[excerpts from a sermon preached at Disciples Christian Church on Sunday, Dec. 14 on the 2nd anniversary of the Sandy Hook shootings and the Third Sunday in Advent when we traditionally light the Joy candle. The text is from the very obscure prophet Habakkuk who has a single focus in his writing: If God is a God of justice, why is there so much injustice in the world?]
This is the third Sunday of Advent when we re-light the candles of Hope and Peace and add a third: a candle of Joy. Today is also the occasion of a national observance called the Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath. This is not a new observance. Organizations such as Faiths United Against Gun Violence and The Brady Campaign have been supporters for decades. But as gun violence keeps happening, and as newer organizations like Sandy Hook Promise and the Newtown Alliance have added their support — now the Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath coincides with the anniversary of the shooting of the Newtown shootings. The national observance was at the National Cathedral in Washington DC on Thursday afternoon. I watched it live-streamed — perhaps you have seen portions of it.
Today marks the actual year anniversary of the day when 20 first graders and 5 teachers and 1 principal were gunned down in less than 5 minutes on a Friday morning shortly after classes began at Sandy Hook Elementary. Do you remember how you felt when you first heard the news that Friday? Do you remember your reaction when you first started seeing photos of those 20 adorable first-graders. With the jagged 6 year old smiles of missing teeth.
I do. I remember it all. I remember also that it was the third Sunday in Advent. How could I possibly preach about Joy while we were still in shock over the tragedy. I began by recalling a favorite book of my children when they were growing up. I wrote and re-wrote, prayed and prayed again for God to give me the words. When the moment came to speak, I opened with a favorite book of my children when they were growing up, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Do you know the story? 6 year old Alexander wakes up and trips over a skateboard as he’s getting out of bed. The day goes downhill from there. He drops his sweater into the sink while the water was running. At breakfast, he gets no prize in his breakfast cereal. He doesn’t get the window seat in the carpool. His teacher criticizes him for singing too loud. There’s no dessert packed in his lunch, and his brother pushes him down in the mud on the way home. When he punches his brother, he’s the one who gets in trouble.
I said. That should be the stuff of a child’s life. Instead, Friday happened in Newtown, Connecticut. How do you write an obituary for a 6 year old? And then how do you write 19 more?
A lot has happened since that day two years ago. It’s no longer abstract or distant or about strangers for me. David and I have stood alongside Daniel Barden’s father, Mark when he gave testimony to the Ohio Assembly in Columbus over gun legislation. I’ve met Jesse’s dad and heard him speak through his tears. I’ve be there in person to hear Erica’s story. Erica is the adult daughter of Principal Dawn Hochsprung. These people are real. 2 years later their grief is still palpable. Yet they have somehow found the courage to be activists for there to be not one more gun death of a child.
I wish I could say their work is done. It’s not. One could say that a lot has NOT happened since that day two years ago. There have been 96 school shootings since Newtown — one more since this graphic was published. And for the immensity of that issue, we know that keeping our kids safe is larger even than school safety.
Gun violence ends children’s lives at rec centers in Cleveland. The autopsy revealed on Friday calls 12 year old Tamir Rice’s death a homicide. At convenience store parking lots in Florida. I was part of a gathering on Monday evening together with several of you hearing a mother’s tragic story of her 17 year old son, Jordan Davis, shot and killed for playing his music too loud. In gated communities in Florida. I’ve walked with clergy through downtown Cleveland in silence and wearing a hoodie, in solidarity with Trayvon Martin’s family. In the last two years, I’ve become aware that it’s dangerous being a child in America. Just how dangerous – let’s watch together this video produced by the Children’s Defense Fund.
I used this video a few weeks ago when I was invited to speak to the 11th grade class at Facing History New Tech High School – a Cleveland magnet school in Old Brooklyn. These students were involved in a project about 2nd Amendment Rights and Mayor Jackson’s proposed ordinances for limits on guns vs keeping communities safe. Before they engaged in their own debated, they invited 2 people on opposing sides to speak. City Councilman Zack Reed who is a strident voice for 2nd Amendment Rights – and someone who speaks from a faith perspective. Me. Councilman Reed and I have crossed paths on a few occasions recently. In two of them, we asked Cleveland high schoolers if they knew someone who’d been shot in their families or their circle of friends. Most every hand went up. We asked if any of them had seen a gun in the last 6 months. Most hands were up. In the last 30 days? Still many hands. In the last week? Had they ever been on school lockdown for real. Most every hand up. And perhaps the most frightening question: do you know how to get your hands on a gun? Every hand went up. Oh, that’s easy Pastor Kris.
The prophet cries: O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? Or cry to you Violence! And you will not save?
I’ve debated with Councilman Reed and others and I’ve stood toe to toe with Open Carry Activists downtown in Public Square knowing full well that the assault weapon slung over their shoulder was loaded. I’ll admit, it’s taken some courage for me to be able to do that.
But the real courage comes from Habakkuk because he debates God. That’s courage! He calls God out on God’s promise of justice vs God’s failure to act. He demands to be heard, and though he’s considered a minor prophet, there’s not another who is more confrontational with God.
And yet. And yet, he’s not denying that God exists – he wouldn’t be crying out to God if that were the case. He is not denying that God is all-powerful; he wants to know why God isn’t using that power to change things.
And he laments – why do you make me see this, God?
Do you ever ask a question out loud and as soon as the words have left your lips, you know the answer? I think that’s what happened to Habakkuk. He knew why he had to see. He just didn’t want to see. He didn’t want to know about the violence around him. None of us want to see or to know. But we have to.
Even at Christmas. Especially at Christmas, knowing far too many families will still be grieving the loss of a child.
We need to see and to know so we can get angry. Anger might seem counter-intuitive to a season of joy, but it is not. In order for there to be joy in our world, it will take prophetic anger that brings injustice out of the shadows and makes it visible. We heard that anger from the ancient prophet, and I found it in another prophet’s voice, though he would probably not call himself that. Ray Horton is a PhD student at Case Western who wrote an essay for Rust Magazine titled “Love’s Anger”. Just a portion:
I’m talking about a love that gets angry. A love that rejects false hopes and empty promises and instead will take up the most hopeless of lost causes for the one whom it loves. …Justice is what love looks like in public… Justice is what happens when love spills over its private, personal boundaries and shapes our interactions with one another… While it may not be all quiet, peace, and harmony –it’s a love that binds communities together based on an acknowledgement of our need, or vulnerability, and the memory of all that we’ve already lost.
God is large enough to handle our anger, and God will answer us as he answered Habakkuk. Write the vision. Make it plain enough that everyone can see. Make is so plain that even people who think they are too busy to know. Those who do not want to know. Those who want to ignore it by running past you – even they will not be able to forget what they’ve seen. Justice will come. Peace will reign. Those who live by their faith will see their reward. Yes, there’s more waiting than you’d like. Yes, there’s more trouble ahead. Yet, in the meantime, rejoice.
Rejoice? Two years ago on this day when I did not know what to preach about rejoicing, I used the words from the Apostle Paul about rejoicing. Paul was in prison and about to be executed and yet he wrote to his churches telling them to rejoice through that suffering. Here now the words from Habakkuk as he closes his small bit of writing. Listen for his Yet.
Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines;
Though the produce of the olive fails,
And the fields yield no food;
Though the flock is cut off from the fold,
And there is no herd in the stalls,
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
And makes me tread upon the heights…
We can rejoice because we know with God’s help, we can do better. We can rejoice because we can stand where God calls us to stand. We can rejoice because there is nothing more precious to the heart of God than justice and peace for all of God’s people.
Does anyone else here wonder what it was that was written on Habakkuk’s tablet?
Was it Rejoice? Joy? Or perhaps if in his anger of love, he wasn’t quite ready to rejoice, maybe it was the word Yet.
And yet I will see and I will act.
Pastor. Parent. Activist.