… I will trust in him and not be afraid. For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, and he shall be my savior.
With these words from the Third Song of Isaiah, Christians around the globe will join with 2,800 years of Judeo-Christian voices to sing praises to God whose primary identity is One who Saves. For the Hebrew’s, God is known as the one who heard the cries of his people in bondage in Israel and through Moses saved them from the hand of Pharaoh. In the 7th Century BCE, God sent Isaiah to promise salvation to his people as they suffered under the power of the Assyrian King, Sennacherib. The promise Isaiah made to the people was that, no matter how bad it got, and it would get really bad both under the Siege of Jerusalem and later in exile in Babylon, the Lord their God would not forsake them.
In these words from the Third Song of Isaiah, I am finding great solace as I try to wrap my mind around the unimaginable terror of yesterday’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. In my sermon for tomorrow, I will equate 12/14/12 with 9/11/01, and I feel confident in making that analogy. The world changed on 9/11, such that all anyone in America wanted to do was find family, sit, and grieve together. If my Social Media news-feeds are any indication of the larger narrative in America, then the reaction to yesterday was very much the same. People instinctively sought out their children and grandchildren. They hugged them closer. They told them they loved them. They gave thanks that they were able to kiss their cheeks as they grieved for those who would kiss their children for the last time this weekend. The world really changed yesterday as the list of safe places now essentially sits at zero. Columbine scared us, but it was perpetrated by students the same age as their victims. What makes yesterday so unimaginable is that a grown man, albeit a mentally unstable one, sought out the most vulnerable, five, six, and seven year-old children as his victims, and with cold calculation slaughtered them so that only one [physically] injured survivor remained.
There are differences, of course, between 9/11 and 12/14. The scale is smaller. The enemy isn’t a group of like-minded religious radicals. The most obvious difference to me, however, is that whereas after 9/11 this nation came together in shock and grief such that for at least a few days, the difference between Democrat and Republican, Atheist and Christian, Liberal and Conservative faded into the background. For a few days, at least, we were all just Americans, grieving loss of life and loss of a way of life, the events 12/14 seem to be working to tear us further apart.
Within minutes of the news breaking, the rhetoric began to swirl and as emotions grew, the vitriol got uglier and uglier. Gun control advocates began touting the need for assault rifle bans even before news broke that the perpetrator had left his highest powered gun in his car. On the other side of my news-feed are posts, few and far between, I’ll admit, but posts none the less that seem to echo former Arksansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s comments on Fox News, “We ask why there’s violence in our school but we’ve systematically removed God from our schools, should we be so surprised that schools have become such a place of carnage? Because we’ve made it a place where we don’t want to talk about eternity, life, what responsibility means, accountability.”
Both of these took me back to the Third Song of Isaiah and the promise that now matter how bad it gets, God is here. I’m hopeful that this means that even at the place in this country where 20 dead children, still laying in the classrooms in which they died, are able to become political fodder, God is here. Let me say this as clearly as I can, knowing full well that this will make a lot of people angry: now is not the time. When the time comes to have discussions about gun control and the place of God in our collective life, i hope that we can leave stupidity at the door. The victims of this crime deserve better than being carried as banners for anyone’s cause.
Allow me to leave gun control behind, as it is not in my area of expertise, after one quick word. There seems to be a failed logic in the idea that criminals will obey future laws. A quick look at the drug trade proves that legislating it just creates an artificial, illicit market that carries its own violent enforcement. I do know something about God: a little something, but something. I know, and am assured by Isaiah’s Third Song, that God was present in that school, even as bullets were still flying. God is present everywhere. In the midst of a siege by Assyria, in the diaspora of a Babylonian exile, in planes that were hijacked, and in schools whether organized, school sponsored prayer is allowed or not, God is there! I also know that the God I serve does not attack innocent children for the lack of prayer in school while those who devour widow’s houses and ignore the best interests of everyday American’s sit in safety in Washington. Simply put, the idea that 20 children died in Sandy Hook Elementary School is in some way a divine punishment for the removal of school sponsored, organized prayer is as asinine as Hurrican Katrina being blamed on “the gays” and the Haiti earthquake divine retribution for Creole Paganism.
What if, instead of channeling our grief into further tearing apart the fabric of America, we came together, much like we did after 9/11, and did something to honor the memories of those who died so senselessly on 12/14/12? What if we followed the advice of John the Baptist to the crowds who reacted to his difficult teaching. “And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”” What if we took on random acts of kindness and simple acts of charity? What if we took on the larger cause of justice and peace, not by waging a war of words, but by following the advice of Jesus and praying for our enemies and loving one another? What if we sought the Kingdom of God, even in the midst of deep sorrow? That is my hope this day after the world changed, and I’ll commit to do my best to see it through.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.
May the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.