"Wailing and Loud Lamentation"
Psalm 88:1-5, 13-14 and Matthew 2:16-18
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
December 16, 2012
On Friday morning, all five of my grandchildren went off to their schools just like the kids in Newtown, Connecticut. And like the parents and grandparents of the children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I did not give a second thought about their safety. But 48 hours ago in Newtown, evil was unleashed and 20 precious children and seven women were murdered. The ghastly nature of the crime is too horrific to comprehend and we can only allow our minds to ponder the mayhem in bits, because it was a scene we do not want to imagine in detail.
Over the past two days many parents have spent extra time with their children and hugged them a little longer. The world feels overwhelming sympathy for the parents of the victims, praying that they will survive what is every parent's nightmare. It is a terrible tragedy when any child dies - children are supposed to have the opportunity to grow up - but it is especially obscene when young children are gunned down one by one.
When I first heard the news on Friday, my first thought was "No, not again! And not an elementary school!" But my disbelief quickly turned to outrage. This senseless slaughter ignites my anger and my fury spills out in questions: What is it about our culture that produces so many violent people? Why do we have so many homicides and mass killings?
This year alone we have seen mass killings in a sign company in Minneapolis, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, a Seattle cafÃ©, a college in California, a movie theatre in Colorado and now an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut has the distinction of being the second deadliest shooting after Virginia Tech.
What haunts me is that we live in one of the most religious nations on earth. A nation whose founding principles are in harmony with Judeo-Christian values; a nation where the majority of people claim to follow Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, and yet we have more guns per capita than any country on earth. Three hundred million guns. Nearly one for every man, woman and child.
Hearing about these precious first graders being gunned down at school has been very disturbing to me. When I heard the news, I was about 80% finished with my sermon on the gospel lectionary reading for today. It is the passage where John the Baptist is preparing the way for the coming of Christ by calling on people to repent; that is, to turn their lives around and go in new direction. I could have stayed with that text, because when it comes to violence, our nation certainly needs to head in a new direction. However, as the details of the massacre began to trickle out, other passages called out to me.
I was so distressed over the pain of those parents who lost their little ones in such a horrifying manner that I thought about passages that I would cling to if my child had been murdered. I thought of the slaughter of the innocents, the passage Fred read from the Gospel of Matthew. When Jesus was born, angels made the announcement to shepherds out in the fields, saying "Peace on earth." But not everyone was interested in peace. King Herod wanted no part of a new born king. Herod had a reputation as a ruthless ruler who even had members of his own family killed. Matthew says that Herod ordered all of the children around Bethlehem who were two years-old and under murdered in hopes of wiping out Jesus. To communicate the pain of those parents, Matthew quoted the prophet Jeremiah who wrote about Rachel crying for her lost children when the Babylonians defeated the Israelites. Her words could easily describe a parent in Newtown whose child was killed. "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." The same inconsolable wailing and screams came from the firehouse when parents were told their child would not be coming home.
Growing up in the church, I was never shown passages that displayed such raw emotion and gave voice to such devastating loss. It was a blessing to finally learn that the Bible recognizes that life can be terribly painful and at such times we can cry out our uncensored feelings to God.
The loss of a child produces wrenching emotions and God does not expect us to muzzle them. I am grateful to the rabbis who included psalms where the person who suffers is bold enough to take his complaint directly to God. In Psalm 88, the psalmist says, "My soul is full of troubles...I am like those who have no help...like those whom you remember no more...Why, O Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?"
Losing a child can make you feel as if God has abandoned you. The pain seems more than you can bear. Thanks be to God that the Scriptures recognize the pain of loss and provides us with language to shout our true thoughts and feelings so that we won't feel guilty about having them.
Some wrestle with why God would allow children to be murdered by a deranged person. The answer is not difficult. When God created us with minds and bodies, freedom was part of the package. God shows us what is right and good, and encourages us to take the path that leads to life, but we can reject it, choose what is evil and take the path that leads to death. Freedom gives life purpose and vitality, but it also opens the door to violence and suffering. When will we learn to make better choices?
It is ironic that on Friday, when Adam Lanza murdered 20 first graders, a man in China went on a similar spree in Beijing. Except that man had a knife instead of a gun. He stabbed 22 children, but it appears that all of them will survive. How people imagine that legalizing semi-automatic weapons makes us safer is beyond me.
Some will ask, "Where was God when the bullets started flying? Where was God when little children started falling?"
There are no easy answers, but I have to believe that God was right there with them. One of the core messages of the Bible is that God is present in the midst of human suffering. Whether it is the Hebrew people struggling under Egyptian oppression or living as captives in Babylon; whether it is Christians persecuted by the Romans or disciples hovering behind locked doors after their master was crucified, the Scriptures tell us time and again that God is with us when we walk through the darkest valleys and nothing can separate us from God's love.
On the third Sunday of Advent, the focus is joy. In the midst of a tragedy, talk of joy can sound insensitive and off key - like someone telling jokes in a loud voice next to a casket. Yet, we must remember that the birth of Jesus did not take place during joyful times. The majority had been driven into poverty when the Romans seized and occupied their land. When the Apostle Paul called on the Christians in Rome to rejoice, he was not writing to those whose lives were easy. He was writing to people who were being persecuted because of their faith.
At such times it usually does not feel as if God is by our side. However, with time, with prayer, with the comfort of friends and a supportive faith community, God can give us strength to persevere despite the pain and eventually we can once again experience joy. Not the same innocent joy we knew before the tragedy, but a joy forged through the fires of suffering.
In the novel, Sophie's Choice, the author "depicts the main character returning to New York to confront a terrible tragedy. He and a woman sitting beside him on the train begin to read the Bible, which he calls a prescription for his torment. He suggests they read Psalm 88, to which the woman replies, €˜That's some fine psalm.'...We read aloud through Wilmington, Chester and past Trenton, turning from time to time to Ecclesiastes and Isaiah. After a while we tried the Sermon on the Mount, but somehow it didn't work for me; the grand old Hebrew woe seemed more cathartic, so we went back to the Book of Job."1
Sometimes life is so hard that only our faith can pull us through. I believe God was with those Newtown first graders somehow absorbing some of the pain, and embracing them for eternity. That is not to say that their everlasting life with God nullifies the pain or the injustice or the insanity of what happened. It is to remember that one of the chief ways we know God is by knowing Jesus who also bore the brunt of human violence. His crucifixion declares that God is not above or beyond the pain of the world, but in the midst of it, suffering along with us.
But just because God is with us in our suffering, does not mean that God wants us to stop doing everything in our power to lessen the pain and cruelty in our world. We must keep the people of Newtown in our prayers. Pray that they feel the strength, the comfort and the presence of God. Pray that they support one another and that they never lose hope in the promise of the resurrection. But we need to do one more thing. We need to ask ourselves if suffering at the hands of guns is inevitable or if we have the courage to do something about it.
1. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., The New Interpreter's Bible: Psalms, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), p.1030.
Prayers of the People: Advent 3
By the Reverend Dr. Anne R. Ledbetter
Christmas draws near again, and yet we wonder will it, can it, really come this year? How do we sing Joy to the World, when our minds and hearts can only lament? How to celebrate the birth of a babe, when we are mourning this modern day slaughter of the innocents? How can we rejoice in our family gatherings when so many Connecticut families face funerals this week?
Maybe there are no words, O God.
Maybe there are only sighs.
And yet, don't we need you now more than ever? Therefore, we pray:
Come Lord Jesus, come and be born in our hearts.
Loving God, our hearts broke and tears flowed as we took in the tragedy at Sandy Hook School. We are simply stunned that this kind of violence has once again erupted in our nation.
Be with us, we pray.
Be with the families of the victims to assuage their torment.
Be with the perpetrators of such violence
to turn their hearts toward you.
And be with this fractured planet, O Lord,
that still lives in the shadow of the cross,
that embraces swords over plowshares.
Lead us in the path of shalom and healing.
May the star which rested over that manger illumine the way we take as peacemakers. Come, Prince of Peace, come and be born in our hearts.
God of infinite grace and sovereign peace, we pray that your comfort will surround the families of the children and teachers who lost their lives, and envelope the community of Newtown. We pray for the hope brought afresh to us by the birth of the Prince of Peace. May it be born in us and infuse all of our relationships. May your hope and peace touch this world in mysterious and miraculous ways. Send us forth as angel messengers with healing in our wings...
Remind us that nothing - not evil, not violence, not weaponry, not mental illness, not grief or despair, nothing can defeat your Love for the world.
Overcome our despair , we pray, and melt away feelings of helplessness.
Assure us of your all-powerful presence among us.
Come, Immanuel, come and be born in our hearts.
Let us go again to the fields where poor shepherds are amazed by celestial glory and the news of an infant king.
Let us find our way again to Bethlehem where a peasant couple find shelter in a barn, and lay their newborn babe in a feeding trough.
Let us join the magi who journey a great distance through doubt and danger, to discover your unfathomable glory and pay homage with gifts fit for a king.
Let us know your peace and goodwill, your tidings of comfort and joy, your Light which cannot be overcome by darkness.
Bathe this world in your Eternal Light - which forever breaks through darkness revealing your unconquerable Love.
We pray in the name of Immanuel who taught us to pray saying:
Our Father who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors
And lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil
For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
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