“What Then Should We Do?”

How differently I read these words in the wake of Friday’s shooting tragedy. “Rejoice in the Lord. I say again, rejoice.”[1] The cognitive dissonance between Paul’s injunction and the grief and horror I feel is enough to make a person’s head explode. This week is Gaudete (Joy) Sunday, and the context strikes me as significant. How are we supposed to be joyful in the midst of such brokenness and grief?

I’ll be honest with you; I had a hard time writing this sermon. Because, what can you say? We are left awash in anger, grief, shock and disbelief. I became aware that something had happened, Friday evening after reading a post online. As news reports were released, the magnitude of the tragedy became evident; 28 dead; 20 of them children under the age of eight. Seeing the pictures of grief struck parents as they realized their children were not among those who had been corralled to a holding area. The repeated reference from first responders that it was the worst event they had seen in decades-long careers. It stands as the second worst school shooting incident, second only to the Virginia Tech shooting that left 34 dead. But these were children. They were little and innocent and trusting. And we are left feeling hollow, confused, angry. How could this happen? A woman walking up the roadway leading from the school wailing, “Why? Why?” This kind of violence is so hard to process.  We wonder what should we do? Paul writes to the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”[2] And it seems so misplaced. And yet, Paul himself was writing from prison, and was apparently dependent on their gifts for his sustenance. He was in danger.

Advent is a time of waiting. We wait for a child to be born, an infant that is born into danger, in a world where violence is an immediate threat. And yet in the midst of that, astonishingly, there is joy. Mary magnifies the Lord for the blessing of the child she is carrying.[3] Advent puts in stark contrast the innocence and vulnerability of a child, of all children, with the brokenness of the world and the deep and profound need for a savior. Paul goes on to write, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.”[4] In the wake of Friday’s events, the last thing I feel is gentle. But it’s no coincidence that this is an Advent text, because, Jesus as a baby in a manger, and Jesus as an adult who called the children (who were seen as property, and were the least of these) to himself; who healed those who society shunned was always about gentleness. Gentleness exists alongside righteous anger but it is, like joy, a choice.

The next part is likely the most challenging, and perhaps the most instructive. Paul tells the Philippians not to worry, and to take their every concern to God in prayer. Paul is saying, this is too big for you; you aren’t supposed to do this all by yourselves. Talk to God, ask for help and understanding; shout and storm and rage if you need to. And remember that God is good and God is near because knowing that allows you to be thankful for God’s presence and love, so go ahead and ask God for what you need. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”[5] I think that might be one of the most beautiful lines in scripture.

As 21st century people in American, we are often taught to stuff our feelings, particularly the ones that are the so-called “negative,” ones. When I talk to people who are hurting, they often feel the need to be strong or stoic. We sometimes feel that it is showing weakness to reveal how much pain we truly feel. And yet the Biblical witness is full of examples of people expressing these difficult emotions. Jeremiah writes, 
 ‘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.’[6]

Rachel was weeping and wailing at the senseless murder of children. But she also expressed her rage in her refusal to be comforted. And in the wake of the 20 children in Connecticut that are no more, mothers wail, fathers rage, a nation mourns, and the president wept. There are many examples of lament, anger, frustration, fear and confusion in scripture. So when we ask “What should we do?” One of the first answers our sacred texts and traditions give us is pray. But this is not some pietistic practice of sugary platitudes. No, the kind of prayer we’re invited to is authentic, deep, real and raw. In wailing and raging, through tears and tenderness, we name the world as terribly broken. And having poured ourselves out to God, we have a better chance at that gentleness that Paul talks about. We open ourselves to feel that peace which is beyond our comprehension.

I’ve been struck by the response to the situation as it unfolded. It wasn’t just the Newtown police who responded, but Connecticut State police, local police from surrounding areas, federal law enforcement and support personnel, and on and off-duty troopers. There are many stories of teachers and staff working quickly and courageously to keep children safe and calm. Citizens with medical training showed up to see if they could be of assistance, and hundreds gathered that night at several candlelight vigils. Mr. Rogers famously 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.”[7]

Another set of responses has to do with calls to reform gun legislation, though Connecticut currently has some of the most stringent laws in the country. State police emphasized the care and counseling being provided to all the first responders, as well as families of victims and those in the community. And yet what were the circumstances that led a young man, barely more than a teenager, to kill innocent children and take his own life? We, as a nation, are left to wrestle with the need for access to affordable mental health care, and the stigma that follows those who suffer with mental health issues.

In the gospel lesson, the crowds follow John the Baptist asking to be baptized. I don’t know if his response would have surprised them, but I find it challenging. As one scholar asks, “Can anyone tell, by observing our lives, that we bear the mark of Christ and are living as his faithful disciples?”[8] Because that is what John is asking. And when they ask him, “What then should we do?” He gives very practical advice, tailored to each person and their particular vocation. You must look out for one another, share what you have and make sure your neighbor has food and clothing. You must treat people fairly and not cheat them or abuse the power of your office.

In the wake of Friday’s tragedy, we might well ask ourselves, “What then should we do?” There are a number of ways to help that are available. The one that has been suggested by many people, including President Obama, is to hug your children and spend time with them. The United Way and the Red Cross, as well as a number of private foundations are accepting donations to help the victims and community members of the shooting. Some people are sending cards to local churches in Newtown with prayers and thoughts of support, or holding vigils locally. We could simply refrain from demonizing this young man, whose actions may have been evil, but who was none-the-less still a human being and still a child of God, and pray for his family. And there is a very pressing need to call on legislators and insurance carriers, to lobby for affordable, available mental health care services.

John tells the people to share what they have. He tells the tax collector to be honest and fair. He tells the soldier to not extort money or abuse those around him and to not be tempted by greed. What might John ask of you? Asked another way, how could you be a “helper” in the context of your life? Take a moment to talk with your neighbor. Try to come up with one concrete action you might take.  [The Congregation discusses, 5 min]

As scholar Wesley Abram observes, “John calls the good works that make hearers worthy of their baptism, “fruit” borne from the tree of their lives.” He goes on to say, “It is not enough lazily to claim oneself the fruit of Abraham (or the Roman army). It is not enough to presume that because one is a child of the church, a “good citizen,” or a person of status, one is secure before God. . . . We are the tax collectors—dependent upon unjust structures for our livelihood. We are as the occupying army—caught in a culture of exploitation and violence . . .”[9]

But we are also a people of Advent hope. And we are called to be a tree that bears the fruit of sharing with our neighbor; dealing fairly and honestly in the small everyday interactions of our lives; claiming the hurts of a small town in Connecticut, or Portland[10] or China[11] that has seen violence and tragedy, as our own; reaching out to those who are isolated, disenfranchised or desolate. We are called to show gentleness to everyone. And we are called to recognize that the only way such fruits are possible is through, as Abram puts it, “the One who does more than water the tree. It is the One who is the life of the tree itself, its metaphorical fire. It is the one who is coming,”[12] and for whom we wait. And we are a people who choose joy. We are a people of hope. Amen.


[1] Philippians 4:4

[2] Ibid.

[3] Refers to Luke 1:39-55

[4] Philippians 4:5

[5] Ibid., 4:7

[6] Jeremiah 31:15

[8] Kathy Beach-Verhey, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1, 73.

[9] Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1, 71-2.

[10] Clackamas Town Center Shooting, December 12, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/11/clackamas-town-center-shooting_n_2280786.html

[11] Knife attack at primary school in Henan, China, December 14, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-20723910

[12] Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1, 72.