Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Third Sunday of Advent – December 16, 2012
This is not the sermon I wrote on Friday. Oh, I think it was a pretty decent one and made some valuable points. But then the news flashed on my computer: gun suspected in school building. Alarming, but sadly not all that unusual. Haven’t we had a similar scare in Norwalk? “I’m sure everything will be fine,” I thought and prayed. “It’s quiet Newtown—the quiet community from which a group of farmers came to found the Orthodox Church in Danbury of which I was pastor.
The story unfolded: shots heard, people feared wounded—and numbers started appearing. Finally, the horror, the unthinkable, unimaginable: violence, a young man with guns targeting innocent children and teachers and causing the death of 27 people.
The calendar today calls on us to observe “Gaudete Sunday” which means “rejoice.” We should be in joyful rose vestments and be lighting the pink candle on the Advent wreath—anticipating the festivities of Christmas. There are times, however, when life events and the weight of the human heart trump liturgical correctness. So we have altered the liturgy to be in sync with our thoughts and feelings. The Great Thanksgiving, the prayer that leads us into Communion, is one especially written in times of senseless tragedy. You will not find it in your service leaflet but do listen to it.
There are no words I can offer to even begin to make any sense of what happened in Newtown. I am not even going to try. And the buzz word of the scriptures today seem cruel and disrespectful of what occurred in Sandy Hook: Rejoice. Rejoice. Rejoice. How can anyone “rejoice” in the face of such anguish, pain, devastation, shock, outrage, and blatant evil?
Rather my mind turns to the passage from the Prophet Jeremiah:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
It is the scripture appointed for the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 29 a day, like today, that focuses our attention on the slaughter of innocent children by the design of pure unadulterated evil. Thousands of babies were killed by the demonic King Herod.
Oscar Wild once said: “Agitators are a set of interfering people who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community and sow the seeds of discontent among them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary.”
Perhaps the one appropriate text we heard today is the Gospel and the annual appearance of John the Baptist speaking of repentance and urging us to change our behavior using the strongest of language. He was an agitator and eventually was killed because of the discomfort he brought to people.
John the Baptist was a second cousin of Jesus, but you would not have found him preaching in the big downtown synagogue. You would have had to go out into the wilderness to get a sermon like John’s. And who would tramp there to hear his hell, fire and brimstone preaching? Multitudes. Hordes. Huge crowds. Why?
Fleming Rutledge, one of the first women to be ordained in the Episcopal Church, preaching at the National Cathedral in Washington once offered this perspective: “Oddly, of all the seasons of the year, Advent preaching is the easiest, at least in my opinion. Why is that? It is because Advent is about a world in darkness, and it is not at all difficult to show that this is a world of darkness, certainly not at this period in our history. Advent is therefore a season in which to help one another to face up to the truth about the human race in general and also the truth about ourselves.”
I think John attracted droves of people because they knew he was speaking with integrity and they knew he was speaking the truth about the human race—and about us. John was a prophet and prophets often speak in hyperbole and with alarming language—to get our attention.
“What should we do?” we might ask as did the crowds who came to hear John preach. Can we face some hard truths in the wake of yesterday’s tragedy? Will those 28 lives speak to the powers that be in our nation, to the powerful NRA? Will they become the prophetic voices that make this society change the way people think about gun possession? That people with the evilest of intentions, people who are seriously emotionally damaged, people with rabid hatred have access semiautomatic weapons.
Or will their voices be as silent as the voices of the Amish children and the teens at Columbine and the students at Virginia Tech who were also slaughtered? Is our constitutional entitlement to own guns more important to us than God’s law that we care for and protect the most vulnerable among us—that we do whatever it takes to keep our children safe? And do we recognize that when that amendment was included the weapons were knives, swords and muskets—not semiautomatic guns?
Can we be bold enough to ban or at least not buy video games that make sport of killing and make their designers wealthy while we offer our kids a form of entertainment that glorifies murder—no matter who the target might be? Can we address the division in our country that has given birth to angry rhetoric and that feeds off of intolerance and what often approaches a raging hatred of those who are different? Do we see the immorality in spending 100 million dollars on a political campaign when funding for the care of those with mental health issues like Adam Lanza is woefully lacking?
“Agitators are a set of interfering people who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community and sow the seeds of discontent among them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary.” I am deeply sad that I need to be an agitator this morning and to bring words of discomfort rather than consolation, but I could not reconcile doing otherwise in the face of the images in my head of parents still waiting for their dead children to be identified, Christmas presents that will never be opened and enjoyed, empty chairs at holiday dinner tables, the 27 funerals that will occur in this next week before Christmas.
That’s about all I can do just now because I still can’t make any sense of this tragedy. But I know in my heart that those innocent babies and their brave teachers are now in the warm and tender embrace of their Mother/Father God who made them and loves them; that God weeps…deep wails of tears…for those they have left behind and for a world in which something like this is even possible. And that may just have to be enough.