A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on May 29, 2022
On Tuesday, nineteen kids and two teachers were murdered. Seventeen more people were injured. That’s horrible; we’re all shocked. But there’s more.
It turns out that the police in Uvalde were in the school, but waited 45 minutes to confront the gunman, while children called 911 and pled for help. And help didn’t come. Forty-five minutes, those kids phoned and hoped, waited and died.
There are no words to describe that. I just can’t imagine how the families are coping with this news.
I don’t want to get into the arguments about why the police made the choice they did, or whether or not it was proper for the Border Patrol to take over and rescue the children. There’s another place for us to go today.
We hear all this with the echo of Sandy Hook in our backgrounds. I expect that some of us know someone who had a child die there, or we know people who know people… Connecticut’s a small state. Sandy Hook was a Connecticut tragedy; we know how folks in Uvalde, Texas feel today because we’ve been there. This tragedy, this week, coming so close on what happened last week in Buffalo, brings back that awful question – where is God when things like this happen? What does our faith have to say in the presence of evil?
You know, we’d all like to think that God has a finger on the pulse of every living person, that nothing happens outside the will of God. I sure wish that were so. My favorite question from the Heidelberg Catechism says:
What is your only comfort in life and in death?
That I am not my own,
but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,
and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.
He also watches over me in such a way
that not a hair can fall from my head
without the will of my Father in heaven. . .
That Catechism was a major point of formation for all of Reformed Protestant Christianity. It’s still used today, more than 450 years after it was first written. But it is not Scripture, and it is not right in every particularity. Yes, I belong to my Savior. But neither God nor Jesus watches over me to protect me from every harm.
Theology can be something like trying to untangle a knot of yarn; if you loosen it here, it can tighten up over there, far away from where you started. Here’s the thing: if you believe that God watches over you and protects you, then what does it mean when bad things happen? Does it mean that, oops, God’s attention wandered? Does it mean… that God wanted this bad thing to happen to you?
There are Christians who have followed that idea down a rabbit hole, leading them to teach that bad things are God’s intentional acts, that those things are like a refiner’s fire, making us more and more fit for Heaven. You can even read the Book of Job, in the Bible, and find an entire argument about that way of understanding why bad things happen.
I’ve never been able to assent to that way of understanding evil. I don’t think God sends bad things, or even allows bad things, so that we can deepen our faith. In fact, I don’t want anything to do with that kind of God. Life has sent me all the bad things I can handle, and more; I don’t need more from God!
So, where do I think that God is in the worst kinds of tragedies? I think God is right there with us when bad things happen. God is sitting next us in the emergency room, maybe handing us a bad cup of coffee – but it’s warm and feels good somehow. It’s God who brings meals to my house when I can’t cook. It’s God who gives me the courage to step into the funeral home when that’s what needs to be done.
Here’s where I got this idea of God: there’s a lot of places to find it, but for me the key one is Romans 8, starting at verse 31:
If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Nothing can separate us from God’s love.
Romans tells us that nothing can separate us from God’s love. That means that God’s love is the most important thing. I dunno, I think God has made us so that when bad things happen, we’re capable of learning from them, growing stronger. But I also know that sometimes the bad things are so bad that when they happen, we break into pieces. I went to high school in south Florida; 1/3 of our school was Jewish. None of my Jewish classmates had grandparents; they had all died back in Europe during World War II. Sometimes things are so bad that they break us. But even when we are broken, even when we can no longer believe in God, God is still there, still loving.
When his own son died, tragically, driving drunk, taking the curve too fast and sliding into the winter-frigid water in a small city north of Boston, William Sloane Coffin, then pastor of the Riverside Church in NYC, preached two weeks later and said:
When parents die, as my mother did last month, they take with them a large portion of the past. But when children die, they take away the future as well. That is what makes the valley of the shadow of death seem so incredibly dark and unending. In a prideful way it would be easier to walk the valley alone, nobly, head high, instead of — as we must — marching as the latest recruit in the world’s army of the bereaved.
We know he’s right, we feel it in our aching hearts. When children die, they take away the future. . .
Coffin rails against those folks who come up to us in our time of grief, press our hands and say, consolingly, “it was all God’s will”. When my sister died, a couple of days after her birth, someone told me that “she was too good to live and so she’s gone to live with God” That’s not a helpful thing to say to a three year old. It made me profoundly angry with a God who would snatch my sister away before she had a chance to enjoy life.
We are not three. We know to fight back from hurtful or damaging ideas. We know, as William Sloane Coffin wrote, My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.
Why did those children die? Because Texas has weak gun laws? Because folks didn’t know how to stop the shooter before this came close to happening? Because the police didn’t seem to know what to do with an active shooter in their school? Sure, probably little bit of each of those, and more beside. But they didn’t die because God wanted it that way, and they didn’t die just to teach us all a lesson.
This is Memorial Day weekend; it’s a time when we routinely honor those who have fought and died in our nation’s wars. It’s a day when we, for once, recognize that wars inevitably take lives. Out of each of the great wars our country has fought, have come great movements for peace, beginning with the establishment of Memorial Day itself. Having seen the horrors of war, having paid the price with the life or health of a loved one, we work to try to make things better. In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln wrote:
With malice toward none, with charity for all,
with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,
let us strive on to finish the work we are in:
to bind up the nation’s wounds,
to care for him who shall have borne the battle
and for his widow and his orphan
— to do all which may achieve and cherish
a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Today, in the face of what we have seen in the last two weeks, we’re called to step up and challenge those who would make weapons available to all, without restriction or limit. Today, let’s join the hundreds of thousands of people who are calling for better gun control. The historian, Heather Cox Richardson, writes in her daily newsletter that today more people than ever are ready for gun control, background checks, and other boundaries around gun sales and possession. We are not alone; let us not be discouraged, and continue to work to make our world safe for all God’s children. Let us be the presence of God by our words and our actions, in the name of Jesus Christ.