by Jamie Howison
[A sermon preached at st. benedict’s table, Winnipeg, on the third Sunday of Advent]
Every so often life throws the preacher a curve ball, such that the sermon written on Friday morning no longer speaks to the realities of Sunday evening. My sermon on the figure of John the Baptist has been set aside, though it might be true to say that John’s deep dis-ease with the society in which he lived—his powerful message about our need to turn around and reconfigure ourselves—still rings in the background of what I need to say this evening.
On Friday morning as I was writing that sermon, a young man walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and began killing children and the school staff who tried to stop him. And while the news reports and updates I heard on CBC radio up to Sunday morning kept referring to him as “the shooter,” we knew already knew then that it was 20-year-old Adam Lanza who wielded those guns. We know, too, that his mother Nancy Lanza was his first victim, and that the guns he used were registered in her name.
Identifying him as merely “the shooter” makes me nervous. I suspect that the CBC was following some protocol, as the police in Connecticut had still not yet officially confirmed the young man’s identity. Yet to use that generic term “the shooter” makes it easier to demonize him; he’s a monster, a killer, “the shooter.” No doubt what he did was monstrous and evil, but to demonize and vilify such a person isolates him from the bigger picture and lets us off the hook from having to deal with bigger and more difficult questions.
For some people, the toughest question will be, “How could God allow such a thing to happen?” And assuming that all things are connected directly to God’s will, some might even be seeking to find God’s divine purpose in the midst of it all. But I want to say that such questions are really coming at things from the wrong starting point.
The better question is, what is it about humanity—what is it about us—that is at work here?
It is almost inevitable that as the story unfolds we’ll discover that Adam Lanza suffered from some sort of serious and deep-seated mental disorder, but even that will only be a part of the picture. Questions need to be asked about the degree to which ours is a culture of violence.
Ours is culture of violence; and there’s little point in suggesting that the border between the United States and Canada is anything but porous. Yes, gun laws are different here, and to a real degree Canadian norms and expectations around who might own what firearms and for what purposes are also different. But the Canadian story includes the 1999 school shootings in Taber, Alberta, as well as a 1978 gun murder at Winnipeg’s Sturgeon Creek Regional Secondary School. We have seen more than enough headlines about gang-related gun violence, and we can hardly deny the degree to which violence has been embraced as a form of entertainment; in movies and television, in video games, and in both the contrived world of professional wrestling and the all too real blood-sport called Ultimate Fighting Championship.
So really, the pressing theological question is not “how could God allow this to happen?” but rather “what have we done?”
What have we done in this world God created and declared as good?
What have we done with our calling to live into our status of being created in the image and likeness of God?
Those are kinds of questions that are pressing on us in these times.
The children and school staff who were killed also have names. For many of us here, the name that strikes most closely is Ana Grace Márquez-Greene—daughter of Nelba Márquez and Jimmy Greene, and little sister to Isaiah. Those of us who know Jimmy or Nelba can’t quite escape the image of the pain that will be imprinted on their faces this night. Jimmy was one of the people I interviewed for my book on jazz and theology, and every time I ran into him he’d ask me how the work was progressing. A gentle man with a passion for music, a heart for his students, and a deep love for his family and his God, I can hardly begin to imagine how deeply this has wounded him. I see that open and smiling face of his, and my eyes well with tears. Ana Grace is dead, and life will never again be the same for any of them.
Ten days ago, the writer and theologian Brian Walsh published a poetic response to Steve Bell’s Keening for the Dawn CD. Ten days ago, yet it could have been written on Friday afternoon. Walsh picked up on Steve’s use of the word “keening,” reminding his readers that one of the meanings of the word is “an act of mourning, a cry of anguish in the face of irreparable loss.” “Steve Bell would have us keening for the dawn,” Walsh wrote, “and he will lead us to imagine that such keening is what Advent is all about.” And then this:
An Advent that isn’t desperate for the Dawn,
isn’t wailing with the mothers of the dead;
in Palestine and Syria,
in Israel and Egypt,
in Honduras and Somalia,
in First Nations reserves,
and on the streets of Toronto and the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver
… is no Advent at all.
And an Advent that isn’t wailing with the mothers of the dead in Newtown, Connecticut—with Nelba Márquez, and with Jimmy and little Isaiah—is no Advent at all. Because more than anything else, Advent is the season that insists that before we can observe the feast of Christmas we must first speak honestly of the pain of the world; of its longing for redemption, healing, and completion. And so Walsh continues,
And the very act of keening, the very expression of grief,
the abrasive voice of lament in the face of loss,
also occasions a hope for the dawn,
a hope for resurrection,
a hope for a coming again.
And we are waiting.
We are waiting, watching, longing for the day when, as the prophet Isaiah sang, “everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; [when] they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Is. 35:10)
“So what do we do as we wait?” Walsh asks, and then right away answers,
Bell calls us to the table.
Admittedly, it’s not much of a meal,
… some broken bread,
… a little wine as a tonic for the pain.
But dutifully we take our fill,
week in and week out, we come to the table,
as we wait, as we long, as we keen …
to see your face again.
Together we share this symbolic meal as an expression of our faithful longing for the day when “sorrow and sighing shall flee away,” and we mark it in prayerful solidarity with those who this night can find neither the words nor the will to speak anything other than raw lament. We acknowledge the depths of humanity’s estrangement from what we were created to be, and yet with our prophets and our poets we commit ourselves to finding a voice to keep on singing God’s alternative song.
Her name was Ana Grace. May her soul, and the souls of all who died in Newtown on Friday morning, by the mercy of God rest in peace and rise in his promised glory.
To listen to this sermon, check out the podcast: