Thursday, December 20, 2012


On Sunday, December 16, 2012, the Rev. Dr. Frank S. Deming preached the following sermon at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.  I hope you find it as helpful and inspiring as I did.

Sermon After the Sandy Hook Shooting

December 16, 2012

The Simon & Garfunkel album, “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme,” was released in 1966.  I was 14 at the time and purchased the album.  The title tune is still well known and will echo in our sanctuary next Sunday within the Christmas cantata.  “Homeward Bound” and “The Dangling Conversation” are often included on the greatest hits compilations.  But I thought on Friday about a song from that album which I had not thought of for a long time.  It was the last song on the album and was a rendition of “Silent Night.”

Paul & Art started with a simple rendering of this Christmas lullaby singing in beautiful harmony “all is calm, all is bright” and “sleep in heavenly peace.”  But by the second verse there was a fade-in of a broadcaster’s voice doing a news report.  It was actual news of the day which spoke of the turmoil of the times with references to the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.  But it also included mention of the trial of Richard Speck, a mass murderer of eight student nurses in Chicago.

The juxtaposition of such references as the violent psychopathic murder of eight nursing students with the images of the deep calm and peace of Christmas made for a haunting irony.

That contrast between unspeakable horror and the Christmas proclamation of peace and goodwill came back to me as I heard the news of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Twenty children and eight adult lives lost to madness.

From where will come tidings of comfort and joy to Newtown, Connecticut, this year?

There are people in Newtown who are taking down their Christmas decorations in sympathy and solidarity with those who will have no joy this Christmas.  People feel guilty celebrating the holiday in the face of their neighbors’ sufferings.

Christmas is suppose to be a time of joy in which we celebrate the birth of the Savior.  But if we really look at what is said in the Christmas story we will see the Christmas story itself is not Pollyanna-ish.  The Bible always takes seriously the human condition and the reality of sin, suffering and death. 

Consider the dark chapter within the nativity narratives which takes up the “slaughter of the innocents.”

The magi have come in search of the “King of the Jews.”  They inquire at the court of Herod.  Herod is taken aback by the wise men’s question.  He tells the foreign ambassadors to search diligently and when this new born king is found, bring him word and he will also go and pay homage.  It’s a feint.  But the magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and Joseph also receives a dream directive to escape to Egypt with Mary and Jesus.  When Herod learns he has been outfoxed, he orders henchmen to Bethlehem to kill all the baby boys two years old and younger.

It is estimated Bethlehem in the first century would have been a town of one thousand persons.  And thus statistically there would have been twenty infant males who were murdered.  Twenty young victims.

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”  (Matthew 2)

The Lord knows the human condition.  The Lord knows life can be cheap.

But the Lord knows this because of Christmas.  The Incarnation celebrates God coming to us in Christ to meet us where we are and to give us a new light by which to live.  He knows our condition because He has taken it on upon Himself.  He knows life can be cheap among us because He was sold for thirty pieces of silver.  But to Him . . . our lives are precious and so He has bought them with a price – the price of His own life.

* * *

I was originally going to focus on the story of Mary this morning.  I had to redirect on Friday.

Mary is a complex figure and I wasn’t going to do just a Hallmark Christmas card kind of presentation.  I was going to take up the trepidation she must have felt at the announcement she had been chosen to bear the Savior of the world.  This pregnancy could mean being alienated from her finance and ostracized by her community.  In fact she could be at risk of death by stoning if people assumed her to be an adulteress.  Yet Mary allowed herself to be vulnerable to the Word of God, opened herself up to it and trusted it.  She said to the announcing angel, “Let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary’s fear and initial uncertainty contrasts with the Mary of the greeting card.  There we see Mary lovingly looking down upon her son and of course we resonate with the beauty of this bond between mother and child.  But as was prophesized, Mary’s heart would be pierced with a sword.  She may not have known it at the time, but the swaddling cloths that she wrapped her newborn son within foreshadowed the binding cloth of the shroud.  The gift of myrrh she received for her son was an embalming spice.  The signs were there from the start.

Mary was destined to grieve as a mother.  Mary’s grief has been given expression in such works as Michelangelo’s Pieta.  Perhaps this image would make a fitting Christmas card this year as it resonates with the pathos of the grieving parents of Newtown.

Although this news is dark concerning the murder of children and their teachers, this is precisely why we do need to celebrate the light of Christ which comes into the world.

In the face of the tragedy, I have caught glimpses of remarkable demonstrations of religious faith and spiritual values.  I think we should highlight some of these examples to draw inspiration for our own dealing with the tragedy.

Where to begin?

I saw in a photo a note written in childish block print on a memorial shrine which read: “God bless all the teachers (and) kids that were involved today.  I pray for the kids like me that did not deserve that. God bless you.”

Mr. Robbie Parker was the first parent of a dead child to speak publicly to the press. He and his wife’s six-year old daughter Emilie was one of the victims.  The Parkers have two younger children yet.

Parker spoke of his loss and all the beauty and promise of his daughter.  He then offered condolences to all the other families who have lost a loved one.  And Parker continued with condolences to the family of Adam Lanza, the shooter.  He said to the family, “I can’t imagine how hard this experience must be for you and I want you to know that our love and support go out to you as well.”

There are shades of Nickel Mines here and the Amish response to the tragedy in that community (2006 – 5 girls killed).  There people also reached out to the family of the shooter.  Mr. Parker is a Christian man and despite the tragedy that has befallen him and his wife he is living into the Christian ethos which is compassion even for those who have hurt you.  In this the cycles of violence and hatred will be broken as the Savior taught.

* * *

I was touched also by an interview with Kaitlin Roig, a teacher at Sandy Hook.

Teacher Kaitlin Roig quickly ushered 15 schoolchildren into a bathroom when she heard shots at the elementary school in Newtown.

She later told ABC News that she urged her students to be quiet so that they would not alert the gunman, telling them that “there are bad guys out there now and we need to wait for the good guys to come get us out.”

“I said to them, ‘I need you to know that I love you all very much and that it’s going to be OK’ because I thought that was the last thing they were ever going to hear,” she added.

Only in the grip of love can you make that promise – that everything is going to be OK – and we only know that because of the strength of God’s love.  “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

There are other stories which could be told of teachers and staff who gave their lives trying to protect the students.

But I think the community of Newtown, and by extension the nation, needs to be commended for the way people have rallied to give support.

Signs went up around town: “Hug a teacher today,” “Please pray for Newtown” and “Love will get us through.”  There have been vigils and prayer services and of course yet to come will be the funeral services.

As the president said in his address to the nation Friday, “Our hearts have been broken.”

As a nation we do feel very intensely the loss at Newtown.  Our social media via tweeting, Face Book posts, blogging, etc. has allowed us to grieve together in a way that was not possible a generation ago.  People have been funneling their sympathy and support not just to Newtown but therapeutically debriefing their horror and sadness through modern social media networks.

A blogger (Chuck Balsamo) wrote:

Compassion … a sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

That is what I feel in my heart this morning for the devastated people of Newtown, Connecticut.

I actually cried as I prayed when the news broke, I trembled in my bones and I lost my breath…

20 children and 6 adults massacred, terror and bloodshed… in an elementary school.  I can think of nothing more chilling, more evil, or heartbreaking.

I saw a photo on of a lady who held her cell phone to her ear, as she was wailing out with grief.  I wondered if one of the 20 was her little man, or her little princess.

I wondered what these families had done the night before.  I imagined kisses on the cheeks and bedtime conversation, “I love you sweetie,” and, “I love you too Mommy!”

Asked whether the town would recover, Maryann Jacob, a clerk in the school library who took cover in a storage room with 18 fourth-graders during the shooting rampage, said: “We have to.  We have a lot of children left.”

Faith helps.

When news of the shooting broke, Hugh and Alice McGowan waited for word of their daughter, a teacher, as hour by hour ticked by. And then it came.  Authorities told the couple their daughter was a hero who helped shield some of her students from the rain of bullets.  As the grim news arrived, the victim’s mother reached for her rosary.

There are always people who question why God lets a tragedy like this happen.  It is sad to say it, but as 21st century Americans we are insulated from how tenuous life has always been and still is in much of the world.

There are some mysteries we will never understand.  The question of “theodicy,” why does an all powerful and all loving God allow bad things to happen to good people has many responses.  But such will not bring comfort to the bereaved.  As one rabbi in Newtown said, his job is not to interpret “why,” but simply to be present with grieving families of his congregation and his community.

The teacher, Kaitlin Roig, who shepherded her young students into the bathroom and told them to be quiet because “there are bad guys out there now and we need to wait for the good guys to come get us out,” but also told the children she loved them and everything was going to be OK even while thinking these may the last words they ever hear, perhaps gives perfect voice to the meaning of Christmas.

We are in a liturgical season of waiting – Advent. We are waiting for rescue.  We are waiting for light in darkness.  We are waiting Christmas.  We are waiting for Christ – our good guy who will come and put a stop to the bad guys including Satan and Death itself.  But even as we wait, we know everything is going to be OK.  Because God loves us.  And that is all we need to hear.

We pray for solace for the grief stricken in Newtown.  And we take solace in Christ and the promises of the Gospel today and always.

This manuscript was written and preached with amplifications by Rev. Frank Deming at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.  This draft has been produced upon request and is not in publication form.

I saw a photo on of a lady who held her cell phone to her ear, as she was wailing out with grief.  I wondered if one of the 20 was her little man, or her little princess. ~ Chuck Balsamo


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