The Slaughter of the Innocents

The following is a sermon I preached in the aftermath of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012. I had meant to publish it at that time, but for some reason did not. Now, in light of the massacre in Las Vegas, it seems appropriate. Unfortunately.

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As is likely with many, many pastors across America and even around the world, yesterday I found myself faced with the need to prepare a new message for today. For after the tragic events in Newtown, CT, it is not possible to preach the Advent message I had planned. The general theme of our Advent series is “Worshipping the God Who Comes,” and as I will emphasize later, the fact of his coming is our ultimate hope and comfort. But we must not go there too soon.

I did not hear of the murders until late Friday night, and did not read about the details until Saturday morning, in a New York Times article entitled “Nation Reels After Gunman Massacres 20 Children at School In Connecticut”. Immediately after reading what horrific details were then available, I wrote two prayers in my journal. The first prayer was a lament and a plea for guidance:

O God. O God. How can we take it? How can you take it? I am trying to think clearly about what to say/do in tomorrow’s message. I cannot pass by it in silence, but should I devote my message to it? It seems so antithetical to the spirit of Christmas – to the joy, hope, festivity, happiness and good will that marks the season. Comfort ye, O comfort ye, your people! We wanted this day to be one of joy for our congregation, not a lament. Can it be both? My God, give me wisdom to decide.

And then followed this . . .

I am numb.
I want to go on as if nothing has happened.
I want to laugh, and tell jokes, and think positive thoughts.
I want to wrap Christmas presents.
I want to preach an inspiring sermon tomorrow, not recall the day the music died.
I want everyone to be healthy, happy and hopeful.
I want twenty-eight people to be alive who are not.
I want their families to be joyful, not mournful.
I want to edit out yesterday from history.
It was a mistake. Let’s do a re-take.
I want to re-play the last 20 years of Adam Lanza’s life.
From the day he was born to the day before yesterday.
I want him to know every day of his life how precious he is.
How loved he is.
How much goodness God wants to pour into and through his life.
I want to shield him from all evil.
I want his family to be intact.
Loving parents, living together, protecting and nurturing two precious sons.
I want him to live in a violence-free world.
I want it all to go away.

How long, O Lord, how long?
Christ have mercy.
Father, forgive us. We know not what we are doing.

By the time I finished with the second prayer, I felt fairly certain that my message must address the shootings in a way that is both honest and hopeful. Here are the words that came:

We must be honest. We must be free to speak the question. To say it out loud. To scream it out loud: ‘Where was God!?’

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.

Do you hear the question on this mans’ face? “God, where are you?! How could you let this happen . . . again? God, what are you doing?!”
I think I know the answer. At least part of the answer. It is captured in a song by an artist named Eli. The song is entitled, “God weeps too.” Here are the lyrics:

So this is for the man who never learned to read or write.
He worked two jobs instead of going to school.
I know it hurt you as a child.
Please remember all the while
that God weeps too.

And this is for the widow who now must sleep alone
when the memory of a kiss will have to do.
Every night when she lays down
you can almost hear the sound
when God weeps too.
God weeps too.
God weeps too.

Though we question him for all that we go through,
still it helps me believe and my pain it does relieve when I think that
God weeps too.
And for every survivor of the wickedness of man
Whether you’re a black man or a Jew –
Some people kill in Jesus name;
He is not the one to blame
‘cause even God weeps too
God weeps too.
God weeps too.
Though we question him for all that we go through,
still it helps me believe and my pain it does relieve
when I think that God weeps too.
God weeps too.

And I never really thought about it,
not that much about it,
but God weeps too.
“God weeps too” by Eli. From the album Things I Prayed For (1998)

While these lyrics do not speak specifically of the kind of tragedy we have been confronted with in Newtown, they do speak an important truth. The seasons of Advent & Christmas are reminder that God is not a distant, uninvolved spectator of the human drama. Jesus—Emmanuel, God with us—wept, and there is no reason to think that God does not still weep.

When I heard of the shootings and thought about the fact that they occurred less than two weeks before Christmas, my mind went to the events recorded in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, when Herod, incensed that the wise men had tricked him and left without revealing the whereabouts of the baby Jesus, responded in what can only be called cold-blooded insanity, in what is called the slaughter of the innocents:

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “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.” (Matthew 2:16-18)And now there has been wailing and loud lamentation in Newton, CT, where another slaughter of innocents has taken place, and where there are many who today and possibly for a long time, possibly for a lifetime, are not going to be consoled.

And so God weeps.

But the God who weeps does not only weep. He acts. He comes. And He comforts.
And he ultimately overcomes all the darkness, all the grief and pain, and wipes away all tears.

We associate Christmas with Handel’s Messiah. Handel drew heavily, of course, from the prophet Isaiah. Hear these words from the 40th chapter:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem . . . A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 40:1-2a, 3-5)

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm [23] rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; [And listen to these last words of verse 11:] he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. (Isaiah 40:9-11)

There is healing in God’s arms, I believe that God has gathered 20 lambs into his arms, and is even now gently comforting both their mother and father sheep.
A day coming when all will be made well. It is the day that the first coming of Christ inaugurated, and whose second coming will complete.

That day has not yet come. It will come, but it has not come. And so, as the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us,

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh.
A time to mourn, and a time to dance. (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4)

Now is such a time when we are called to mourn with those who mourn.

But mourning is not the last word. Mourning is not the last word.
Robbie Parker, father of 6 year-old Emilie Parker, who died in the attack, after tearfully describing Emilie as “bright, creative, and very loving,” added this: “as we move on from what happened here, what happened to so many people, let us not let it turn into something that defines us.”

No, this tragedy born of human sin and frailty, need not define us. For even in the midst of our mourning there is comfort from the God who not only weeps but comes. The God who came in Jesus Christ is the same God who now comes to comfort the families of the innocents, the family of the not-nearly-so-innocent, our nation and of the world.

It is a comfort born of hope . . .

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:1-5)

Now, may the God who comes, the God who is trustworthy and true, be our comfort, and even our joy.

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a novel idea: seek the truth

These thoughts were stimulated by a January 7, 2014 column by Thomas Sowell, which is linked below.

What if everyone–right, left, center, off-the-page–committed themselves to doing the best they can (I am sure my pronoun use here is incorrect) to 1) finding the truth and 2) speaking only the truth, regardless of the personal, social, or political repercussions of doing so? This would apply to all subjects – political, economic, religious, moral, etc. Actually, I am not sure it is possible for politicians to do this, as Thomas Sowell points out below, but for the rest of us, we owe it to ourselves, to our children and grandchildren, to our world, to our God, to lift high the banner of the quest for truth. This translates into serious self-discipline whereby we do not, in the words of Dallas Willard, “speak in tones that do not encourage doubt” on matters we merely have opinions about. Ask yourself questions like, “Why do I believe this?” “Do I have any good reason for doing so?” “Who are my authorities on this matter, and what are their qualifications?” “How certain am I on this matter?” “Why do those who disagree on this subject disagree?” “What’s at issue here?” And what’s at issue here, in what I am talking about, is the fact that if we give up on truth, then our only alternative is a politics of raw power, wherein ‘truth’ is what those with the most coercive influence say it is. Hello Nietzsche.

Some honesty and humility would help. Let’s admit that we are all inclined at times to take cheap shots at the “enemy,” shots that consist of the thoughtless repetition of slogans and unfounded accusations and character assassinations. Some are more inclined than others, but we all know the temptation, and what it means to give in to it. Here the ancient wisdom of the book of James is pertinent: “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”  My tendencies lie in the opposite direction.

As I said above, I have my doubts about the capacity of the political class to actually care about the truth. This seems to be the case with New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, as Sowell points out in this column on the “trickle-down” bogey man . . .

http://jewishworldreview.com/cols/sowell010714.php3#.Us1q__Z4e4w

I’ll be back

As my long silence demonstrates, it’s been a crazy busy Fall teaching two new courses at Denver Seminary while serving as the Intentional Interim Pastor at Mountain View United Methodist Church in Woodland Park, CO. I’m hopeful that I might be able to post more regularly next Spring. In the time being I am going to try to post something of substance every now and then, even if it is not my own writing. Today it will be a benediction by St. Francis de Sales which I find to be both deeply true and deeply satisfying.

Be at peace.
Do not look forward in fear to the changes of life;
rather look to them with full hope as they arise.
God, whose very own you are,
will deliver you from out of them.
He has kept you hitherto,
and He will lead you safely through all things;
and when you cannot stand it,
God will bury you in his arms.

Do not look forward to what might happen tomorrow;
the same everlasting Father who takes care of you today,
will take care of you tomorrow, and every day.
Either He will shield you from suffering,
or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it.

Be at peace,
and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.

– St. Francis de Sales

On the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

While I have not made any progress in my study of the Catechism, I have been using an online resource for my morning prayers, a Catholic website called DivineOffice.org. Today is the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In good Protestant fashion, I am leary of “mariolatry.” But the entire set of readings and prayers are God-focused and Christ-centered, even while they recognize the virtue of Mary as a prototype of Christian faith and fruitfulness. Here are the words of the hymn that was sung:

Virgin-born, we bow before thee:
blessed was the womb that bore thee;
Mary, Mother meek and mild,
blessed was she in her Child.
Blessed was the breast that fed thee;
blessed was the hand that led thee;
blessed was the parent’s eye
that watched thy slumbering infancy.

Blessed she by all creation,
who brought forth the world’s salvation,
and blessed they, for ever blest,
who love thee most and serve thee best.
Virgin-born, we bow before thee;
blessed was the womb that bore thee;
Mary, Mother meek and mild,
blessed was she in her Child.

In addition to the several readings from the Psalms was a reading from a homily by the 7th century English monk, St. Bede. The title given the reading on the website is “Mary proclaims the greatness of the Lord working in her.” Notice the emphasis, which is squarely on Christ, Mary’s Lord and ours.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior. With these words Mary first acknowledges the special gifts she has been given. Then she recalls God’s universal favors, bestowed unceasingly on the human race.

“When a man devotes all his thoughts to the praise and service of the Lord, he proclaims God’s greatness. His observance of God’s commands, moreover, shows that he has God’s power and greatness always at heart. His spirit rejoices in God his savior and delights in the mere recollection of his creator who gives him hope for eternal salvation.

“These words are often for all God’s creations, but especially for the Mother of God. She alone was chosen, and she burned with spiritual love for the son she so joyously conceived. Above all other saints, she alone could truly rejoice in Jesus, her savior, for she knew that he who was the source of eternal salvation would be born in time in her body, in one person both her own son and her Lord.

“For the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. Mary attributes nothing to her own merits. She refers all her greatness to the gift of the one whose essence is power and whose nature is greatness, for he fills with greatness and strength the small and the weak who believe in him.

“She did well to add: and holy is his name, to warn those who heard, and indeed all who would receive his words, that they must believe and call upon his name. For they too could share in everlasting holiness and true salvation according to the words of the prophet: and it will come to pass, that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. This is the name she spoke of earlier: and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.

“Therefore it is an excellent and fruitful custom of holy Church that we should sing Mary’s hymn at the time of evening prayer. By meditating upon the incarnation, our devotion is kindled, and by remembering the example of God’s Mother, we are encouraged to lead a life of virtue. Such virtues are best achieved in the evening. We are weary after the day’s work and worn out by our distractions. The time for rest is near, and our minds are ready for contemplation.”

No mariolatry here. Only a humble recognition of her example, which we are called to emulate, especially her full and free submission to God’s will, captured in her “Let it be with me as you have spoken.” (Luke 1:38). Indeed, let it be so.

In the beginning . . .

This is the first installment of  the chronicle my study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This catechism was officially promulgated in 1997 by Pope John Paul II. According to the description of the Logos electronic version, which I am using, this is “the first ‘universal’ Catholic catechism since the Reformation, and only the second one in history.” That is remarkable in itself, given how many doctrinal statements Protestantism has produced in the last nearly 600 years. I do not know where this study will take me. I am open. Let it be.

First observation: Evangelical sentiments should be pleased with the following words found in the introduction of the Catechism. After describing the four-fold division of the Catechism (Creed, Sacred Liturgy, Christian way of life, Christian prayer), we read:

In reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church we can perceive the wonderful unity of the mystery of God, his saving will, as well as the central place of Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, sent by the Father, made man in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, to be our Savior. Having died and risen, Christ is always present in his Church, especially in the sacraments; he is the source of our faith, the model of Christian conduct, and the Teacher of our prayer.

Note the emphasis upon the centrality of Christ; there is no confusing the significance of Mary with that of Jesus.

Second observation: Lest we think that Catholicism is a religion of salvation by works, we find this:

Grace, the fruit of the sacraments, is the irreplaceable condition for Christian living, just as participation in the Church’s Liturgy requires faith. If faith is not expressed in works, it is dead (cf. Jas 2:14–16) and cannot bear fruit unto eternal life.

Is this not an echo of the biblical witness to the Christian way: we are saved by grace through a faith that is demonstrated by the way we live.

So far, so good.

with eyes wide open

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. It is particularly helpful for fiction writers, which I am not, but also contains some fertile insights for all writers – and non-writers as well. Here she is commenting on the value of keeping attentive to the world we inhabit:

There is ecstasy in paying attention. You can get into a kind of Wordsworthian openness to the world where you see in everything the essence of holiness, a sign that God is implicit in all of creation. Or maybe you are not predisposed to see the world sacramentally, to see everything as an outward and visible sign of an inward, invisible grace. This does not mean that you are a worthless Philistine. Anyone who wants to can be surprised by the beauty or pain of the natural world, of the human mind and heart . . . . If you start to look around, you will see.

Yes. To see God in the ordinary is to see the extraordinary God – the only god worth seeing. Certainly the only god worth trusting. Behold the anachronistic robin bob-bob-bobbin’ along in January, and be reminded of the God who surely cares more for you than all the birds of the air combined, in season and out. See through the window the brown, winter-dead flowers, and remember that all the springtime energy that went into creating their here-today-gone-tomorrow splendor is but a nano-droplet in the infinite bucket of God’s resources made available for all your needs.  Turn your fretting about hair loss into wonder that there is a God who had them all lovingly counted before the first follicle hung out its vacancy sign. And of course, we must not forget one of the most ordinary places to find God – in the toi toi. There we are reminded of the God who gives us, mercifully, a way to get rid of our dung: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

That last reminder was stimulated by another Lamottian insight:

To be engrossed by something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind, the mind that so frequently has its head up its own ass—seeing things in such a narrow and darkly narcissistic way that it presents a colo-rectal theology, offering no hope to anyone.

O, God of the Ordinary, help us to extract our heads and see life with new and hopeful eyes – with your eyes.

the darkness keeps trying . . .

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.” (The Gospel of St. John, 1:5)

But the darkness keeps trying. In case you haven’t noticed, there has been a deeply disturbing increase in what is being called “religious cleansing” in Muslim-majority countries like Iraq, Iran and Egypt. Today’s Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled, “Iran Targets Christians With a Wave of Arrests.” For the most part the leaders of the world have been silent in their condemnation. One welcome exception is French President Nicolas Sarkozy in his speech yesterday to a gathering of religious leaders.

Let us pray for our brothers and sisters  . . .  and for a public outcry against the attacks. And let us remember, that try as it may, the darkness does not, will not, can not overcome the Light.