The Promise of Joy: A Response to the Massacre in Connecticut

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President Obama pauses during address to the nation.President Obama pauses while addressing the nation from the White House briefing room the afternoon of the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. (Dec. 14, 2012)

Below is the sermon I preached on December 16, 2012 at University Presbyterian Church, the third Sunday in Advent, in response to the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The audio version is available on my sermons page.

Scripture: Philippians 4.4-7 and Luke 3.7-18

There are no words to make sense of what occurred this weekend in Newtown, Connecticut. There is no way to “answer” what happened. Paul tells his followers in Philippi to rejoice in the Lord always. But let’s be honest: it’s hard to rejoice on the heels of a tragedy when twenty 6 and 7 year old children and six of their teachers and staff are killed. What happened this weekend in Newtown, Connecticut is so beyond my average nightmare, it’s difficult to even imagine. It is easy to get angry or allow our grief to consume us. You’re right, this doesn’t make any sense: why would anyone gun down a classroom of innocent 1st graders? There is no excuse that could possibly justify such heinous evil.

Within hours the news media and social media were abuzz with dialogue about gun control. At the same time the White House Press Secretary cautioned reporters on the President’s desire to not politicize this event by talking about gun control, my friend Bruce, former moderator of our denomination, wrote: “While it might seem to be politically prudent and socially acceptable to avoid talking about difficult issues like guns, if we – families, communities and governments – hope to experience health, wholeness and healing, avoiding that which is emotional, difficult and painful is never a sustainable strategy.”

Then yesterday the President came out and offered a nod toward the inevitable conversation about which he has been outspoken in the past, saying: “we have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this.”

There is a time when we will need to talk about it, but I’m not convinced the first few days after something like this is a time to engage in policy talk. Our emotions are too raw. It’s difficult to think or act clearly. Now is a time to engage our Christian practices of gathering, praying, and simply consoling one another, sitting together in the anxiety and ambiguity. Now is the time to go deeper in our time with God by asking the hard and painful questions of God before we get to the difficult questions we have for one another as a community and as a nation. Step away from the news now and then. Take a break. We can only take so much before it consumes us. Step away from social media and the internet and find a quiet place to just be with God. Spend your time sharing with God what you are feeling, and then spend time in silence listening and trying to hear God’s weeping for all of us, especially for the community of Newtown.

As we move closer to Christmas, closer to the time of remembering God’s coming into our lives, closer to the time of gathering and celebrating God’s many blessings, let’s be intentional about also remembering those in Connecticut and around the world who are entering this season with giant holes in their hearts. There is a time for seeking justice, but in this season and in the days following such a horrific tragedy, this is a time for remembering:

  • remembering the lives lost,
  • remembering those devastated by loss,
  • remembering those challenged by emotional angst and mental illness,
  • remembering that we are raw and sensitive right now,
  • remembering to give ourselves and others extra grace in the coming weeks,
  • remembering Christ’s words that love is the foundation of our life together as followers,
  • remembering that God’s love is stronger than the violence and the pain and the fear,
  • remembering that God is with the parents and families of those children, teachers, and staff who were killed,
  • remembering that God is with us in our shock and our grief.

There will be a time when we will need to address the policy issues that have given rise to this situation, but now is not it. There will be a time when we will need to sit down, when our eyes are dryer and our nerves are less raw, when the reality of what has happened has had time to really sink in and we have had time to process it, but not right now. Right now we focus on the friends and families of the dead and seek to console them with our prayers and our compassion. Right now we realize how devastated we are and how sore our hearts are, and how sensitive our emotions are, and how much we really need to lean into God and on one another more, and open our hearts more to allow God to come in that much more. And then, we must sit . . . in the silence . . . and breathe . . . and let the tears of our sadness, our anger, and our confusion run down.

[Moment of Silence]

Sometimes I feel that I cannot rejoice.

The dark of night creeps in and holds on tight;

Anxiety soon overtakes my sight,

My thoughts so dense I cannot give them voice.

The world careens along—there is no choice.

We leave the broken ones to win their fight

And turn the outcasts out, as if that’s Right.

How can we shout within the noise—rejoice!?

And yet when life becomes too much we must

Rejoice the more, give thanks, cry out, implore

The One who gathers outcasts from the dust,

Who raises up the broken ones to soar,

Renew your love in me I pray and trust

Your unparalleled peace on us will pour.

~Wendy N. Lamb
San Bernardino, California (Dec. 2012)

When we practice the love, hope, and joy of God, we bring peace into this world, especially in the troubling times. When we practice joy in the ordinary times, that joy breeds hope in the painful times. This joy is not the same as happiness, it’s much deeper than that. This joy settles deep within our souls and gives us the strength to endure even the most devastating of tragedies, it is what sustains us when our thirst for justice is unquenched. Today, in the midst of our grief, our anger, our tears, our broken hearts, and even our fear, we need to lean farther into our Christian practices to rediscover that ancient wisdom that helps us move forward, that ancient hope that connects across the ages to those who suffered heartache and death, that ancient and mysterious love that helps us remember. So let us never forget who we are and whose we are.

Guide our hearts and minds, O Lord of love. Help us remember the joy of your love that sustains us in times like these. Amen.

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