On a number of the social media groups I belong to, there has been long conversations going on since Friday’s massacre at Sandy Nook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. Almost all of them started with the question, “In light of today’s/Friday’s events are you changing your sermon this Sunday?” Some asked wondering if we should further sensationalize an event that has already over saturated the media, our conversations, our emotions. Some argued, why pick this one, hundreds of children die daily from hunger, disease, war, abuse – we don’t hear about them. Some of those ‘news’ stories we, as Christians called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, free the imprisoned, share our abundance with, are supposed to do something about. Here was my answer to someone who asked that same question a number of times, finally in a rather provocative way (the question has since been removed – something to the effect is this story only important because it happened in the US to white, English speaking children, adding that teachers in our congregations wasn’t a good enough reason).
“Exactly some of the conversations being held during the coffee hour. It is important because we can identify with the story. Someone has a son with mental illness, we all have children, grandchildren or great grandchildren attending schools, they are predominantly white, they speak English. We have teachers in our congregations. Our children are not dying of hunger, our children are not dying of AIDS, or being blown up by suicide bombers, or stepping on landmines, or dying from diseases that could be prevented by immunization. Unfortunately those news stories do not resonate as strongly with us, unfortunately that ‘news’ is not covered by the major networks. Is it a travesty, yes. Does that mean we ignore what is right in our faces because some news editor somewhere decides what bad news we get to hear? Do we connect the news that is presented for our consumption to everything else that is happening in the world? We might if we preached the three hour sermon. Today’s focus was on ‘news’, the news that is set before us everyday, the good news of the Gospel, the questions and the reality that sometimes there are no answers. We struggle every week to arrive at the decision of what is important in the world and if and how it might influence our worship of God in community one hour of the week.”
Here was Sunday’s sermon, reworked Saturday, because of Friday’s horrible tragedy (with some words and thoughts gleaned from social media and news feeds).
Zephaniah 3:14-20, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18 Responsive Reading – Isaiah 12:2-6
How was your Friday spent? Were you deep in the preparation of the season, baking, cleaning, decorating, wrapping, spending money perhaps? Were you listening to Christmas carols, planning the Christmas dinner menu, addressing Christmas cards, or getting all dressed up to go to a Christmas party?
Were you waiting,
Horrified at the depths to which human activity in the world can descend?
Was the joy drained from your day? Why did this happen?
The immediate answer is, I don’t know. The eventual answer is, we may never know. Life exposes us to horrible, confounding, disturbing events that we may never have the answers to.
Every day, the news of the world does not bring good news. It is just news, political, economic, natural disasters, entertainment, trivial, now breaking, up to the minute, news. Cascades of words that become meaningless after awhile until something extra-ordinary in the world happens and suddenly everyone is transfixed by their tablets, and radios, and televisions to get the latest news.
One day, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Ground breaking news, kingdom in breaking news, attracting people from all over, crowds of people. You would have thought John would have been pleased. High ratings for a guy shabbily dressed, living on locusts in the wilderness. All these people, hearing the message, responding, coming out to be baptized, transfixed by John’s message. If only today’s church could be so fortunate. Crowds of people desiring to become part of the body of Christ.
John is not so impressed, or satisfied with THAT sort of response. He chastises the crowds, calls them snakes, vipers, vermin fleeing impending wrath, rats abandoning a sinking ship.
Even today, to call someone a “snake” is to say something pretty serious about him or her.
“What a snake,” said an old lady when she discovered that she had been robbed by her nephew.
“He turned out to be a real snake,” said a local girl of the man who became engaged to her why he was still married to a woman in Ottawa.
“You vipers,” said the preacher. “Why are you slithering out of your dens to me? Who warned you that this is your last chance?” ***
John’s incensed, because he knows human nature, he knows they think that baptism is the key to salvation. He knows they think that once they are ‘done,’ everything is good, they have made the grade, they can bask in God’s grace, ask weekly forgiveness, and not have to concern themselves with walking the straight and level path of righteousness. He knows that the crowds are expressing only the minimum outward appearance of turning around and forgoing sin. He knows they will take the path of least resistance, not the narrow way, not the way that Jesus will walk when he appears.
John tells the crowds outright that they cannot rely on the claim that they are the children of Abraham. They cannot rest or rely on that identity. Calling themselves God’s people, whether Jewish, or Muslim, or Christian does not make them so, does not make us so. God is able to make children from the stones by the pathways, after all, being descendants of Abraham has nothing to do with living faithfully as God’s people.
Our inevitable question is the same one the crowds ask. “What then should we do?”
John doesn’t mince any words. “whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise.” John is telling them to do something that reveals God’s love for the world. Be part of the community. Act with grace, and charity, and genuine concern for those around you.
“What should we do?”
“Collect no more than the amount prescribed to you.” John is telling the tax collectors not to line their own pockets, taxes are already a burden, it shows no compassion or concern for your neighbours if you increase that burden for your own benefit.
What should we do?”
“Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” John knows the temptations that power brings, it becomes easy to threaten others to elevate a soldier’s position in society, to eliminate people who might encroach on personal realms of influence and wealth.
“What should we do?”
Do as you would have others do to you. Love them as you would love yourself, as you say you love Jesus. Be a light unto the world. Feed my sheep.
There may lie the answers to why people perpetrate such horrible and unspeakable acts upon others. Somewhere along the line, there was not enough love, somewhere along the line there was not care and concern for the oppressed, the poor, the weak, the downtrodden, the mentally ill, the ostracized, the different, the other.
Why is it that we can talk so freely about what we hate, and never say a word, even whisper a thought, on what we love, on who we love.
I am struck by the implication of a paradox of the last verse of today’s Gospel reading. “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to people.” With exhortations, warnings, admonitions, pleadings, insistence, spurning. These are tough methods of getting the good news to sink in. It doesn’t appear on the surface to be very good news if we are pressured to stop doing those things we have always done, or to start doing something we have never done.
Where is the good news? There seems to be so little evidence of any good news in today’s world, particularly after the events of Friday in a small town in Connecticut. The media feeds on bad news, bad news attracts advertisers, bad news attracts viewers, bad news and speculation seems to be the new drug for society. There never seems to be enough of it to go around. We are more than willing to share it with everyone who crosses our path, whether it is true or not.
Did you question, as doubtless many in this world did two days ago, where is God? The answer might be found in a comment from Mister Rogers of all people. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
That’s where God is in moments of unspeakable horrors. “I don’t believe God willed this or wanted it.”** And don’t you dare say so, to anyone, you are not God. That is neither helpful nor good theology. I don’t understand why things like this happen. “What I do know is this: God does not cause or plan violence. I also know this: God comes along side of us and we find him in the midst of our pain – ready to pick us up and carry us through the valley of the shadow of death.”* God grieves with us, the Word became incarnate in Christ so that the depths of our losses and tears would be truly and intimately known by God.”
Pastor Rocky Veach, whose church has 75 members said, “In times like these, there’s no really good answer. Words really don’t express enough. Our approach is just that you have to show people love. You have to be there for them and be understanding, even though nobody besides the victims can really understand what they are going through. Instead of talking so much about Jesus, in this setting we have to try to be like him.”
God’s love reveals itself in the actions of people. John tells people to go about their work, their lives, but to do so in a manner that revels they have truly repented of the dishonest and oppressive ways they previously practiced.
God’s love reveals itself in the actions of people. A neighbour drops a casserole off at the doorstep of parents incapacitated by the death of their six year old, offers to watch the dead child’s infant sibling for a few hours while funeral plans are made, to allow for some solitary grieving.
God is revealed in the actions of people. Trinity Episcopal Church on Newtown’s Main Street planned a service of prayers and music. Other places of worship also held services and vigils; more were scheduled for yesterday. St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church holds a candlelight vigil within 24 hours, hundreds of people gather, spilling out into the darkness of a December night, some crowding around open windows desperately waiting for words of hope and peace and reassurance of God’s love, singing Silent Night through tears of grief. Twenty six candles burned on the altar, as the priest reminded all that it is not our place to question, judge or condemn, and that it was important to remember all who died that day in Newtown. Tragic the effects of isolation on a young man and now for the community in which he lived and died.
God’s love reveals itself in the actions of people. Countless people change their Facebook pictures to candles bravely shining in fathomless black, posting prayers, words of outrage and comfort and hope. Twitter users offered prayers, and support, and expressions of grief and love.
We need to show each other how much we love each other. We need to tell others how much we love Jesus. We need to live in hope, regardless of the broken, sinful, and dark world that surrounds us.
Where do we find hope? We find hope in the promises of the Kingdom of God that is being ushered in even now as I speak this. We find hope in the expressions of family, and friends, and neighbours. We find hope in salvation bought through a cruel and suffering death. Hope is in a life lived beyond self. Hope is things unseen, questions unanswerable, lives unafraid. Hope is a new heaven and a new earth, no pain, no tears, no suffering. Hope is a glimpse of the glory of God at unexpected times, in unexpected places, from unexpected people. Hope is a child in a manger, an innocent on a cross, an empty tomb, a Saviour returning on clouds of unimaginable brilliance.
We are called to love God and others. It is difficult, to feel joy, in times such as these. But we can be grateful. We can give thanks that God’s love is revealed in the actions of people in times of grief and horror. We can give thanks that the grace of God is always. We can give thanks that we can find peace in Christ, a peace that surpasses all understanding. And in all this, we can be confident and live in the hope that joy will again be experienced, for surely God is our salvation, we will trust and not be afraid, for the Lord is our strength and our might. Amen.
*these are quotes from a number of sources, if yours I will be happy to give you credit, let me know. I hadn’t expected to post this at the time and haven’t been able to successfully backtrack to recover them.
*** The Master Storyteller Roy Sheldon MacKenzie pg 18