Rev. Matthew Gunia
Sermon in Response to the School Shooting in Newton, Connecticut
Advent 3, Series C
Preached at St. John, Niles, IL
16 December 2012
Grace, mercy, and peace be yours from God, our Father, and Jesus Christ, out Lord.
I have prepared a sermon I’m quite happy with, based on today’s Gospel lesson. I was actually looking forward to preaching this sermon. But I won’t be preaching that sermon today.
I’m a firm believer in the lectionary system—the 3-year cycle of readings. It prevents me from preaching on politics or societal movements or current events. It makes sure that Jesus is the focus of our worship services and not my own idiosyncratic ideas. It is a means by which we fulfill Jesus’ will for his Church to “be in the world, but not of the world.” It ensures that as the triumphs and tragedies of life swirl around us, in here is it peaceful, calm, and always centered on Jesus.
It would take something really big to convince me to break with Church tradition and preach a topical sermon. And, on Friday, we had such an event. As all of us are aware, there was yet another school shooting (and yes, it really pains me to say “another” in reference to school shootings). Friday’s school shooting surpasses previous ones not in quantity (the Virginia Tech events, for example, produced more casualties); but Friday’s tragedy was different with respect to its quality. Specifically with regard to the young age of the victims.
I would like to address these events. Quite frankly, I say in advance, I don’t feel up to the task. This is a complex and highly emotional series of events. It deserves more than just a few hours of thought and work, but I will try to address these things as faithfully and pastorally as I am able.
At the outset, let me first tell you what this sermon is NOT about. This sermon is not about guns, nor is it about the Second Amendment, nor is it about gun control legislation. This sermon is not about school security. This sermon is not about mental health awareness nor about health care for those with mental diseases. You can research those more-political issues and come to thoughtful, reasonable conclusions on your own. My job is not to teach you political opinions, my job is to teach you about God and his Word.
If these Connecticut event teaches you anything, it’s that evil exists in the world. Many have spoken about how much things have changed during the course of a generation—that events like this in Connecticut were unheard of when you were in school. Nobody would ever have thought of such a thing. This may be so. But this doesn’t mean that evil suddenly came into being within the last couple decades.
Satan has hated you from the beginning. His hatred toward you is not a new development nor has his hatred toward you intensified recently. The hatred of Satan and the evil he introduced into this world manifests itself in every generation. From Nazi concentration camps to genocide in African nations…from abortions to nuclear ambitions…from the ancient practice of mutilating prisoners of war to the modern practice of suicide bombings, evil has been alive and well since Adam ate the fruit and Cain killed Abel.
I happened to be reading a short book by Martin Luther entitled “Fourteen Consolations.” It was written to an honorable Christian nobleman who tried to live his life right, who took his Christian faith very seriously and tried to live a life characterized by kindness and faithfulness…and yet was struck with a horrible disease. It was believed that his disease (which may have led to his death) was tragic and undeserved.
Luther wrote to the nobleman a number of things to bring him comfort in his trouble. Among them, Luther attempts to teach lessons one can learn in the midst of tragedy. One thing it teaches is how much evil exists in the world and how much protection we need. Evils, dangers, murders, disease, betrayals, and every threat surrounding us and seeking to have its way with us at all times. When evil makes itself known (as it did Friday), it rightly causes us to be afraid…to pray…and to depend more fully on God’s abiding protection.
Luther also wrote that tragedy inspires thankfulness for all the evils that have not come to fruition. For the sick nobleman, Luther encouraged him to give thanks for all the days of health he enjoyed. How many of you, like our sign reads, hugged your children or grandchildren tighter…appreciated them more?
I’m not saying we should look at the silver lining or develop a Pollyanna approach to even the most disgusting tragedies. No. I am saying we should look at the state of the world realistically. We live in a broken, broken, broken, sick, dangerous, and disgusting world. And we have an infinitely loving, abiding, gracious and protecting God.
Which leads to another question. So, where was God when these events were taking place? Why did God allow this to happen? It’s a tough question. And I’m not going to pretend to be Pastor Know-It-All and say I know exactly what God was thinking. His thoughts remain above mine and his ways remain beyond my understanding. I can’t tell you why he allowed one man with murderous intentions carry out his grotesque plans and he thwarts countless other equally disgusting plans (plans we will always be ignorant of).
I will tell you what I do know, though. God loves you and so he has decided NOT to populate the world with unthinking robots or brain-dead zombies. He didn’t create you as servants, but as his beloved children. We call him “Our Father in heaven.” Jesus himself calls you friends. As such, God gives you dignity, creativity, imagination, resourcefulness…and choice.
You are free to choose what God teaches you is good and right…or you are free to go your own way. And some people who go their own way use their resourcefulness and creativity to destroy lives. Such was the case in Connecticut. Such is the case throughout the world and across the generations.
God could just speak a word and *bam* everyone is kind and obedient and loving. But good parents don’t beat their children into obedience, good parents don’t brainwash their children into submission. Good parents love their children, treat them with respect, discipline them, teach them right from wrong, and the let the make their own decisions…even when those decisions are stupid or destructive.
The wages of sin is death…and this isn’t just the death of the sinner, sin often produces innocent victims as well.
This weekend has been filled with talk of death and helplessness and fear. And there wouldn’t be much hope for us if that’s all there is in life—just live your life and then death happens and then that’s it.
If we hope in God only from our cradle to our grave, we really are a bunch of fools, aren’t we? But the truth is that death does not reign. The truth is that 2,000 years ago, a man named Jesus of Nazareth was also innocently and tragically killed by crazed, bloodthirsty men…but that same Jesus rose from the dead.
Jesus conquered death. Jesus conquered death. Let that sink into your ears. Jesus conquered death. Understand the enormity of that statement. Death isn’t the end of things. This means that young men with guns don’t win. This means that warlords and dictators don’t win. This means that hurricanes don’t win. This means that cancer doesn’t win.
Death’s been mastered! A man—Jesus of Nazareth—defeated death! Even in the midst of evil we can’t understand, we have a hope that is present and standing strong even in the midst of school- or mall- or movie theater-shootings. We have a hope that is present and standing strong in times of war, in times of loss, and in times of sickness. We have a hope that is present and standing strong “though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us.”
We have a living hope because Jesus himself is living. And because of Jesus Resurrection and our Baptism in to that Resurrection, we take hope and find comfort in those things we all confess every week at St. John. We believe in the communion of saints. We believe in the forgiveness of sins. We believe in the resurrection of the body We believe in life everlasting. Even as Martha said to Jesus at the tomb of her brother, Lazarus, “I know that he will rise again at the Resurrection of the Last Day.”
And while we live in an evil and dangerous world, awaiting the fulfillment of the hope that is to come, we don’t just sit around idly. We are to be active.
I personally dislike Facebook, but I logged on yesterday. Kathy’s cousin posted on Facebook a Mr. Rogers quote. When talking with children about frightening news events, Mr. Rogers advises parents to point out the helpers…that there are lots of people helping other people. This is practical advice when the tragedy is time zones away. And when the tragedy is here (whether it makes international news or it’s ignored by the world), we—the Church—are to be the helpers…and we are to teach one another to do the same.
We are not to be idle. Since we live in a dangerous world, we are to prepare ourselves for evil by teaching ourselves about our hope…by cultivating a life of prayer…of receiving the Sacrament of the Altar…by learning about Jesus, the source of our hope.
And finally, we are to be diligent in teaching our children and grandchildren about Jesus. We are to instill hope firmly within them. We are to teach them about forgiveness, Resurrection, peace, and all the words and deeds of Jesus. We are to teach them to pray. And if you don’t have children or grandchildren in our family to serve in this way, you’re not off the hook. We, as the Church, are to teach and serve the children of our congregations. For they live in dreadful times and they need your help and guidance in strengthening that hope given them in Baptism.
It is my sincere prayer that we never have to “break from our regularly scheduled programming for breaking news” of this nature ever again. I hope I’m never forced by tragedies to deviate from the lectionary again. And yet I’m realistic enough to know that as long as this earth still exists, there will always be tears. We hope in a God who loves you and promises to wipe away all tears forever more…even Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.