I know this is long but it is so worth it. Rev. David Spain of First Christian Church of Norman gave this sermon on January 6 and I knew the minute I heard it that his message needed to go out beyond our congregation. We need to keep this conversation going lest we become too comfortable in our every day lives, fall back into our routines and Sandy Hook fades in our memory.
Thank you for reading and if you are so moved, please share.
“Homage for the Child(ren)”
Matthew 2: 1 – 12
January 6, 2013
It has been 23 days since the horror of Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut and except for a prayer at the 8:40 service on the Sunday immediately following that was printed in the Norman Christian newsletter, I have said nothing about that terrible day. In the 24/7 cycle that is the news, 23 days is an eternity; in the lives of those forever changed, it is barely the blink of an eye. My own silence has been intentional, for both personal and theological reasons. Personally, I was so unhinged by what is now not even the latest in an all too common occurrence of gun violence in America, that I did not trust my ability to make helpful or even coherent comments. The grief was too great, the anger too deep, and the one letter I quickly dashed off to a state representative that night was sincere but not helpful. The other reason for silence until today is theologically rooted. In the biblical story of Job, you remember he lost everything—children, property, health—he was devastated. As good friends do, they came to his side and sat with him for 7 days in complete silence. It was the high point of his friends’ ministry to Job, because come the 8th day and they opened their mouths to talk theology, all manner of unfortunate, unhelpful, and painful comments were offered.
In the immediate aftermath of Sandy Hook, a number of people made a number of comments. Without a doubt, when something horrific happens, and especially when children are involved, all of us struggle to make sense out of it. That is what we do—we are meaning seeking people and that is good. I do not for a second doubt the broken hearts or the good will of those who made some of the comments in the days following; I merely contend with the wisdom and the theological content of some of what was said. Not unique to the citizens of Newtown, but said in the wake of that horrific day were comments such as now there are more twinkling stars in the heavens, or God needed another angel, or God saw fit to call them home, or your children are not really yours but only on loan to you, or at least you have other children or are young enough to have more children, or God never gives you more than you can handle*—which is problematic at several levels—not the least of which is that it is not biblical, and it also suggests that whatever happens comes from God and if you can’t handle it then there must be something lacking in your faith. In one way, I agree with that bromide—God does not give you more than you can handle because this was not from God; this was not God’s will. Tragedy, suffering, pain, and death perpetrated by people onto people is not the will of God. I understand why people make comments such as these, for we all try to make sense of it; but sometimes and maybe most of the time, especially at first, the best comment is no comment except to offer our compassionate presence to any and all who suffer. They do not need our words; they need our ears and our arms.
There comes a time of course, when silence can be interpreted as acquiescence or approval or apathy. The author of Ecclesiastes wrote in his oft quoted poem “there is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” There were a few voices—some of them public or who have access to public outlets—who less than 24 hours after the horror, began to speak in ways that were not only deeply disturbing but theologically shortsighted. While perhaps these who so commented were trying to make meaning of it all, it felt as if there were a few who in the guise of theology were actually making political commentary by suggesting the absence of prayer in public school was related to the cause of the massacre. To be sure, only God can see into the human heart and its intensions, but regardless of the motivation, a few spoke politically at a time when it was best to keep silence, and in so speaking delivered what is not only constitutionally untenable but theologically abhorrent. As indefensible as this was, speaking politically under the guise of theology is not even what is most troubling.
In a town like Newtown, and now all across America, the variety of religious expression is more diverse than ever. To legislate and mandate prayer in the public school would require that a decision be made by someone as to the nature of that prayer—a generic Protestant prayer, a Catholic prayer, an Eastern orthodox prayer, a Jewish prayer, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist. Which prayer, who leads? Teachers and principals have more than enough to do; are they now to become theologians? To be sure, so many in the teaching field are nurturing and pastoral, yet not to be pastors. But to add that onto teachers is not even what is most troubling.
One reaction to horrifying events is to want to return to some era gone by when whatever is happening now was not happening then. That is understandable. To those who yearn for that era of prayer in public schools, it is important to remember that was the era of cruel and abiding segregation where the privileged prayed and prospered in well-appointed schools while the poor prayed but suffered in substandard schools. There is a big difference between piety and justice. But to yearn for a by-gone era of myopic comfort is not even what is most troubling.
To suggest that God can be legislated into or out of any place is an affront to all who believe that God needs no intermediary nor do we, but that a direct relationship with God is available to any who would seek God. This can be done anytime, anywhere; and it is human arrogance to think that God is some kind of object who can be captured in stone on the city square or excised out of the conscience of the individual. But even this is not what is most troubling.
To suggest that God was not somehow present in the Sandy Hook school is to miss the theological truth that God is present wherever there is hurt or suffering; and that in acts of courage and compassion God is deeply present. That morning, in the face of maniacal carnage, there were teachers who shielded children, protected children, and confronted the 20 year old perpetrator of this horror. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” God was profoundly, courageously, and sacrificially in that school that day in ways that few if any of us can imagine; and I am sick and tired of hearing about the absence of God in public schools. I don’t know about salaries in the Newtown public schools, but if you teach in Oklahoma, try feeding a family of four on a teacher’s salary while working 12 to 14 hour days. Our teachers live sacrificially, courageously, compassionately. If you want to see God in the public schools, then look into the face of teachers.
In an effort to address what is becoming an all too frequent occurrence in our culture, some have suggested and will suggest that armed officers be placed in every school, which is an absurdist move as it is cost prohibitive; and a few have called for arming teachers which would be laughable except that such legislation may be proposed. It is hard not to recall what William Sloan Coffin once said, that we are more and more resembling the dinosaur—heavily armored and very small brains. The dinosaur became extinct; they had no choice. But we do.
When it comes to dealing with the variety of causes for this scourge in our culture, some have asked why God lets this kind of thing happen. I feel quite certain God will ask of us, “Why do you let this happen?” If the death of 6 and 7 year old children does not move us to engage in national soul-searching, then what has become of our humanity? It would be easy to render the 20 year old a monster and in so doing exonerate ourselves from any connection to the larger issues that create this increasingly common phenomenon. What he did was unspeakable—I don’t even know what words to use; but there are ways to consider and words to say as we think about a culture which can only blindly now refer to these as isolated events. Ours is a culture of entertainment in which killing has become sport and I can’t help but wonder if the video game industry and movie industry and television industry are somehow desensitizing our sense of humanity so much so that the other is only an object and not a God-created human being. Ours is a culture of self-absorption where the message is life’s goal is self-satisfaction in which the world exists to gratify me and individual rights have become the golden calf around which we are to dance. Ours is a culture of vengeance, where from the comic book super hero to the sports icon, from the politician to the media industry, what is glorified is getting even, getting back, annihilating the other. Ours is a culture of violence, fueled by the myth of redemptive violence, in which the statistics of gun violence in this culture are astounding; where thousands more are killed by guns each year than were killed on 9/11. In response to 9/11 we have spent trillions of dollars; in response to gun violence in America we have done nothing. Ours is a culture where it is much easier to get a gun than it is to get a counselor. Jesus said, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” In America, we are doing both; we are both living and dying by the sword.
To discuss guns in the American culture is to consider the second amendment; and it is an important consideration. Often forgotten in the discussion is that the right of the people to keep and bear arms is set in the context of a well-regulated militia. But even if you fail to see the need of a well-regulated militia as constitutionally established, the justification for assault weapons and rapid-firing clips which make it capable to kill effectively, quickly, and thoroughly is repulsive. The second amendment is not undermined by the compassionate, courageous, and reasonable limitation of weaponry like this, and the argument that such limitation is a slippery slope jeopardizing all gun ownership is a manipulative ploy meant to silence reasonable discussion; and our children are dying because reasonable minds have been portrayed as unpatriotic and reasonable voices have been silenced.
You will note that no mention has been made of the magi. This story from Matthew’s gospel has been, for me, the playful part of the Christmas story, as I have tended to romanticize the journey of the magi even as the story makes a deep theological proclamation that this child born in Bethlehem is not the provincial property of one religious group, but is for the entire world. In the last 23 days, I’m seeing this story differently—that these wise, intelligent if not perhaps star-struck yet hopeful adults are envisioning a different way of living and being and as an expression of that hope, pay homage not to all those who hold conventional power, but to a little child. While the status quo of imperial power as embodied by Herod ruthlessly disregards the children, these magi pay homage to the child and then return to their homes by another way.
Does the birth we have just celebrated and to which we pay homage make a difference in our lives and in this world? Is this one, born a child and yet a king, the prince of peace, one who can shape and reshape another way? To be sure this is a personal question, but I have seen now as never before what T.S. Eliot meant when he wrote of the magi that after paying homage to the Christ, “we returned to our places, these kingdoms, but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.” At the very least, I pray to God we are no longer comfortable in the old dispensation—for the sake of the Christ child, for the sake of all the children, I pray we are no longer comfortable in the old dispensation and that like the magi we will return by another way.
*Several of these comments listed in this paragraph were brought to my attention by Dr. Roger Paynter of the First Baptist Church of Austin.