Well, friends, this is it. Friday is coming, 12/21/12; and if the Mayans are right, then this will be our last time together. So I just want to say, “So long, and thanks for all the good times.” Why do we even know about things like this?!? Apparently, the ancient Mayan calendar was divided into eras, and the current era draws to a close this Friday. It wasn’t until the 1990s, one author/pseudo-scholar described the date as the Mayan apocalypse; and from there, it got picked up by conspiracy theorists and other fringe elements and spread into our popular culture. Mayan scholars have come forward to proclaim this whole idea as nonsense. NASA has made it clear that there are no extra-terrestial “events” afoot that might lead to some cataclysm. It’s all fatuous fantasy. And yet, almost every one of us here knows about the supposed significance of this date.
It’s clear that our 24-hour news culture is partially to blame. After all, they feel compelled to fill the airwaves with sound and fury. As much as we might like to blame “the media”, the truth is that they sell what we buy. And boy, do we buy it! Listen to the holiday blockbuster films coming out: Tom Cruise’s Oblivion, which takes place sixty years after earth has been evacuated; Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, where aliens rise up from inside the earth’s crust to attack; Will Smith’s After Earth, where he and his son crash land on the planet 1000 years after it was abandoned; the next installment of Star Trek, where the Enterprise crew looks to defend an entire planet against destruction…do you see a pattern here? There seems to be a general sense of doom and unease in our world today.
Now, it’s important to note that we are not the first generation to feel as though everything is crashing down around us. Look no further than our text from Luke’s gospel. The spectacle of John the Baptist is gathering the crowds in the wilderness. And John is never one to mince words: there is a coming wrath; don’t just sit there and rest on your Abrahamic laurels; a tree that bears bad fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. Or, as the cheeky bumper sticker puts it, “Jesus is coming; look busy.”
Every era of humanity is convinced that we are the last. And in a sense, we may all be right, because our world seems so permanently fragile. As if we needed any reminder of our tentative ability to hold things together, this past Friday news began to trickle, then stream, in from Connecticut: another mass shooting, this one at an elementary school, where the heaviest casualties were, most cruelly, among the youngest.
It’s one of those moments in our national consciousness where we remember for years exactly where we were when we first heard. And in the 24-hour news vacuum, predictably, questions about gun control have arisen immediately. Advocates on both sides are citing the incident as evidence in their favor. I have my own strong opinions about that issue, which I will refrain from sharing this morning; but for my money, the most coherent, and frankly, theological, thought came not after this shooting, but two weeks ago.
You heard about this, I’m sure. During the broadcast of Sunday Night Football, Bob Costas spoke about the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide in Kansas City. Whatever you might think about the stance Costas took, or whether a football broadcast was the right place to do so, I personally think he nailed it with his first words. He talked about how the most common refrain we hear at moments like these is that tragedies put everything in perspective. Costas retorted:
…if so, that sort of perspective has a very short shelf-life since we will inevitably hear about the perspective we supposedly again regained the next time ultimate reality intrudes…
In other words, when we bear witness to these events, even from afar, do we do anything about it? Do we strengthen our resolve to make the world a better place? Or do we chalk this up to yet another example of how broken our world is, and muddle on with life until the next chaotic moment intervenes, bringing us to church seeking some word of comfort or clarity?
Suddenly, it feels like we pulled back to the wilderness, standing with the crowds around John the Baptist, listening to his words of direct challenge. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I am convinced that, in the face of violence and evil, our first act as Christians is repentance. We turn to God, searching our souls, and bearing it all before the one who creates and loves us. Then and only then, having turned and come face to face with judgment and mercy, only then can we turn back out and make sense of what comes next.
John’s audience heard his call. In response, they asked, “What should we do?” His answer was straightforward: share. If you’ve got two coats, share one with someone who doesn’t have one. If you have more food than you know what to do with, then pass along those blessings. To tax collectors and soldiers, his message was a little more details, but also simple: be honest. Do what you are supposed to do – nothing more, nothing less.
Share, and be honest. That may be the clearest and most thorough summary of Christian ethics I have ever heard.
But where does that leave us, here at OPC, in the wake of a school shooting 1,000 miles away? Is there anything for us to say or do that might echo of faithful repentance? Where does our obligation to share and be honest fit at this particular moment in our lives?
On Friday, at the very moment that this tragedy was unfolding in Newton, Connecticut, our Preschoolers were getting ready for their Christmas program. When their parents arrived at our sanctuary, I don’t know how many of them had already heard the news; I did not know anything about it until later that afternoon. But for half an hour, their children paraded through our sanctuary, singing songs of shepherds and donkeys and Mary and Joseph and a little baby Jesus. Their parents and grandparents were beaming and laughing and even wiping away tears of joy. It was a holy, holy moment on a day that needed more moments just like it.
You see, we may not have a close connection to an elementary school in the northeast; but we have a school right here in our own building! What are we doing, as faithful stewards of this place, to ensure that the children and their families who come here know that they are not only safe, but that they are loved to the core of their being by the God and Lord of the universe? How is it that we can embody the promise the prophet Zephaniah bore so long ago, that we shall fear disaster no more, that the lame and the outcast shall be saved, and that blessings are restored?
Friends, we often speak of the important role that our church plays in this community. But I don’t know if that role resonates within us. This morning, I came across these words from a student at Oglethorpe University, a young Muslim woman whom I have gotten to know through our interfaith partnerships there, words that I want to be sure we hear. She wrote:
After a much dreaded Friday full of deadlines and a final, I left Oglethorpe to head home. My heart was still heavy…and all I wanted to do was see my little seven-year-old sister. I knew what happened was senseless, but I was desperate to try to make sense of it all.
As I turned out of the school, I stopped suddenly because there were cars lined up and down the street…They were all parked in front of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. As I saw the light shining from the church, it took my breath away.
In a world where religion is becoming increasingly obsolete, it gave me a little hope to see a small beacon of light on such a dark night…When I finally managed to make myself drive away, I felt myself smile for the first time that day. As a Muslim driving home from school, my beacon of light that day came from a church.
What she saw was our AA meeting. And what they do, in bringing hope to those who get trapped in the despair of addiction, is just one way of living out John’s call to share and be honest. What we provide them is a safe and trusted place to gather, to heal, and to be healed.
This young woman indeed saw a light shining from the church. And the light she saw is not ours. It is not a light we hold onto. Instead, it is a light that we reflect, the same light to which John pointed: the light of the Christ child. We are not the light of the world; and yet, we have received the gift of that light so that darkness might be sent away!
I want to close this morning with a prayer written by Christian author Max Lucado, words that speak powerfully to this moment where we find ourselves, and the hope to which we cling this Advent and Christmas season. Will you pray with me?
It's a good thing you were born at night. This world sure seems dark. I have a good eye for silver linings. But they seem dimmer lately.
These killings, Lord. These children, Lord. Innocence violated. Raw evil demonstrated.
The whole world seems on edge. Trigger-happy. Ticked off. We hear threats of chemical weapons and nuclear bombs. Are we one button-push away from annihilation?
Your world seems a bit darker this Christmas. But you were born in the dark, right? You came at night. The shepherds were nightshift workers. The Wise Men followed a star. Your first cries were heard in the shadows. To see your face, Mary and Joseph needed a candle flame. It was dark. Dark with Herod's jealousy. Dark with Roman oppression. Dark with poverty. Dark with violence.
Herod went on a rampage, killing babies. Joseph took you and your mom into Egypt. You were an immigrant before you were a Nazarene.
Oh, Lord Jesus, you entered the dark world of your day. Won't you enter ours? We are weary of bloodshed. We, like the wise men, are looking for a star. We, like the shepherds, are kneeling at a manger.
This Christmas, we ask you, heal us, help us, be born anew in us.
Hopefully, Your Children