When the Columbine shooting happened a dozen years ago, Carolyn Winfrey Gillette wrote the following hymn to the tune of “Ah, Holy Jesus”.
God We Have Heard It
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!
At the slaughter of the innocents, Matthew quotes the prophet Jeremiah saying, “A Voice was heard in Ramah: wailing and loud lamentation. Rachel weeping for her children; She refused to be consoled, because they were no more.”
The cry of a parent who has lost a child and refuses to be comforted is what burns in my mind today.
Rachel, we remember, was the wife of Jacob and the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. She was the sister of Leah who was also married to Jacob and who was the mother of seven of Jacob’s 13 children.
Rachel was unable for years and years to have children which incited quite a sibling rivalry between her and her fertile sister Leah. The birth of her last son was more than her body could bear and she died in childbirth.
In Genesis 35, Rachel’s midwife told her, “Do not be afraid, for you will bear a son.” Angels told Mary the mother of Jesus the same thing, “Do not be afraid for you shall bear a son.”
Rachel, knowing her own pain, but also knowing the family violence which had been a part of her married life and would be passed down to the next generation, worried for her children. Her other son, Joseph would later be sold into slavery by his own step-brothers. So wise Rachel refused to be comforted and in her dying breath named her son, Benoni, son of my sorrow.
Her husband Jacob could not stand such a depressing name and changed it to Benjamin which means “son of my right hand.”
I am aware that as I preach this sermon, we want to make Rachel stop her weeping. But she won’t let us. In a mother’s wisdom, she needs us to first hear her weeping. Who wasn’t moved by our President on Friday, fighting back the tears of a parent as he tried to address this tragedy? Weeping is an appropriate and healthy response to such horror. Like Jacob, we want to rename it, candify it, ignore it. An editorial in today’s Star Tribune spoke about “politicizing” the shooting. The writer said that that’s a code word for gun control, and we can’t talk about that. That’s too political. But we are called to truly listen to Rachel’s weeping and wailing. If we not only listened, but also respected her and took her seriously, then we might have some different priorities around here.
She refuses to be comforted, for comfort often means placating. Comforting often means belittling. Comforting and consoling too often means that you don’t take her pain seriously enough.
Rachel was buried at the place she died, a place called Bethlehem.1500 years later, Rachel’s weeping and wailing were remembered once again as Herod’s death-squads moved across the land to decimate or disappear another portion of the population. And Rachel wept and refused to be consoled. She refused to hear, “It’s all right.” “It’s not so bad.” “You can have another child.” “Dust off your feet and move on.” Or worse, “It’s God’s will” or “God needed another angel in heaven.”
No, in a mother’s grief, Rachel wept and refused to be consoled. She doesn’t want to be comforted for she fears if she is comforted, if she does become a little numb to the bloodshed, then the evil would have won. Rachel wants us to see the bloodshed.
She wants us to have an epiphany—a sense of reorienting our world-view.
She wants us to do the hard work of defying the Herods around us.
She wants us to open our eyes and open our hearts and open our mouths when people slaughter the innocents in the name of government, in the name of greed, in the name of God, in the name of madness. Rachel only stops her weeping when the slaughter ends. Until then, “a voice is heard in Ramah (or shall we say, Newtown, or Minneapolis), weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children because they are no more.”
I admit that there is only so much of these news stories that I can bear. Perhaps, like Jacob, I am eager to rename suffering into something more palatable.
Rachel is weeping and refuses to be comforted.
Like the prophet Amos, she refuses to be comforted and become a statistic. Instead, she weeps and wails until the day that justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Rachel weeps and refuses to be comforted until all God’s children have a place in the choir.
Rachel weeps and refuses to be comforted until good Christian people stand up and take notice of the fact that our communities are falling apart and that unless we do something, another generation will be slaughtered and they will not have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes.
Rachel wept and refused to be comforted a few days or weeks after Jesus’ birth, in order to tell us that God being born and becoming human does not erase all of the woes of this world. In fact, it makes them more pronounced. But thank God there are people who believe in the one who came that we might all have life and have it abundantly. The one who said that when one of us hurts, we all hurt.
The one who said that whenever you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me…. And when you have not done it unto the least of these you have not done it unto me.
That one, that Jesus Christ is the one who has come to show us the way to make Rachel stop her weeping.
But until the slaughter of the innocents cease, Rachel will refuse to be comforted.
The word for today is “proclaim.” What do we proclaim?
My friend Dave was a member of my church back in San Francisco. With his husband, he is a father of two boys and is taking this shooting very seriously. Like Rachel, Dave refuses to be comforted. Just yesterday, he launched a video project in which he is asking us to reflect upon these shootings and how we can change our ways as a country. He will post a video for 26 days with a picture of a person slain each day. Talk about a proclamation. He is holding up a picture of the victims and saying what only a parent can say, we weep for those who have died too young and we refuse to be comforted, pushed aside. We will act. He is calling for us to contact our legislators and demand that assault weapons be only for combat. We wonder, when did “a well-regulated military” in the second amendment get twisted mean to “a well-armed unregulated populace.” He is calling for expanded mental health coverage. The two must go hand in hand. Mental health services are too woefully insufficiently available. Let’s face it, we cannot cut the budget away from this problem. He is also calling us to never settle for this to be normal. Martin Luther King said after the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, “We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”
I’ll be watching for the next installments of Dave’s messages, his proclamations.
The Lectionary gives us these words from the prophets to read on Sundays in Advent. They don’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. But this backdrop of bloodshed might illuminate what the prophets were addressing.
Written seven centuries before Jesus and in the midst of a societal breakdown, Zephaniah tried to get the people to change their ways. Zephaniah is made up of nine oracles, eight of which are judgmental and point out all of the things that Israel has done wrong. We can hear at least 8 judgment oracles a day about how things are going wrong if we watch the right news channel or listen to the right radio station. But Zephaniah ends the book with this last oracle of hope and restoration. “Daughter of Zion now rejoice, sing with joy Jerusalem. YHWH has taken away the judgment against you and turned away your enemies…” A daughter of Zion may well be a grieving mother. The hope to which Zephaniah points is that mourning will not always be your focus. “God will rejoice over you with gladness, renew you in Divine love, and exult over you with loud singing. God will remove disaster from us, and will deal with all of our oppressors. God will save the lame and gather the outcast and will change our shame in to praise and renown in all the earth” (Zeph. 13:17-19)
My friend LeDayne Polaski wrote this week, “Now the Advent scriptures make sense. It is GOOD NEWS, is it not, that God is not satisfied with the world as it is!?! It is good news, is it not, that God and God's prophets cry out against all that it wrong. It is good news that, even so, even so, God enters into the world and into us again and again. In this world of violence, may we God's people have the ears to hear the GOOD NEWS in the call to individual and corporate repentance!”
In the coming days, we will hear Rachel weeping for her children. We will hear stories of horror and stories of heroism. I encourage you to look for the heroism and not get hedonistically sucked into the addiction of dynamic horror. Be inspired by that heroism to proclaim that you will not settle for business as usual. You will not let more innocents die in vain. Like the Newtown Principal and teachers, you might seek with all of your might to protect the next generation. Proclaim that by your actions and we will be truly living the Advent hope.
Remember that we celebrate this season, one who came that we might be set free. One who set the wheels in motion to put an end to violence, an end to bloodshed, an end to terror, an end to the slaughter of the innocents. Let us hear Rachel’s weeping. Let us join her. But let us not stop there. Let us commit to creating a world where no one fears for their lives and all people, even the deranged shooters are treated with dignity. Then we can say that we have been visited by the incarnation of God and we will proclaim with the prophets, “Daughter of Zion, now rejoice…Do not be in fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak, for God is in your midst.” A God who takes on the form of a child, who shall lead us in the way toward peace. Let us proclaim that and let us never settle for business as usual when the usual means the slaughter of the innocents.