A sermon by the Rev. Jim Kitchens based on Matthew 2:16-18. Delivered at Calvary Presbyterian Church, San Francisco, Calif., Dec.16, 2012.
Like you, I am left dumbfounded by the tragic events of Friday. What can you possibly preach after 20 families who sent their babies off to school Friday morning are met with the obscenely horrible news that their children are dead?
And, yet, speak we must. This is a moment when it is imperative that we Christians speak a word of hope, a word of joy, a word of life. When better to proclaim "the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it" than when the darkness feels so thick and suffocating? When better to sing "Joy to the World" than to a world blanketed with sadness?
Unfortunately, the usually post-Christmas story about the slaughter of the innocents came early this year. With the prophet Jeremiah, our hearts drop to their knees and cry out:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
The earliest dominant image in Christian art was the Madonna nursing her infant son. It wasn't long, though, before that image was replaced by the far more violent image of a bleeding Jesus on the cross. The turn to this more violent image didn't occur because Christianity wanted to become a religion about violence. Instead, it happened because the church came to understand that the world in which it proclaimed the Gospel was a very violent place. If we forget that, we run the risk of turning the Gospel into a feel-good fairy tale about how God loves everyone and everything will turn out OK in the end. But the Gospel is far more realistic than that. It engages the real world of violence, demonic forces and death because -- like it or not -- that is the world we inhabit.
Part of the reason this shooting shocks us so is that we forget, for most of the world, violence is an everyday part of life. We don't think often about mothers in Syria who worry every day about whether their children will return to them whole. We can't imagine what it feels like to be an Afghani father sending his daughter to school when the Taliban have threatened violence against girls' schools.
Still, we have plenty of reminders about the epidemic of violence in our culture and, especially the violence perpetrated by people with guns. And yet, I was astounded to read that there have been 31 school shootings in America since Columbine in 1999. And I was shocked when I read about the number of people killed by handguns this past year: 48 people in Japan, 8 Great Britain, 34 Switzerland, 52 Canada, 58 Israel and 10,728 in The United States.
In a pastoral letter issued on Friday, two of our top denominational leaders wrote:
We must engage in a conversation in this nation about this unbearably ongoing and despairingly repeatable tragedy. Too many innocent lives are being lost. Too many Rachel's are weeping for loved ones gunned down in senseless and increasingly commonplace acts of violence in places like schools and malls. ... Aware of the faith dimensions of this on-going tragedy and informed by our historic commitment to peace and non-violence, Presbyterians must do our part to responsibly end gun violence.
I want to end with a couple of postings by friends of mine. Landon Whitsitt wrote to pastors who would be preaching today (but it could just as easily be for all of us).
You and I are fragile creatures. We bend and break more than any of us would like to admit, but this Sunday is a day to rely on the Holy Spirit to bring to mind all you have been told.
In life and in death we belong to God. That was the Truth I proclaimed at the funeral of my father-in-law who took his own life. It is the Truth that sustains us. It is the Truth for a reason: It is true.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, the pastor of a church that regularly sponsors a hymn sing in neighborhood pubs called "Beer & Hymns," wrote about the importance on shouting down evil with carols of hope. In the aftermath the Denver theater shooting in July, she wrote:
I thought for a moment of cancelling Beer & Hymns on Friday night. ... Thankfully that thought only lasted a moment. Then I posted on Facebook that that night we would still gather to sing praises to God, for, as the funeral mass says even as we go to the grave still we make our song alleluia.
And then after Beer & Hymns we sat in a noisy Denver bar and sang Vespers together, we sang our prayer to God, and in our singing I heard a defiant tone. The sound of a people who simply will not believe that violence wins, a people who know that the sound of the risen Christ speaking each of our names drowns out all other voices.
It drowns out the sound of the political posturing, the sound of cries for vengeance, the sound of our own fears and anxieties and the deafening uncertainty - because all of it is no match for the shimmering sound of the resurrected Christ calling our name...
This is the God to whom we sing. A God who didn't say we would never be afraid but that we would never be alone. A God who shows up. In the violence of the cross, in the darkness of a garden before dawn, in the gardener, in a movie theater, in the basement of a bar.
And, we should add, in a Connecticut schoolhouse. So let us sing joyfully this Christmas. Let us sing lustily of the God who comes in the vulnerability of a baby but whose love will not abandon us even in the face of death. "Joy to the world, this Lord is come." Amen.