Sandy Hook Sermon
The Gospel Reading: Luke 3:7-18
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”
In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?”
He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”
Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,
John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Like many of you,
I spent Friday in tears.
Just thirty miles from where we are,
In a quiet Connecticut elementary school,
Twenty irreplaceable children lost their lives.
Six irreplaceable adults were killed.
Several courageous women literally sacrificed themselves
trying to protect the children in their care.
A mother was killed by her son in her own home.
A troubled twenty-year-old man ended his life in a day of terror.
As we think of the children crouching quietly in closets and cupboards
Or lying lifeless on the floor,
As we see their parents’ faces twisted with sorrow,
Their bodies slumped in the ancient postures of grief,
We are once again visited by a familiar weight
that descends on our chests and halts our breathing.
Sobs catch in our throats and stifle our speech.
Tears keep falling as fast as we can wipe them away.
We don’t know how to pray.
We don’t know what to do.
And as we grieve, the story follows a familiar script.
Of course the gunman was a white male with a history of mental disturbance.
Of course the semi-automatic weapons were legal.
Of course the reporters will cross-examine shell-shocked survivors,
Pushing their microphones into the stunned faces of children.
Friends and family members will struggle to find words
While pundits weigh in with easy explanations.
Some talking heads will blame the media for glorifying violence.
Some will say there should have been even more guns.
Mike Huckabee will blame the lack of prayer in schools.
Facebook and twitter feeds will fill with memorials,
Just like they always do.
The terrible rupture of massacre has become a familiar ritual.
It is an everyday apocalypse.
It is a regular revelation
that life as we know it is as fragile as an eggshell.
The tragedy was painfully close to home.
But it was nothing new.
We have been here so many times before.
Just this year, in 2012 alone,
Men with guns opened fire
At a mall in Oregon.
A house of worship in Wisconsin.
A movie theater in Colorado.
A bar in Alabama.
A coffee shop in Seattle.
A college in Oakland.
A clinic in Pittsburgh.
A courthouse in Tulsa.
A high school in Ohio.
Like the terror of domestic violence,
The crucifixion of lynching,
Or the brutality of bombs raining down from the sky,
Massacre transforms the everyday places of our lives
Into scenes of devastation.
It is our American nightmare,
A bad dream that we wake up to the next day
And every day after.
Massacre is the bitter fruit of our national sins of omission:
The fruit borne of the mental illnesses we fail to treat
And the automatic weapons we fail to control.
We live in urgent times.
As John the Baptist says in today’s gospel:
“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.
Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit
is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
What will become of us as a nation
If we keep bearing this bitter fruit?
We are witnesses to the devastation.
And once again,
We find ourselves caught between urgent calls to public action
And encouragements to take comfort in private grief and our everyday lives.
This summer, after the shooting in a Colorado movie theater,
When millions clamored for a conversation about mental illness and gun violence,
President Obama said, “There are going to be other days for politics.
This is a time for prayer and reflection.”
He told us that what matters
is “what we do on a daily basis
to give our lives meaning and to give our lives purpose.”
On Friday, when people demanded a discussion
about regulating automatic weapons,
White House spokesperson Jay Carney said,
“Now is not the time to have a conversation about gun control.”
Instead he advocated “sympathy” and “support.”
Later a crowd of protestors gathered outside the White House,
Holding signs that said “#NOW IS THE TIME.”
In times like these,
Some of us may feel strongly pulled towards one response or the other.
Some of us are galvanized by seeing sin on a national scale
And in life and death terms.
We want to take our grief and rage and use it to change the world.
Like the parents of Trayvon Martin,
Like the families of the girls who died in the church bombing in Birmingham,
Like the mother of Emmett Till,
We see the needless murder of our children as part of a pattern of national violence,
A pattern that must be broken.
But others of us are appalled by the idea of using these stories of loss
As fuel for a political fire.
My little sister is one of them.
This year the little girl she had been raising as her own
was returned to the foster care system.
It wasn’t a death,
but it was still the loss of her only child.
my sister wrote a message on facebook
asking people not to rush to politicize the tragedy in Newtown.
She gave me permission to share it with you today.
My sister wrote:
I don’t have a problem with people wanting to prevent horrible things from happening. I won’t have a problem if this causes people to take a hard, honest look at guns in this country. I do have a problem when news is still breaking about a situation as heart-breaking as this, and people try to drown it out with link after link to statistics. When it’s still just sinking in what a horrible position these parents are in who had no idea their children were dead, raced to the school to bring them home, and were told what happened. When pictures of them crumpling by their cars after someone gave them the worst news they’ll ever receive in their lives are still surfacing, that people try to drown out that sorrow with rant after rant about one position or another on gun control. Yes, we will have to talk about it, we have to act, but we have to feel it first.
I never lost a child like this, but the pain of “losing” babygirl is still with me every day. Some days it’s almost crippling. I can’t fully compare the two, but I do know that some days I just want the world to go away. I don’t want Christmas to happen without her. That’s all I can think about. I know most people are feeling the sadness of these families, and parents especially are feeling it, but I just want people to stop and think about *it*.
Having babygirl in my life, and seeing the things that took her away from me, does make me want to change things. But, I needed time to break, and grieve, before I knew if I was even able to carry on, let alone change anything. I have to do something, I have to move on, but sometimes pain is heaped on what you’re already feeling when you see the rest of the world treating it as a thing or a talking point, and not thinking of it in terms of lives, your life, your heart.
I am taking my sister’s words to heart.
A couple of my friends have a bumper sticker on their car
That says: Don’t Mourn. Organize.
It’s an old slogan, and a strong one, but it’s a little too simple.
My sister is suggesting a different approach.
She says: before we organize, we need to mourn.
I suspect many of us are pulled in both of these directions at once.
We want to act immediately to prevent further bloodshed,
But we feel a need to turn off the televisions and pray and reflect.
We can’t bear to think that these children have died in vain,
But we long to take refuge in familiar relationships and rituals.
We feel the need to do something decisive,
But we also want to attend a candlelight vigil and then return to our routines
And take comfort in doing our jobs and loving the people in our lives.
At times like these, we are asking
Like the crowds asked John the Baptist:
“What then should we do?”
The answer, according to John the Baptist,
is that we need to need to do both.
We need to hold together in tension these two perspectives on our lives:
The apocalyptic urgency of mass destruction and the coming Kingdom
and the everyday routine of our jobs.
The comfort and boredom of our daily lives,
And the fierce urgency of now,
Of this terrible moment.
One of the most important messages of Advent
Is NOW IS THE TIME.
And when we see pictures of the gun-control protests
We need to imagine John the Baptist standing in the wilderness
Holding a sign saying:
“NOW IS THE TIME.
Tomorrow is way too late to prepare the day of the Lord.”
John wants us to be shaken up.
He wants us to motivated by desperate problems
And glorious possibilities.
He wants us to be shocked out of ordinary time.
But he also wants us to return our daily lives
And see them as part of our preparation for the coming of Jesus.
When the crowds asked him what to do,
He told them:
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none,
And whoever has food must do likewise.
Do your job fairly.
Be satisfied with your wages.”
This is the work of Advent too.
Even in an Apocalypse,
People are cold and hungry
And you have to go to work.
In offices and kitchens,
In shelters and food banks, we must prepare the way of the Lord.
I lived this tension between extremity and the everyday on Friday.
I spent the afternoon crying and signing petitions,
And then I spent the evening hanging out with my goddaughter Miriam.
Miriam is one year younger than Charlotte and Olivia and Ana and Madeleine
who were in the first grade at Sandy Hook Elementary.
On Friday night I went over to Miriam’s house
and she lit her Advent candles and Hannukah candles
And ate some Hannukah gelt.
Then we painted our fingernails red and green for the holidays
And put some ballerina stickers in her sticker book.
Then I came home and wept some more and read about the Second Amendment.
And all the rest.
In the name of our God
Who is both a grieving Parent
And a murdered Son
We lift up your names.
We pray for mercy on your souls
And on all who love you.
Because of you,
We return to our daily lives with a new sorrow,
A new purpose,
A new depth and urgency of affection for each other.
Because of you,
We are ever more desperate to participate in the remaking of our nation
and of the world:
To prepare for the day
When we will finally be set free from our sins and fears,
When every tear will be wiped away,
When every weapon will be broken asunder,
And all people shall see the salvation of our God.
Briallen Hopper is editor of KtB, and author of Hard to Love: Essays And Confessions (Bloomsbury, 2019). She teaches writing at Queens College, City University of New York, and holds a PhD in English from Princeton. Learn more at her website, www.briallenhopper.com, or follow her on Twitter @briallenhopper.