Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church ©Scott Black Johnston
Since this is Pageant Sunday, I had planned to use this time during the service to talk with our shepherds, angels, little lambs and what appears to be a Christmas pig. However, as news of the devastating events in Newtown, Connecticut surfaced this past Friday, your clergy stuck their heads together. We decided to send our precious little ones downstairs today after they finished telling us the Christmas story, so that they can play and get snacks. Giving us some time to pray for those whose lives have been shattered, to acknowledge our own deep pain, and to consider what our faith leads us to say and do in this time.
To help us on this journey, let us listen together for God’s Word, as it comes to us from the 1st chapter of the book of Luke, beginning with the twenty-sixth verse:
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ 35The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
This is the Word of God, for the People of God, Thanks be to God.
It has been a hard couple of days. The worst news races at the speed of light—an email, a text, a headline across the top of the screen. “Something terrible has happened in Connecticut.” We click on a news site, read a few words, and turn away—unable to process it.
What could be more horrible, more awful, more evil? Half-constructed questions tumble from our lips:
We check the news again. Predictably, the coverage spirals out of control—until it is almost pornographic in its voyeurism. Are we really supposed to be watching this? We turn away. Shielding our eyes. Protecting our souls. Trying to honor these people’s unfathomable grief.
Still, our hearts break. What can we… What would we say to these parents? To the spouses of teachers? To the extended families? To the wider community? Words fail us. We pray that God will shoo the cameras away and pull these poor people close—rocking their trembling bodies, caressing their torn psyches, weeping alongside them.
We wonder what to say to our own children.
One of my go-to guys at a time like this is Fred Rogers. You remember Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. In addition to teaching countless children about compassion and kindness with puppets and songs, Fred Rogers—a Presbyterian minister—also dispensed some pretty good advice about raising children in a troubling world.
In times of tragedy, Mr. Rogers had three recommendations for parents:
First, find out what they know. If a child asks about the shooting in Connecticut, ask what he or she has heard. Kids pick up little bits and pieces of the story (a snippet from the news or in parents conversations) and fill in the gaps with their vivid imaginations. You can help them sort truth from imagination. Like us, they crave to know what is real.
Second, it is ok for children to be scared when learning about events like this. Life has frightening aspects to it, and children need to know that there is nothing wrong with being scared or sad at times like this. In fact, these emotions are the most intelligent responses imaginable. We should tell children that we understand why they are scared, and then assure them that they are safe.
Finally, and this is the toughest question: How do you explain these tragedies to children? The answer, of course, is that you don’t—you can’t. We adults don’t understand them either. Of course, that doesn’t mean we don’t talk about calamities and try to figure out how we want to respond.
To help children think about tragedy in a way that would stand them in good stead for a lifetime, Fred Rogers used to tell this story:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.
Mr. Rogers’ advice is good for adults too. Do not deny the terribly sad and scary parts of this, but when you do talk about it, look for the helpers, the ones who rush to care. Those stories are there. Teachers. Principles. People with outrageous courage in the face of evil and death. Those stories are heartbreakingly true too. And that’s what takes us back to the gospel—to the core story of our faith.
According to Luke, the angel Gabriel swooped down on the town of Nazareth. The archangel headed straight to the house of Mary—a young woman of steady faith. Finding her, Gabriel declares: “Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you.” Then Luke tells us, Mary was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
What a wise soul. What a smart woman.
Gabriel goes on, of course, to make the most famous announcement in history. “You are going to bear a son. You will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.”
No wonder Mary pondered the archangel’s words. “You are going to have a baby and he will be king.” That’s crazy, grandiose stuff. Especially since we all know that this baby of Mary’s was not be born into a tranquil world. He will not have an easy life.
Some Christians spend an awful lot of energy trying to pretty up the story of Jesus. But the Gospels don’t. Matthew tells us that Mary and Joseph run away to Egypt after Jesus is born. They are fleeing King Herod, and with good reason. Hearing rumors that a child born in Bethlehem will one day become king, Herod sends soldiers to massacre the infants of that town. Historians estimate that twenty children were killed in Bethlehem on that day.
Violence surrounds Jesus his whole life; and, of course, the child (whom Gabriel hailed as the “the Son of the Most High”) dies a gruesome death. We don’t like to think about it as we sing our Christmas carols—“Worship the Christ the newborn king,” but this whole king thing doesn’t go so well.
Eventually, sweet Mary, we are told, stands at the foot of the cross. The sign nailed above her son’s head declares, “This is the King of the Jews.” I wonder if that dear woman—that grief stricken mother—still remembered, still pondered in her heart the words Gabriel had whispered to her some thirty-three years before.
I bet she did.
My friends, the central story of our faith is not set in a fairyland. It cannot be painted with pastels. It will not be tamed. On a day like today, but really every day in this messed up world, this is reason to give sober thanks. Because, on days like this, we still have a place to stand and a word to speak.
When God became incarnate, when the Creator of All entered creation, when Jesus was born of Mary, he came to embrace the real world—the world we live in—and not some prettied up thing.
This is our sacred testimony: God became human; the Almighty became a tiny babe; the Word became vulnerable flesh. This One—who came to save us from the terrible and redeem us from the awful—knew intimately, knew exactly just how terrible and how awful life can be. Who else has the credibility to stand amidst the storm of grief in Sandy Hook to cradle the broken-hearted and to call us all away from our violent madness?
Yes, as disciples of Jesus, as those who worship the vulnerable baby, the crucified king, we have work to do in these times. We have a faith to live. Not a month goes by, my friends, when we don’t gather around the baptismal font and make pledges to children in this sanctuary. My friends, every month we promise to look after the little lambs. How can we fulfill our promises if we do not stand against the powers and principalities that perpetuate this culture of violence?
This Christmas, may we all be guided by choirs of angels who beckon us to rush to the stable to look upon the vulnerable Prince of Peace. May we be comforted by the gentleness and the beauty of this baby. May we also be challenged to carry his uncommon message of compassion and love to a world in need.
Let us stand together, and affirm our faith, using the words of the first question in The Presbyterian Children’s Catechism, which can be found printed in your bulletins:
Who are you?
I am a child of God.
What does it mean to be a child of God?
That I belong to God who loves me.