Responding to Tragedy… O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (God IS With US!)

     This past week has been a hard one for our country and the world.  While violence is ever present in our lives and we see daily reminders of how shockingly horrible we can treat each other, the events of Friday in Newtown shone a spotlight on just how deep our sin has cut us.  In the aftermath of these tragic killings and many like it, there is always an over abundance of talking heads who seek to use the death of others to advance their positions.  “Gun control” advocates come on and talk about how new laws would  may have prevented this event.  “Gun rights” advocates are on the other side of the split screen talking about how if the teachers had guns they could have stopped the gunman. 

     I agree that in the midst of this tragedy there is a calling to have deep conversations about guns, violence and the mental health system.  Some of my colleagues have chosen this time as that time.  Roy Howard, Pastor of St. Marks Presbyterian in North Bethesda, Maryland for one, made an impassioned response and a call to action against violence and calling for more Gun Control.  Please email me and I can pass along his Facebook post of what he said to his congregation.  Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, has chosen to use this situation to draw attention to his beliefs about abortion and homosexuality.  For many Pastors, their judgment led them to use this event as a springboard for what they hope will be meaningful discussions about deep issues.

     I had more than one parishioner say to me prior to Sunday’s service, “I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes today.”  The fact of the matter is that the shooting and senseless loss of life in Newtown needed to be addressed.  There was not a soul in the sanctuary that wasn’t looking for a pastoral response to the shock and horror of our time.  I struggled with what the right response for the worshiping congregation at Christ Presbyterian Church should be.  An added level to this was that in our eleven o’clock service we were offering our Christmas Cantata. 

     I decided that at this point in the life of our world, and in particular our congregation, that a political or social response was not the faithful action for me to take.  Instead, I found it critical to encourage people during worship to experience silence before God.  Our congregation is not known for it’s quiet demeanor.   Weekly our “passing of the peace” is more like the mosh pit of peace.  So gathering our community in silence was what I felt was needed.  Stopping all of the talking and instead encourage listening, but not listening to the gory details or sides of argument.  Rather, I hope that in our worship we were able to “be still and know” that God is God.  The lectionary passage of the day dealt with our need to bring our lives to God and receive the “peace that surpasses all understanding.”  There needs to be a time in our country and our congregation where we seek to understand, but this past Sunday was more about our need to seek something that goes beyond understanding, God’s peace.

     I believe that God provided for that through our “scheduled event,” the Shout the Good News! cantata.  In the middle of deep pain and the glaring presence of our brokenness the sacred story of promise and Savior’s birth is the greatest message we can receive.  I heard many people say, “why did this have to happen so close to Christmas?”  I’m not sure if that was a theological question or just a practical question because their family gatherings will be shrouded with the feeling of loss, but I think it needs to be a theological question.  As a pastor I have chosen today to remind everyone that Christ comes to the world for such a time as this.  In a world that is dark with sin and filled with death, comes one who brings light and life.

     It is critical that we remember that even today we are blessed.  The problem is that our understanding of blessedness has been confused with good fortune.  Adam Hamilton writes about blessedness in The Journey this way: 

“God’s blessings are not about ease or comfort, but rather about the joy of being part of God’s work, being used for God’s purposes and being accompanied by God’s presence, particularly in the face of adversity.”

     We have been blessed to be a blessing in this world.  I want to remind everyone that even in this adversity, our God is present and loving us.  Our hope might be dimmed and pain is real, but God has not abandoned us.  In this season of Advent I remind you of the great hymn we often sing.  O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.  In that hymn we ask the very God of heaven and earth to come and be God with us.  O Come, O Come, God WITH US.  This verse speaks especially clear about how God works as Emmanuel in times like this:

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night And death’s dark shadows put to flight.Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

5 thoughts on “Responding to Tragedy… O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (God IS With US!)

  1. Here is the words of Roy Howard I spoke of. He spoke these words on Sunday following the shooting.

    I did not preach today because we had our children’s Christmas pageant. (See the Holy Family here!) But this is what I said:

    We live in difficult, violent times. This is nothing new; the world into which God came among us as a vulnerable c
    hild was also torn by violence. The pain of recent days in Connecticut and Oregon only magnify the pain of violence that is a deep pattern in our society. The pattern is more apparent now but it has been with us for much too long. This morning I turn to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who as a young Lutheran pastor, preached the gospel to his own people who had fallen deeply into the abyss of violence.
    Speaking during Advent, he said,

    “… despite [all the personal sorrow], Christmas comes. Whether we wish it or not, whether we are sure or not, we must hear the words once again, Christ the Savior is here! The world that Christ comes to save is our lost and fallen world. None other.”

    I believe we must remember and take courage in the saving knowledge that our God, in love, came to be with us in Jesus Christ. God, in love, descended to the depths of human pain and sorrow, embraced the worst that humans can do to each another, even death on a cross, because of God’s desire to be in union with humanity. This love, grace and mercy is embodied in Jesus Christ. Madly in love with us, God took upon the flesh of a child, to be one with us that we might be one with God. This holy child experienced the pain of a refugee fleeing the wrath of Herod who would kill the children rather than bow to this child.

    The message of Christmas – the message that we so deeply need to hear again – is that God knows our sorrow, endures our pain, even the pain of death, because God loves us enough to be with us in Jesus Christ.

    I also think we need to be vigilant in renouncing opinions from so-called religious authorities on television and in print who turn our God into one who does harm to the innocent for some higher goal or punishes children for some failed political agenda, as some have reported. This is not the God who is revealed in our Savior who comes among filled with grace and truth. We must not allow our God – the God of Jesus Christ, who love us – to be manipulated by religious leaders who have no agenda other than their own. And please, do not tell me that God needs one more little angel. Enough. Stop it.

    We know God by this name: Jesus Christ, who is our Emmanuel – God with us! This is our only hope and salvation.

    Let us rejoice in God’s love, grace and mercy

  2. Here is Roy’s post from the 14th.

    Again, we as a people are facing the worst we can do: at least 26 people killed, 18 children at an elementary. Shot dead by a 20 year old young man, who is also dead. Words cannot express the grief that now floods the families of the victims and washes over all of us. I do want us to remember them and pray all comfort and consolation sustain them. But, I always want to say that we have got to find
    a way to get guns out of the hands of deranged people who murder our young and themselves. There is I believe such a thing as “embodied” prayer that is expressed in action. What action we must take as a congregation to move this prayer forward is the conversation I want to have with you. Just today I posted these words from our dear Cynthia Bolbach

    “At the heart of a community of faith are disciples like these in the Gospel story — disciples who are willing to take risks, to do whatever it takes, to help others see Jesus …

    Without risk-taking disciples, without disciples willing to do the unexpected, willing to get up on the roof and cut a hole in it for someone they may not even know – without those disciples, we don’t have a church. ”

    We need to take all necessary risks for God’s sake, and the sake of our children. Can I get a witness?

  3. Last night the Session on the St. Mark’s congregation which is Pastored by Roy Howard took the followig actions.

    I am glad tonight for the ruling elders of our congregation. The session did the following:

    1. Approved a letter to all our elected officials that confesses our own repentance from the sin of silence on gun violence, committing ourselves to acts of repentance that will contribute to efforts to stop gun violence, calling upon them to take specific actions, and committing ourselves to support them and pray for them in this effort.

    2. Request a personal meeting with our local, state and federal officials to discuss this with them and hold them accountable for what actions they will take toward solutions.

    3.Host a forum for the community with our elected officials and local enforcement officers to have civil conversation how they will follow the President’s call to “take meaningful actions to reduced gun violence, regardless of politics.”

    4. Lead our congregation in conversation, prayer and discernment about the next steps to be taken that will be part of solutions to gun violence.

    5. Participate with our neighboring congregations and community in addressing better treatment for persons suffering mental illness.

    6. To keep in view the long term larger systemic problem of violence in this country that requires a moral and spiritual awakening to shift the culture.

  4. I was pleased with your Sunday sermon Pastor Geoff. I thought our emotions were already raw from the little we knew and understood about the tragedy at Sandy Hook. I didn’t feel the need to dwell on the specifics of this particular tragedy. Rather it was better to understand that justice is not an end unto itself if our desire is to transform our lives. Rather God’s peace, which is beyond our best comprehension, leads us to the hope we need to trust God with our lives. I believe your own faith helped us to see what we needed as a community of faith at that time. Thank you.

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