And the crowds asked [John the Baptizer], "What then should we do?"
Friday was one of those days...
It's my sermon-writing day, you know. Usually, I start pretty early. Usually, I have something in hand by early afternoon. Not this Friday. Something kept getting in the way: a phone call here, an email there...soon it was early afternoon...and no sermon.
Then I heard the news from Connecticut and I knew what had been happening.Twenty-seven dead in a mass-shooting in an elementary school. God had been doing me a favor by keeping me from writing. Anything I had written before then would have been out the window. Twenty-seven dead. Twenty of them children. The majority of them six years old.
Since then we've all been trying to make sense of this...each of us in our own ways...
The news media have tried to extract a sense of perspective from the numbers.Twenty-seven shot and killed. The second worst act of gun-violence in recent U.S. history...as if numbers could ascribe meaning. Second only to Virginia Tech. And yet - perhaps because of the utter defenselessness of the victims - somehow this feels worse.
The activists - on both sides - have tried to make it make sense by working even harder to justify their pre-existing positions, talking past each other, defending their own righteousness, demonizing those with whom they disagree. As if being convincing yourself that you are right and others are wrong make ever makes anything make sense...or makes you right for that matter.
People of varying degrees of faith are driven to ask, "Where is God in all this?" And found some small degree of comfort in the stories of the selfless acts of teachers and school personnel who sacrificed their lives to save the lives of the children in their care. Or the father of one of the victims, who offered compassion to the family of the shooter and even forgiveness to the young man himself. But somehow even these Christ-like could not fully satisfy our need to wrest some meaning from this.
We want these things to make sense because maybe if they did we could keep them for happening to our kids...our families. We want to find some meaning because if it does happen to us, we want our pain and suffering to mean something.
But perhaps it can't be done. Perhaps sense can't be made, meaning can't found.
There is a Hebrew word for times like this...Shoah...the word Jewish people use to name what English-speakers call the Holocaust...as in ha-Shoah, the Holocaust. We think of it as an event in World War Two in which 7 million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis. But the word Shoah means more than simple millions of people slaughtered. It carries with it the connotation of meaninglessness: of an act beyond understanding, beyond meaning, beyond redemption...maybe even for God...
Ever since I hear the news Friday afternoon, I've had a Scripture stuck in my head - the text appointed for Holy Innocents Day - a story from the Nativity of Jesus, which tells of King Herod ordering the deaths of all the children under two years of age in Bethlehem of Judea, the town in which Jesus was born in an attempt to kill a single child he perceived as a threat to his power: Jesus. You see Herod was the ultimate politician: wise in the ways of power, ruthless in his willingness to do whatever was necessary to keep it, and worst of all, entirely paranoid. Caesar Augustus once said of Herod that he "would rather be Herod's pig than a member of his family." Because Herod, the king of the Judea and three other kingdoms, was at least nominally Jewish, and wasn't afraid of pigs threatening his rule, he was willing to refrain from killing and eating pigs to keep his subjects happy. But family could be a threat to power, and he had already killed his wife and his sons for that very reason.
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: "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."
I think the creators of our lectionary put this feast day where they did - on a weekday following Christmas - because they knew we'd never be willing to sadden our Christmas season by observing it with the reading of this passage.
But I think we should read it now because it tells us two things relevant to the situation in which we find ourselves. The first is that God will not override our choices even when God knows they will lead to great evil: not even at the birth of his Son, and ultimately, not even to avoid his own Son's death. Yet in quoting the text from Jeremiah - of Rachel, spiritual mother of the children of Israel, weeping inconsolably - we learn something else about God. We learn that he came among us in the form of Jesus Christ so that he could be our Immanu-El - our "God with us" - so he would know what it was like to be us: to feel our sorrows and our shame, to experience our suffering and our death. And we learn that he redeems them and gives them meaning, not by fixing them, not by helping us avoid them, but rather by experiencing them alongside us and holding us in his loving embrace until it is finished...and beyond.
How much we all wish that God would promise to keep us safe...or if he could not give us that promise for ourselves, at least promise it for our children: that they would never become victims of the evils of this world. Sadly, for us and for God, that is a promise God cannot make without making us less than human in order to keep it. But there is one thing that God does promise us: that God will be with us everything: that even when the worst happens, God is with us...and that God truly knows what we feel, because God feels it whenever we do.
So we can know that God holds those who died in his arms. Know that God weeps with the parents who mourn. Know that God feels the loss of the children who lost the brothers or sisters or friends. Know that God feels the guilt of the children who can't understand why they lived while others died. Know that God feels our sense of helplessness in the face of persistent evils.
And the crowds asked, "What then should we do?"
And we are asking the same.
I think we should pray.
There is an old West-African saying about prayer, brought to our shores by the slaves our ancestors brought here, and which Frederick Douglass made a little bit better know. It goes something like this:
If you want hear it when God answers your prayer, you've got to be willing to pray with your feet.
What that means is that when you pray, you have be willing to become part of God's answer to your prayer. You not only have to be willing to listen for that still, small voice in your heart, but also willing to answer its call, even if it calls upon to do what does not seem wise in the ways of this world...maybe especially then. To be willing to love when the world says to hate. To be willing to reconcile when the world says to take revenge. To be willing to risk when the world says to play it safe. To give generously to others when the world says to look out for you and yours. To speak when the world counsels silence.
And so I ask you to pray...I ask you to pray with your feet...
A Prayer adapted from the Collects for Holy Innocents Day and the Third Sunday of Advent
We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace. Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen