As I was going to prepare a blog for this week, the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut unfolded. My response to that event is expressed in the sermon I will preach to my Episcopal congregation tomorrow morning. While I usually reserve this blog for "interfaith" oriented conversations, I offer it here as the reflection of one Episcopal priest on the tragedy that has beset us all this week. Many of the sentiments I express here were part of my August blog about gun control, an issue around which I believe the interfaith community can and should rally.
“The Chaff is Burning – Quench the Fire!”, A Sermon preached by The Rev. Canon Dr. C. Denise Yarbrough on Sunday, December 16, 2012 at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Bloomfield, NY
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. 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 to Abraham.” (Luke 3: 7-8)
So here we are on the third Sunday in Advent, listening to John the Baptist deliver an impassioned sermon to crowds on the banks of the River Jordan, just two days after yet another horrific mass shooting took the lives of 28 people, 20 of them elementary school children who had done nothing more than show up for school on an ordinary Friday in December. This tragedy comes just one week after another deranged shooter opened fire in a crowded mall full of holiday shoppers in Portland Oregon, killing two shoppers and the shooter himself. We who live in what many want to call the greatest country on earth are yet again enduring scenes of grief and lamentation as families and friends of the latest round of victims absorb the shock and horror of their loved ones’ violent deaths. Does John the Baptist have anything to say to us as we grapple with these horrific tragedies?
I think he does. And I think we have to take very seriously what he has to tell us about “repentance.” “Repent” is one of those churchy words that has been so overused through the years that it has lost any real meaning for 21st century Christians. We tend to think of repentance as some kind of pious feeling of remorse for our minor peccadilloes and misdeeds, quiet words of apology uttered under our breath to a God we’re not entirely sure is really listening. But the kind of repentance that John the Baptist was looking for was something entirely different. He wanted to see a complete change of direction, a radical shift in priorities. Moreover, his idea of repentance (the Greek word is metanoia which means to turn around, to go a different direction) is directed at an entire society, not just individuals. In the passage from Luke appointed for this Sunday, he is talking to a crowd of people, calling them a brood of vipers, and exhorting them not to rest on their laurels as “children of Abraham” but rather to do deeds worthy of that name and lineage. I think its time we 21st century American people of faith listen up to this sharp tongued, fire and brimstone preacher because our very lives are at stake, never mind whatever eternal salvation we hope our religious faith will bring us.
One thing John the Baptist appears to be very clear about is that the repentance he’s looking for has a lot to do with social responsibility and looking after the neighbor. Those who have two coats, share with those who have none. Those who have food, share with those who have none. And tax collectors be fair in business dealings and soldiers do not extort from others and be satisfied with the wages you’ve got. And American citizens, stand up to the powerful gun lobbies in your midst and demand that assault weapons and the ammunition that goes with them be banned completely and access to them be absolutely unavailable to any civilian ever. No one, least of all ordinary citizens, needs such weapons for protection. The statistics are incontrovertible that countries that do not allow civilian access to guns have dramatically lower numbers of deaths by gun violence than we have in these United States. The so-called “right to bear arms” enshrined in the Second Amendment to the Constitution cannot possibly have been intended to protect mentally unstable young men who decide to obtain assault weapons for the purposes of massacring large numbers of completely innocent people, including women and small children. To quote from the folk song of the 60s, “Blowin in the Wind”, “How many deaths will it take till he knows, that too many people have died?” Well, my friends, too many people have died and we all know it. And the only way to stop it is for every citizen of this country demand that our elected representatives stand up to the gun lobby and ban assault weapons immediately. I am well aware of the arguments about protecting the purchase of hunting rifles, but we all know that it is not hunting rifles that are being used to gun down innocent people in these mass shootings. It is quite possible to regulate assault weapons while protecting a hunter’s right to shoot a buck in the woods.
And to those who might say to me that this is a political issue and not a religious one, I would respectfully beg to differ. Every religion in the world forbids murder. So long as we sit idly by and allow these lethal weapons to be bought and sold as easily as we buy products on Amazon.com, we are aiding and abetting mass murder. At some point, these deaths become everyone’s responsibility. Just as we all join in the prayers and candlelight vigils when these tragedies occur, so too must we join together to take action to mitigate the likelihood that they will continue to occur. We have a collective responsibility to create a society that is safe for all citizens. Right now we are living under siege. We can’t go to the mall, a school (elementary, high school or college), a movie theater, a place of worship, a political rally, a tourist site, or an airport without fear of violence at the hands of socio-pathic young men who’ve acquired assault weapons. This is home grown terrorism. So long as we sit back and allow the situation to continue we are complicit in the deaths that take place. It is not enough to pray for the victims. We must act to be sure there are no more victims next week, or next month, or tomorrow. That’s the kind of repentance that John the Baptist was looking for as he shouted at the people and called them a “brood of vipers” and called them to bear fruits worthy of repentance.
Many in the popular media comment on how particularly heartbreaking this tragedy is, coming as it does during the “holiday season” a time of family togetherness and songs about peace on earth and goodwill among people. Here our liturgical season of Advent helps us to deal with the grief and lamentation that this tragedy brings with it. In Advent we reflect on endings and beginnings, on our longing, our hope, our expectation that God will break into our dark world and bring light and redemption to places of darkness and pain. We hear the voices of the prophets crying out in the wilderness, the voices of John the Baptist and Isaiah and Zephaniah. These prophetic voices call us to take a hard look at where we are and where we are going. They also promise hope for a future where joy will abound, the joy that comes from a life lived with God.
The mood in Advent is watchful, hopeful, and so very much aware of the brokenness in our world that only God can mend. Advent reminds us of God’s promises of redemption and of the reality that we live in an “already but not yet” world where the fulfillment of God’s promises is not always readily apparent to us. We sing “O Come O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel…that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.” We live these last days of Advent 2012 in lonely exile as we grapple with the reality of a society in which the slaughter of the innocents has become all too routine.
John the Baptist was a prophet calling God’s people to turn around and re-orient their lives toward caring for their neighbors and creating a just and moral society. He warned them not to rest on their lineage but rather to live up to it, to remember the values and ideals that come with being children of Abraham. In our 21st century context, we are called to remember and live into the value and ideals of the founding ancestors of these United States and I’m guessing mass murder of innocent children and their teachers, or of shoppers in a mall buying gifts for their families for Christmas, or people worshipping in their holy place on a Sunday morning or attending a late night movie isn’t what the framers of the Constitution nor the authors of the Second Amendment had in mind.
In just nine days we Christians will celebrate Christmas. In that nine days, 20 small coffins will be laid into the ground taking with them the hopes and dreams of their parents, grandparents, siblings, friends and neighbors. Every death by gun violence in this country affects every one of us. These are our neighbors, our colleagues, our children, our future. Bear fruit worthy of repentance, shouts John the Baptist. I pray that we will come together to pray for these victims and their families and to bear the sweet fruit of repentance in the form of a popular uprising that demands more stringent gun control laws that just might reduce the frequency, if not eliminate completely, any more tragedies such as this one. And while we’re at it, we might also demand that mental health care be readily available and affordable to everyone who needs it. These shootings by mentally deranged young men suggest that something in our mental health care system needs attention sooner than later.
On this third Sunday in Advent 2012, there is much weeping and lamentation, grieving and sorrow in our land. John the Baptist use the vivid image of wheat and chaff being separated out by God’s promised Messiah, with the chaff burning in unquenchable fire. A world where six year old children are shot dead in their classrooms is a world where the flames of that burning chaff are burning brighter and hotter already. It is time for us to listen to John the Baptist, who preached “good news” to those crowds by the Jordan, the good news of God’s promised redemption and of our freedom to choose to walk with God into that promised future. Bear fruit worthy of repentance, he cries out to us. And Paul reminds us “we can do all things through him who strengthens us.” May this latest tragedy serve as the wake up call as strident as John the Baptist’s exhortations to move us from passivity to principled action so that those young children’s deaths will not have been in vain. And may the God of peace be with us and have mercy on us. Amen.