I don’t normally publish my sermons in written form. I partially don’t publish them because to me, a sermon is not a written document – it is something that happens in a time and a space, and is fundamentally both verbal and relational. I also don’t publish them in a written form because I rarely stick to whatever I wrote down in my manuscript – I tend to view my manuscript as more of an “outline” than a “sermon.” That said, we are not yet to the place where we are recording all of our services at First Parish in Taunton (thought we will be there soon!) and several people have asked me for a copy of this morning’s message. So with all those caveats, my message is below. May we all shine our light into the dark corners.
Candles of Light
I chose our reading this morning – the twenty-third psalm – because it is one that endures. When so many things float from our minds and our hearts, there is something about that verse that stays with us, – to walk through the valley of shadow of death and fear no evil – that stays with us in good times and in bad. There is a constancy in those lines that is there in birth, in commitment, in love and in death. So we speak them here today.
The bulletin that many of you hold in your hands was printed before this Friday. The original topic of this message was chosen and written before this Friday, and where we are today is after this Friday. After the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut, after the deaths of twenty-eight people and twenty children under the age of ten. After terrible things that happened so painfully close to our hearts. Twenty children, six and seven years old. The pain is almost unbearable.
For those of you who are with us for the first or second time today, I want to especially welcome you. This is such a sad day, and a hard day. It is a day that I am especially glad to be here, and glad that you are all here with me, with us, with this community. In the face of tragedy, senseless insanity, having this community seems to matter more to me and I think to all of us – to know that we are not alone and that there is still goodness in the world. Thank you all for being here – giving us the chance to be together, to grieve, and to find support in each other, even if today is our first time to First Parish.
I had a hard time on Friday, not rushing to my kids’ schools to pick them up early. My daughter is three – she’s in preschool – and my son is five, in kindergarten. When I heard the news from Connecticut, my initial thought was shock. My thoughts went to – It can’t be true. Someone surely could not have gone into a school and murdered little children. No, please God no. And then as the news started to come out, the horror of the situation started to fall upon me. The thoughts of the teachers, working with children on how to read or learn five times six, to hear gunshots in the hallways. The thoughts of the parents, hearing about something happening at their child’s school and the horrible, terrible terror and agony they must be in. And then the children – the six and seven year old children, scared and crying and away from their parents and being killed. And then, of course, the horror of all of it came on in a whole new way as the only children that came to my mind were my own – my own sweet son and my darling daughter. And the thought of such a thing happening to them, and to me, and to our family and it was all I could do to stop shaking as I sat in the coffee shop, reading my morning mail.
I’ve read a lot of articles in the past forty-eight hours, and they talk about a lot of different things – about gun control and mental illness, about tragedy and family relationships. Some articles talk about how tragedy is part of life, and about how we are lucky in the United States that many things do not happen here like they do in Syria or Pakistan. I have read enough to make me thankful that I am not a politician and terrified that I am a mother.
I don’t know what the right steps are for us to take as a nation going forward. But I do know that what happened on Friday changed my life in a way, as it did all of our lives. For tragedy and pain does that. The reminder that there is so much out of our control, that there are no guarantees, that bad things happen to good people and in good places and in places that could be here, that could be us – those revelations are terrifying beyond belief. When my kids came home from school, I hugged them a lot. I picked up my son and I smelled his hair. I held my daughter so tightly that she wrapped her little arms and legs around me and buried her face in my neck, saying “Now I’ve got you as tight as you got me!” All evening long I held them, and cuddled them and kissed them. And I was happy and grateful and scared.
I was angry on Friday, and I’m still angry today. My education was marred by the shootings in Columbine, Colorado – those which many remember as the “first” of the school shootings. I was in college with people who were from Columbine, and whose lives were changed forever that day. I feel like ever since Columbine, there has been one gun tragedy after another and they keep getting worse and worse and worse until I can’t bear to think about it. Kindergarteners. Second graders. Six year olds. I fold my kids clothing and I cry, thinking about the mothers who would be doing that for the last time. I hold my kids and I brush their hair and feel their warm weight on my lap. I look at their smiles and the light in their eyes, and I listen to them as they talk about Christmas. I am so grateful that I have my babies and so angry that others children have been so senselessly taken.
I have a friend who has a good sense of humor. She wrote to me on Friday and she said “Thinking of you when I saw about the shootings. I have a good idea. Keep your kids home from school from now on and never let them out. This is a good plan because I love you and I love them and clearly this is the only way forward.” She ended her message with a little smiley face.
I did not pick my kids up early on Friday. I let them finish their day and I held them when they came home. But it was hard. There is a piece of me that wants to hold them and protect them and never let them out of the house again. There is a piece of me that wants to extend that protection beyond my children to my cousins and nieces and nephews and the children of my friends and all of the children here. I want to protect all of them and find a way to keep everyone safe. There is a piece of me that wants us all to lock ourselves away and never let anyone hurt us again.
But we all know, here today, as we have come together in community, that locking ourselves away will never be the answer. The answer can only come through living together, living out our faith and making the world brighter with it. I have a friend and colleague, Tony Lorenzen, who wrote about his experience of Friday in an article on his blog, and I’d like to share his words with you now.
“No one cries like a mother cries. Twenty mothers in CT cried that way today. I cried with them. How, how do we go on preaching peace on earth and preaching the triumphant return of the light in the face of such darkness? Perhaps it is only by faith. Only by an abiding trust that light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot over come it. The Christmas and Advent seasons adopted and adapted the Pagan observances of the winter solstice. The imagery is the same – light after darkness, evergreens, fire, and the sun coming into the world. Maybe it’s those roots of the season that need to rescue it this year. The faith we need is the faith born of experience and observation that no matter how long and dark the night, the light always returns and the days always get longer again. It is the way of things. It is built into the fabric of nature in this existence.
Perhaps we have to return to faith in ourselves. Trust that the light within us is strong enough to pierce through the night, however dark, and that whatever we light we have to shine, as little a light as it may be, is of great help and great worth. It is too late for anything but to mourn and to grieve those who died today. But now is the time to shine what light we have in order to dispel the darknesses of tomorrow. Should we not let our light shine, we may just be giving the darkness what it needs to assault us again. The light we shine may not prevent every horror and injustice and pain of tomorrow, but without the light we do shine there will most certainly be more pain and sorrow than if we had kept our light hidden or to ourselves.” End quote.
Many of you will have heard today about the heroic actions of Victoria Soto, the twenty-seven year old first grade teacher who lost her life in Newtown on Friday. From what authorities can piece together, Victoria was ushering her six-year-old students into cupboards and closets when the gunman entered her classroom. She told the gunman that most of the children were in the school gym, and used her own body as a shield to protect the students not yet in the closet. She died protecting them, but students survived. You may have heard the story of Dawn Hotchsprung, the school principal at Sandy Hook elementary school, who was killed as she lunged at the gunman, attempting to disarm him and protect her school. There can be such goodness in humans, in people. Such goodness.
Terrible things have happened to our country and to our children, and it is a time for mourning. But we here today must do more than just despair and cry and hide away for the rest of time. We must do more than distance ourselves from pain and agony. We are still here. We can still lift up our children and love them, we can still kiss them good-bye in the morning and pray for their safety. We can thank our teachers and love them and bless them every day for the amazing work they do for our children and our country. And we can make a difference. Not only in the lives of our kids, but in this world. As I said, I don’t know what the right answer is. But I know that we must find a way to keep making the world a better place – a safer place, a place of joy and gladness and wonder.
For I believe that Tony is right. Without our light, individually and together, there will most certainly be more pain and sorrow than if we shine on brightly. So let us take courage, friends, and know that we are not alone. Let us take courage and make a difference in making the world a place safe for our children, safe for our teachers, and as full of joy as we can bring. Let us come together in the light and with hope, and know that this is not the end; that it does not have to get worse, and that with faith, all things are possible. Let us shine our lights, individually and together, with as much brightness and warmth and love as we can. Let us help make the world better, and bring love to the dark corners. May it be so.