long.

When these things happen, it has become commonplace to ask, Where was God? or, in a more ethical sense, Why would God permit such terrible things to occur? That’s a sensible question, and an honest one, but with respect, I think it may be the wrong one. For God is never not anywhere; God is always and everywhere; God is too big and too far beyond our understanding to be chased out of a school or any other place; and as a sign of God’s graciousness toward the whole of creation, we human beings are given free choice as to how we will behave. Quite a lot of the time we don’t pay much attention to that sense of free choice, and then something like this happens, and we have to face facts. People do murder; people do choose to do evil; clearly, they should be stopped.

So, setting aside for a moment the matter of why, what else might be the question we could be asking? It may just be this: Now that this has happened, what is God asking to us to do about it? Specifically, how are we supposed to be making ourselves useful for God’s purposes even in the midst of terrible tragedy? How can we create genuine community and stand with those who are hurting at this time?

How is God asking us to respond? A few thoughts.

1. Pray. Pray for the victims and their families and the people and places affected. Pray for anyone you talk to, that they would know peace. Pray for yourself, for from where else would you gather strength to face your own day?

2. Count your blessings. Love the people in your life. Tell them how much you love them. Don’t just assume they know. Find them and tell them.

3. Learn and repeat this small prayer from Psalm 90: “Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.”

4. If you have children or grandchildren, be honest with them. Give them the amount of information that seems appropriate. If you’re asked a question for which you don’t have an answer, don’t make one up. When a child asks to change the subject or to go off and play, recognize that that’s not an insult; honor it as best you can.

5. Recognize that compassion begins within. You can’t be compassionate with others unless you love yourself. Know when it’s time to pull back and gather strength. Ask for help when you need it.

6. Work to put a stop to violence wherever you see it, recognizing, as Jesus himself knew, that telling the truth comes with a cost.

In that spirit, I prayerfully offer this thought. The land where I was born and reared was, and is, gun country. A gun was a standard part of farming equipment and for many it provided an essential source of food. I grew up with guns and hunters and marksmen in my family. I was first handed a gun and taught to respect it starting when I was eight – the age my son is now – and I still do the same. When one holds a gun, one is often made aware of the enormous responsibility to protect life and safety. This has been readily apparent to many over the years.

In the hands of those whose will is not aligned with God’s, that fact is overlooked. In the hands of those who are ill or who have a need to express power and control over others, a gun is an instrument of destruction or even death. In this age of ultraviolent culture, it becomes far too easy to violate the sixth commandment.

Christians stand against violence. Christians stand up against murder. Christians work for justice. This is plain and simple.

And so I say seventh and finally, that it’s time to have a forthright conversation about all this. If a moment like this won’t bring all parties to the table for real talk, I’m afraid nothing will, and therefore nothing will change, and the whole thing will have to somehow be turned over in our quest to protect life. The last thought anyone wants to have is that further carnage is inevitable because we were unable to prevent it because we were so intractable in our positions.

Even so – even though we are fearful and exhausted and sad for the present and sad for the future – we are still at the Third Sunday of Advent. We remain a people of hope who believe in our hearts that it’s better to live in hope than in despair. And we look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, to come among us and to lift our faces and to show us how.

And so we say, Come, Lord Jesus. Come among us, and restore us.

Amen.

Comments (22)

This was my sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings. "A Holy and a Broken Hallelujah" - http://thefunstons.com/?p=3922

This is an exerpt from my sermon today preached in Statesville, North Carolina:

Maybe that's the awe-inspiring, horrifying beauty of meteor showers and massacres happening in the same week. Beyond all earthly powers that bring us to the gates of hell, God keeps us looking beyond this celestial ball we call home. God drops hints, bidding us to search for the Divine amidst the gunshots and the terror... So keep looking upward, for God's sake keep looking upward. Find the hint that leads to life, and life eternal.

I didn't preach today, but I wrote this on my blog. http://redshoesfunnyshirt.wordpress.com/2012/12/16/insert-title-here/
Megan Castellan

Here is my sermon from this morning: Rachel refused to be consoled http://rosalindhughes.com/2012/12/16/year-c-advent-3-rachel-refused-to-be-consoled/

This was not a sermon but a few words spoken by Eugene Robinson on NPR on Saturday, which I found very moving. Listen to the audio for the full effect: NPR.

Here is today's sermon from Fr. Mark Giroux, Chenango Bridge, NY, before a multi-generational congregation:
Blue Christmas

This link will take you to this morning's sermon. I have a first grader, and I've never been as grief stricken and relieved at the same time as I was when I got her off the bus Friday afternoon.

Note: The audio (and the youtube video, when it becomes available later) of the sermon by Fr. Mark Giroux posted above differs from the written text posted below (no doubt written and loaded before Friday).

Bishop Jeff Lee of Chicago preached at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Evanston this morning. He said, in part:

"We like to paint the world in black and white terms of epic proportions – a Star Wars view of the battle between absolute good and absolute evil. You can see the disastrous results of this in the Middle East or on the Korean Peninsula, or in the gang violence of our own city. We like to project it all as "out there," nothing to do with us. And part of the reason I think human beings do all this is to cover our own sense of shame and humiliation, the uncomfortable knowledge of our own moral compromises. How have I stood comfortably disengaged from the mad proliferation of guns and violence against children on the streets of Evanston or Chicago, or Waukegan, or in a classroom in DeKalb?"

Here's the entire sermon: http://www.episcopalchicago.org/our-stories/2012/12/16/agents-advent-bishop-lees-sermon-december-16-2012

In addition to preaching today (I used Philippians' theme of "Rejoice always"), I read the list of names and ages of everyone who was killed. I have done this weekly for those killed in Afghanistan (and Iraq) for more than ten years. Reading the names of the children whose ages were 6 and 7 was a wrenching experience for me, and the congregation. It is hard enough reading the names and ages of those killed in Afghanistan ... but this was practically unbearable.

Bishop Alan Scarfe of the Diocese of Iowa issues a statement here: http://iowaepiscopal.org/about_us/articles_sermons_2012.php#Dec_14_2012

He said in part: The Church as a promoter of community has a vital part to play in any response. We are allowing our religious differences to overwhelm a united call for peaceable relations as asked for by the Gospels. We are overlooking our representatives’ incapacities to behave civilly with each other; and we are denying that being a nation still at war has any effect upon our cultural values or atmosphere. We also refuse to acknowledge that if guns were not as readily available, they would not be such a ready option when minds are tipped into madness.

I did not preach today but here are my thoughts towards what I would say - Are We a Brood of Vipers?

My sermon from today ... NOW is the time for us to act, to examine our own lives, to share our cookies, hold hands while crossing the street, and be kind to little old ladies (paraphrasing both John the Baptist and Robert Fulghum).
http://gointotheworld.net/2012/12/16/enough-is-enough/

I preached about repentance as the recovery of our humanity and a life shared with God and one another, http://interruptingthesilence.com/2012/12/16/repentance-means-becoming-human/

Peace,
Mike Marsh

At St Paul's Cathedral, San Diego, the sermon addressed the presence of God's grace even in grim circumstances. The service finished with a memorial collect. And then we sat in silence, in tears, as the bell solemnly tolled for each victim.

-Susan Forsburg

I preached today at St. Paul's Memorial Church in Charlottesville:

An excerpt:

"I have trouble finding a way to wrap my mind and my heart around these events. And I’m sure I’m not alone. However, the sadness, grief and anger are real, and I have a knot in my stomach about all of this.

In the midst of this event, our hearts are broken, and we mourn for all those who have died. We turn to our loved ones and we hug our families and friends. We also reflect on all that we have, and on all of those who we love. Our hearts are broken, broken open. One thing about a broken heart is that we become vulnerable, and even if we tend that open heart we can be open to one another’s pain and suffering. A broken heart, when it heals, the question will it become hardened, with scar tissue? Will it become hardened (like Pharoah’s), or will it be open, soft, supple, vulnerable?"

http://santospopsicles.blogspot.com/2012/12/16-december-2012-advent-3-our-hearts.html

I preached today at St. Paul's Memorial Church in Charlottesville:

An excerpt:

"I have trouble finding a way to wrap my mind and my heart around these events. And I’m sure I’m not alone. However, the sadness, grief and anger are real, and I have a knot in my stomach about all of this.

In the midst of this event, our hearts are broken, and we mourn for all those who have died. We turn to our loved ones and we hug our families and friends. We also reflect on all that we have, and on all of those who we love. Our hearts are broken, broken open. One thing about a broken heart is that we become vulnerable, and even if we tend that open heart we can be open to one another’s pain and suffering. A broken heart, when it heals, the question will it become hardened, with scar tissue? Will it become hardened (like Pharoah’s), or will it be open, soft, supple, vulnerable?"

The Rev. Peter M. Carey

http://santospopsicles.blogspot.com/2012/12/16-december-2012-advent-3-our-hearts.html

Did the Presiding Bishop have even a shiver of recognition when she wondered whether "there a place for a precise, even surgical, strike against gun violence?" Surgical strikes are what the US claims to exercise against people in the Middle East who dare to oppose US policies and actions in their own countries. Does the PB mean to remind us that the US freely assaults innocents in other countries? In this time, the US doesn't stand "in a crucified place" -- it stands in the place of Pontius Pilate.

At the very beginning of Sunday's service, our rector, the Rev. D. Joy Segal, read the names of those who died at the school. Each name was accompanied by a stroke of the church's bell, easy to hear because the church door was open. At the end of the reading, Joy put the list of names on the altar and said she was placing them on the table of the Lord because that's where they belonged. Very moving. Thank you, Joy.

Jerome Buescher [added by ~.ed]

How do you preach rejoice 3rd Sunday Advent in the aftermath?

The corrective purposes of preaching "rejoice" in the aftermath of "the worst of times." http://bit.ly/U5AI1G

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