A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on December 13, 2015 (Advent 3), by Christopher L. Webber.
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Three years ago tomorrow, December 14, 2012, a psychotic young man walked into an elementary school in Newtown Connecticut and proceeded to shoot down 26 children and their teachers. This weekend is now designated National Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath weekend. We have, of course, numerous more recent violent episodes and one in this state, in San Bernadino, just eleven days ago.
Three years ago, of course, I lived in Connecticut, not far from Newtown. Some members of my congregation worked in Newtown and knew people there so there was an immediacy about it greater, probably, than San Bernadino to us here. Just the same, I thought it might be appropriate to preach today what is basically the same sermon I preached three years ago. The circumstances are somewhat different. There were no children killed in San Bernadino. But this is a sermon, not a political statement, and I think the deeper issues of violence and faith remain much the same.
It’s now three years also since I published a book called The Beowulf Trilogy in which Part III is “Yrfa’s Tale.” My first sequel to Beowulf, published six years earlier, followed a warrior’s effort to lead his tribe to a safer place but Part III, “Yrfa’s Tale,” looks at the same events through the eyes of the warrior’s wife, and halfway through she reminisces about their first child and how the baby, not yet two year’s old, died in an epidemic. She says:
“ I almost envied her,
To be at rest, beyond the rub and rush
And weariness of wending in this world,
But I would ask the question none can answer:
Of all the evils in this life of ours,
The constant care and conflict crushing us,
Why has the Heaven Ruler high above
Assigned the little ones to suffer so?”
There are many questions that could be asked after Newtown, and now after San Bernadino, many questions about the anger that flares out of control in our society and the prevalence of violence and the role of government, but the first question is always “Why?” Why do these things happen? What kind of world is it in which such things take place?
You can explore that question at many levels: the easy questions are the practical ones: Why did this man, this couple, explode in violence? Why were guns so available? Why don’t we have a society that deals better with people in trouble, and doesn’t make these explosions so easy? Why are there more than twice as many deaths from guns in this country as in any other western democracy and more than three times as many as in Canada? What are we doing wrong? What can we change? But those are the easy questions that we have to answer together later. Those are political and social questions and I have my opinions as you do but that’s not my department. The harder questions, if I can put it this way, are my department. Why did God create a world with so much pain? Why is there so much suffering?
John Milton in “Paradise Lost” said his purpose in writing was to “justify the ways of God to men.” And that’s the number one priority of the preacher: not so much to explain, to answer all questions, as to put things in context, to provide the balance and the perspective that are always absent in the immediate chaos. Why? Why? That, as I said, is always the question we ask first and we can explore it at many levels. But the deepest level asks: Why do bad things happen? Why is there such violence in human life? The human instinct is to look for an explanation. We want the world to be logical and human civilization exists only because somehow we expect the world to be logical and instinctively we look for reasons. If we know why, we can do something about it, so we look for reasons. Unfortunately, the first reasons that come to mind are political, gun control, radical movements, that sort of thing. They’re important and they have to be answered but I’ll leave that for now to the politicians. I want to ask the deeper questions.
Almost fifteen years ago Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book called “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” and it was on the best seller list for weeks. Kushner set out to explain “Why?” He reduced the options to two logical choices: either God is not almighty or God is not good. Well, yes, in terms of human logic those are the choices. A good and all powerful God who we can understand would not allow such evil. So either God is not good or God is not almighty. Kushner chose option two: God is not almighty. But that assumes God answers to human logic and that human logic can answer all questions. But why should we assume that?
The Book of Job confronts the same question. Job was a good man and dreadful things happened to him and his family and Job and his friends asked, “Why?” His friends, using human logic, implored him to recognize that he must have done bad things. That’s the logical explanation. But Job resisted, insisted that he had done nothing to deserve such evil and finally God spoke and God asked the obvious question: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?” In other words, “How can the created thing know the Creator’s mind?”
Every child asks every parent that question: “Why?” And every parent learns to say, “Because,” because the child is too young to understand. Eventually the child will be old enough for better answers. When children become adults and have an adult understanding they can be given adult answers. But human beings do not grow up to be God or arrive at God’s understanding so there will always be “Whys” that are beyond us, that have no logical answer. We can’t assume there are answers to every question that we will understand. At a point we have to be satisfied with the answer that doesn’t satisfy the child and can’t really satisfy us: “Because.” Just “Because.” It doesn’t satisfy our need for reasons we can understand, but we are not God. If I were God, I would do things differently, but I think we are better off with God running things than with me. I don’t understand and I’m not sure I will ever understand, but God is all powerful and God is love and that’s what I need to know.
I do, however, know one thing more and that one thing more makes all the difference: That one more thing is “incarnation.” This church holds up that answer: this is the Church of the Incarnation and “incarnation” means “God in human flesh.” God made us and therefore God knows how limited we are and how little we understand and therefore God came into this world to be with us in all our limitations. That’s what Christmas is all about: God here, God in human life, God in a cradle, God on a cross, God suffering for us, God suffering with us. As the Bible also says: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are.” (Heb.4). Our God is not some distant impersonal power but One who comes to be with us. Not to explain, but to share, to suffer with us. That, for my money, is the only reason to be a Christian: God knows our sorrows. God has been here. And God is here. An incarnational faith goes beyond words. There are times when you tell the child “Just because” but you probably also give them a hug that says, “I can’t explain it but I love you and that’s what matters. Jesus was a great teacher, but that’s not why we are Christians. We are Christians because God came to us and left us a meal to share, a physical evidence of God’s presence. Not just words, but bread and wine, something tangible, something physical, something real. Not just words. There’s a point in the musical “My Fair Lady” when Eliza sings:
“Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!
Don’t talk of stars burning above;
If you’re in love, Show me!
Tell me no dreams filled with desire.
If you’re on fire, Show me!
Here we are together in the middle of the night!
Don’t talk of spring! Just hold me tight!”
Now, that’s incarnational religion: “if you’re in love, show me!” And God does love us and has shown us. St John wrote to his fellow Christians:
“We declare to you what was from the beginning,
what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes,
what we have looked at and touched with our hands,
concerning the word of life.” (1 Jn. 1:1)
So God shows us God’s love physically: on the cross, in the sacraments, outward signs of inward reality. Have you noticed how after a mass shooting, as people try to come to grips with the event, have you noticed – how could you not – how people will be hugging each other? Friends hugging friends, parents hugging children, co-workers hugging co-workers, strangers hugging strangers. And when they bring on the experts and ask, “What should we do?” They will tell you: “Hug each other.” But we don’t need grief counselors to know that, do we? We do it instinctively. We are what God made us to be: physical human beings who instinctively reach out for the physical contact that reminds us of who we are. We are not isolated, self-sufficient individuals but part of the human family who cannot survive alone. It would be nice to have answers, to be able to explain, to use our reason to find answers and cope, but we cope better by hugging, by coming together and being what God made us to be and what God also has shared. When they brought children to Jesus he didn’t sit them down to hear Bible stories, he took them up in his arms and hugged them.
Our worship here today is structured around that point. Half way through the service we stop talking for a while and reach out to each other physically. A sermon is important but not the center. A sermon can help but it never has all the answers. Anyone who tells you they have all the answers is someone who is ducking the hard questions. Finally, you know, there’s a question for all of us as we move on: in the close-knit fabric of human life, what role do we play now? Are we doing more to increase anger or to deepen unity? Every cross word, every impatient release of anger, changes the world. Most people are not murderers, but most of us do yield to anger from time to time and whenever we do, it spreads like the ripples in water when a stone is thrown.
I read a book recently called “The Confederates in the Attic.” It’s a book that explores the way the Civil War still poisons our relationships. There were no winners in that war. You can’t kill 750,000 people and then just move on. We are still victims of that war.
John Donne said it best 400 years ago:
“No man is an island, Entire of itself.
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own or of thy friend’s were.
Every man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
When theologians tell us that the cross is God’s way of showing us the consequences of human sin it’s hard to argue the point. Sin has consequences. We are all one body. Every human act has consequences and the first lesson to draw from each mass killing is that we need to love each other more, to forgive each other more quickly, to be more patient, more kind. It’s simple, almost trite, but essential.
Just a week ago we were reminded how President Roosevelt, on a dark day seventy-one years ago, told us that December 7, 1941, was “a date that will live in infamy.” I wonder whether December 14, 2012, or December 2, 2015, can be better dates: dates to remember not for revenge but for renewal. Let these deaths not be in vain. Let us resolve to make a difference in their memory, to be different ourselves, to incarnate God’s love more fully in ourselves. Remember the victims, and be kind, and forgive.
© 2015 by Christopher L. Webber. All rights reserved. Used by permission.