Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 16, 2012

12.12.16 “What, Then, Should We Do?” – Luke 3: 7 – 18 The 3rd Sunday of Advent

Central United Methodist Church

What, Then, Should We Do?

Luke 3: 7 – 18

The 3rd Sunday of Advent

December 16th, 2012

 

“When crowds of people came out for baptism because it was the popular thing to do, John exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snake skins is going to deflect God’s judgment? It’s your life that must change, not your skin. And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as ‘father.’ Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there — children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make children from stones if he wants. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.”

The crowd asked him, “Then what are we supposed to do?”

“If you have two coats, give one away,” he said. “Do the same with your food.”

Tax men also came to be baptized and said, “Teacher, what should we do?”

He told them, “No more extortion — collect only what is required by law.”

Soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

          He told them, “No shakedowns, no blackmail — and be content with your rations.”

The interest of the people by now was building. They were all beginning to wonder, “Could this John be the Messiah?”

          But John intervened: “I’m baptizing you here in the river. The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house — make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”

There was a lot more of this — words that gave strength to the people, words that put heart in them. The Message!” – Luke 3: 7 – 18, the Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

 

It’s happened again. A bloody massacre has shaken us to our core, because this time it involves the senseless murder of 20 precious children. In addition, 6 adults – including the school principal, the school psychologist, and other teachers were killed. If it can happen in a town as picture postcard perfect as Newtown, Connecticut, who and where in America is safe?

For some, it may bring back memories of a similar incident even closer, the Laurie Dann shooting on May 20, 1988, when Laurie Dann went to Hubbard Woods School in Winnetka and shot 6 children, before killing herself. But this one was worse, far worse, the second worse since the Virginia Tech shootings, in 2007, in which 32 people were killed.

When the President of the United States cannot get through his remarks without choking up – and us, especially those of us who are parents, with him – we know we are all deeply affected. As he knows and we know, they were just children, beautiful innocent children. The thought of parents having to bury their children a week before Christmas is just intolerable.  The least we can do is mourn with them.

So today, we bring this to church. We are sad, fearful, and angry.  We find it hard to concentrate, to think very long or very seriously about anything, without remembering this horrible thing that has happened, and the pain those parents must be going through.

It is normal to feel this way, in response to such an extraordinarily terrible event. As most of you know, I was a firefighter/paramedic, and a Fire and Police Chaplain, for almost 20 years. I had dead children – I have carried them in my arms; maybe worse was telling their parents that their children were dead. I have counseled strapping, experienced, firefighters and cops who were deeply affected. In the face of the intolerable and the inconsolable we human beings – no matter who we are – may cry, may scream, may curse (even God), we may even fall to the ground, no longer to support the weight of our body as well as the weight of the burden we carry. If you’ve suffered such a loss in your life, you know what I’m talking about. At such times, our best resources are our everyday, normal ones: our family, our friends, our faith and our faith community. Just as those poor parents in Newtown are doing right now, and will continue to do in the long days ahead.

Of course, with Friday’s tragedy, preachers everywhere had to throw in the trash whatever sermon they were working on. Because we knew, that our people would be where we are, especially those of us who are parents.

In some ways, this Sunday was even more conflicted than others, because it falls on the one Sunday of the four Sundays of Advent, whose theme is Joy. Today, in the light of what happened, most of us would have to ask, “Where is the joy?”

In truth, our mood may have reverted to that of the beginning of Advent:

“O, come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer

our spirits by thy justice here;

disperse the gloomy clouds of night,

and death’s dark shadows put to flight.”

Or even more appropriately, the mood of Holy Innocents, the remembrance of those infants massacred by King Herod in the Gospel of Matthew, following the birth of Jesus:

“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.”

But, where we are today can actually be addressed in today’s Gospel, Luke 3: 7 – 18. In this way, in the question John’s hearers asked of him, in response to his preaching.  That question was this: “What then shall we do?”

What a difference, a day such as Friday makes! Before Friday, for all of us on our way to greet the baby in Bethlehem, re-routing to hear a hell-fire-and brimstone preacher in the wilderness who would address us as a “brood of snakes,” seemed an unpleasant, unnecessary, and unwanted diversion. Who needs that?

After Friday, I’m ready to go.  Take me there, strip me down, shave my head, wash me in the cleansing waters. Because we need help.  Something is desperately wrong.  And so we are ready to ask, along with the people who heard John, “What then shall we do?”  It’s not a bad question for Advent in general, but especially a good one for today in particular.

We should note, the answers John gave the crowd required nothing extraordinary. He didn’t say join the priesthood, practice celibacy, sell all you own, go on pilgrimage, achieve world peace. What he said was more ordinary, achievable within daily life: “If you have two coats, give one away; do the same with your food.” To tax collectors he said, “No more extortion — collect only what is required by law.” To soldiers (not like our soldiers but poorly paid mercenaries) he said:  “No shakedowns, no blackmail — and be content with your rations.”

Given such advice, don’t you wonder what John might say to us today? What then should we do – especially that which is achievable – following such a tragedy as Newtown?

(1) The first thing might be that, first, we must grieve and mourn, and support those who lost children in and loved ones, in every way that we can. After a crime so public and so heinous, we cannot but be deeply affected. Personally, I am thankful for the public rituals of tribute and mourning.  A year ago last fall, we were in Oslo, Norway following the tragic shooting incident there.  We went to the National Cathedral, and the entire courtyard around the church was surrounded with flowers and toys and remembrances.  As long as we tolerate public, mass killings, will need forms of public remembrance and grief.

(2) Secondly, as the President reminded us, let us hug our children, and assure them we will do everything in our power to make sure they are safe and secure, as much as it is possible in this life to do so.  Children – are you listening? – there is not a parent in this room who would not give their life for yours, if that’s what it takes to keep you safe.  We love you that much.

(3) Thirdly, what we would do for our children, we should insist on for the children of others – no matter where they live, no matter how rich or poor they are, no matter the color of their skin – to attempt to prevent such a senseless act of mass murder from ever happening again. As Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein observed in his Blog on Friday:

“If roads were collapsing all across the United States, killing dozens of drivers, we would surely see that as a moment to talk about what we could do to keep roads from collapsing.  If terrorists were detonating bombs in port after port, you can be sure Congress would be working to upgrade the nation’s security measures.  If a plague was ripping through communities, public health officials would be working feverishly to contain it.

Only with gun violence do we respond to repeated tragedies by saying that mourning is acceptable but discussing how to prevent more tragedies is not. “Too soon,” howl supporters of loose gun laws.  But as others have observed, talking about how to stop mass shooting in the aftermath of a string of mass shootings isn’t “too soon.”  It’s much too late.” (Ezra Klein,“Twelve Facts About Guns and Mass Shootings in the United States,” Wonkblog, Washington Post, December 14th, 2012)

This is not the place to get into details, but we – as a nation – must have a serious discussion about the place of guns in modern urban society.  It is not so much a discussion about gun control, as gun rights: who gets the right to carry a gun. You don’t get to drive a car – another way you can kill people – without earning and qualifying for the right, which can be taken away if you become a danger to yourself or others.  Why should it be any different with guns, another form of lethal force, and especially assault weapons?  What is the place of assault weapons in society?

The other critical aspect of this discussion we need to have is the intersection of guns and mental illness. Frankly, with states cutting their intervention and treatment of the mentally ill, in a society awash with guns, it’s a wonder we haven’t had more of the incidents, as it looks like we will into the future, unless something is done. Do we really want to live and raise our children in a society where it is easier to gain access to guns than it is to gain access to mental health care, especially for those who need it, but cannot afford it.

Neither of these discussions, between the availability of guns and the care of the mentally ill, and especially the conjunction between them, will be simple or easy; billions of dollars are involved in both issues.  But balance that concern with this one: do we really want to lie in bed at night and worry whether our child or teenager or college student will be shot at the shopping mall, at a movie theater, at college or worst of all, in their first grade classroom, by some deranged person with a gun? For the sake of our children and grandchildren, it’s past time we seriously addressed this issue.

In time, John the Baptist would die by violence, at the hand of Herod, which Jesus and his disciples would grieve. Jesus, also, would die violently, but out of that act of violence would come one of the greatest forces for good the world has ever seen, the power of sacrificial love. So may this violent and senseless act become a tipping point for good, in tribute and remembrance to these precious and heroic lives that were taken on Friday.

The next week will be hard for everyone, but for us not hard at all compared to what these bereaved parents will go through. Heroic details will emerge, such as that teacher Anne Murphy was found on top of her students, shielding them with her body; and that Principal Dawn Hochsprung and School Psychologist Mary Sherlach died rushing the shooter, true acts of courage if there ever was one. Memorial services and funerals will break our hearts. Let us keep them in our prayers, even as we seek to engage – as President Obama put it – in “meaningful action.”

Elie Wiesel, one of the most articulate survivors of the Holocaust, wrote in his famous book Night these words, which speak to all of us at times like this: “We are all brothers and we are all suffering the same fate. The same smoke floats over all our heads. Help one another. It is the only way to survive.” (Elie Wiesel, Night, pg. 39)

 

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