A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on December 23, 2012.
Luke 1:39-45 (46-55)
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
The fourth Sunday of the pageant of Advent is sometimes known as Mother’s Day. Mary (a soprano, don’t you know) went to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth (an alto) in an unnamed village in Judea. As in the opera, they tell their stories in song because they are both unexpectedly expecting.
Mary, who was not hoping to be pregnant, learned she was carrying God’s child. Elizabeth, almost bereft of hope from long years of watching her monthly cycle as her womb’s endless metronome of infertility, learned she was expecting. Both of them were greeted by angels (messengers of God) and both had songs to sing in response.
When they came together, Elizabeth’s child jumped at the arrival of Mary. We are told this so we might recall how Rachel’s twins jumped in her womb. That story intersects this one by telling us the younger would be served by the elder and that the younger child, not the older, would be the bearer of God’s promise. Together, they sing the prophets because of their great shared joy.
After Elizabeth’s aria, Mary sings the Magnificat, a beautiful doxology of God and the church has been singing our way to Bethlehem ever since. Songs and hymns and spiritual songs all lift up the child and the birth by these mothers of God. The heart of our worship today is built on lessons and carols, meaning the text is subdivided neatly into the vignettes that tell the story and woven together with the carols of Christmas.
Hymn writer Jane Parker Huber tells of her childhood in a university church: “When I say we went to church every Sunday, I mean we really went to church. There was no childcare for us other than our mother, who quietly provided paper and pencil and on occasion and who hand was known to grab a restless child’s knee if worshipers in nearby pews were distracted. The first part of worship in which we could participate was the singing of hymns … Our singing confirmed for us, deep in our being, the wonder of God’s creation. We learned the transcendence of God. We learned about God’s loving presence. We learned some of the paradoxes of the Christian faith.”
But not all songs of faith are happy-faith songs. There are times when songs must take a minor chord and we must sing our pain. One of the Hebrew prophets understood the dilemma of singing in a time of severe pain when he asked plaintively after being carried into Babylon after being conquered, “How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?” The soul was lost in the displacement and even if they wanted to sing, no words would come and no music could be voiced.
To be honest, everything about Christmas is different this year. Don’t get me wrong, the decorations are just as wonderful and amazing as usual, the music this season is as lovely as it should be, and there is the sense of expectation that should make Christmas all it should be. But we can’t be honest about all these things unless we recognize that Christmas has taken a hit this year.
Jason Coker is the pastor of the church in Wilton CT. He and his church are just down the road from Newtown and like any other big event, the repercussions of that awful event have rippled powerfully through their community. No one’s more than a person or two away from being touched in a personal way.
We’ve talked several times this week about how the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship could be a supportive community of faith for him and his church. Thus, he urges us to pray. Behind all the news stories and the endless commentaries that have been made, there is the reality of just what cost has been levied upon the community where he lives.
Here’s his note from Friday with details how he wants us to pray for all of them:
Pray for the first responders who came into Sandy Hook Elementary last Friday. Almost all of them have been taken off duty due to the psychological impact of what they saw. It was gruesome. Every victim including the perpetrator had two to eleven gunshot wounds. The carnage from the weapon used has damaged these men. Pray for them and their families. Many of the clergy at the meeting has these men in their churches and synagogues. When the first responders arrived, the massacre was over and all they saw as they secured the building was what was left.
Pray for our local clergy who have been and are performing all these funerals and who will be counseling thousands of people over the next several months and years. They are devastated by these events and are being looked to for answers to questions that have no answers. Some of them have been raked over the coals by the media for trying to say helpful things that were misinterpreted. They suffer along with everyone else, but have no pastor to turn to at the moment. Other area clergy associations are responding to them at the moment, but they certainly need your prayer and care now and in the near future.[i]
In light of this great tragedy, what are we to think? In what ways have the terrible shootings that took the lives of 20 six and seven year old innocents changed how you view the world?
The conversation in the aftermath has centered on guns. Admittedly as a child, like little Ralphie, I always hoped for a gun. In a sense the movie, The Christmas Story, is not a parody of Christmas past, it was like a documentary of the home I grew up in. But I don’t think the authors of the Second Amendment, written in a time of single shot muskets, could fathom the idea that the right to be armed included the arsenal of weapons as we’ve seen in these mass shootings.
Are guns the question or the answer? It would seem on the surface that the issue is a political issue but deep down in our souls we know there is a moral issue as well. We cannot disagree on the fact that we are a violent culture, almost unexplainable in light of our commerce and our role as peace keepers in the world. The Achilles heel of our country is our love of guns and violence. We kill more people with guns than any other country in the world. Assuming the issue is partly grounded in moral or spiritual terms would be a help, it seems to me. I will also assume that a reasonable approach to gun control would be in order as an answer that begins to put some boundaries around the issue. Why would we not do this?
As is often the case when something horrific happens, we’ve heard a strange mix of good and awful spiritual answers to the question, why? To be honest, in the past week we heard an overwhelming amount of spiritual schlock that with few exceptions outweighed the thoughtful, spiritually responsible commentaries.
Make no mistake, I am profoundly grateful for the ways in which President Obama has led us through these dark, distressing days following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary. So why was it so troubling when, after he read name after name of 6- and 7-year-old children, he concluded, “God has called them all home”?
The problem was the suggestion, albeit unintentional, that God was the catalyst, the actor in determining when these children left the arms of their parents and ended up in God’s embrace alone. The problem is one might assume God took these small children from their families forever. I believe to my core that on that awful day God received every one of those children and adults into God’s embrace but I don’t believe God called them home any more than God intends the untimely deaths of the 8 children and youths who are killed by guns every day in our nation — one death of a child by guns every three hours.
When the reality of that awful event began to work its way down into my soul, I began to think about the birth of Jesus and how when Herod considered how much trouble was brewing at the news of this child’s birth, he ordered the deaths of all the male babies in and around Bethlehem under the age of two. It’s a story in Matthew’s gospel and it goes by many names but often it’s referred to simply as the “slaughter of the innocents.” In the story, the mothers are not singing arias, rather they are crying out in the deepest anguish quoting the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children.”
Sisters and brothers, we have work to do. We have a response to give in the face of such suffering. What will it be? Perhaps the words of this Franciscan benediction are meant for us:
May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so you may work for justice, freedom and peace?
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so you can do what others claim cannot be done.
[i] Dr. Jason Coker, Pastor Wilton Baptist Church, Wilton CT, personal correspondence, 12/21/12
Intentional interim minister at Countryside Community Church of Omaha, Nebraska, the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership with the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).