This is the message I gave at meeting for worship this morning:
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’ (Luke 1:10-14).
This has been a hard week. A terrible week. Things have happened this week that should not have happened. No mother, no father, no grandparent and no child should experience the kinds of things we have seen this week.
On Tuesday, 60 gunshots rang out where 3 people – following the normal routine of Christmas shopping, in a typical setting – a mall, died in Portland. Two were killed point blank and the shooter took his own life.
On Wednesday, there were two instances of students bringing guns to school, one at Evergreen High School and the other at Skyview – both schools in Clark County.
And on Friday, we have all heard the devastation that took place in CT, when a 20 year-old man who was believed to be mentally ill, killed his own mother, and then went on a shooting spree at an elementary school.
And that’s this week. There have been 6 mass shootings in America this year. This is terrible. It is scary. And it is enraging.
Mass shootings are so hard because they leave us feeling so powerless over the situation. For all of these people they were where they were supposed to be, doing what people usually do. These were normal acts in a day for most Americans.
M. was in school when I heard the news. I know many of you had kids in school as well. Some of you may have been out shopping on Tuesday. We are all impacted by these outbreaks.
The fact is that these things should not have happened and there is no way to easily try and tie them up in a nice bow (less than desirable storyline). I do not think that God allows these kinds of things for a “greater purpose,” God does not will these kinds of events.
So we are stuck with trying to make sense of what to do when a crisis falls in your lap – whether societally or right here at Camas Friends.
I think we have to come face-to-face with some very difficult questions. One of the questions is “what does it mean to be safe?” This week we saw that we only enjoy an illusion of safety. We think that we’re safe doing the normal things, but we are not.
And Guns always become part of the question. I don’t think it matters much whether you have guns or not, Americans have more guns now than it has had in a long time, but I don’t believe they make us safer, they only deepen the illusion of safety and suspicion of others. But I don’t really think this can be reduced down to a gun issue, even if it is part of the problem.
At some level we are all, at any moment, capable of having something bad happen to us. Just the other day Emily and C. were broadsided by a driver not paying attention. We will more than likely lose our car over the ordeal, but I know it doesn’t take a whole lot more and L., M. and I would be in a completely different place.
No amount of “protection,” or isolation, or withdraw will help. The fact is that bad things happen to people in the normal places of life. I am not telling this to freak you out, but if it throws some cold water on the situation, I think that’s okay.
We are faced with many questions of why? Why could such a thing happen?
We are faced with questions about mental illness too, and how can we as a society begin to take seriously helping those who need it, and making that help accessible.
We are of course faced with the very real questions of what we will do with our children, and our families.
As the church – We don’t get to escape this [even if we have at times been influenced by “evacuation theology,” which is really bad theology] — I mean it’s always a choice. There are plenty of sectarian churches in the world — Quakers have at their best never given up on the possibility that the world can be made better by God’s grace and God’s people motivated by hope and courage. And maybe a little bit of stubbornness too.
At our best, Friends have lived as prophetic communities that instead of running away, has leaned into some of the most challenging issues of our times because we believed that Jesus’ way could help to change that aspect of society.
In Luke 3 – John has a large crowd of people gathered round who are there to hear his sermon on repentance. Once they hear it, once they are faced with a crisis of the present moment and the response that John’s message urges they too are faced with hard questions and choices too.
Their response is instructive for us this morning.
Notice their first question isn’t why – why are you asking us this, why do you think what we are doing is wrong, why does it need changed? Why is this happening right now? I don’t think the question “why” is so important at this moment.
Instead John’s crowds ask what? These are people described in Oscar Romero’s Christmas poem: [Poem] They are “people who need God to come on their behalf.” And they know it, so they don’t bother with why, the go straight to the “what.”
The nameless crowds ask, “What then should we do?” John says – begin sharing what you have with others.
The tax collectors ask, “Teacher what should we do?” He says, be fair and only take what you are supposed.
The soldiers ask, “And we, what should we do?” And he says, do not use your positional power to your own gain. In other words – do not bully.
Their “what” questions, provided some very helpful answers to the people and I think they are helpful for us in moments of crisis: “share, be fair and do not bully.”
This is how one commentator puts it and I think it’s pretty straight forward. In this moment, they need just enough faith to not give up, but instead to act differently within a system that is broken.
Instead of fleeing – lean into the thing and offer a different presence – share, be fair and don’t bully. Now that may not be quite enough to fix all of our problems, but I am confident it will get us far enough for now.
Just in the moment when we are ready to recoil in fear. To head to our bunkers, add a couple more locks on the doors, we are reminded to be a people of great courage and hope.
Now is the time. Reach out. Do not give up on your fellow brothers and sisters. Lean into this. Be the sharing community that the world needs right now. Be fair with those who have acted out of line – consider everything that has happened – imagine yourself in everyone’s shoes, try and be level headed. And do not use this to your own gain. Do not use this at all, except for an opportunity to show that God truly is love. This is your chance.
John could have told the tax collectors and the soldiers to get different jobs – he could have told them to “flee.” Instead, his instructions are to stay in the game, and change it from the inside. Do not give up, things can be changed, but they will only be changed by those who do not retreat.
In our advent cycle, this week’s passage is about movement. It is about getting out of hard places, stuck places, and facing into our fears and anxieties. It is about the movement of the little baby Jesus, moving towards us, towards a wrecked world, towards tragedy, towards people who feel utterly powerless, lacking courage, and without a hope.
This week’s passage, in light of this week’s newspaper-worthy events, reminds us that inspite of brokenness, and violence, and hatred, God moves towards us in the baby Jesus. If Christmas has a singular meaning, it is that God does not retract in fear, but moves toward us, and our broken world. Jesus believed that the world – sometimes against all odds – can in fact be made new and became a martyr to that end.
And if we as a Quaker meeting in Camas, WA are to be a people who truly understand the Christmas message, we will work to be a people who move towards the pain, the suffering, and the crisis. We will share what we little we have, we will be fair in our dealings, and we will not bully people who don’t seem to get it.
I recognize this is a hard call to extend to the world, sometimes it is even harder to extend it to one another. As Richard Rohr says, “life is hard, new life is [even] harder.” John calls his hearers to new life, a new way of living and working within the settings they already life. We too are called to new patterns, practices and habits. To be deeply present and engaged with where we are. And when we are in stuck places, to change our habits in ways that better reflect the love of Jesus.
Our call as Quakers in this world is to the harder path. It is okay to feel scared. It is okay to be angry. But we must refuse to respond in fear. If anger is to drive us, let it drive us towards a more just society. We must respond to these questions that we now face with a “what” and a “yes.”
Almighty God, look with mercy upon this fallen world, again the subject of violence.
Be with us in our grief, that we may know your consolation.
Be with us in our anger, that we may receive your peace.
Be with us in our confusion, that we may be led to your truth.
And be with us in our fear, that we may delivered into your surpassing love.
We pray this day for the victims of violence here in our community and in Connecticut and in so many other places. Strengthen us as your people, to minister to those in need and to receive the help we ourselves need. Guide sinners to repentance and lead us to forgiveness, that your grace may be our sustaining Word, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
St. Matthew Lutheran Church
Jersey City, NJ