The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School has struck at the heart of many of us. As I said in my Sunday sermon, I don’t have many answers, but I humbly offer the text of my sermon here in hopes it will help someone in this very difficult and dark time of discernment. It’s a little long for a blog, but here it is…
Have you ever seen the pictures of the Cathedral of the Nativity where it is said Jesus was born? It is an ancient and beautiful place of worship adored by Christians for centuries. You walk behind the chancel area, around a corner near the altar and there are steps you descend into the grotto, the cave that tradition says was the manger of Bethlehem. In that small space, on the floor is a star, the very place tradition says where the Christ child was placed in the hay. I am told that in that same large church that commemorates Jesus’ birth there is small chapel seldom seen by the crowds and in that tiny chapel are some small tombs — the tombs of the innocents of Bethlehem: a reminder that there are monsters in the dark even at Christmas.
We forget that. We forget, most of us, that there is darkness surrounding Christmas and that there are monsters in that dark. Most of us most years try very hard to avoid that reality. We skip over the minor-keyed hymns of Advent that speak of sin and repentance. We fill our December days with happy moments — shopping, time with friends and family, glowing lights on the tree. We sing of the little baby born and view beautiful Christmas cards with pastoral scenes of shepherds and angels. And we sometimes forget why that little child was born to us. We forget that we are a world in darkness, so very desperate for light.
We forget, that is, until we witness the events of this past Friday and the tragedy that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut as one young man walked in and began shooting. Today, we mourn the loss of 20 children and 8 adults. And suddenly the world we thought we lived in has grown dark and dangerous.
This week we have been reminded that we are in a world of darkness. Let me remind you that there was darkness in that first Christmas and even monsters in the dark.
There was king named Herod who did not feel so happy about this child born in a manger. He wanted no rival. And he would go to great lengths to ensure his own power, his own authority would be unchallenged. He had killed his own family members before and now he has every boy-child of the right age murdered. This is the world that Jesus was born into, a world full of darkness.
In the dark, it is so easy to be afraid. Friday afternoon, I noticed when I picked up Emma from school there were quite a few more parents in the schoolyard waiting for the bell to ring. Many, like me, just wanted to give their little one a hug I am sure. I am also sure that many, like me, were afraid. if this could happen in a little town in Connecticut, what is stopping it from happening in a little town in Wyoming? That is the horror of such violence… it makes no sense. Why this school? Why this child? Why this day? It seems so random, out of control.
At this point, many of us struggle for some answers, for something to make sense. We want to know more. We want to know why. And some answers may come in the days ahead, but knowing more will not take away the pain. This is darkness. As your pastor, what I want to say is that it is o.k. to not have the answers. This is darkness. As your pastor, what I want to say is that it is ok to be angry. I am angry. As a parent, I not only grieve, but I am angry in ways I cannot express. I understand the rage the Psalmist expresses toward God and toward those that have hurt him. It is ok to be angry, but do not let your anger become hatred. I ask you, as Jesus commanded us, to pray for our enemies. I ask you to pray for the soul of Adam Lanza.
I do not have many answers for you this morning. I have only one that I believe with my whole heart. The tragedy of Friday in Sandy Hook elementary was not God’s will. It was not God’s will that innocents should die in Bethlehem long ago nor that innocents should die in Newtown, Connecticut or anywhere in the world. The death of innocents is darkness and God is Light. It is because events like this can still happen is why Jesus came. To bring Light into the world of darkness until the day that darkness shall end.
The tragedy of Friday was not God’s will nor do I believe God abandoned the people of Newtown. This weekend I have been reminded of some very wise words by Mr. Rogers:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” ~Fred Rogers
The Light of God and the will of God shine in the lives of the helpers. And in spite of the terrible evil we saw on Friday and have seen many times before, there have been the helpers. There have been those that have helped, and prayed, and given and come forward to show that while there is darkness, there is still light and hope and, yes even joy in this world.
This is not the sermon I was going to give today. Originally, our Advent was going to be about the songs of Christmas, looking at how even some of the secular songs of the holiday have echoes of the good news Emmanuel’s birth. We were going to listen to “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” and reflect on Joseph’s dreams, talk about our own dreams too, and wonder what even greater things God may be dreaming for us. I did find a song however that has helped me as we have endured this nightmare. It is a poem by Henry Wadswroth Longfellow. And it begins like this:
I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
It speaks of our deepest desires ringing in the bells, peace on earth, good will to all. But then night comes upon the poet and he falls into despair.
And in despair I bowed my head:
‘There is no peace on earth, ‘ I said
‘For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.’
But that is not the end of his song, nor is it the end of ours as we wait in the dark.
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.’
The wrong shall fall, the right prevail with peace on earth, good will to men. Advent is a strange time to live, we wait in the dark, knowing that light will come. We wait in darkness. It is night and there are monsters in the dark. At midnight there is nothing we can do to make the dawn come faster. But Dawn is coming. Light will shine. That is our hope. The hope of Advent.
…The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.’
Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
May call to you: Be the bells of Christmas. Be the light of a candle that waits for the dawn. Following 9/11, a television commentator asking a religious leader, “What do parents tell their children when they come home from school today?”
The Rabbi’s answer: First, shut off the TV. Second, gather at the table tonight and share a meal. Make space for questions. You don’t have to have an answer, simply give the gift of listening. Then if you are a family of faith, say a prayer… Pray for the victims. Pray for the ones that caused this terrible deed. Next light a candle. Tell your children that this horrible event was planned in the dark.Let your children and teenagers know they are the light. Keep gathering, listening, praying and lighting a candle. Each and every day as your sons and daughters leave the house, remind then they are the light in the world that helps the world and a community heal.
Be the bells of Christmas. Sing the songs of peace on earth, good will to all. It is night and there is weeping but the dawn is coming and with it joy. Let us wait for it together.
Rev. Jeff Rainwater, December 16, 2012
Below is Casting Crown’s version of Longfellow’s poem… one of my favorite modern versions of these powerful words.