All day Friday, I was holed up in my study writing the bulletin and working on this sermon. I heard the last few seconds of a news cast about a shooting at lunch. I had no idea until I switched on the news at 5 pm that yet another mass shooting had happened that morning.
I am not a put-my-head-under-the-sand kind of guy when it comes to this stuff. But by the time I heard the news, I was glad I hadn’t heard it earlier. It was impossible not to choke out a sob. . . and for people I do not even know. I was glad I had finished this sermon. I won’t preach again until December 30 and I wanted to preach a Christmas Sermon.
I am going to preach that Christmas Sermon. It is not what it was at 4pm on Friday. But it is a Christmas sermon, and I can’t think of what we need more than that at a time like this.
There will be all sorts of news articles and stories about how the holiday for Newtown will be bleak — as though that were news. But if I were the pastor of a church in Newtown, this shooting would not stop us from holding worship on Christmas eve and singing, of all things, “Joy to the World.”
Part of what happens, or should happen every time we talk about Christmas joy, is that we should reflect on the responsibility to which that joy is a response or a reward. And when we do that we inevitably come face to face with a profound realization — We are free agents in a world that can be traumatic, and frightening and miserable. To us is given a choice, by nothing other than the ultimate ground of life itself, to continue in that misery by feeling sorry for ourselves or violent or isolated or we can resolve to live with purposeful goodness, to do justice and to walk humbly in love in all that we do. That’s the responsibility for which joy comes as reward.
After the initial flood of grief and feeling of horror that choked me for a few minutes, I compensated. My left brain took over and my grief and horror turned to anger. For the third time in a month, a high profile public shooting has left our country reeling. And yet what? What have we done? It seems we don’t really care because most of the victims of this violence are minorities and children? Almost 50000 people die violent gun deaths each year in this beautiful country of ours. — 8 children a day, on average.
I can name that anger now in the fine words of Nicholas Kristoff, in whose op ed piece yesterday, I learned that to administrators of that elementary school, knowing they would likely get shot, charged the gunman to try to stop him. Kristoff wrote: ” What do we make of the contrast between heroic teachers who stand up to a gunman and craven, feckless politicians who won’t stand up to the N.R.A.?”
I am not going to use this Christmas sermon to preach about our desperate need for more brave people to stand up to the anti-gun control lobby. As important as that might be. And as in line as it is with the gospel
There’s something else I want us to get about Christmas because it matters so much today, two days after this horror, because it matters today ten days before Christmas, and it’ll matter next month 30 days after Christmas. And that is that unless Christ is a thousand times born in our hearts, Christmas, December 25, means nothing.
Here’s what I mean. Historically speaking the birth of Jesus is important — it has mattered to the history of the world. But for you and for me? The historical event of Christmas what happened and when, does not matter. It doesn’t mathter whether we celebrate it today or next month does it. “Christmas,” is not the point.
Only two of our five Gospel writers (including Thomas) say anything about the event of the birth of Jesus. And what they say does not agree in historical specifics. (We’ll see that next week in the children’s Christmas pageant!) But they absolutely agree on the story.
This story is complete with a whole cast of unlikely characters, starting with a pregnant teenager and her fiance who are too poor to help themselves. The only visitors that Luke records are a couple of terrified shepherds from the nearby fields. This is no high-falutin Christmas in St. Paul’s Cathedral. The story Matthew tells has some immigrants visit and tells of their own immigration to escape persecution.
Matthew’s and especially Luke’s story, re-directs the objects of our fascination away from celebrity culture or from high art or abstract ideas, to the real life of most of us — complete with anxiety and poverty and glamourlessness — to the moment of now. This gospel redirection, this birth narrative upsetting the cart reminds me of something terribly wrong that the famous American author William Faulkner once said — “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.” Here Faulkner’s idea of art falls so short of the life that that scene in the stable expresses about everything we would really value — humility and honesty, peace, new life, commitment courage and hope, as to be absurd. In the Christmas story, we see that our deepest, most abiding responsibility is to live a life that abides these things.
Except of course that Faulkner’s absurdity would be laughable if it weren’t so widely esteemed and emulated. We live in a culture that wants easy figures to look at on screen, that vaunts high-society over hard work, and humble abodes. We live in an age of fast, sleek, plugged-in and that tells us joy can only be found in the flattest television screen or the shiniest sports car. We live in a culture that values the right to own guns over almost everything else.
This absurdity happens in religion too. A constant temptation, observable through the history of the church, has been to turn the story of a birth meant to mock empire and royal births, into just that. The temptation of the church has been to remove all of the breathing room in that stable, breathing room for peasant and magi, for shepherd and unwed mother, for the leper and the unwanted — to remove it and make it something processed, mechanical, and gilded — and do it violence.
The history of Christianity is a history of turning away from the peasant man, Jesus of Nazareth, who urged people to rethink their lives in the light of his radical call to love, toward a processed Jesuschrist miracle maker and problem solver of our lives. The history of Christianity, sadly, has been about removing the breathing room around Jesus; turning the man whom people had discovered as a window to God, into a set of beliefs to be accepted with a yes or a no. “Yes,” and you don’t need to worry about joy, you’ve got it. “No,” and well, that’s too bad.
Our Advent and Christmas texts speak over again about joy. But unless we can turn from Faulkner’s idea that little people do not matter in the larger picture, unless we can put aside the processed Jesuschrist miracle maker and create some breathing room for the widows and the pregnant teens, open up some space for the dirty, smelly shepherds in the church this joy will be as elusive and short lived as the treasure in the field would be if the farmer sold it.
We began worship this morning by reading about a different farmer. He too had a treasure in his field. But Wendell Berry’s parable is made more understandable because this farmer has a choice: stay in bed, per the doctors orders — and take care of himself (one kind of treasure — the treasure that rusts) or tend to his sheep. In the Dayspring, the farmer gets up out of sick-bed and heads out to the field.
Berry wonders: is this
stubbornness or bravado?
No. Only an ordinary act
of profoundest intimacy in a day
that might have been better. Still
the world persisted in its beauty,
he in his gratitude, and for this
he had most earnestly prayed.
An ordinary act.
In the argument that has ensued, once again, over gun-control, we’ve forgotten this. We get tied up in knots about policy and about whether there is constitutional ground or about the number of guns already out there or about the fact that only criminals will have guns or that only mental illness plays a role. And we’ve forgotten our responsibility to the ordinary — the the knowns and the unknowns alike.
Yes, all of those are true and difficult.
But we are called away from this debate today, to put the breathing spaces back into our narrative. To allow ordinary acts of profoundest intimacy to guide our thinking about the big policy issues around guns we need to be making.
Twenty children were killed on Friday and 6 adults. Eight more on Saturday and eight more today.
For these we earnestly pray.