I have been reeling since hearing the news of the shooting tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday. The emotions alone are still raw. The image of twenty-seven families losing a child or parent is heart-wrenching. At a time when many of them were probably gearing up for the holidays, now they are planning funeral liturgies. The image of hundreds of families gratefully greeting their children is tainted by what will be weeks if not years of therapy for innocence lost. I know my own child is still recovering from fears from Hurricane Sandy – I can only imagine the fears these families will have to process. The image of police officers and first responders flooding the scene, faithfully doing their jobs is marred by the probability that they too will need months and years to process the scene: not with the eyes of professionals, but with the eyes of human beings. As one FBI officer explained, although they are trained to do their jobs professionally, they are not unfeeling robots.
We too are left with a swirl of emotions. I have felt deep sadness, confusion, shock, anger, and frustration. With few answers to questions, we do not know who to blame or how to respond. As you watch the news and follow social media, you can already hear the call to demonize guns, the mental health field, government, and the shooter. In some ways, blaming someone or something would make the whole experience easier. Otherwise, we are left bereft, feeling God’s absence or at least questioning God’s presence in suffering.
I wondered today, then if John the Baptist’s message this Advent was even relevant. Perhaps we could turn somewhere else altogether today for solace. But the more I thought about the gospel lesson, the more I realized John’s message of repentance is exactly what we need today. On this “Stir Up Sunday,” John’s message of repentance stirs up in us our own culpability in the presence of sin in this world. While I desire to point a finger at someone else for the sinfulness of the world, John the Baptist tells me, to look at my own sinfulness today. John says, “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham.” In other words, do not let your redeemed status, your chosen status, let you get complacent about your sinfulness. In today’s terms, do not let your identity as not being the shooter let you believe yourself to be free of sin.
As our confirmands prepare for confirmation this spring, they are working through a curriculum that keeps pointing them back to the Catechism. In our Catechism are a series of questions I find helpful today. Turn, if you will, with me to page 848 of your Prayer Books. Here are the questions on sin:
What is sin? Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation. How does sin have power over us? Sin has power over us because we lose our liberty when our relationship with God is distorted. What is redemption? Redemption is the act of God which sets us free from the power of evil, sin, and death. How did God prepare us for redemption? God sent the prophets (like John the Baptist!) to call us back to himself, to show us our need for redemption, and to announce the coming of the Messiah. What is meant by the Messiah? The Messiah is one sent by God to free us from the power of sin, so that with the help of God we may live in harmony with God, within ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation.
This Advent, and in light of this tragedy, we are all invited to reflect on how our sinfulness pulls us away from God, one another, and all creation.
As dark and disheartening as John’s message may feel today, our gospel lesson does not leave us without guidance. Three times, in response to John’s call to repentance, different groups of people ask the same question, “What then should we do?” That question has been echoing with me all week, especially after Friday. What then should we do? To each group in the text, John has different advice – advice that is specific to their lot in life. To the crowds he says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” To the crowds, John gives them the work of justice. They are to share their abundance with others. This is their work of repentance. To the tax collectors, John says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Tax collectors were able to survive by charging more than the base tax – their comfort came from these overages. John challenges this widely accepted practice with another call to justice. The tax collectors are not to abuse their positions of power. This is their work of repentance. To the soldiers, John says, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations, and be satisfied with your wages.” The soldiers used violence and manipulation for their own personal gain. John challenges them to rule with justice. The soldiers are to care for the people, not abuse them. This is their work of repentance. For each person, John saw a unique way of living a repentant life based on the vocations and values of that specific individual.[i]
Asking the question, “What then should we do?” is where John tries to get us today. At this time of year, when we receive the most requests for contributions to churches, nonprofits, and universities, opportunities abound for goodness. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, as we learn of our neighbors here in Plainview – students and teachers at the school just down Washington Avenue – who need our help, opportunities abound for goodness. In the wake of national violence, as we make sense of suffering and pain and as we enter into authentic conversation with our neighbors, opportunities abound for goodness.
The opportunities for goodness, the answer to the question “What then shall we do?” are found in our baptismal covenant. As we discussed last week at our Annual Meeting, I have been discerning with our Vestry about who St. Margaret’s is and what our work is to be about. We have wondered together this past year about what is the message that we want to convey to others about our identity. Out of that discernment has emerged three verbs: seeking, serving, and sharing. We are a community that is seeking a deeper relationship with Christ, where seekers can simply be seekers on the journey with us. We are a community that is serving our neighbors, loving and caring for them. And we are a community that is sharing the good news of St. Margaret’s and the Good News of Christ Jesus with our community. In these three words, seeking, serving, and sharing, we are, as our baptismal covenant suggests, proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ and seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our selves. So when we look at that question of “What then shall we do?” our answer is to be a people seeking, serving, and sharing.
Luckily, our lectionary does not give us with a strong challenge without some encouragement. We hear the comforting words from another of God’s prophets, Zephaniah. “Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst…he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” In the face of tragedy, God does not leave us without work to do. As we repent of our sins, what we shall do is to seek, serve, and share. But in case that work feels like work, God encourages us in the journey. Do not fear. Do not let your hands grow weak. God will renew you in God’s love. Our work is laid out before us – we can get out there, seeking, serving, and sharing, because God will renew us in love. Amen.
[i] Kathy Beach-Verhey, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009),71.