I was home the morning the news broke, six years ago today. “Home” was Manchester, CT, where I served a congregation. The “News” was a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, just 50 miles away. First reports of the shooting were sketchy, as they always are in such chaotic circumstances. How many dead and wounded? Who was the gunman? Did he act alone? What was his weapon? Was he dead or alive? What was the motive? Was this part of an orchestrated terrorist attack or a one-off?
My first thought was of my younger daughter, who was in school in Hartford. Almost as quickly as the thought crossed my mind, I received a text from the school indicating that the students were safe, and that they were in “lock-down” until the threat of danger could be assessed. I have rarely hugged her with the ferocity I did after school that day. I had a daughter to hug; other mothers did not.
I accomplished nothing more that day, spending it glued to the television and on the phone with friends and colleagues. The stories that emerged from survivors and first-responders kept me awake for weeks. Even now, six years later, the senselessness of it leaves me shaking my head.
And here’s a second tragedy. We learned nothing from Sandy Hook. We are having the same conversations about guns and mental illness and public safety and personal responsibility and law enforcement and education that we have been having for years. I don’t think the issue is that people in positions of leadership don’t care, but that the problem is enormous; there is no “answer.” Like a maddening game of whack-a-mole, every possible answer begs even more questions. There is so much to do or that could be done, that we do nothing. “Analysis to paralysis,” a friend would call it. What then should we do?
The Third Sunday of Advent finds us on the banks of the Jordan River with John, son of Zechariah. (Luke 3.7-18) We were introduced to him last week as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness. . .” This Sunday we are privy to John’s first public sermon, and it’s a barn burner. He calls his congregation a nasty name, mocks their Abrahamic heritage (“God could turn these rocks into Abraham’s children”), and threatens to destroy what remains of King David’s line (“Even now the axe is at the root of the tree”). Rather than running away or calling the police, the crowds press closer, absolutely enthralled with this foul-mouthed, sharp-tongued preacher. “What then should we do?” they ask.
Though John’s criticism was broad (corruption, entitlement, faithlessness, economic inequity), he would not be intimidated by it. Instead, his answer was concise. And very personal. Rather than take on the entire military-temple complex, he addressed one sinner and one sin at a time, advising each listener to repent in a specific way with a single step. He instructed the wealthy to be generous; the tax collectors to be honest; the soldiers to accept their circumstances. He wasn’t interested in intellectual debate or massive cultural reform; he urged action—specific action, suited to the circumstance, suited to the sinner.
Ascension has chosen a specific action this Advent. Though a hundred agencies and issues compete for our attention, we have chosen a single task for the four weeks of the season. The Night Ministry’s mission is broad—providing housing, health care, outreach, spiritual care, and social services to adults and youth who struggle with homelessness, poverty, and loneliness. No congregation could address it all. But we asked them for a specific, concrete action that would make a difference. And they gave us one.
Our growing collection of waterproof outdoor footwear and warm sleepwear under The Night Ministry Tree is not an answer to the intractable problems faced by The Night Ministry’s clients; it is an action. It is a concrete action they desperately need and one for which we are uniquely suited.
There is no “answer” to the world’s sorrows, only more questions. But John, son of Zechariah, challenges us not to be overwhelmed but to act—in small, specific, intentional ways. Please join us Sunday as we take those small, specific, intentional steps together.
I was wrong earlier when I said nothing has changed since Sandy Hook. Small steps have been taken. Specific weaknesses have been addressed. Clarity and consensus have emerged in some places. Lives have been saved and tragedies averted. Is it enough? No. But John would be proud of us. He didn’t challenge his hearers to change the whole world in one swell foop*. He asked them only to change their hearts and their direction—one step at a time.
Pastor JoAnn Post