Twenty-twelve was a bad year in the world by many accounts. Israel and the Gaza. Syria. Afghanistan. Each of these hotspots come to mind. In this country alone we had a theater shooting, we had a contentious — to put it mildly — election season, a near dysfunctional government, Hurricane Sandy wrought destruction in densely populated areas of the Northeast, and the shocking shooting of children and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut.
It is easy to feel discouraged and beleaguered.
Though I do not believe in a personified devil, I understand those who do so. Describing what we are all witnessing as a battle between God and the devil is tempting. The world has much evil. One way to interpret it is to describe it as a battle between God and the devil. This dualistic image, however, elevates Satan to the level of the Divine One and is inconsistent with much of the biblical witness.
But evil exists.
As troubling as it is, I perceive evil as a by-product of free will. I perceive it as the result of cumulative bad choices. Cumulative choices by individuals and cumulative in the sense of multiple people making multiple bad choices. These bad choices are contrary to what God desires us to do. The result is where God desires us to respond lovingly, we create evil.
My view of evil is too troubling for many and so they turn to a personified other, a personified devil. My perception is troubling because to see evil as the result of our own choices means that we are each capable of horrendous acts. As a former early childhood education professor, I recall the shock on student’s faces when I told them that I understood child abuse. They were shocked because they could not imagine being driven to physically harm a child.
As a parent who was blessed with support systems galore, I still had to talk myself down occasionally when the combination of fatigue, stress, and frustration converged. So, yes, I understand good people, good parents who can be driven to abuse a child. Those without adequate support systems are particularly vulnerable to becoming abusive.
The reaction of many good people to the loathsome actions of others, child abuse or the Newtown shootings, is to spew their own venom toward the perpetrators. I have seen more than one person wish for a special place in hell for child abusers or the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary. This solves nothing. In the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Hating evildoers, only magnifies evil in the world. Jesus did not hate evildoers. Jesus loved those who chose the wrong path. He loved them despite their bad choices because, I believe, he saw the image of God within them. He saw the good that they were capable of doing despite the bad, the evil they chose.
To listen to God’s call on our own lives, we must be “on guard so that [our] hearts are not weighed down with . . . the worries of this life.” (Luke 21:34b NRSV. Read in context.) When we allow the worries of this life to control us or when we live by the rules of a culture that value those with financial wealth over those without, we fail to see the unfolding realm of God that began with Jesus.
We are called to focus on being part of God’s unfolding, in-breaking realm of extravagant love in the world. When we focus on responding in love even to those who do evil, we are a part of the light.
And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. (Luke 12: 29-31 NRSV Read in context.)
The phone rang at 2:00 a.m. Again. What was it this time? A false alarm? A drug deal on the parking lot? I threw on my jeans, bundled up in my warmest coat. I kissed Maggie on the forehead and said “I love you.” She mumbled, “I love you, too” and pulled up on the covers.
Passing their bedrooms, I paused to peak at my sleeping children all snug in their beds. I cranked the engine of my cold car. The seat beneath me felt so hard in the frigid weather.
When I got to the Children’s Center, the police were waiting for me. I opened the front door and let us in. I disarmed the alarm and flipped on the lights as the police began their walk through the classrooms: the toddler room with the tiny chairs, the baby room with the cribs filled with pastel bears and frilly blankets, the twos with the big climber and painting easel, and the fours & fives room with the huge book area and large wooden blocks.
They stopped in the three-year-old room — my own son’s classroom. That’s where I caught up with them. One of them was on his radio in the housekeeping corner among the dolls and dress-up clothes. The other two were next to the large picture glass window in this converted store front. The woman officer waved me over. She pointed out the three bullet holes. There’d been a shooting in the street in front of the center. Fortunately the glass was not completely shattered. The board up company could wait until morning.
I cried on my way home. I sobbed releasing the fears and horror at what my mind imagined if …
… if the children had been present.
If LaCinda or Isaac or Maria had been playing in the water table when the shooting took place…I shuddered.
A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more. Jeremiah 31:15 NRSV
I suspect a lot of those over-achiever preachers who had their sermons done on Wednesday, had to rewrite their
sermons given the tragic events of Friday. I suspect that some may even have completely thrown out the scripture the lectionary gave us for today. How does this passage from Luke, in which John the Baptizer calls people “broods of vipers” have any word for us today?
How does an angry John speak to us after twenty children and eight educators were gunned down in cold blood?
Well, consider. Imagine our passage from Luke a little differently. Imagine John speaking to you and to me. Today. Two days after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary and less than a week after the mall shooting in Portland.
You see, the Bible is a living document. God speaks a new word through it each time that we open it.
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Luke 3:7 NRSV
This is a little confusing. Why would John the Baptizer be angry at people who came to him to be baptized? Isn’t that the point? But we get a clue in the next verse,
Bear 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 3:8 NRSV
“Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” … Ah, so John is upset because these folks who’ve come to be baptized, to commit themselves to living as God would have them live — in short to be good Jews — aren’t acting like very good Jews.
And John is a little more than miffed. He tells them God can make children of Abraham out of stones if God has to. Then he tells them the axe is already to chop them down — as if they were trees — and throw them in the fire if they don’t bear good fruit.
Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ Luke 3: 9 NRSV
So, what does this mean to us? What does this have to do with us viewed through the lens of Friday’s tragedy? Hear these three verses again. This time from the NRTIV, the New Revised Tim’s Imagination Version.
John said to the crowds that came out to be comforted by him after another shooting, this one in a school. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come? Who told you to run here to me for comfort? Don’t even start with that, “but I’m a good Christian stuff. God promised me salvation if I just say I believe in Him.” God can make Christians in name only out of rocks. Act like you believe in God before it’s too late!
While there might have been someone there who said to John after his rant, “Chill dude! I just came here to be baptized! Take a pill!”, the Bible — the real one not my imaginary version — tells us that the people who came to be baptized heard his frustration.
And they responded calmly and rationally, asking, “What then should we do?”
Instead of shouting about gun rights or gun control…
Instead of shouting about prayer in schools…
Instead of posturing to have a fight with John or with each other about what good people they are…
Instead of all that, they paused to listen to the man who points to the messiah. They paused to consider what God might desire from them. What God willed for them at this point.
Not being shy, he told them. He told them to share their coats — their possessions with others. He told them to feed the hungry.
The tax collectors who — routinely and openly — collected money over and above what Rome prescribed, asked John what they should do. And instead of arguing economics, John said … to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Luke 3: 13 NRSV
Even the soldiers, those who were part of an occupying enemy, asked what they should do? And John told them, too. ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ Luke 3: 14b NRSV
These were ordinary people. The soldiers, the tax collectors, and the others. They were everyday normal people like you and like me who have little control over political events and wonder what it all means. They were people who yearned for a better way to live. They loved their families, and were trying to be faithful to God, though too often failing.
And what did John tell them? He told them to be kind. To be honest and to create a culture — in their personal interactions and habits — that was loving and reflective of God.
So wondering what John told us in my version of the Bible? Are you wondering what the NRTIV, has to say to us two days after twenty children and eight adults were gunned down in cold blood?
And the people in Connecticut, and the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and Columbine, and Clackamas, and even in Ione asked him, ‘What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, whoever has health insurance and a good income, share with anyone who has none. Whoever has food, prepare and send backpacks to the school and bring cans of food to Christmas caroling. Give generously at every opportunity. And, by the way, don’t cheat in your business dealings.
Listen to one another and find the truth in what the gun control proponent and the gun owner says. Find the truth in what those who disagree with you are saying. Be Christ’s own in a world that chooses otherwise. And always — always — speak out of love.
In both the NRSV and in my interpretation, John told them — he tells us — to be kind. He tells them to be honest and to create a culture — in their personal lives — that is loving and reflective of God. The alternative, John implies is, to be the children of snakes — a brood of vipers.
We have the same choice today. We can be a brood of vipers or the children of God. And though as children of God we will sometimes fail and rattle our tails, we can’t be both.
We can fill Facebook with words and photos that support our opinions and dismiss those who disagree with us as completely and totally wrong. We can be a brood of vipers.
We can let our need for guns or our distaste of guns become so strong that we don’t listen to one another. We can get so angry with one another that nothing changes. We can let people with agendas control us. When we do that we are a brood of vipers.
We can argue about prayer in the schools versus religious freedom and miss the point that our fellow child of God is trying to make. When we do that we are a brood of vipers.
But. But when we love our families, hug our babies, when we show up for concerts and games and preschool dinners. When we teach our children that each and every human being has value, then … then we are acting like children of God.
When we listen to those who are hard for us to listen to… When we listen to those whose worldview seems completely crazy to us, and when we try to understand before we start spouting our own views…
…then we are acting like the children of God.
When we have never met another human being who we could not — given time and sometimes a lot of effort — see within them the Image of God, the spark of the Divine, then we are acting like the children of God.
When we choose to act out of love rather than out of fear. When we choose to trust one another — despite what some politicians and some interest groups encourage — then we are acting like the children of God.
When we pause. Take a deep breath in…and out. When we read our Bibles. When we pray. And when we choose to act out of love we are living in the unfolding realm of God. It’s like walking around in a bubble of the Kingdom of God.
John the Baptizer points the way to the messiah. He points the way to the baby whose life, death, and resurrection changes the world. He reminds us that our God is a dependable God. Our God is a God of resurrections and extravagant love.
Our God is a God who continually lures each of us and encourages each of us to act out of love. And, when we — like the shooter at Clackamas or Newtown — ignore God’s desire, God is disappointed. In the case of Sandy Hook elementary, I’m convinced that God sobs just like many of us have sobbed this week.
But the God of resurrections never gives up on us. Whether we are shooters or innocent children. Through the generations, God has kept working on us. God’s promises, God’s covenant with us is real and palpable. You can taste it!
Just as God responded to Rachel’s bitter tears for her children, God responds to ours.
Thus says the Lord: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country. Jeremiah 31:16-17 NRSV
So, though we are shocked. Though we lack words to describe our horror at the shooting of elementary school children, John points the way for us.
When we are looking in the direction in which he points. We are looking toward, and being a part of, the unfolding realm of God on earth.
The next morning, a little draggy from my late night excursion, I found lots of reasons to avoid my desk. The budget would wait. The United Way report wasn’t even due until Friday. Even the phone calls could be returned tomorrow. And so I did what I always did when I had nothing left to give to paperwork and administration. I hung out with the children.
I changed a baby or two — the teachers were always happy to have a little extra help. I painted with the twos and danced with the toddlers. With the threes — my own son’s classroom — I always seemed to end up on the floor with a big pillow propped behind me and little bodies all around me as I read picture books.
From where I sat, I could see the boarded up window that represented all my fears of what could have happened if…if the children had been present.
And, so, I read with great vigor. I gave hugs generously. I channeled my passionate fears and sadness into passionate love.
Pause. Take a deep breath in…and out. Read your Bible. Pray. Look to the one who follows John. Look to the baby under the star and respond in love.
This is the sermon I preached at Ione Community Church in Ione, Oregon two days after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.