As most of you know, I never post sermons on my Take a Breath blog. However, several people have encouraged me to make an exception today and share yesterday’s sermon with you. I titled the sermon — “The No-Christmas Christmas.” Take a Breath today. And make sure it’s a breath of compassion. I hope you find it helpful . . .
First of all, my heart is breaking for the children and families involved in this shooting. I know a death is a death, but these children were so young. So small and so young and so fresh. And to think that it happened within a few days of Christmas, a holiday that is all about children waking up on a Christmas morning and unwrapping presents and having fun and playing with new toys. Christmas is the one holiday that celebrates God’s greatest gift to the world: the gift of love. Not packaged in a book or a message or a set of rules, but a gift embodied in nothing less than a child. That’s Christmas. But for those families it will be a no-Christmas Christmas, and, to me, that is heartbreaking this morning.
Some of you have lost a child, and there’s really no language for it. And so, I’m reminded again in the wake of this tragedy that we need to be careful about what we say in the midst of loss. Anyone’s loss, but especially with the loss of a child. Don’t say things like, “I guess God needed her more that you did.” Don’t say things like, “Well, she’s one of God’s angels now.” Don’t say things like, “It must have been God’s will.” There’s only one thing worse than a cliché, and it’s a religious cliché. It’s better to say nothing than to say something so simplistic and offensive.
When a tragedy like this happens, it requires us to recalibrate our faith. I no longer believe in an all-controlling God. I believe in God. I believe in a loving God. A caring God. An influencing, inviting, reaching-out kind of God. But not an all-controlling God. And so, I don’t think God caused that tragedy on Friday in order to accomplish some kind of greater good in the world. I don’t think God caused that tragedy on Friday in order to punish the sins of that community. I don’t even think God allowed it to happen. And I say that because I don’t believe God has the power to stop this kind of tragedy. God’s power is found in the human heart… inspiring people, persuading people, inviting people to a higher good in life, but, in the end, we are the ones who have the power to say yes or say no to God and to ourselves and to one another. And we are the ones who have the power to enact violence or stop it.
Was God at that school on Friday? I think the answer is yes. Not by stopping a twenty-year-old kid from shooting a gun. But God was there in the tears of grief and anguish, and those tears came from the reservoir of love. And God was there in the supportive embraces of that community. And God was there as that town gathered for prayer that night in a local church. And God was there in that teacher who pulled all her kids into a bathroom, and while listening to gunshots echoing over a school intercom, she was saying to the kids, “You’re going to be all right. I want you to know that I love all of you. You’re going to be all right.” She said it because if something had happened to any of her kids, she wanted them to leave this world knowing that they were loved. That’s God.
And so, my faith in God is not shaken today. Because I have seen an outpouring of love and compassion and kindness, and to me, that’s the work of God. On this third Sunday of Advent I’m reminded that God is forever “in-fleshing” God’s self into the human heart. Any time one human being reaches out to another human being with love and respect and kindness, God is born. Any time we lift up the fallen and heal the broken and welcome the stranger, God is born. And it’s still happening in our world two thousand years after the birth of Jesus. My faith in God is strong today, but I’ll tell you where it is not so strong – and this is just me and I’m not asking anyone to agree with me – but my faith in America isn’t so strong today. And I’ll tell you why…
I think we have become a gun-obsessed culture. And it has become so easy for people to access guns and ammunition and weapons that no civilian really needs to have. And so, Newtown happens, or Portland happens, or Aurora happens, or Virginia Tech happens, or Columbine happens… and, for a few days, people grieve and question and raise the issue of guns in America. But as best I can tell, there is no political will to address the situation. And frankly, I’m sick and tired of hearing the cliché, “Guns don’t kill; people kill.” Okay. That’s true. People do kill. But people kill with guns, and it keeps happening more and more and more because they are so readily available. And not just in massacres like we saw on Friday. Guns are changing the landscape of communities, one domestic dispute at a time. And it typically is the woman who is the victim. We have a gun problem in this country, and I happen to think that there’s a way to curb guns without infringing on the rights of sportsmen and hunters.
But there’s something else I’m thinking about today… and it’s that we live in a culture saturated with images and narratives and metaphors of violence. I believe in freedom of speech. And I believe in artistic freedom. But I’m not sure any of us really know what we’re doing to young people when they are exposed at such an early age to images of video game violence and movie violence and television violence. It’s one thing when violence is part of the story, fine, but it’s another thing when violence is the story. When violence becomes our entertainment and entertainment becomes our violence, how can it not diminish our view about what is sacred and good and beautiful in the human experience? You take a gun-obsessed culture and a violence-saturated culture – I mean, really – where do we think it’s going to take us?
There’s one other thought I want to share, and I think it’s important to think about… It was through my religious faith, especially in graduate school, that I learned to honor the complexity of the human person. We are mind, body, and soul, and there is an intertwining relationship between spirituality and psychology and who we are as women and men. We have learned so much over the past 50 years about mental health and psychological health and brain research, and all of it can help us function better in this world. But there is so much we still do not know. There are troubled people in this world. There are troubled children and adolescents in this world. And it’s not easy, but somehow we have to find better ways of connecting people to better mental health services.
Let’s admit it: there is still a stigma attached to mental illness. Someone breaks a leg, we comprehend it. Someone needs a surgery, we totally get it. But when a person is depressed, or when a person is bi-polar, or when a person has a borderline personality disorder, we still, to this day, we still push that person to the edges of life. I don’t know anything about the perpetrator of this awful event in Newtown, Connecticut. Surely more will come to the surface in the next few weeks. But in our society today, a twenty-year-old is barely more than a kid himself, and he desperately needed help. Oh, how the world might have been different today had he gotten connected to some help.
I’m like everyone else today. I don’t know what to say. I can’t begin to explain this horrible tragedy. But these are some thoughts. I guess I sort of realize now that this sermon isn’t much of a sermon at all; it’s more like a prayer than it is any explanation.
It’s ironic, isn’t it, that of all the Sundays in the church year, today we have lighted an Advent candle for joy? What does that mean? Well, it means for me that joy always arrives with some sorrow in the world. If we think we can have a life of joy without any sorrow or brokenness or anxiety, well, we’re going to be waiting a long time. But it also reminds me that if we have a candle of joy to light, then we better light it today. Don’t wait until tomorrow. Light it today. And if you love someone, don’t wait until tomorrow to love him or her. Love that person today. And if you have children or grandchildren, don’t wait until tomorrow to embrace them and enjoy them. Do it today. Because if joy is here today, then we better light that candle every chance we get.
Friends, it’s been a hard week for America. And our prayers are with those families that lost loved ones. But I can’t think of anything more joyful and more life-affirming than having a few of our kids come into this sanctuary right now because they want to sing for you this morning. I want you to appreciate them today like there’s no tomorrow. I want you to appreciate one another like there’s no tomorrow. Because, as we learned this week, sometimes “no tomorrow” is what really happens. I love you all. Thank you for being such a good church. Amen.