Advent 3—Year C, Zephaniah 3:14-20, Canticle 9, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18
It wasn’t until 6:00 on Friday evening that I saw the news. Normally, my sermon is written by then; this week it wasn’t, which is a good thing, because I would have had to throw it out. I, like you, am still trying to make sense of it, and the reality is, there is no sense to be made of the unspeakable tragedy that happened Friday in Newtown, Connecticut. This one takes our breath away. Newtown is a fairly affluent small town about an hour and a half from New York City. It was known to be a boring place, and people liked it that way. It is a place like Boone. The school could have been Hardin Park or Parkway or Two Rivers or Green Valley or Cove Creek or Blowing Rock or Valle Crucis or Mabel or Bethel. These kids could have been our kids; these teachers, our friends, and that stops us in our tracks. It is senseless. It just doesn’t make sense. Twenty-six familes changed forever, including the family of the gunman. And countless more changed forever because their innocence has been shattered.
We live in Advent. We live in a collision of time. The Redeemer who is coming, the Redeemer who has come, the Redeemer who will come again. We live in the time when God has broken into our world, but our world is still a broken, broken place. And this week, that brokenness is more than our hearts can bear.
You’ve heard the phrase, Christmas has come early. Well, there is another feast that we mark just after Christmas on December 28th, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. This year, it has come early. That occasion marks King Herod’s slaughter of innocent children in Bethlehem because the King was afraid of the Christ child. He felt his power was threatened, so his solution was to kill all the children under the age of two. In Matthew 2:18, the scripture quotes the prophet Jeremiah, “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
So, the first thing we do is we weep. We lament. These children are no more. Our hearts need to break because when we allow our hearts to touch this kind of tenderness and pain, then we are standing in solidarity, not just with the families of those killed, but we are also standing in solidarity with a Lord, with God, who has planted himself right in the middle of violence and suffering and pain, and, arms stretched out, God just holds it. We stand in solidarity with his mother Mary who stands at the foot of that cross and who knows what it is to lose a son to violence. We stand in solidarity with Mary Magdalene who can only wait and weep at the grave of her friend. And if we can stand there, if we stay present, if we keep our vigil with this pain, then maybe our eyes will be open to also catch the first glimpses of resurrection. Jesus will live again, but his risen life always bears the marks of the nails.
And if we can wail and weep for the innocents of Newtown, Connecticut, maybe we can weep and wail for the innocent children who die in gun violence in our cities and rural communities everyday, who suffer neglect because their parents are caught in the grip of drugs, who live in terror of domestic violence, who go hungry at night, both here and across the world. Maybe can weep and wail for the innocents who die at the hands of IED’s and bombs and drone strikes. Maybe we can weep and wail for all the innocents who cannot get the mental help they need because our mental health system has completely broken down in this country. Maybe we can weep and wail for a culture whose conflict resolution so easily and quickly turns to guns and for all the ways we have become desensitized to violence.
Maybe this hits so hard because the victims are so innocent, but maybe it hits something so much deeper that we just don’t keep in our consciousness because it is just too big—there are innocents everywhere; there are innocents all over the world. We are killing each other and robbing our innocents of their innocence in a thousand different ways. If our weeping and wailing for these innocents of Newtown opens our hearts to weep and wail for all innocents, and if this weeping and wailing can soften our hardened hearts, then God already has the seeds from which to grow a different world.
The Collect is right, “we are sorely hindered by our sins,” but the Collect says more, we pray, “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 deliver us.” We won’t stop the slaughter of innocents alone, but God is stirring up God’s power. Weeping and wailing is the first step we need to take, but it cannot be the last. The prophet Hosea describes God as a mother bear robbed of her cubs; this is the fierce energy of love that refuses to accept that the slaughter of innocents is inevitable.
How can we also tap into that energy on behalf of all the innocents of the world?
What one concrete action might we take to bring about the peaceable kingdom in our homes, in our schools, in our community, in our nation, in our world?
How might we stand in solidarity with the innocents of the world and let God’s power stir us up with great might to stand against all the powers of darkness and violence in this world?
How might we honor the innocents by choosing actions and responses that promote life?
A horror like Friday always raises questions to which we will never get answers, but Advent is an apocalyptic time when chaos collides in the darkness and something new is born. A little innocent child, who holds no power, is coming into the world, and that innocent turned the world upside down. It may seem that there is nothing that we can do, that we have no power to change things, but who thought that a baby born of a young woman in a stable would do much either. In the midst of senseless slaughter there is also the cry of new life that calls us to a different way.
So, brothers and sisters, weep and wail for the innocents, let your heart break, but then let God work with you a good long while while your heart is still tender. Let God infuse you with God’s mama bear energy. Let God set you on fire with a passion for all innocents everywhere, and then join God, in whatever way God gives you—it might be in a great big way or in the tiniest of actions—just join God, in whatever way God gives you, to bring about the peaceable kingdom that has always been God’s dream for all the world. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 16, 2012