Sermon preached by Deacon Christopher Holms at the 8 & 10:15 AM services on Advent III - following the tragedy in Newtown...
It is no easy thing that I stand before you today to preach the Good News that has come down through the ages to bring comfort, freedom, and understanding of our place in God’s universe. I was quite prepared to speak about St. John the Baptist and his calling to herald in the dawn of a new age by proclaiming the coming of the Messiah to desperate people in desperate times.
I do not get the easy task of reading that sermon. It has disappeared from my mind and replaced by something I would rather not have to acknowledge. On this third week of Advent, we light Mary’s candle. As Mary awaits the birth of her son with all the love and excitement an expecting mother has, we in turn pray to her for all of the mother’s who have lost the lives of their sons and daughters this Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
We call out to God, “Why did you let this happen? Why did you not send your angels to help the innocent?” I have even heard atheists put grieving Christians to the test by declaring that we worship a God who uses people to kill children. This deranged statement is not something new when one is trying to break down another person’s faith. And this question is was part of my own painful cries as I sat in my living room crying in the moment of confusion, anger and sadness.
Faith should always be questioned; otherwise we are merely children reciting verse which we do not understand. This is the struggle of faith. However, I would rather struggle with my faith than be a self absorbed atheist where there is no hope, no redemption, nor any belief at all. This is the problem of pain, as C.S. Lewis had written. This problem of pain, of terror, of God's silence that we all struggle for deeper meaning and purpose in our lives and our universe.
So, I struggle with the question of why? In today’s gospel reading we come to an eccentric man shouting out “Salvation” and “Repent”. He has sworn off material things and has dedicated his entire life to the Word of God. People from all over ask John, “How can we be saved?” And he tells them to treat people fairly and respect them with love.
How is this any different than the teachings of the prophets, the books of Wisdom, the teachings of Jesus Christ himself, or any other teacher of peace? It’s not. So then why do we keep asking the same question over and over and over again? What makes us sincerely ask, “What must I do?” and then not be able or willing to do it?
It is as Christ has said to Peter, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” We acknowledge the spirit, as a society, but it is becoming a concept as we turn to worship the flesh. The flesh is always an easier path, a quicker path to pleasure and that is what we want as a society. The spirit is much more difficult to pursue, but once mastered offers the individual freedom that no Constitution can offer.
I was in a debate with an atheist about what had occurred and my answer went as such, "When God and morality are taken out of school, government, our courts and homes something else will come to take its place. People need to wake up. Today was the first time I cried in years because of these innocent deaths and the realization of what parents and society are doing to our children.
“We people of faith have given permission, and silent confirmation, that it is okay for God not to be part of our lives. We have dismissed God as nothing more than a catch all for bad news to point a finger at, or a lucky blessing for when something good happens. So, what takes God’s place? What has entered into the school systems, the homes, the courts, and our government to take His place and the place of his teachings?
I recently took a two hour course, which really should have been six hours, on human trafficking and the underage sex trade business. It was horrifying to realize that in this day and age there are more slaves on earth than any other period in history. That here in Connecticut in our small towns and cities boys from Haiti are being forced as housekeepers, and our young girls are being forced to prostitute themselves.. This business is flourishing so well that it jumped to the second most profitable crime in the world next to drugs.
Children are playing rated M video games with their parent’s permission. They watch the evening news and adult television depicting crime, violence, rape, foul language, and the worship of money. Their young and underdeveloped brains are being desensitized to violence and pain. As they shoot time after time at men and women and while laughing, because after all it’s only a game, their heart rates increase at the excitement and death becomes fun. What is the average per week that they play these games and watch these shows that are replacing the compassion of God with violence and cruelty? If we look at Adam Lanza’s video game collection I have no doubt in my mind what he played.
So, where is the hope in all this mess? One of my favorite quotes from Anne Frank is this, “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death.” This written by a girl who for two years hid in the attic avoiding Nazi persecution. She is correct. This is how we all start off. But when we refuse to spread the word of God, when we deny the teachings of Jesus, and when we do not give sufficient love to our innocent children then that “goodness” of which Anne speaks of turns into something terrible.
I want to remind you of something that many people may have missed in the chaos and sadness of this event, and every event that imitates it. It is a lesson from Mr. Rogers. I grew up watching Mr. Rogers and I loved him. As I grew as a teenager, I found him silly and could not appreciate his teachings any more. Now, as an adult I see his wisdom and crave to hear him speak again.
He said, "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in this world."
And that is the thing, isn’t it? The world is full of goodness. There are people who are following the teachings of John the Baptist, who are striving to do the right thing. It may seem to be less and less in this world, but that is simply not true. We hear of the evil that has penetrated our sleeping society, but there are good people, people like the ones sitting in this church every Sunday, who are trying to do our best.
There are teachers like Victoria Soto who hid her first graders in closets and drawers and then stood toe to toe with Lanza, died telling him that her class was in the gym and saving their lives at the peril of her own. That is a hero! The officers, paramedics, priests, counselors, people we never knew all rushed to the scene to help. Those are heroes! Those are people who have heard St. John’s message and responded to the call.
Before I leave today to watch my two boys and Reverend Kurt’s son perform their first Nutcracker, I want to leave you with these words from my brother, Adam, who is their ballet master.
"Today's lesson - perspective. The core of my teaching philosophy is to nurture and celebrate children. Today not only solidified this belief but also put dance into perspective. Dance for children should be nothing less than joyful. Yes, strive for kids to reach their best but keep in mind that dancing is one more chance for children to be free, one more chance to create a memory. To all my nutcrackers I love you, this weekend is a celebration of you and a celebration of those who are not able to dance."
Go home and celebrate the blessings in your lives. There are those of us who this Christmas cannot. It is time for us to not be afraid of who we are. It is time for us to be Christians and evangelize the lessons as St. John the Baptist would have us do. This Christmas, don’t worry so much about the gift, as nice as they are to give and to receive. This Christmas focus on love, focus on being together.
Thank you, Amen.