In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy.
This is the Third Sunday of Advent.
The theme is joy.
The texts are the legends regarding Mary and Elizabeth, both pregnant with children, John the Baptist and Jesus, who are both fated to be tragic heroes. The symbolism is sacred birth, “the blessed fruit of the womb.” With this blessing is the promise of life and the response of joy.
In light of the events of December 14, 2012 in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, could there be a theme more inappropriate in worship today than joy?
Yes and no.
There is a strange sense for me of living this past summer again. I had decided the summer worship theme would be happiness. On June 24th, I preached one sermon on the topic only to lose my son Zachary four days later. When I finally stumbled back into the pulpit, the theme of happiness was sitting there, staring at me like a taunt. I could have changed the theme, of course. I didn’t. I decided that if joy had any reality to it, it would have to be in the words of the hymn by George Matheson,
“Joy that seekest me through pain.”
If joy is going to seek out the people of Sandy Hook, it will have to find them in their pain. I know also, by my own experience, that without at least the promise of joy, however vague and however incredible, the pain itself is too crushing. Even in the midst of this excruciating fragility, when the tears come in convulsing sobs, joy is being cultivated.
That joy is cultivated as the community rises and responds to one another, honors the powerfully human and heroic acts of the teachers, responders, parents, and children and creatively expresses its love and care.
My nephew, Craig with his wife and three children live in Sandy Hook. Their oldest child is in first grade at Sandy Hook Elementary. She wasn’t in school Friday because she was home sick. Craig posted this on his Facebook page:
Please continue to pray for the families of SH. We are so very heartbroken. Sofia has lost so many of her best friends. Her friend she rode the school bus and danced with after school...gone. Her best friend at after school art class...gone. 8 out of 10 kids in her daisy troop....gone. So many other classmates and after school playmates. How do you tell your daughter that so many of her friends are no longer?
That is the work now for my family and this community. That is the work of those closest to this tragedy. If there is such a thing as joy it will have to come through that shared experience of anguish. It will come in its time and not be rushed or forced. Joy is the human spirit that will not be quenched. The people of Sandy Hook have their work to do. They will do it. The rest of the country must preserve that community’s dignity and respect its privacy and follow their lead.
For those of us who are not as personally connected to this tragedy but who with tears and anguish have watched it unfold on television and on our computers, we have work as well. We hold these dear people in our minds and hearts, certainly. We can donate to the work of those who counsel youth and children through the United Way of Western Connecticut. It is the Sandy Hook School Support Fund.
Other work we have is how to talk to children about violence. Author Brene Brown posted some important links for adults on speaking with children on her website. She includes there a quote from that wonderful comfort, Mr. Fred Rogers:
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.
In the end, you can always count on Mr. Rogers. That is how we cultivate joy. Not by trying to make people be happy, but by caring, by actually doing things. By being helpers.
How else can we help? How else can we cultivate joy in the midst of disaster?
I think we need to reflect and take action in regards to the society in which we live. That begins, in my opinion, by being honest with our feelings. I am feeling anger. I wrote this on my blog yesterday. I want to share it with you.
I am also angry.
I am angry at the shooter. Angry at the world, fella? If you won't get help then have the decency just to kill yourself, OK? I am angry that he slipped through whatever societal safeguards are supposed to be in place to help people like him. I am angry that he didn't get whatever it was he needed so he wouldn't hurt others. I am angry regarding the stigma and the ignorance surrounding mental illness. I am angry that we don't have a more descriptive phrase than "mental illness" for whatever it was that motivated him to do this. We might as well say "demons."I am angry that people "possessed by demons" can get access to assault weapons! I am angry at the crazy gun culture in which we live. I am angry that we let weapons of mass destruction be so available and do nothing but wring our hands when 20 children are murdered in an elementary school. I am angry that these killing tools are being manufactured in the first place. I am angry that it is easier and cheaper to get an offensive military style weapon than it is to get mental health care. I am angry at the people who profit from these killing machines and who spread lies, misinformation, and a warped sense of freedom that it is a "right" to own these children killers.I am heartbroken. I am angry. Mostly I am afraid. I am afraid that our culture has taken a path of no return toward a societal death wish. We have decided that it is more important to protect our right to own weapons of mass murder than it is to protect children from them. For that, I weep.
That is what I wrote yesterday. I am still angry. I am not ready to let it go. I want to use this anger, actually. Fourth and Fifth century theologian, Augustine, wrote:
Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.
I know that politicians and others will say that it is inappropriate to talk about guns at this time. It is too close to the tragedy. We just need to grieve. I don’t know who makes up those rules about who can talk about what and when, but I have a hunch who benefits from that silence. Those who manufacture and sell these murder machines hold their breath during these tragedies and wait until the news cycle moves on and the American people put it out of their minds. Then it is business as usual. We get numb and accept the latest murderous rampage by a deranged terrorist as normal and something we cannot possibly stop. And now children in an elementary school. Nothing we can do about that? Just grieve as if it were an act of God?
God is always interesting to invoke at these times. God is a great scapegoat for our lack of personal and societal responsibility. Baptist minister and Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee even said, and I quote:
We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be surprised that schools would become places of carnage?
Why not? If your answer to real world problems lies in the realm of superstition, then Huckabee’s answer is as good as any. God got angry because the school wasn’t praying to him, so he sent in a mass murderer to kill the children. Praise be the name of the Lord.
Are you angry yet? Then let us use it.
It took two minutes for the shooter to kill 20 children and six adults. From 9:36-9:38 a.m. and then it was over. Two minutes. The medical examiner reported that all of the victims including 20 children were killed by a Bushmaster .223 caliber assault rifle. Each child was shot between three and eleven times. Is this a sportsman’s rifle?
The dead included little girls in Sofia’s daisy troop.
Are you angry yet?
We abolished slavery in this country. Women earned the right to vote. Federal civil rights legislation was passed. We ended smoking in public places. We passed laws against driving drunk. We made people wear seatbelts.
It is way past time, and it has been way past time for a long time to address one of the most grave threats to public health we have in this country-- the proliferation of these weapons of mass destruction.
It is time to take that anger and enjoin it with courage.
The symbol of Advent hope is about birth and children. It is about the promise of hope, life, and the courage to do what it takes to live lives free from fear. It is not time to cringe in fear of politicians, the gun lobby, our crazed relatives or anyone else who perpetuates a delusion that it is a “right” to own weapons of mass murder.
This is a fight. What more joyful thing can we do than to fight for our children?
You know what to do.