“Christmas after the Connecticut Massacre”
A St. Andrew’s Sermon
Delivered by Dr. Jim Rigby
December 16, 2012
Very often when we think of religion, it feels like it’s a fragile snow globe. It has these beautiful promises and thoughts and images; but, we never think it would hold up to the violence in the real world. We protect it; we hide it so that it doesn’t get shattered. What I want to say today is that Christmas is a symbol that would be strong enough to stand up to the worst life has to offer if we told the whole story. There’s a part of the Christmas story that gets left out and I want to read that passage to you. You have probably never heard it in a Christmas sermon and I would not use it under normal circumstances. This is Matthew 2: 16-18:
Herod became furious when he discovered that the astrologers had outwitted him. He gave orders to kill all the male children that were two years old and younger living in and around Bethlehem. The age of the children was based on the date Herod had learned from the astrologers. Then what was spoken through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled.
“A voice was heard in Ramah
sobbing and lamenting loudly:
it was Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
for they were no more.”
Not a happy Christmas passage, but an important one. It can remind us that hope can be born out of tragedy, that hope can be born out of terrible mistakes,that hope can be born out of what seems to us as a dead end. The only way we can get that kind of hope from the Christmas story is if we stop taking out the hard parts; that this infant so tender, so beautiful, is born into peril. There is already someone who wants to stop and kill this newborn child.
Herod was thought to be one of the most powerful people in the world when he lived, but he’s actually a very pathetic figure. He’d sold out to the Romans. His title was “King of the Jews”, but that was only as long as he was a puppet for the Roman Empire. He built some of the most majestic fortresses of all time. If you’ve ever heard the story of Masada where a small group of Jewish people were able to hold off the Roman army—it’s because they were hiding in one of Herod’s impregnable fortresses. But Herod represented a dying worldview.
I want to picture Herod today as an example of what can go wrong with a conservative approach to tragedy. I want to picture the Wise men (women, whatever they were, Magi, astrologers) as what can go wrong from a liberal viewpoint.
I went to a meeting this week in Pflugerville and there were a bunch of people from St. Andrew’s that were at that meeting to advocate for domestic partnership rights for the teachers and the staff and the workers at the PflugervilleSchool system. When the conservatives spoke, I kept hearing people groan in pain. Not out loud, it was under their breath. And every once in a while somebody would say “How can they be so mean?” We have to understand that when a worldview is dying, people get very desperate, very numb. And what seems like cruelty is really somebody clawing to survive…which is why at that meeting conservatives kept presenting themselves as the real victims of the story, even though what they were trying to do was to take away insurance coverage from other people. To them, for anyone to question their right to do tell others what to do feels like an assault on their character itself. Herod is in that unenviable position. He represents dying authority and he must not account for the fact that he is serving the enemy of the Jewish people.
I don’t know how many of you heard that when the tragedy happened in Connecticut, Mike Huckabee made a statement about the situation. He said we shouldn’t be surprised when these kinds of tragedies happen, because we’ve taken God out of the schools, and so we should expect that our children will be prone to violence. Now this might make sense if the children had attacked the gunman. It makes no sense in this context. And what it ignores is that we live in a culture that spends its best efforts on armaments and does not consider it worthwhile to provide mental health care for all of its citizens. Now a nation that does that has written its own tragedy. And that’s what the prophets were coming to say: “You may think your violence makes you strong, but when you choose violence over compassion, you have written your own death certificate. And you’ll never know what hit you.”
As an American, we are taught to say, “In God we trust”, but we all know that’s a crock. Right? We wouldn’t invest all this money in armaments if that were true. We don’t believe God is going to protect us, it’s in weaponry we trust. It’s in violence we trust. And like every other empire that has ever been, we are now consuming ourselves in a desperate effort to keep our place in that hierarchy. Most Americans believe that being the meanest bully on the block is the only way we can survive. But let me ask you this. How did that work for the dinosaurs? When scientists dig up dinosaurs, they discover the most ridiculous weapons you’ve ever seen. They’re terrifying – the longest claws – the biggest teeth – armaments – big horns coming out of every place. And they’re dead. Their invincibility kept them from being harmonious with their own environment. Their savageness, their power, their size, their strength all made it impossible for them to survive. It wasn’t sustainable. So when we fall into conservatism as a knee-jerk reaction to tragedy and say “what we need is to arm those teachers and give every kid a concealed weapon” we need to stop and realize that is as dead an end as it can possibly be. The answer is not more violence. It can’t be.
Now the flip side is the liberal response. And that is to still serve the empire but to do it as nicely as you can. To still work within the predatory economic system but be as nice as you can. And in some ways that is even worse as a way of serving people up to the bullies. When we leave power out of the equation, and we treat violence as a verbal issue, as a conversation we are having, we are serving the weak up to the strong.
For example, the Magi go to Herod. They are going to speak the truth to power. Have you ever heard that one? Heard liberals say that? The powerful already know the truth. Herod knew the truth. Bush knew the truth. Obama knows the truth. That’s how they got where they are. When we leave power out of the equation as the Wise Men, the astrologers, do, they go to Herod and say, “Guess what? I’ve got great news. There’s a new king that’s been born.” That’s real smart, isn’t it? Does that sound like a wise person to you? You go straight to the bully, as liberals are wont to do and confront them verbally, but leave the power discrepancy intact. As long we see violence in terms of a flat continuum of left and right, we’re just choosing between different aspects of the same trance.
At a church like St. Andrew’s, we value inclusivity. But as much as it’s true that every person is welcome here, we have to realize that not every behavior is welcome here. And that inclusivity requires very strong boundaries to protect the weak from the strong. So that’s something that we’re learning to do. But to do that you have to step outside of the liberal/conservative arc.
When I was young, I wanted to have the stigmata. I think I‘ve mentioned that before. You know, that’s where you pray and you cry and get a hole in your hand like Jesus had on the cross…about as neurotic as you can get. I was young but it just sounded really special when I was reading about St. Francis, and the birds sat on his shoulders, and he had holes in his hands. That’s a part of that clueless new age approach to religion. Because what you will discover if you stand up for the weak, there are plenty of people who’ll poke the holes for you. You don’t have to do that psychically. The wounds of Christ are the price that he pays for standing up for the weak, for speaking for the outsider, for the oppressed. Those are the lashes of Paul.
So, when we tell the story of this little baby, so vulnerable, so silent—we sing those hymns, “Silent Night” – cold night, dark night – we need to remember that the infant was born into danger. But this baby is the hope of the world. Why? It’s a principle of life that the tenderest part of a plant is the most alive. That’s the part of the plant that’s being born. The toughest, most powerful, hardest part of a plant is in process of dying. And that’s a spiritual principle that sweeps across all of life.
So, this little baby that is so weak in appearance goes on to teach vulnerability as strength. “Turn the other cheek.” “Blessed are you if you are poor.” Because what he’s saying is in times of trauma and times of turmoil we must know to choose gentleness and life, and not hardness and violence. So, Lao-tzu says that the soft shall overcome the hard. Gandhi says that weakness overcomes strength. Gentleness overcomes violence, though it takes a thousand years. It’s a principle of life; but, we have to trust it. Not to believe in it, but to trust it.
When the Connecticut tragedy happened I jotted down some notes that were later blogged. I was seeing people already beginning to lash out at one another over this, trying to find the villain in this story. It is a human trait we all have. We go almost straight there. What I was recommending is that we stay in our heart at first, and grieve, because we’re born into a culture of violence. This culture is violence. It is the most violent culture, possibly of all time. But we don’t count our prisons as violence. We don’t count poverty as violence. We don’t count war as violence. And so we don’t understand when something happens that breaks our heart, like the tragedy in Connecticut, that the violence is no accident, but an expression of our whole culture.
When the left wing blames the right wing and the right wing blames the left wing, what we are missing is that as long as we participate in this violent culture, we’re both wings from the same vulture,
We must consciously and intentionally step out of that worldview to keep our own heart alive. When I was working on this sermon, a eulogy that Martin Luther King did popped into my head. You don’t see it mentioned very often, but you probably remember a bombing in Birmingham where some children were killed. Well, Dr. King did a service for them and what he said is called “Eulogy for the Martyred Children”. I think it applies today. Now that church was working on civil rights and so Martin Luther King is going to make the point that they died for a cause, even though it’s still a tragedy. What I’m going to suggest is not the same thing, but how we respond to this tragedy will determine whether those deaths were in vain or if they can motivate us to change this culture on behalf of children. Dr. King says,
These children unoffending, innocent and beautiful were the victims of one of the most vicious heinous crimes ever perpetrated against humanity, yet they died nobly. They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. [This is the part I want you to listen to] So, they have something to say to us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the Gospel who’s ever remained silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that is compromised with the undemocratic practices of Southern Dixiecrats and the blatant hypocrisy of right wing Northern Republicans. [We forget how blunt he was] They have something to say to every Negro who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and stands on the sidelines in the midst of a mighty struggle for justice. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them but about the system, the way of life, and the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us we must work passionately and unrelentingly to make the American dream a reality.
Prophetic words. Whether the children’s deaths are in vain depends on how we respond to them. This is not a safe nation for children. Not physically. Not spiritually. Not emotionally. So, what Christ calls us to do, what our own hearts call us to do is to step out of the continuum of violence and make peace reign in our own hearts. You cannot change the world, but you can change your heart today depending on what you let rule it—bitterness, pain, fear or hope and compassion.
When we leave the part about Herod out of the Christmas story, it’s a prettier Nativity scene, no question about it. But we’re left with a porcelain religion that shatters in the face of real life – a beautiful snow globe that fractures if it’s ever exposed to real violence. Christmas is the story of a hope born out of trauma and tragedy. It is a reminder that it is a principle of life that what seems hard and firm is in the process of dying, and what seems tender and vulnerable is in the process of being born.
Transcribed and edited by a member of the St. Andrew's Sermon Transcription Project.
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