And the crowd asked John the Baptist, "What shall we do?"
I spoke with the Episcopal Bishop of Connecticut on Friday morning. He had called to ask me a routine question, and we chatted amicably for about 20 minutes. He mentioned news of a school shooting, but he didn't have specific information yet. "It's a harsh world, Mariann," he said, and I agreed. We hung up, after which he surely received the wrenching particulars of the events in Newtown that sent him and his colleagues to offer whatever help they could.
Rabbi Shaul Praver of Temple Adath Israel of Newtown was interviewed on Public Radio yesterday. He was among the religious leaders who sat in a nearby firehouse with families waiting to be reunited with their children. As the numbers of waiting families diminished in number, their panic increased, and each religious leader was assigned to a family. We can only imagine the collective anguish when officials announced that all the as yet unaccounted for children didn't make it. The rabbi's task was to console a mother who lost her first-grade son.
"What did you say?" the interviewer asked, "I told her," the rabbi responded, "that I believe in the eternity of the soul and that I believed that she would see her son again someday. But that was my only theological statement; mainly I was there to help her simply to survive each wrenching moment of that horrible day."
"I don't have the answer to why these things happen," he said. "I've never liked theological answers in the face of suffering. As religious people we can't solve these things like a math equation. We can only share the suffering of our fellow human beings and offer whatever compassion we can."
The interview ended with Rabbi Praver asking us all to pray. "The silent prayers of your listeners," he said, "will help these families in this horrible time."
And so we pray, not at all certain that our prayers help. Prayer is an instinctual response in times such as these, whether we call that response prayer or not. We pray in anguish, or anger, or more often than not, in numb incomprehension. In the words of a friend and father of two young sons, "It's hard to find the right words. Or think the right thoughts. Or feel the right pain. Everything is so wrong."
Invariably, a question arises from our prayer, one that echoes across time and space, the question human beings always ask in the face of suffering or injustice or collective sin. It's the same question that those who flocked to John the Baptizer asked so many years ago: What shall we do?
John's answer is noteworthy for its simplicity. First he said, "Bear fruits worthy of repentance." In other words, regret alone isn't enough. He called on people to change their lives in meaningful, measurable ways. "Bear fruits. When people wanted to know specifically what they should do, he said, in essence, do what you already know is right. If you have more than you need, share with those who have don't have enough. If you hold power over another, do not abuse that power. If you are a soldier, do not use your weapons for personal gain. Be honest and decent and at peace with what you have.
What do you suppose John would say were we to ask him, "In light of the darkest Friday we can imagine, what shall we do?" Surely he would he look us in the eye and say, "Bear fruits worthy of repentance, worthy of your sorrow, worthy of those who lost their lives and their precious ones. And do what you already know is right."
On Sept. 18, 1963, just one month after his triumphant "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached at the funeral of three young girls -- Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair and Cynthia Diane Wesley -- who were killed by a bomb as they attended Sunday school of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. He said:
This afternoon we gather in the quiet of this sanctuary to pay our last tribute of respect to these beautiful children of God. They entered the stage of history just a few years ago, and in the brief years that they were privileged to act on this mortal stage, they played their parts exceedingly well. Now the curtain falls; they move through the exit; the drama of their earthly life comes to a close. They are now committed back to that eternity from which they came.
These children -- unoffending, innocent and beautiful -- were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity. And yet they died nobly. They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. And so they have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to every Negro who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice.
They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream. And so my friends, they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city.
I suggest to you that we must resolve, as a nation, not to allow the Newtown children and their teachers to die in vain. If we only pray and do not bear fruits worthy of repentance and do what we know to be right, we dishonor them. If we only pray and do not act, we are complicit in perpetuating the conditions that allow such crimes to occur. It is time, once again, to substitute courage for caution.
I, for one, have decided to join forces with Dean Hall at the National Cathedral and all people of faith and good will who are saying now, in response to Friday's tragedy, that enough is enough. We have been fed enough the stale bread of violence. We have been complicit too long in a system that allows such crimes to continue. One hundred and nineteen thousand and seventy nine children and teens have been killed by gun violence since 1979, according to Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund -- more than the number of Americans killed in any of the 20th century's largest wars. More than 10,000 Americans were killed by gun violence last year alone.
Dean Hall and I have decided to dedicate ourselves to the work of passing national legislation to ban the sale of assault weapons and ammunition in this country and I invite you, as a congregation, to join us and others for whom something snapped inside on Friday, as if we collectively all awoke from a very bad dream. While there are legitimate reasons to own a gun for sport and self-defense, there is no reason for civilians to own weapons whose only purpose is to kill large numbers of people. And while there is far more to be done to reduce violence in our nation and to care for the mentally ill, if we don't begin with the most obvious first steps, how will we ever progress to more difficult challenges?
A television reporter asked me yesterday if I thought, as he did, that this shooting might be the one to strengthen national resolve to address gun violence, given the slaughter of innocents in the midst of a holy season, I said yes, surely, for those reasons. And there is also this political reality: We occupy the briefest of moments now, when our political leaders are not under the immediate pressure of an election. Now the powerful influence of the gun lobby could be met and matched, in the words of Dean Hall, by the power of the cross lobby. "Our political leaders need to know," he is saying in his sermon this morning, "that there is a group of people in America who will serve as a counterweight to the gun lobby, who will stand together and support them as they act to take assault weapons off the streets. As followers of Jesus, we are led by one who died at the hand of human violence. We know something about innocent suffering. And we know our job is to heal it and stop it wherever we can." It is time -- past time -- to take the first meaningful step in ending the epidemic of gun violence in this country.
I'd like to say a personal word to those being confirmed this morning and who are being received into the Episcopal Church. First, I want to thank you for taking this important spiritual step, saying to God, yourselves and this community that you want to stand and be counted, that you choose to be part of a spiritual tradition inspired by the living spirit of Jesus, and that you promise, to live your lives in a manner worthy of him. You are about to make promises of great significance, and to receive a blessing that will remain with you for the rest of your lives. It is the blessing of the Holy Spirit that already resides within you, joining with your spirit, enabling you to live fully into your God given gifts and to extraordinary things for the sake of love. And your decision to stand tall us gives us all the opportunity to renew our baptismal promises alongside you.
Among the promises we renew together are these: "Will we persevere in resisting evil? Will we proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will we seek and serve Christ in all persons? Will we strive for justice and peace among all people?" And we respond, "We will, with God's help."
Like the good rabbi of Newtown, I do believe in the eternity of souls, but as a mother I know that would be no consolation today. I believe that our silent prayers are of help to those who mourn, but like Martin Luther King, I also believe that the time has come to substitute courage for caution, bear fruits worthy of deep sorrow, and act so that those precious ones lost on Friday will not have died in vain.
Sermon 3 for Advent Year C, delivered Dec. 16 at St. Alban's Episcopal Church.