I was going to do two short homilies, but decided to change it to one long one. Here is today’s sermon.
Third Sunday of Advent
December 16, 2012
Scripture: Zeph. 3:14-20, Luke 3:7-18
Thus said the Lord:
A cry is heard in Ramah –
Wailing, bitter weeping –
Rachel weeping for her children.
She refuses to be comforted
For her children, who are gone. (Jeremiah 31:15)
On Friday angels wept. Instead of heavenly music, we heard great sobs as God embraced 28 people in love – 20 children and 8 adults, including the gunman – for all eternity.
I found Friday’s news hard to absorb. I didn’t start following it until I got home around 2:30. I stopped when my colleague from Zion’s Lutheran, the Rev. Tim Weisman, sent out an e-mail to some of us to assist in an evening prayer service that night at his church. After sending out notices as best I could to inform people of the service, I went to the church to work with him and the Rev. Judy Kohatsu from the Methodist Church.
Working with them was a blessing of sorts as I stopped reading the idle speculation of commentators which filled the empty spaces as the actual facts of the situation dribbled out. I didn’t have to think about passing gun legislation and whether we should ban handguns, limit the size of ammunition clips, or require gun registration. I didn’t have to hear or read the views of gun advocates who said that had we equipped our kindergarten teachers with guns this would not have happened. I didn’t have to listen to people demonizing those with mental illness and saying that they shouldn’t be allowed to carry guns. Working on worship allowed me to listen for God’s wisdom and healing words, which go deeper than solutions that sought to address Friday’s horror and, let’s not forget, three dead after a shooting at a mall in Oregon earlier in the week as well as the shootings in an Aurora, CO movie theater and an Oak Creek, WI temple less than six months ago.
This shooting was a cry for repentance. We don’t need a prophet coming out of the wilderness shouting, “You brood of vipers.” We should hear the anguished cries from Newtown as the prophetic voice. If this shooting doesn’t make us stop what we are doing, then we should seriously consider how torn and shredded our community fabric has become, and perhaps that should make us weep, too.
I’m going to be honest and say the NRA makes a good point. There are almost 300,000,000 guns in circulation already in this country. Passing gun legislation tomorrow doesn’t assure us that this tragedy will be the last of its kind. Yet, we are willfully blind if we ignore the statistics of death by firearms. The Center for Disease Control in tracking deaths for 2009 reported that 31,347 people died from firearms. Almost 60% of those deaths were suicide and almost 37% were homicide. When the World Health Organization tracked gun deaths in 2003, it found that the combined number of gun deaths in 22 countries, including Australia, Canada, Japan, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, covering a total population of 563.5 million people was almost 7700 deaths. Yet the United States in the same year with a population of 290.8 million people had almost 30,000 gun deaths. Ignoring guns and their impact on death in this nation are morally irresponsible and cowardly and to believe that putting more guns in circulation will make us safer as a nation is nothing short of ludicrous.
We’ll have several days of national soul-searching. We will want to know why this happened so it can’t happen again, and hopefully, we will make real progress to prevent such a tragedy from happening in the future. But the gun argument and mental health treatment only touch the surface. The prophet tells us to go deeper. What must we change in ourselves? What must we do to repent?
First, we must be brutally honest with ourselves. Given the horrific shootings in the last half of this year alone and that these shootings, sadly, are not a recent anomaly – keep in mind that Friday also marked the 20th anniversary of the shooting at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington – we cannot ignore asking if we are enamored with violence. Is violence a defining national characteristic?
When you think about America or when nations look at America, the immediate impression is strength. But we project and maintain that strength from a military second to none in the world today and in the history of all humankind. We spend more money on our military than, I believe, the next ten nations spend collectively. Outside of mandatory spending, which are Social Security, Medicare, and the debt service, our military consumes a little over half of the federal discretionary spending, and most of us don’t really question our military budget or a foreign policy built around this war machine.
But that’s only one indicator. Violence is a large part of our entertainment culture, too. I loved the new James Bond film, Skyfall, but let’s not ignore that it has substantial violence. Its rating is PG-13, which means our children can see it. We could say that parental discretion, though, would keep little kids from seeing it, and that’s good. But violence is part of cartoon fare, too. Wile E. Coyote, Elmer Fudd … what makes those children’s cartoons funny? Violent attempts to get Road Runner or Bugs Bunny are thwarted. Nevertheless, they’re violent.
It would be unthinkable to stop sports in which violence is integral to its rules. Yet, people pay good money to watch boxing or ultimate fighting – sports in which two people try beat his or her opponent into submission. What about football? Stopping a play requires the defense often to use some sort of violent action, pushing a runner out of bounds, but more often physically dragging or throwing someone to the ground. A play begins with players using all their strength to push against one another with enormous force. Recent research has shown that many football players suffer the debilitating effects of brain injury due to the accumulation of violent hits beginning with youth football and a culture that denies pain. It seems cruel, and yet, banning football is unimaginable.
Video games. Not all of them are violent. Here’s the list of Amazon’s top five selling video games as of this morning: Halo 4, Just Dance 4, Black Ops II (for Xbox), Assassin’s Creed III, and Black Ops II (for Playstation). Here’s a description of the most popular game. Amazon describes Halo 4, “The Master Chief returns to battle an ancient evil bent on vengeance and annihilation. Humanity and the universe will never be the same again.” Four of the top five games are predicated on violence.
We can’t look at our gun culture without considering how violence is a part of it, too. This past Thursday, the Michigan legislature passed a bill to allow people with concealed gun permits after eight hours of training to carry their weapons into schools, churches, hospitals, day care centers, stadiums, and bars. The logic is that these people will be able to thwart a gun attack. The Michigan Prosecuting Attorneys Association opposes it. Violence also lies behind the “Stand Your Ground” laws now official in over half of the states. Trayvon Martin is dead. Another unarmed black youth, Jordan Davis, was shot and killed at the end of November in Florida due to a dispute over loud music coming from his car. The shooter claimed that a shotgun was pointed at him through a partially rolled down window. No gun was found.
The prophetic voice tells us to look deep within ourselves. That voice pleads for us to repent of our ways. Are we in love with violence? If we are, why?
Could it be fear? Maybe we yearn for certainty. Maybe we don’t trust our institutions, such as the police and other public safety people, to protect us. Maybe we have a need to be in control. Whether you agree or not, here’s the second point. It doesn’t rest upon our preference for violence. It’s also the deeper truth.
We can never be 100% certain that many lives will not be snuffed out in a single tragedy. Despite the fact that most of us arise every morning and expect to see the sun set at the end of that day, God never gives us that guarantee. Life is both resilient and fragile. The families and community most affected by this tragedy will recover over time, albeit bearing deep scars for the rest of their lives – that’s the resiliency. Yet, who is to say some other tragedy won’t occur that will take lives, such as a violent natural disaster or a freak accident? That’s the fragility.
As Jesus’ disciples, God asks each of us, especially in the wake of this tragedy, “How will you make today the best day not for yourself, but for others?” That’s the path of repentance. God calls us to create God’s peace, shalom, every day. What should we do? We should make sure that no child dies without having had daily bread every day of her life. We should make sure that no man who suffers mental illness should go a day without having his humanity affirmed and his dignity acknowledged. We should forgive those who transgress us. We should be generous. We should pray for our enemies. I think of the end of Isaiah (65:17-25), who described the new Jerusalem – the reign of God, the world as shalom:
For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
The prophet came to remind us that God’s love obligates us to love one another as God loves us. Actions rooted in love, kindness, forgiveness, reconciliation, generosity, will hasten the new day of shalom. Those actions are our responsibility. They will lead us to create shalom and at the same time enrich our lives by infusing them with acts of true discipleship. Doing this, we will come to know and experience a truly meaningful life. We will not fear. When we can do this, Rachel’s tears will end.