Well beloved, it’s been a tough, tragic week of horrendous happenings. Like every other person in America, nay, across the world, with an ounce of human feeling for others in us, we have been shocked to the core, and our hearts are heavy with sorrow and grief. Moreover, I suspect that many of us feel a great deal of anger that someone could take out his anger and rage on helpless, innocent 6 and 7 year olds, and their teachers who tried to protect them. It’s not that we have made God in our own image, but that we are made in the image of God that makes me believe with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind, that God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break; that a cartoon of Santa Claus sitting in his sleigh with his hands covering his face, weeping, is an image that may correspond to a sobbing God, but not that God is Santa Clause fulfilling all our petty greedy wants.
Mike Huckabee’s self-righteous peroration that the events in Sandy Hook happened because God had been taken out of the schools (I presume he means because the children no longer say the Lord’s Prayer) is as insane as the young man who perpetrated the killings. God, in my mind, was in that school, and is still in that school, whether the state supported the daily offering of a Christian prayer or not. If you believe in the omni-presence of God throughout the whole created order, no law can take God out of anywhere.
What Huckabee, I suppose, was really getting at is the moral decay of society. He and I would differ on the causes of that moral decay. He thinks it is because kids don’t pray in school. Interestingly, the Supreme Court decision that removed public prayer from schools occurred in the same year that 98% of American households had at least 1 TV in their home. Now most houses have a TV in the majority of the rooms of the house. So I’m inclined to think that the glorification of violence on TV, in the movies, and in video games—and, on a theological front, the popular fundamentalist emphasis on the atonement and salvation through the blood of the cross, making that ancient violence redemptive—has had more to do with the moral decay of our society than anything else. Somewhere along the line we Christians lost the beautiful concept of the incarnation that God became like us so that we could become more like God. We will never understand the rage that could drive someone to murder innocent children and their teachers. But that young man was going to show the world how angry he really was, so he took a weapon designed not for sport or target shooting, but for mass murder on the fields of battle, loaded with bullets designed to do maximum damage to living tissue, and slaughtered 12 little girls and 8 little boys, and 6 teachers, plus his mother and himself, but I sincerely doubt that his rage had anything to do with the absence, or presence, of prayer in his life.
The question for us this morning, on this Gaudete Sunday when we are called to rejoice is this: How can we have joy when there is such pain in our country and the world in these days? I believe that we light the candles because of our faith. Christmas comes to declare that the Herods of this world who set the Rachels to weeping for her babies do not and cannot have the ultimate power. We light candles to remind us of God’s light that always shines in the darkness. Yes, we will light a candle of joy because even in the midst of tragedy, we have the joy of knowing we are not alone in this world. This is not the holly jolly cultural Christmas joy but the deep abiding joy of knowing that we are God’s beloved. We will sing our song of faith in the wilderness of our pain. We will light candles in defiance of darkness. We will hug and love our children and we will raise them up to believe the best in human beings and the best in themselves. We live as God’s people of faith.
Joy is the great theme and mood of Christmas, and underlies all the waiting and anticipation of Advent. On this Gaudete Sunday in Advent, Zephaniah tells the people of Israel to rejoice—that despite all outward appearances—God has not abandoned them. In fact, the prophet goes so far as to describe God as rejoicing and exulting over God’s beloved people. Paul, from prison, writes to the Philippians to get their “joice” together, and to rejoice always!
Joy, unselfish joy, was what the crowds saw in John the Baptizer. The cynics, the narrow-minded, the arrogant who thought that they alone constituted God’s chosen because they had Abraham as their father, were not able to see it in the Baptizer, especially when he called them a brood of vipers. I would suggest to you that John would be calling many, if not most varieties Christians today a brood of vipers for their claims that only right belief and absolute certitude about who is saved and isn’t saved gives them their security. John says to them, as he said to those long ago, God will still raise up faithful people even when your ideas have been destroyed by the ax of history or modernity. The issue for John is not orthodox heritage, but that unselfish joy which delights in the gladness of others. Joy, it would seem, starts chain reactions of magnanimity, generosity of heart and purse, open friendliness, compassion…not fear so huge that one must carry a concealed deadly weapon. Joy is infectious.
Joy is a much neglected virtue. It doesn’t mean simpering sentimental sappiness, but it is a core attitude toward life, albeit tempered by realism but not driven to pessimism, because joy springs from hope, from a conviction that things do not have to be as they are. Hope, Augustine taught us, has two lovely daughters: Anger at the way things are; and Courage to see that things do not remain as they are. Only the truly joyful understand how hope insists that we take a dim view of the present only because we hold a bright view of the future, not a predictable future, to be sure, but a preferred future for which we can work and pray and suffer because hope arouses, as nothing else can, as my friend Bill Coffin always said, “a passion for the possible.” “Just as all the water in the sea cannot sink a boat unless it gets inside; so all the despair in the world cannot bring you under unless it seeps into your soul.” [Bill Coffin, in an Advent Sermon in 1984]
Joy and hope, with anger and courage become a powerful spiritual catalyst providing energy for action. Some have said that “now is not the time to discuss how we need to change”; now is the time for grief. My friends, I am sick and tired of grieving over the death of innocents. It is past time we did something about the idolatry of guns in our country. As someone else said this past weekend, if our bridges were collapsing, killing 28 people, we would do something about it. Just because we can’t stop every act of wanton violence doesn’t mean that we can’t reduce the numbers of victims of gun violence. I don’t want to weep for any more children. My grief erupts in anger that is based on hope and motivates me to action. When the Brady campaign tells us that there have been 94,000 people shot with a firearm in the past year, we no longer have a problem, we have an epidemic. As a beginning, there are three things need to be done, immediately, while this horrific event is still fresh, and so that those precious Sandy Hook kindergarten children have not died in vain: 1) the loopholes that allow 40% of the guns sold in America without a background check must be closed; 2) we need adequate federal funding to computerize the records in every state of persons who have been adjudicated as unfit to purchase or own a firearm; and 3) we need to restore the ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004, and also ban the sale of multi-bullet ammunition clips. There is much more that needs to be done, but these three matters could at least reduce the numbers of deadly incidents such as we have witnessed this past year from Aurora, Colorado, to the Sikh Temple in Michigan, to the merciless slaughter of children and teens in Chicago, to this most recent nightmare.
We light candles in Advent to put up light in the darkness, because we believe that we personally and the world can be different, that it can be better, more beautiful, more just, more peaceful. As Disciples of Christ, we believe that Jesus came not to die for our sins, but to show us how to live with hope and joy. God became Emmanuel “God with us”, so that we could become more like God. Rejoice! Hope! Act! Amen.