SERMON from 12-16-12: A Response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

Psalm 126

1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,*
 we were like those who dream. 
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
 and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
 ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ 
3 The Lord has done great things for us,
 and we rejoiced. 4 Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
 like the watercourses in the Negeb. 
5 May those who sow in tears
 reap with shouts of joy. 
6 Those who go out weeping,
 bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
 carrying their sheaves.

Restore Us, O God: Joy (a response to the Sandy Hook School Shooting)

It’s Christmas, right? Imagine you are a busy mom, and you are tying together all the loose ends that help to make the holiday enjoyable for everyone. Finishing all the holiday candy. Baking the last peanut butter blossoms. Finalizing everyone’s Christmas list. That’s your task for today.

You wake up early and rustle the kids out of their winter’s slumber–with just a bit more of a struggle than normal. You whip up breakfast for the kids, hop in to take a quick shower before wrangling everyone into their coats and hats.

The trip to school is eventful–complete with two fights, each ending in a stalemate–and then you let everyone out to tackle their day. After taking a deep breath, peeking over your shoulder to ensure safe passage, you pull out to begin your day.

The mall parking lot is pretty full. Any other time of the year, a Friday morning at the mall would allow you access to at least the first five spots. However, you find yourself forced to look all the way back to the auxiliary parking lot–the one they specifically made for Christmastime shopping.

Now, you’re inside. After you write down the license plate number of the person you saw parked in the handicapped space illegally. It’s off to Game Stop to get Wii U for Chad. Then, you go to Children’s Place to get that adorable dress for Kara. Oh, let’s not forget the calendar from that huge mall kiosk that is dedicated to selling every kind of calendar–and some weird games–for Dave’s desk.

Then, you hightail it back out to the car. You’re happy it only took you 2 hours, but kick yourself for forgetting to turn in that license plate number to mall security. Gift list is placed to the side, and you pull the grocery list–complete with last minute garnishments and holiday decorations. Don’t forget the roasted peanuts for grandpa!

Unfortunately, you go to one of the only places where you can find them all under one roof. Relatively speaking, is there anything worse than Walmart during the holiday season? Everyone seems to be crabby. They have, like, fifty lanes–of which they only keep 5 open. There’s never anyone around to help when you need it. Despite all that, nearly all of us keep going back.

After 3 of the longest hours of your life, you stumble back to your car–which is parked ever further back than at the mall. You pile the plastic bags in the back of your vehicle, lower the hatch and return your cart to the corral–or in one of those places where one person decided to leave their cart and 30 other people follow suit.

You hop back into your car and take another deep breath. Finished! Just as you put the key in the ignition, your phone rings. It’s your mom. Probably calling to make sure you got the roasted peanuts for grandpa, you pick up saying, “I got ‘em, mom.” She’s not calling about the peanuts. She just heard on the news that there had been a shooting at a school. It’s Sandy Hook–your kid’s school.

The rest of the day is a blur. Once the police notified you that the shooter chose your child’s classroom, you just went numb. I just placed some of her presents under the tree.

As if we needed any more proof that mankind is capable of unspeakable evil, a 20 year old man burst his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School and shot over 100 rounds–killing 26 people. Most of the victims were 6 or 7 years old. Their names are:

Charlotte Bacon, Daniel Barden, Rachel Davino, Olivia Engel, Josephine Gay, Ana M. Marquez-Greene, Dylan Hockley, Dawn Hocksprung, Madeleine F. Hsu, Catherine V. Hubbard, Chase Kowalski, Jesse Lewis, James Mattioli ,Grace McDonnell, Anne Marie Murphy, Emilie Parker, Jack Pinto, Noah Pozner, Caroline Previdi, Jessica Rekos, Avielle Richman, Lauren Russeau, Mary Sherlach, Victoria Soto, Benjamin Wheeler, Allison N. Wyatt.

We don’t know the whole story. That’s not to say that there is some way that the gunman’s actions are excusable or explainable. There are reasons to believe that this man–a man in that he has reached the age of 20–was disturbed in some fashion. I’m not even going to try to explain why this happened, because you cannot. When the inexplicable happens, to try and explain it can seem a very cruel kind of hell.

We all had our reactions to it, didn’t we? Confusion. Empathy. Anger. Mine was anger. A righteous anger, really. The type of anger I’m sure Jesus displayed when he turned over the tables of the money changers. “Look at what you’ve done…you’ve turned my father’s world into a den of evil!”

I can only speak for myself, but I wouldn’t have been so righteously angry if it hadn’t just happened earlier in the week at another school. If it hadn’t just happened in Aurora, Colorado, I probably would have been less angry. If I didn’t remember my high school government teacher turning on the television so we could see the helicopter footage of students being shuffled out of Columbine High School, I wouldn’t have reacted with such a fiery repeal.

Around 10,000 people per year die of gun violence in this country. 35 people a day. If it were a disease, we would be demanding the CDC find a cure. If it were terrorism, we would start a war. Four people are killed in Libya, and congress begins a litany of hearings that are going on to this day. I cannot remember the last hearing that was held for a mass shooting in the US.

One guy tries to light his shoe on fire, and everyone has to take off their shoes at the airport. A congresswoman gets shot, a movie theatre is massacred and school children are brutally and repeatedly shot. Yet, I can go into a Cabela’s and buy the weapon he used for $699–if I don’t have the $50 coupon–and that’s just fine.

Though, none of that matters to those families right now. Just about 48 hours ago, their loved ones were brutally murdered. In the intervening time, some have been curled into a ball on their couch. Some have been staring at the Christmas presents that won’t be opened. Some have been trying to remain strong for everyone else.

The third Sunday in Advent is when we light the “joy” candle. Why couldn’t this have happened before we lit the “hope” candle? Or, the “peace” candle? Have you ever heard the term “cognitive dissonance?” It is used by psychologists to describe when two ideas are difficult to comprehend in the same space. I would describe it as the time you are lighting the “joy” candle right after 26 innocent people were killed by a gunman. That’s cognitive dissonance. I bet it feels pretty dissonant at the Newtown United Methodist Church, just down the road from the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

I already had a sermon planned for today. It was about joy and how it’s especially easy to find it and celebrate it during the season of Advent–in preparation for the birth of the savior. However, things happen that can change our plans. What’s significant about the change I had to make to this message is that I didn’t have to change the scripture.

We’ve been looking at the Psalms this Advent. While this particular Psalm is about joy, it specifically mentions that joy is coming, has come, and will continue to come–even after such tragic circumstances threaten to tear our flesh to the bone.

It is right and good that we continue to hold those victims of tragedy in our hearts. It is right and good to continue to feel heartbroken at the state of the world around us. It is right and good that we remember all those for whom this season is particularly difficult and heart-wrenching.

For we know what joy is, only because we know what it is to experience such tragedy and pain.

Eventually, though, we know that there is joy to be had. After the fear and trembling of the night, we can expect joy in the morning–through our mourning. “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy.”

We light the candle of joy, not because our tragic circumstances need to be forgotten and pushed to the side. We light it in anticipation. We light it in preparation. We light it in faith. It is in our darkest times that we need to remember the light. This season may be dark, but our God is one that remains faithful to us when it is difficult to see that light.

You don’t have to be joyful about that now, but know that–when you are ready–you can be.

And thanks be to God for that.



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