Hancock Church Sermon
Rev. Dana Allen Walsh
December 16, 2012
In the Wake of the Newtown Tragedy
This Third Sunday of Advent is supposed to be a day about joy.
And yet, shouting and rejoicing seem grossly out of place this Sunday, in the wake of the death of 20 children and 8 adults, a gross national tragedy. How can we rejoice in the face of such horror? How can we talk about joy in the face of such grief and devastation? It’s inappropriate, unseemly, insensitive, untimely. This is not the day. Now is not the time.
Last week, we heard the angel, Gabriel, deliver news to Mary about her pregnancy, and he also told her, “Do not be afraid.” Sure, there is a lot to fear in pregnancy. Mary was certainly fearful of being too young, not ready, and unmarried. And her cousin, Elizabeth was probably nervous about her older age and wondering if she could keep up with an infant. But they were also bringing children into the world at a scary time. Herod was King and he was so paranoid that he killed anyone he suspected of treachery. He taxed the poor and made their lives unbearable. So Gabriel’s message about not being afraid, wasn’t just for the unexpected news or the pregnancy that would follow, but it was with knowledge of bringing new, innocent life into a world of brokenness and suffering.
On Friday, the news kept rushing in. Update after update, the horror seemed never ending. The violence so senseless. I know Newtown. It is a neighboring town to where I grew up. Members of the town attend my home church. I know the roads. Played volleyball against their high school team. Can picture the downtown and its unique flagpole that stands in the middle of the road. It feels familiar and safe.
I know those kids. Not personally. But we all know the kids. The precarious kindergartners – eager to learn the alphabet, listening to Dr. Seuss stories, with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I love how they talk like little adults at that age – curious, full of questions.
When I was their age, one of my favorite Christmas movies was How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Motivated by greed, anger, and jealousy, the Grinch steals everything he can from the homes of those dwelling in the little village of Whoville. When the people wake up on Christmas morning to see that everything has been taken, they go out to the center of the village, join hands and form a circle. They gather together, rather than remaining alone and separate, shocked by what’s been taken. They join hands and they sing. They sing despite the fact that everything has been stolen from them.
I know this is very different from Friday’s tragedy. The things stolen in the Grinch story is stuff, food, decorations, and gifts, all replaceable. The lives of twenty children that have been taken are irreplaceable. The only possible comfort that might be found in the face of such shocking loss is in the connection with others, is through the chain of love and support of community.
We see evidence in today’s Scripture story about Mary and Elizabeth.
When the angel came to Mary, it was in an utterly ordinary moment. When he left, everything around her seemed the same: same walls, same chair, same table and plate and bowl, same spoon that she had used for years. I imagine Mary wondering how everything could look so much the same when everything had changed completely.
No map. No blueprint. No guide. Gabriel is gone, having given Mary nothing that would illumine her way, nothing that would tell her how to become the mother of Christ. Except this: before he left, the angel told Mary of her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant in her elder years with the child we would come to know as John the Baptist. Elizabeth was six months along already, Gabriel had said to Mary.
Mary can take a hint. She beats a path to Elizabeth’s door, going “with haste,” to the home of the one person who might understand what has happened to her. Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice in greeting, knows what has taken place, comprehends what Mary has agreed to; likewise knows the danger Mary is in, pregnant and unmarried as she is.
And Mary doesn’t have to explain her situation to Elizabeth, or ask her questions in search of answers, or even ask for acceptance. When Mary sees her older cousin, she sees a woman full of life, greeting her with joy and lavish blessings.
Elizabeth gathers Mary in. Welcomes her. Blesses her with loving and prophetic words.
God gives Mary and Elizabeth two things they each lacked: community and hope. God removes their isolation and helps them to understand themselves more fully as part of something larger than their individual destinies. Their kinship allows them to take the next step forward with the support of one another.
Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian pastor, who was well-known to many of us as Mr. Rogers on his TV show said this, “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.”
We need each other to serve as reminders that there are caring, loving people in this world. We need the gift of community and friendship and family to break down the isolation and separateness that can multiple our fear, loneliness, and despair. As Mary and Elizabeth stood on the threshold of a new life, they didn’t know anything about what the future would bring, the only thing they knew is that they had one another.
Friday afternoon as the news from CT was coming in, Sean and I sat in a Pediatrician’s office – interviewing a potential doctor for our child. It’s a weird experience. All the furniture is so small. We discussed vaccines and check-ups, and all the numbers to call in case of an emergency and nearby hospitals, and the scary what-ifs (and yes, there were some joys, too.)
I turned to Sean as we walked out of the office and looked at my own belly and said, “Stay in the womb, baby. Stay in the womb.”
Our world seems a bit darker after Friday. But we can hold to the truth that Jesus was born in the dark. He came at night. The shepherds were nightshift workers. The Wise Men followed a star. Jesus’ first cries were heard in the shadows. To see Jesus’ face, Mary and Joseph needed a candle flame. It was dark. Dark with King Herod’s jealousy. Dark with Roman oppression. Dark with poverty. Dark with violence.
Herod went on a rampage, killing babies. Joseph fled with Jesus and Mary into Egypt.
If God became human, entering the dark world of that day, won’t God enter into ours? We are weary of bloodshed. We are tired of grieving. We strain to imagine a life where joy is real.
We, like the wise men, are looking for a star. We, like the shepherds, are kneeling at a manger.
These darkest days are just when we need the light of this little pink candle most of all. We don’t need this candle’s light when the sun is shining, the tree is twinkling and everyone is happy and bright. We need it now. Today. In the midst of despair. Not because the day of joy is here, but because we need to know it’s still coming.