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Advent 3: Grieve. Pray. Get Angry. Act!

December 16, 2012

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 16, 2012.

Luke 3: 7-18          Isaiah 64: 1-9


God, grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our rock and redeemer. Amen.


We are going to talk about gun violence.

Sandy Hook – On Friday morning, around 9:30 am, 20 year old Adam Lanza  wearing body armor and carrying three semi-automatic weapons, a Glock handgun and a SIG Sauer handgun and a rifle, walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School, shot a woman and then a teacher, and then methodically shot and killed twenty children between the ages of five and ten. He then apparently shot himself. Before arriving at the school he shot and killed his mother, to whom the guns belonged.

28 people died on Friday: boys, girls, men, women, a son and his mother. But the school, the town, was terrorized and you and I were traumatized. I left the office early on Friday to pick up my own son from school, and did my best to make the day as normal as possible for him despite the police squad car outside his school.

I have wept, like you, uncontrollable tears of grief and anger. I have prayed for the children, their families, the school teachers, first responders, police investigators and medical personnel, for those reliving their own traumas as they witness this traumatic event, and I have prayed for the pastors in Newtown, CT who will be conducting the most difficult funerals of their lives.

I have no idea why Adam did this? Right now, no one does. And even when we do, if we do, we still won’t understand.

I have wept, and grieved, and prayed, and gotten angry. I am left with the anger.

We are GOING TO talk about gun violence.

Clackamas Mall – Earlier this week, on Tuesday, just three days before Friday, 22 year old Jake Roberts walked into the Clackamas Town Center Mall near Portland, Oregon and started shooting random Christmas shoppers. A self-described adrenaline junkie, he was wearing a load-bearing vest and a carrying a semi-automatic rifle. He announced “I am the shooter,” and then started shooting, killing Cindy Yuille, 54, and Steven Forsyth, 45, and wounding 15 year old Kristina Shevchenko. The incident ended when Jake Roberts took his own life.

I have no idea why Jake did this? Right now, no one does. And even when we do, if we do, we still won’t understand.

We NEED to talk about gun violence.

First United Presbyterian Church – Fourteen days (two weeks?) ago in Coudersport, Pennsylvania, at this exact hour, Darlene Sitler, choir director and organist at First United Presbyterian Church, was shot and killed 20 minutes into the Sunday morning worship service by her ex-husband and elementary school music teacher, Gregory Eldred. Greg entered the sanctuary, shot her once, walked out, returned again minutes later to say “I want to finish this now,” and then shot her dead. He was restrained by the pastor and others in the congregation and held until police arrived, all the while threatening, and trying, to shoot others.

I have no idea why Greg did this? Right now, no one does. And even when we do, if we do, we still won’t understand.

We HAVE TO talk about gun violence.

In September Andrew Engeldinger, 36, upon learning he was being fired, went on a shooting rampage at his office, eventually killing eight people, including himself.

In August, ten people were killed in the Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin by an ex-military neo-nazi.

In July, James Holmes killed seventy people in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater.

In May, Ian Stawicki gunned down patrons in a Seattle Café, killing seven people.

In April, a former student gunned down ten students in a nursing school classroom.

In February, a man opened fire in a California Korean Spa.

That’s just 2012. That’s just the mass killings.

I was ordained in 1996. In the years that I have had the responsibility of leading congregation in prayer on Sunday mornings we have had 31 mass shootings in our nation’s elementary schools, high schools and colleges. Mass shootings. That’s an average of three a year. You remember the worst: West Side Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas; Thurston High School in Oregon; Columbine, the Amish school shooting, Virginia Tech (I had a student at Virginia Tech at the time). In many of these cases, the shooters were fellow students, 13 years old, 15 years old, 19 years old.

We ARE, right now, TALKING about gun violence. This is not the first time, or the last time, we have or will have to, talk about gun violence.

Almost half of American households legally own guns. There is very nearly one gun per U.S. citizen in this country. Every day in the United States 85 people die from guns and 191 are injured. Every year about 30,000 will be killed through gun related murder, suicide, accident, or police intervention. Approximately another 70,000 will survive gun injuries, only to have their lives and those of their families forever changed. That’s annually over 100,000 people altogether. Most tragically, almost 21,000 of the victims are American children and teens (ages 0-10). More than 3,000 kids killed – that’s 9 children a day –were murdered. Almost 800 children pick up guns and end their own young lives each year.[1] One study describes this as a 9/11 for children every year.

These stories we see most often on the news, the urban murder rate among young men, often young men of color, and the mass-shootings, often by young white men, overshadow the daily violence in our homes.

We are living, and we are dying, with gun violence every day.

Have you had enough? Are you ready to do something?

We’re going to stop talking about gun violence and start talking about eliminating gun violence. And we’re going to talk about our gospel values in the public square.

Today we will sing and pray our way through grief. We are going to light candles for each life lost on Friday and for those shot or wounded on Tuesday, and for Denise, the Presbyterian choir director and organist. But in January we are going to get back in touch with that outrage. We will sit down and study hard. Each Sunday after worship our adult education leaders will share information about the epidemic of gun violence in our country. We will do so in order to add our collective influence and the name of this church to advocacy to reform to our nation’s gun laws; reforms like requiring licensing, registration, and waiting periods to allow comprehensive background checks, and cooling-off periods, for all guns sold; and closing the “gun show loophole” by requiring background checks for all gun buyers. Let’s ban semiautomatic assault weapons, armor piercing handgun ammunition, and .50 caliber sniper rifles; and let’s support laws to “require judges and law enforcement to remove guns from situations of domestic violence, as well as from people whose adjudicated mental illness, drug use, or previous criminal record suggests the possibility of violence.” And at the same time, let’s increase police training in nonviolent proactive intervention.

The voice of the prophet cries out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down …  that our nation might tremble at your presence.”

The voice of the Baptist declares, “The ax is lying at the root of the trees. Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

Advent is to be for us a time of longing, of crying out for God to continue to break into this broken world and make it right. And so, with anger and fear and sorrow and the courage and commitment only God can call forth, we cry out. Come, Lord Jesus. Prince of Peace. Come into the horror. Help us work for right.


God, We Have Heard It

by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette

Tune: HERZLIEBSTER JESU by Johann Cruger, 1640 (“Ah, Holy Jesus”).

God, we have heard it, sounding in the silence:
News of the children lost to this world’s violence.
Children of promise! Then without a warning,
Loved ones are mourning.

Jesus, you came to bear our human sorrow;
You came to give us hope for each tomorrow.
You are our life, Lord God’s own love revealing.
We need your healing!

Heal us from giving weapons any glory;
Help us, O Prince of Peace, to hear your story;
Help us resist the evil all around here;
May love abound here!

By your own Spirit, give your church a clear voice;
In this world’s violence, help us make a new choice.
Help us to witness to the joy your peace brings,
Until your world sings!

[1] Gun Violence and Gospel Values: Mobilizing in Response to God’s Call. (Presbyterian Church (USA), 2010.


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