Sunday, December 16, 2012

Stirring up God's power at the intersection of horror and hope.

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
--Collect for The Third Sunday of Advent

A little over eleven years ago, a little boy was watching the television and the only thing on was the blanket coverage of the 9/11 attacks. Over and over again he saw the image of those towers collapsing. Finally, his mother turned off the tv and tried to redirect him. But the enormity had set it and he was trying to find the words. As he was drawing a picture he finally asked “Mom, where was Superman?”

I remembered this story as I watched the news unfold on Friday of the mass murder of twenty first graders, their teachers as well as the mother of the shooter and the shooter himself. This is not supposed to happen. Schools are not places where violence is supposed to happen. Classrooms should never be places where children die. Teaching is a profession one gives one life to but it is not meant to be a job where one risks giving her life.

We have seen evil come to life. I want God’s power to be stirred up and to make this all better. Already there are people crying out for more laws and others saying things like we should routinely arm teachers. Both reactions get people riled up but they deflect us from what is really important. If the severity of trauma can be measured by the immediacy of the threat, the vulnerability of the victims and the degree of helplessness we feel then we are all at least a little traumatized even though we are far away from the epicenter—that is, if we have any heart at all.  And so it is natural to ask “then what can we do?”

Well, wouldn’t you know? That very question appears in today’s Gospel. John the Baptist is going around Galilee preaching Good News. But it doesn’t sound very good. He is saying that God’s judgment is at hand. He chides the religious leaders for their complacency and tells people they need to get ready for the coming of the Messiah. He says our history and heritage will not help us escape what is coming.

This has everyone shaken right down to their socks. “What should we do?” the people ask. I mean, if John the Baptist is right, if the most religious and righteous people in town can’t pass muster when the Messiah comes then who will?

If you think about it, this question is not so far from our lips either. If a rural-suburban town of middle-class folks far away from the traditional epicenters of crime and violence cannot escape evil incarnate then what can we do?

St. John Baptist’s advice is surprisingly practical. He tells everyone to bear fruit worthy of repentance. He tells the religious leaders to be faithful and don’t count on their status. He tells workers like tax collectors and soldiers to take only what they are owed—in a day long before unions and civil service. He tells people to be honest, to be good, and to care for one another.

But if getting ready for the Messiah is the picture of practicality, that doesn’t make it simple. If our faith is going to make a practical difference then we must choose to be intentional about our faith. Being faithful means being attentive to what is going on around us. Being attentive means being smart about our choices of not only what we do bur our choices in who we are. This kind of faithful living means being reasonable in our expectations of others and ourselves—cutting each other some slack. John taught that faithful living means taking responsibility for how we live out our faith and that kind of deliberate faithfulness grows out living as if we are in love with the life that God has given us and in love with the God who gives us life.

We get ready for the Messiah when we choose to live life making space for God. This was the point behind John’s baptism. John didn’t baptize people because it was cool or a fad. He baptized people because they needed to change. That change had to start from within and, at the same time, be obvious to everyone.

That’s the thing about the sacramental life. It is God at work in us alone and in community. God takes everyday things like water, bread, wine, and even olive oil and they become signs that God is at work in every part of our living. In our faith communities, God places us in the midst of imperfect people and changes us together.

As we try to make useful meaning out of random violence, we can learn from John the Baptist who prepares us for the redemption to come. If we dare to look through the lens of this tragedy, we too can find Good News, we will find the ground work of God’s grace and we will know what to do.

The first thing we can learn is that while this is a national tragedy with national implications, it is also local. Our pain is our pain. It is nothing like the pain that the people of Newtown are right now experiencing and not even close to the pain of the parents whose child was murdered or of the families whose parent or spouse or adult child was killed. Some of you may have some kind of personal connection to the event or else this tragedy may call up for you memories of your own losses. The feelings that go with that are natural and normal. At the same time, let what is yours be yours and what is theirs be theirs. Our pain and sadness allows us to build empathetic and caring bridges of support and that is very important—essential in fact. But on Monday, we will go back to work. They will have to re-knit lives torn open.

Because what’s theirs is theirs and what’s ours is ours, we have different work to do. For one thing, we can ask questions and frame meaning in a way that the people close to the crisis will not be able to do for maybe a long, long time.

This is where the issue of judgment comes in. But not in the way you think. We often think of judgment as something God does to a people for wrongs they have done. But we must be very clear here. God did not do this. Beware of platitudes and junk theology. God did not need these children more than their parents. While we believe that God is caring for the dead and that in Christ they are held in God’s loving embrace, this is not how God recruits angels.  God does not use the murder of children as an object lesson in obedience. God did not send a man into a school with a gun as an act of divine retribution. Please do not teach people to hate God for what God does not do.

No. We are looking at the fruits of the kind of world we have made and we are staring into the heart of human sin. We are being forced to look at the consequences of creating (but not talking about) a culture that enshrines violence and makes it easier to buy a gun than to rent an apartment. What happened Friday exposes the consequences of our choice as a people to make the right to bear arms at least as important as the right to health and education. This tragedy lays an axe to the tree of our assumptions that easy answers couched in simplistic media-ready ideologies will do a better job of solving our problems than the hard work of living in community.

But if the consequences of our choices convict us, signs of redemption are also near. If you look closely, God started signaling the solution even before we comprehended the horror of what was going on.

One man chose to do evil. That much is clear. But notice that when the chips were down hundreds of people chose to do the good.  One man did unimaginable evil. Many others performed compassionate acts of humanity—even bravery—beyond our imagining.

This is where we find God in the midst of horror: the teachers, principal and the therapist who put themselves between a gunman and children; in the people who rushed to the firehouse to find and care for their kids; in the first responders who came in droves to secure the school and care for the injured; in the police and the caring professionals who were paired up with families whose children died and shepherded them through those terrible hours. People who filled churches, synagogues and parks to keep vigil, write names, sing pray, and just hold and hug each other were at once tangible signs of good overcoming evil and the presence of God bringing life out of chaos. In the days to come, every funeral, each flower given, every casserole delivered, each child baby sat, every hug given and even the space given to allow for private grief will make real the ways that God pushes back darkness and reveal light. Much of what we will see will be very sad, beyond heartbreaking. God will be present to that heartbreak often in ways small, tender, and spontaneous.

Watch. God’s power is already stirred up. Good started defeating evil just when it looked as if evil won the day. We Christians believe that in Christ’s life, death and resurrection God has defeated sin, death and evil once and for all. Yes, after the empty tomb of Easter, evil still breaks out and still deals death in horrid ways, but everything evil does is now a rear guard action against God who has already reconciled creation and defeated sin. As we move towards Christmas, our job will be to hold that truth both close to our hearts and up for the world to see. It will also be on us to surround the people of Newtown…and all the people we know who have suffered a loss anywhere by death, or who are facing a dread illness, or who are the victims of injustice or who are poor and outcast… and hold these people in love, prayer and practical compassion.

John the Baptist was getting people ready for Jesus by telling them to repent…that we can choose. We can intentionally make room for God and that will change us and it will change the world for good.