What Should We Do?
A response to the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting.
What Should We Do?
Pastor Harvard Stephens, Jr.
Today I truly believe that God wants me to say something about the tragedy that occurred this past Friday in Newtown, CT, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. I had planned to speak about a lot of other things today, but I cannot avoid discussing the painful violence that has brought so many of us to tears, including even the President of the United States. What can we say about something so horrible, so shocking, and so senseless? 20 school children shot and killed, and all of them age 6 or 7; 12 girls, 8 boys. And also six teachers, all women, including Victoria Soto, age 26, who we have discovered was one of the brave people who took heroic steps to save the lives of her students. And also the mother of the shooter, who may have been the owner of the guns that were used. And then the shooter himself, whom I will not name this morning, whose violent actions only ended when he took his own life. All totaled, 28 people dead – and one man was responsible for all of this.
What I really want to lift up today, with Christmas only 12 days away, is the strange church festival that always falls between Christmas and New Year’s Day. It is the annual December 28 observance of The Holy Innocents, a day devoted to the story of what happened after the magi left Bethlehem and failed to tell the wicked king where he could find the baby Jesus. King Herod was furious. King Herod was afraid. King Herod wanted to do whatever it took to get rid of that little baby, because the prophets had warned him: a child is born who will take power from you. So Herod sent soldiers to kill all the baby boys in the city of Bethlehem. We assume that hundreds died because of Herod’s orders – but the baby Jesus was saved because his father Joseph took him and his mother away to Egypt. They departed in the middle of the night, and the Bible says they stayed in Egypt until the death of Herod.
The church also calls these children Holy Martyrs. The church celebrates their innocence and their great sacrifice – and especially the truth that unlike other martyrs in the history of our faith, these children had no choice. They did not speak up and make great speeches or pray great prayers in the face of those who came for them. They did not become the founders of new religious orders. We still do not know their names. But we remember them, because their story is a part of our salvation story. Just as in the time of Moses, their tragic loss reminds us of how far evil will go to disrupt the plans that God has set in motion.
So today, we come together in the name of Jesus Christ, with heavy hearts and with many unanswered questions. Once again, we believe that we have seen the face of evil – and whether or not the ongoing investigations lead the authorities to determine that this latest incident was a case of extreme mental illness, the work of a young psychopath, the desperate act of a fractured personality, or merely the senseless violence of a cowardly fool – whether a new theory emerges about why these things are happening today – whether this is linked sociologically to the Columbine massacre or the Aurora movie shootings – or even to the random violence that has brought our own community to far too many funerals and burials of innocent people caught in the crossfire of violence on our city streets — we must remember that God is calling us to open our hearts and lift our voices and move our feet and search our souls and gather up the best of our collective wisdom and join the struggle to find answers and solutions and responses that make sense and that refuse to allow the innocent to die in vain.
Shortly before this tragedy in Connecticut, one of my friends sent me an email link: 26 moments that restored our faith in humanity this year. It had lots of “feel good” stories, like the one about the parents who made their son’s wheelchair into the best Halloween costume ever. I couldn’t read them all, but I get the idea. There is still a lot of good to celebrate in our world. Did you know that one of the hymns we sing in the Lutheran church says simply:
Goodness is stronger than evil;
love is stronger than hate;
light is stronger than darkness;
life is stronger than death;
victory is ours through God who loves us.
All of this is on my mind today. What can we do at this moment in time to honor the name of the God who loves us? We can hug our children a little more tightly. We can become stronger advocates for our schools, public and private, and respond more generously when they tell us what they need to better serve our youth today. We can join the debates about gun control and violence – and we can weigh in on whatever position we hold right now – and still be willing to change in response to the reasoned arguments that may cause us to see this debate in a new way. We can recognize that violent entertainment keeps us desensitized to the impact of violent acts – and even if we feel that personally “it’s just entertainment” – there are always those who take it all to heart and who are not able to separate the art of a movie or video from the real life experience of human conflict and emotions. Sometimes we just have to admit that we have tolerated too much violence – and have not invested enough in presenting images and examples of what alternatives to violence actually look like and what it will cost us to support them.
I finally want to share with you an email from a couple who visited our church this past Wednesday and attended the 12:15 service. They wrote to us:
We were standing outside of the church admiring its beauty when we were approached by your members and invited in. Everyone was so welcoming and inviting – providing hellos, well wishes, and general kindness. It was so very comforting to be part of – and to feel that there is indeed Divine Intervention in our world and random acts of kindness committed by those looking to gain nothing but a smile. We so truly, truly appreciated the opportunity to attend, and we wanted to say thank you.
In light of all we’ve said this morning, this little email may not seem like much at all – except for this: the idea of kindness is mentioned several times. General kindness. Random acts of kindness. And kindness that gave them an opportunity to be a part of something positive and unexpected. These visitors called the kindness of a few people from our church a sign of divine intervention.
I realize now that we may not really expect for much change to happen regarding the violence all around us – unless we hear the voice of God calling us to join the struggle, to connect in some significant way with the battle for kindness to have more of an impact on the world around us. The prophet Micah said we should not only do what is just, but we should also love what is kind – and when the two come together, we will find ourselves walking humbly with our God. And if we are walking with God, then we do indeed become agents of divine intervention!
This is also what John the Baptist was saying, in his own way. Times are changing… and your religion will not save you – if you are not paying attention to the fruit that your faith produces. This kind of fruit is seen in our behavior, and in our choices, and in our commitments. This kind of fruit is recognized in the justice that we seek on behalf of those who are neglected, ignored, or oppressed. Fruit of this nature appears through the acts of kindness that we keep doing and keep encouraging. This fruit of our faith shows our willingness to take the love of Christ into the political arena and stand up to those who may well be full of evil, greed, and shallow thinking. This call to bear good fruit demands that we open our eyes and recognize exactly what John said. Let the one with two coats share with the one who has none. Let the one with food share with the one who has nothing to eat. Let the one with economic and political leverage stop taking more than you are entitled to and stop extorting money by using the force of your weapons and your positions of power.
The one coming after me is more powerful than I am — isn’t that good news? These words not only point us to the coming of Jesus, but they also remind us that as we work together to prepare the world for his coming, we find that we do have power ourselves. We should remember and trust that we are agents of divine intervention that can truly make a difference in the struggle for peace on our streets and peace in our hearts. We are not without power, and Jesus wants us to use our power, so that his greater power can complete the good that we strive to accomplish. And at the same time, even if our works of faith seem at first to be weak and hopeless – they still represent the power of God’s living word – and God has promised us just like God promised John: someone more powerful is coming after me.
Church, you are meant to be the messengers, the ones who point to the fulfillment of ancient promises and God’s answers to prayers as contemporary as the morning news. God is alive today. God is active today. God is powerful today. We must remember that this is a season that calls us to face the forces that would deny the coming of Christ – and listen to what God is calling us to do. This is a time that demands that we refuse to be silent. Like John spoke to the people of his day, we must learn to speak up to the people of our day.
John’s words may at times seem rough, but the Bible calls them “good news.” And so the church presses on into the season of joy, knowing that our world needs to hear some good news more than ever before. Let our good news always reflect our awareness of the struggles that bring pain and despair, and the sacrifice of innocent people young and old, and the promise that this too shall pass, because someone greater than me is coming. As we prepare our hearts and our churches, our families and our communities for this Christmas season, let us never forget that Jesus comes into our world with power to sift through the confusion, to sort things out, and to reveal the substance of everything his power can redeem. Get out there, church, in the ways that are available to you – get out your winnowing forks – join the struggle to sort through all of these things – so you will recognize the things that God has provided to bring salvation and hope to a world full of wrath.
Get out there church, and recognize that the first step may require your urgent prayers asking God to show you once again what it means to have good fruit in your own life. What shall we do? Oh, this is the season to ask, to seek, and to find – to knock, and keep knocking, until God opens the doors – to pray without ceasing – and to speak up with the confidence of a child of God – to speak up with acts of kindness and spiritual and moral and political resolve that tells the world: I can start right here, right now – and do something to heal the hurt and keep hope alive. I can start right here, right now, in my local school, in my own community, in my own social organization, because someone more powerful than me is coming after me. I can start right here, right now, and perhaps the only question that remains is simply: who will come and go with me? Who will come and go with me? Let the church say: Amen.
Copyright 2012, Harvard Stephens, Jr.. Used by permission.