“Jesus’ Temple Questions”

Sermon on Luke 2:41-52 for 1st Sunday After Christmas, Year C, Dec. 30, 2012

Luke 2:40-52


40 And the Child continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.

41 Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43 When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44 Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” 49 He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand what he said to them. 51 Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine


and human favor.

Jesus’ Temple Questions

This is the last Sunday of 2012; a new year is coming.  It’s a time for reflection about this past year, and to consider what changes lies ahead.

We are all products of our history.  Everything we have experienced has culminated in today.  The way we look at the world is neither an objectively true way nor an arbitrary way; it’s the way of looking at the world based on what we thought of it yesterday, and what happened yesterday either to confirm or to make us adjust our thinking.  And, add to yesterday, all the yesterdays of last year, and add to those every year since we were born, and you get today’s result.

And this will be the way we see the world tomorrow and all of the coming year, unless… unless things happen to change our way of thinking.  And things do happen to change us – all the time.  Life is going along as normal, then suddenly somebody invents the internet – and it changes us, how we spend our time, who we interact with, the information we receive, and the way we project an image of ourselves in the world.

Changes Happen


The same thing could be said about other big life-changing events: 9/11 changed us, and so did the two wars that have consumed this last decade of our nation’s history.  The Sandy Hook school massacre has shaken us deeply – and may result in  changes that restore some sanity to our gun and ammunition laws.

Our planet is changing too.  The climate is changing.  This is mostly bad news – very bad news, and apparently it’s going to get a lot worse.  This past summer’s drought in the Midwest, the storm surges  we saw in hurricane Sandy, and the loss of entire populated islands and deltas due to rising sea levels is just the beginning, according to the scientific consensus.

I am aware that it is in the economic interests of some well-financed news outlets to find rogue, outlier “researchers” who cast doubt on this overwhelming consensus and so confuse the public, but serious


experts around the world are of one mind; the climate is changing, and not for the better, for our species.


The new year is upon us once again.  What new things lie in store that will change our thinking?  Who knows?  Most of us will not like the coming changes – unless they are of overwhelming personal benefit – like discovering the cure for the medical conditions we or our loved ones are facing.

We will probably initially resist most changes, even neutral ones like the internet, just because they bring with them the complication and disruption of having to learn strange new ways of doing things.  That’s why some of us resisted email for a long time, and some are still not on Facebook, right?


So, things will change for us this coming year, but the good news is that even though we don’t like changes, we were made to adapt to them.  I’ve been doing some reading about the brain lately.  It turns out that our brains are able to keep learning.  We are able to form new pathways that allow us to adjust to new conditions in an amazing way.  If there is one thing that has been characteristic of humans since the days in which we ran around in animal skins with bones in our noses, it is that humans are adaptable.

Jesus, Jewishness, and Jerusalem in Luke

I began with this reflection about changes, partly because of the impending new year, but also because I think this text from Luke’s gospel is all about making changes.  It’s all about how difficult it is for we humans to accept changes, but, at the same time, how necessary it is to change, when our past experiences have led us to expect the wrong thing.

When our past has not prepared us to see the new truth in front of our eyes, the only option for us is to change, in spite of the difficulty.  But the good news is that   when we are able to overcome our resistance and finally accept the new conditions, then we are able to embrace them, and even find new joy.

We have read this familiar story from Luke.  This is all we know, from all four gospels, about Jesus, between his birth and his appearance as a full grown man on the day of his baptism.  So, hungry as we are for stories to fill in all those missing years, we all love this story of Jesus as a twelve year old boy.

Jesus goes with his parents, Joseph and Mary, and their clan to the temple in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover.   They are faithful, observant Jewish believers;


they practice their faith by keeping to the traditions they have received.  Jerusalem is the capital city; the city of David, known also as Mt. Zion.  The temple there is the center of their faith; it’s where the daily sacrifices are offered.  It’s where prayers are prayed, hymns are sung, the place pilgrims, like this family, come for the three annual Jewish festivals.

It’s Passover; the great celebration of deliverance from slavery under Pharaoh in Egypt, so many years ago.  So, this is both a religious day and and a national day.  Israel became a nation as Moses led them out of Egypt to Mt. Sinai, and gave them the Torah; God’s law; his instruction and guidance for how to live as the covenant-community under One God.

Though Mary and Joseph take the family there each year, this Passover is Jesus’s second trip to Jerusalem that Luke tell us about.  Luke has told us what happened when Jesus was taken there the first time as a baby to be circumcised, shortly after his birth.  In Luke’s telling of the story of Jesus (albeit different from John’s) we will not see Jesus again in Jerusalem until a much later Passover.

When he comes back to Jerusalem, it will be for the last time in Luke’s account.  At that time, he will ride into town on a donkey; he will drive out the money changers from the temple, spend a brief time teaching in the temple, celebrate Passover with this disciples, go out to the garden to pray where Judas will betray him, and you know the rest of the story.

So Luke tell us about three trips Jesus made to Jerusalem, and this is the middle one.  This is the one in which Joseph and Mary start to make the dramatic change in their thinking that they had to make, as they became aware of Jesus’ unique character and purpose.

Like Samuel, only More So

Luke tells this story very carefully, with great attention to detail.  He tells it in such a way as to recall the story of the boy Samuel.  You may remember that Samuel was a miracle baby too.  His mother took him to the “temple” to serve under the priest Eli.  We read the line that Luke repeats almost verbatim from the story of Samuel, in order to fix the connection in the reader’s mind:

“Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.”  (1 Sam. 2:26)

About Jesus, Luke tells us:

“And the Child continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.” (Luke 2:40).  

Why the connection?  Samuel lived at a time of fundamental change, and was instrumental in making those changes; Jesus lived at a time of fundamental change and was instrumental in making them happen.

Samuel lived at the end of the period of judges: he anointed Israel’s first king, turning the tribal confederacy into a monarchy.  Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom of God, and effectively ended the significance of the temple itself as well as the city of Jerusalem as the focus of faith; even radically transforming the definition of the chosen people.  Like Samuel, but more so, Jesus was the agent of massive change.

It was not easy for Joseph and Mary, or for any traditionally faithful Jewish believers to accept the changes that Jesus was making.  Their whole past history had led them to expect a different scenario of God’s purposes for his people.  They expected a dramatic military victory, enabled by God’s intervention, driving out the foreign, pagan Romans from their land, and a new king from the line of David on the throne.  That was not Jesus’ mission; that idea had to change.

I can sympathize with Mary and Joseph.  There are several much smaller changes that I have had to make in my thinking over the years, and it has not been easy.  I have resisted.  And yet, looking back now, I am so thankful for each of those difficult changes of thinking.  Each one has been a new liberation.  I wonder if that has been your experience as well?

Questions that provoke Change

I  am intrigued by the role of questions in the change process.  As Luke tells the story, Joseph and Mary and their whole clan are on their way back home from Jerusalem when they discover that Jesus is not with all the other cousins in the group.  And it’s not just a sleep-over in another tent; he is missing.  They return, search the city, and finally, Luke tells us:

46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.”

Jesus was asking them questions.  I get the feeling they were not questions of curiosity, like “Why is the sky blue?”  or “Who was Moses?”  I think they were probably leading questions, like, “Why did God send the prophet Elijah outside the country to a non-Israelite widow to save from starvation?”  or “Why did the prophet Elisha cure the foreigner, Naaman the Syrian of leprosy?  Weren’t there lepers in Israel who needed healing?”  Luke is going to show Jesus bringing up exactly these two issues just a bit later (chapter 4).

The reason I think these questions were leading question is that Luke tells us that Jesus himself answered them, and his answers were literally shocking:

47And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”

So, his parents find him, express their frustration and Luke then lets us hear more questions from Jesus, this time to Joseph and Mary:

49He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Questions for us to ask

This cannot help but force us to ask the question of ourselves: What Jesus are we searching for?  Are there things about him that we do not know any better than Joseph and Mary did?

I have lived long enough to see that many people are searching for a Jesus who will simply baptize their current thinking.  They are searching for a Jesus who will not provoke any changes.  They want a Jesus to put out his hands of blessing on the status quo, keep them safe and undisturbed, and keep everything as is.  Some simply want to be confirmed in their prejudices, their lifestyles, their habits, their ways of living, even when they run completely counter to everything Jesus stood for.

As I read and study Jesus, it seems to me that the only people he blessed without  provoking changes were children.  When Jesus met adults, he provoked changes.   That is, either they changed or they rejected him, but he certainly did not merely bless their present conditions.

The rich young man was told to sell everything and give to the poor.  He went away sad.  The tax collector who followed Jesus gave up everything.  Jesus shocked the literalist priests with his Sabbath healings.  He shocked everyone when he told the Roman centurion that he had greater faith than anyone in Israel had.

Jesus did all kinds of things that forced people either to completely change their thinking or else hate him.  He had table fellowship with notorious sinners.  In spite of the rigorous purity code in the Old Testament, Jesus touched lepers, he touched people who had blood-contamination, he even touched dead bodies.  In each case, the shocking, upsetting, counter-to-all-expectations things that Jesus did, he did in the name of the God of healing, of restoration, of repentance, of forgiveness and of liberation.

Reflection on Coming Changes

When Luke tells us that Mary, upon reflection, “…treasured all these things in her heart” he is signaling to the reader that this is important enough to pause and think about.


As I said, I have had to change my thinking about a number of issues, and now I’m so glad I did, though the changes were not easy.  I’m sure the same is true for most of us.

Many people here in the South have told me how dramatically they have changed their thinking about race.  They grew up before the civil rights movement and now are shocked at the behaviors that they used to accept as simply normal.

I have had to change my mind about the role of women in ministry.  The church I grew up in had no place for women elders or pastors.   I have had to change my thinking about gay people.  I used to think it was a choice people made, but now I believe that gay attraction is no more chosen than heterosexual attraction.

I have had to change my thinking about other issues too, and each time, though the process is difficult and sometimes lengthy, the result is a joyful greater embrace of God’s purposes in the world.   The result is more in line with the trajectory, or the path that Jesus marked out for us of healing, of reconciliation, of mercy and of love.

It’s tough love.  God has not been content to leave me in my natural condition selfishness, judgmentalism and bigotry.  But he has broken my heart open to a world of people who are made in his image, but who are quite different than me.

I don’t know what the coming year will bring, and what changes that may require for me or you.  But I do know that God will walk with us through whatever changes come.  Health, relationships, finances, family, all will be different in some ways, large or small by this time next year, for each of us.  God will be there for us at each step of the way, just has he has been for every past moment that has brought us to this place today.


So, the question is, what are the temple questions that Jesus is asking us?   What Jesus are we searching for?  The phony one who blesses the unchanged status quo, or the real Jesus who came to redeem us?

Let this coming year be a year of new openness to Jesus’ provocations, that it might be a year of blessing and joy in an ever-widening circle.


Christmas Eve Meditation: Choose The Narrative of Light

 “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” John 1: 5


I love this service every year, partly because of the darkness at the end.  We turn down the already lowered lights in the sanctuary until it’s almost completely dark.   We sing “Silent Night” and as we sing, we light a candle from the Christ candle in the Advent Wreath, then pass the light  to each other, one by one, as the light of Christ illumines each of our individual candles.

The darkness reminds us of the darkness of a stable on that first Christmas night in Bethlehem.  Ironically, we need the darkness here, in this room, not only to remember the setting that night, but also to enable us to see and experience more fully the light of our candles.  We turn down distracting lights, in order to see the light of Christ more clearly.

If anything is true about our culture it is that we are a people who are continually distracted by competing light –  it comes from the lights of shopping malls, flashing advertisements, the the lights from TV screens, computers and mobile  devices with their pop-up alerts and push notifications.  We understand the sentiment in Arcade Fire’s song that says,

“shopping malls rise…Like mountains…I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights”

Christmas Eve is  a time to turn down other lights, to enter the darkness, and to be mindfully present to the light of Christ.  John tells us,

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

When all of our candles are finally illuminated tonight, the lights from each separate flame will merge together to form one soft glow.  It is like the glow of a candlelight vigils, like the ones held at services for the Sandy Hook school victims.

The darkness of the world can seem overwhelming.  The contrast with the light Christ came to bring is all the more intense.

What are we to be, as people of faith in days like these?  There are competing narratives that are available to us.

I have not yet seen the film version of the Life of Pi, but I have read the book.  It is a story of a young man named Pi whose family owns a zoo in India.  As a young man in India, Pi is surrounded by the world’s great religions, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity.  As he samples each one, he falls more and more in love with God.  He finds no difficulty accepting these three versions of the story of God simultaneously.  He is simply on a quest to know and love God.

The stories are different.  The Hindu story, Pi learns, is eons and eons long.  The Christian story he finds incredibly short and breathtakingly fast-paced – it all takes place during the short life of one person, Jesus.

Which story of God should he prefer?

Anyway, his family decides to pack up their zoo, put it on a cargo ship and sail with it to Canada.  There is a terrible storm.  Pi ends up, a survivor on a lifeboat.  He is not alone.

Who is with him on the lifeboat?  I will not spoil the film for you – in fact I hope you see it, or read the book.  But it leaves us with a powerful question.  After two completely different versions of the story of that lifeboat are given, we are left wondering which version is true?  Who really was in that lifeboat with Pi?

On what basis do we choose which version of the story to believe?  We only have Pi’s report about both versions.  One version of the story seems unbelievable – but fascinating, filled with mystery and wonder, as well as suffering and pain.  The other story is completely believable, but is a story of utter darkness.

Since we have no evidence to go on either way, we are left to believe the version of the story that we prefer to believe.  We get to choose which narrative is true.  The writer of the book brings us to this point of personal decision, and then says, “And so it is with God.”

And so it is.  We will soon be holding little candles in our hands and singing a song that celebrates a nearly unbelievable story: God came to earth as a human, as a baby, and we say he is the light of the world.  We hold candles that cannot compete with the house lights, let along the glare of modernity.  Nor are they able to illumine the darkness that enveloped Newton, Connecticut.

But we are here because we will believe, that is, we will rely on, the narrative that says,

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

We will not believe the alternative narrative of hopelessness and despair.  We will not believe the narrative that violence is the solution to violence, nor that hatred in kind is the appropriate response to being hated.

We will belong to those who, instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle.

And we will live in the light of this candle; the light of peace, the light of mercy, and the light of love.  This is our narrative.  This is the Christmas story.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

The Expecting Women of Advent

Sermon for 4th Advent C, Dec. 23, 2012,  on Luke 1:39-56

Luke 1:39-56

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of


Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 

46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 

56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

The Expecting Women of Advent

There is an enigmatic phrase from the prophet Jeremiah, as he describes the unusual new thing that God will do in the future; he says that “a woman surrounds a man.” (Jer. 31:22).  What could that possibly mean?  Well it could very well be a poetic way of picturing pregnancy.  If so, we have just read a story from Luke’s gospel about two expecting women, Mary and Elizabeth, who are surrounding men-children in their wombs.  Elizabeth will give birth to John the baptist, Mary will give birth to Jesus.

The full phrase from Jeremiah is this:

“For the LORD has created a new thing on the earth: a woman surrounds a man.”

The Birth of a New Thing God is Doing


Isn’t it fascinating how many times the bible tells stories of God doing “a new thing,” and starting with a birth?  Often the birth involves some kind of divine intervention, as was the case for both Mary and Elizabeth.

And often too, the “new thing” that God is doing ends a long period of barrenness, like Elizabeth’s.  That was true for formerly barren Sarah, and for Rachel, and for Hannah, the mother of Samuel, and for the mother of Sampson.  It might be interesting to reflect on how frequent the experience of barrenness is, for God’s people.  It’s nearly a defining feature.  But when barrenness is replaced by fruitfulness, it is a cause of great joy. This text is full of joy.

My guess is that some of us are ready to enter this text this morning from a place of joy and fruitfulness.  But others of us may come to this Advent reading from a place of personal barrenness.  On top of our personal issues, we are, as a nation, still in grief over the tragedy in Newton, Connecticut.  Our thoughts and prayers are with those parents and families every day as we see them bury their children and hear some of them describe the precious lives that were snuffed out.

Can an Advent text about pregnancy and joy speak to people who feel barren?  I believe it can, and does, and that we need its message now more than ever.  So let us look at the text together.

It Starts with Joy

The joy in this story must be the place to start, whether or not we can feel it yet.  Even the pace of the story is joyful; Mary “went with haste”  and doesn’t even have time to say “shalom” before her Aunt Elizabeth starts talking.  And when she speaks, there is no time for pleasantries or chit-chat.  Elizabeth begins with the response in her own womb as her baby leaps for joy at Mary’s arrival.  Elizabeth immediately pours out her Spirit-inspired, joyous blessing on Mary.

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

Likewise, Mary dispenses with a greeting, but launches right into her beautiful poem, filled with rejoicing.  We call this the Magnificat – a name taken from its first word “Magnify” in the Latin version.  Mary “magnifies” the Lord for all the good things God has done.  Mary sings:

“49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm;”


But, at this moment in the story, none of this has actually happened yet.  Mary sings about what God has done as if it’s already been done; but it has


not been done yet.  Herod is still King of the Jews – and he is going to have John killed before it’s over.  Pilate is still in power; he will give the order to have Jesus killed.  Caesar is still on his throne and still has his Roman soldiers crawling all over the country side, intimidating and extorting the peasantry.  The future may be bright but the present is a mess.

And here is the first powerful word to everybody going through a time of personal barrenness, or grieving over national tragedies, or anxious about the future: people of faith do not take the current condition as the last word.  The story of God’s work in the world is still unfolding.  Our personal life stories are unfolding in God’s story.  We refuse the language of hopelessness and despair.  Leave that to those who have no god, or whose god has no heart, or no ability to bring about a “new thing” in the world.   We are people of hope.  This is not the final chapter.

This is not the end (sorry, Mayan calendar).  Our joy is not contingent on today’s stock market, the people in power in the world today, nor especially upon the content of today’s news reports.  Even in times of tragedy, grief, hardship and brokenness, we choose to live lives of trust; confident that God’s good purposes will be fulfilled.

So, we are, like Mary, in a time of waiting for the final fulfillment.  The kingdom of God has already come, but has not yet fully come.  Though Jesus taught us that the kingdom of God was “among” us, and “at hand,” nevertheless he also taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come.”

We, like Mary, are waiting, expectantly, in hope and trust.  Nevertheless, in this present moment, we can know the deep joy of being at peace.  There is a danger involved in believing that the future will be better.  We could easily fall prey to the temptation of not living in the moment.

We are waiting for the fulfillment of Gods’ purposes, but we are not waiting to start living; in this moment, we are living our lives.  If we cannot be at peace in the present, we cannot be at peace at all, because the present is all we are ever given to live in.  This is why mindfulness is so important.  [If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please consider coming to my course this January.]

The mindfulness of contemplative prayer teaches us to be present in the moments that we live; to accept what is, as what is; to say “yes” as Mary did, to what God is doing in our lives at the moment; to have the joy of peace, even in times of barrenness, while we wait.  Mary is able to have joy in the present moment, believing that God’s future will come to pass.

Mary’s Expecting

So what is Mary expecting?  What is the future that she believes will justify all this present joy?  What are the “great things” that the “Mighty One” has “done” for her – or that she trusts the Mighty One will do?  God is going to accomplish great reversals.  Mary describes them this way:

“he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

While it is true that God loves everybody, he has a real soft spot in his heart for the underdog.  He cares for everyone, but especially for the powerless, the lowly and the hungry, the possessed, the mentally ill.

The flip side of the coin is true as well; though God hates all evils and its harmful effects.  He especially hates it when people are evil to each other.  He is going to “scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” because God hates it when prideful people despise others, whom he made equally in his image.  He is going to “bring down the powerful from their thrones” because God grieves when people use their power to oppress the powerless.  God will “send the rich away empty” because  He is offended when the riches that some enjoy are not used to feed the hungry, but are hoarded selfishly.

Mary’s (Isaiah’s) Banquet Image

When Mary sings, “he has filled the hungry with good things” she is picturing a lavish meal, like the banquet in the vision of Isaiah the prophet.  Listen to these excerpts: I hope you will hear how Mary’s song echoes them:

1.  “O LORD, you are my God;


I will exalt you, I will praise your name;
for you have done wonderful things,
plans formed of old, faithful and sure.
4.  For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
6. On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
9.  It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the LORD for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
10.  For the hand of the LORD will rest on this mountain.”  (Isa 25)

This is the vision we share with Isaiah and Mary, of the kingdom of God, pictured as a great feast, a banquet of “rich food” and “well-aged wines.”  It is the banquet that Jesus taught us to go out into the highways and byways and invite everybody to come and enjoy.

So, why then are the proud scattered instead of being gathered in?  Why is Mary’s song so hard on the people who sit on thrones and on the rich?  It’s not that they are not invited to the feast: it’s that they refuse to come.  They don’t want to have to sit with “tax collectors and sinners” at the same table.  They don’t want to stop using their power to oppress and their riches on themselves.

Well, God’s “new thing” that Mary is carrying in her womb, the source of her joy and hope, is one day going to accomplish the great reversal of all time.  The kingdom will come in its fullness one day.

Our Role in the Great Reversal


In the mean time, we live in hope and joy, confident that God’s purposes will be fulfilled.  The future God has for us is not an apocalyptic race war of

everyone for themselves, barricaded in bunkers, fingers on the triggers.  That vision is not from God.  We who know the salvation that Mary sings about through the new birth that Jesus has accomplished in us, live with kingdom-hope, kingdom values, kingdom goals and kingdom ways of thinking.

God’s future for us is a banquet.  So we look around and ask ourselves, “Who is not at the table yet?  Who is being marginalized?  Who is shut out of the conversation?  What are the power-interests involved in keeping the status quo going?  What are the Herod’s, the Pilate’s, the Caesar’s of this world up to?

It is our joy and great privilege to be part of God’s great reversal.  We rejoice in opportunities to both feed the hungry and to address policy questions that get to the heart of poverty.

We love conversations about who has been left out of the conversation, and we especially love it when people who have previously felt left out are


welcomed among us.  We cannot imagine anyone being excluded.

There is room for everyone at our table, our feast, because it is the Lord’s table, his feast.  We have a “the more the merrier” policy.  Pass the rich food!  Re-fill the well aged wines!  Magnify the Lord with us, for the Mighty One has done great things!  Holy is His name!

Rejoice in hope!


The cost of only 1 armed guard at every school in the US: $Ten Billion

So, how much would it cost to put one (only 1) armed guard at every US school?

The answer involves two numbers:

How many schools are there in the US?

How much does it cost to employ a police officer (salary plus all the costs involved in the officer’s routine work)?

Assumption: I assume we are talking about police officers, right?  Or would someone advocate someone with less training and expertise guarding our schools?  I cannot imagine that scenario, so let’s assume a sworn police officer is what we are talking about.

So, how many schools are there in the US?  An article in the Atlantic today, citing National Center for Education Statistics says

“there are about 99,000 public schools in the country”

True, but the same study says that there are also over 33,000 private schools, plus nearly 7,000 Postsecondary Title IV institutions.  Their exact total of all three kinds of schools is 138,925.    I’m sure no one advocates protecting only some but not all of our students, letting all the others remain unprotected, right?

The Atlantic article, citing a NT Times article, claims, concerning these public schools,

” about a third already have armed guards.”

The Times article calls the people guarding about a third of our schools “armed security staff” without specifying their level of training, qualification or accountability.

But let’s assume that there are already sworn police officers at 1/3 of the 138,925 schools.  That leaves 91,690 schools still in need of officers, in order to place one single officer at each school.

So how much does an officer cost?  The Atlantic claims:

“It wouldn’t be that expensive. Here’s some simple math. The median salary for police officers is $55,010…”

Well, salary is a good place to start, but to put an officer in the field, it costs a lot more than a salary.  In fact, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, it costs taxpayers $116,500 per sworn officer on average (as of 2007).

The Atlantic concludes:

 “Putting police in the remaining schools works out to an annual cost of about $3.6 billion, which is really more like $4 billion or so when you factor in benefits as well. That’s not even a rounding error when it comes to the federal budget. It’s even smaller than the foreign aid budget … “

[did you notice how the previously mentioned  “armed guards” in one third of the public schools are now labeled “police” without any cost adjustments?]

Oh?  If you multiply 91,690 as yet un-guarded schools times  $116,500 per sworn officer, you get  $10,681,885,000.00  That’s over 10 Billion dollars, per year, for only a single officer at each school.  Now, of course one at each school is not going to do it.  Should we double this?  Triple it?  What if a gang of heavily armed people attack a school?  Will we then need a whole squad of armed guards to meet force with comparable force?   How much would that cost?

For all of that money, perhaps we could afford a bit of mental health care that would actually address an enormous unmet need in our country.

But let’s say the plan works.  We meet force with force.  So now, instead of shootings at schools, we have shoot-outs at schools.


“God” on violence as a means; an alternative to James Dobson and Mike Hukabee, on the Shady Hook massacre.

NY Times photo
NY Times photo

Now that we are focused on violence, in the wake of the terrible tragedy in Newton, Connecticut, and now that “God” has been dragged in as an accomplice, if not cause of the carnage (an accomplice, if God merely allowed all this, to teach us a lesson; or else, the cause, if God actually was punishing us by means of this massacre – it’s hard to know exactly what Dobson meant), I will add my reflections.

Perhaps because the first little child to be buried was a Jewish boy named Noah, I was reminded of the biblical story of Noah; the flood and the ark.  It’s from Genesis chapter six.  That means this story is a scant five chapters from the Creation story, in which the world was created as a perfect garden paradise; a place of harmony and abundance.  But things quickly descended in to violent chaos.  Adam and Eve’s son Cain killed his own brother, Able.  Then, even worse, the story moves on to a brute named Lamech who boasts to his multiple wives that he has killed a man merely for striking him (Gen 4).  The story keeps getting worse until at last chapter six opens with this summing up of the world of humans, from God’s perspective:

Gen. 6:5  “The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.

A few verses later we get another, similar summary from God, only this time with one added detail: its a bit more specific about the problem:

6:11   “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.”

By the way, the bible has a complex history.  One of the reasons this summary statement sounds so much like the previous summary is that the story as we now have it has compressed two versions into one, both of which have borrowed all the main plot motifs from other ancient flood and survivor stories.  I only bring up this information to point to one of the reason why I don’t take this story literally.  But I do take it as an important reflection by ancient, thoughtful people, about the world, and about God, and the mess we are in.  That’s what the bible is, after all.

God’s Emotional Life

So anyway, in one of the very few places in the bible where we get an author telling us direct information about God’s emotional life, we read his reaction to this violent world in verse 6.

6:6   “And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”

God was heart-sick at the effects of violence.  He grieved.  I think this is what we are supposed to think about how God responds to violence.  God is grieving for those precious children from Newton right now, as well as for the adults whose lives were ended violently.

God’s Response: 2 Options

So God looks with grief at humans and all of the violence, how is God to respond?   In this ancient story, the author seems to suggest that God could destroy the whole world and start over with a new Creation, a new Genesis chapter one.  But God has already tried that option, and it has led to this violent outcome.  Now it’s time to try option two: wipe out the bad guys and start humanity over with only the remaining good guys.  The story continues:

7 So the LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”  8 But Noah found favor in the sight of the LORD.”

So Noah, a good guy, and his family, and animals (two of each kind, in one version, and 7 of each kind in another – and now these two versions sit side by side in our final version) all get into the ark, ride out the flood, and start the human population over again.  But this story too goes bad, quickly, and so now what?

It appears that starting from scratch (Genesis 1) or starting over with only the good people (Genesis 6) neither produce a good world for very long.  Humans seem to have this propensity for the evil of violence.

The Bible on Violence

Long story short: the Bible has a hard time with knowing what to do about violence.  It goes back and forth about it a lot.  Often, violence is described as good; when it’s “our” violence against “our” opposition (Israelites against Canaanites, David against Goliath).  But even that can go too far, as when the prophet Hosea (1:4) denounces a king (Jehu) for a blood bath he conducted in the name of, and for the sake of God.  Ambivalence about evil appears in other places in the bible too.  People who wrote the Psalms sometimes cry out to God to be delivered from “violent people” and then turn around and ask God to help them to be successfully violent against them (Psalm 18 is a good example).  So it goes both ways.

Nevertheless, even in the context of all of this ambivalence, the consistent vision of the perfect future that God will one day bring about is a picture of a return to that Garden of Eden-like state of harmony and peace.  One day, people will beat swords into plows, spears in to pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, in fact they won’t even learn the art of warfare any longer (Isaiah 2 // Micah 4).  The perfect state that God intends is a state of peace.  The weapons fall silent.  The days of predation are finished: lions and wolves lie down together, and a little child, like the ones in Newton, Connecticut lead them without fear (Isaiah 11).  In the mean time, violence grieves God “to his heart.

Jesus on Violence

If this is how the bible historically thinks of violence and it’s end, is it any big surprise that by the time of Jesus, who had all of these texts to reflect on, we find him drawing the only possible conclusion: God wills violence to end, even if it means sacrificing yourself instead of taking up the sword, just as Jesus did, just as some of those brave teachers did at the Shady Hook elementary school did.  “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” Jesus famously said (Matthew 26:52), as a summary statement which rejected violence as a means to a good end.  Jesus did not believe in the myth that we would be redeemed by violence.  Instead, Jesus spoke of turning the other cheek.

So now people such as James Dobson and Mike Hukabee want us to believe that God takes up the violent sword, in the form of a Bushwaker assault rifle, points it at the little heads of defenseless children and starts firing rounds, in order to make the rest of us feel bad about  – about what?  About “sins” such as not wanting the State to say our prayers for us, in public schools?   About not wanting to discriminate any longer against people who fall in love differently than we (heterosexuals) do?

Let’s ask two questions.  1) What kind of God would conduct a massacre of innocent children to teach adults lessons?  2) Does that picture of God map up to the picture we get from Jesus?

How about an alternative?  What would this whole trauma look like from the perspective of God as a God who is good; a “Father in Heaven” – as Jesus taught us to believe in?  Might not a good God not grieve for the loss of precious lives?  Might not a good God want us to find ways to prevent repeating this kind of senseless violence?  Might not a good God want us to find ways to come along side parents of children who are exhibiting signs of mental illness and to find ways to provide for them effective treatments and support systems so that single parent’s were not left to deal with it all alone?

Evil, in General

Why does a good God allow this kind of evil?  I sure wish I knew; I don’t know anyone who does.  All I can say is that it appears that God has decided to make us humans truly free.  God does not turn all our evil thoughts into rainbows and butterflies.  God does not stop us from freely feeling anger, even from fantasies of vengeance, nor from harsh words, raised voices, raised fists, raised weapons, or fingers pulling triggers.  We are radically free, and radically responsible morally for what we choose to do.

And if that’s true, the there is one bit about what the Huckabee’s and Dobson’s of the world think that may be true.  Maybe God does let us suffer from the mess we have made of the world, just as Able suffered Cain’s murderous designs.  If we have a world that is so awash in guns and with  huge  bullet magazines, connected to a semi-automatic triggers that it’s easy, even likely that every kind of person can get their hands on them – criminals, the mentally ill, drug gangs, and everyone else, then maybe we get what we deserve.  If we are so in love with our “freedoms” that we don’t protect our own children, then maybe we are the guilty ones.

Well then, let us at least use this horrific example of of our own degeneracy to convince us that we must do better.  We will stand up to the huge money influence of the NRA and say “Enough!”    We will vote down any and every politician that tries to hide behind an ideology of “rights” that puts assault rifles in the hands of almost anybody and say, “Are you kidding?”  We are not living in the days of the Minute-Man militia of farmer-soldiers who might need to be called up in a moment to go fight the Red Coats at Valley Forge.  The world has moved on, just a bit, since those days.  In these days, our children are being slaughtered in their schools.  Enough!  God grieves, because God is good.  What are we doing?



Living the Right Questions

Sermon on Luke 3:7-18 for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Year C, Dec. 16, 2012

Luke 3:7-18

7  John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of


repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear  good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

15  As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16  John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17  His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18  So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Living the Right Questions

At the moment, there are some big questions on the table.  The fiscal cliff looms.  Negotiations drag on.  What should we do?  That’s not the only issue we face.  How do we respond to evil when it manifests itself so powerfully in our communities?  What should the church do in these days?  What should my family do?  What should I do?  What have we been doing?  How has that been working out for us?  Where is God in all of this?  Lots of questions.

This is the season of Advent; of waiting; of preparation.  We come to the text from Luke’s gospel about the time in which John was preparing the people for the coming ministry of Jesus.  This is all about questions – asking the right questions; asking them rightly, and being ready to live by the answers.  Warning: this may get personal; questions often do.

John’s baptism goes viral

There are four questions in this text.  The first is the question John the baptist asks.  Lots of people are coming out to his repentance and baptism

the Jordan
the Jordan

event in the wilderness down by the Jordan, in the days long before they put in those showers and the restaurant.  It had become so popular that not to have gotten baptized by John must have been like not having an internet connection; you would have been the odd one out.

There must have been people who were showing up to be baptized only because it was face-time; a chance to be seen by others.  These folks had no intention of actually changing their minds about anything, which is what “repentance” means.  They had no desire to give up their phony self-justifications and excuses, their selfishness nor their power games.  And John spotted the pretense for what it was, and he named it.

Question 1: (precede with insult)

So, the first question is John’s.  The question itself is preceded by a kind of “this-guy-has-been-in-the-desert-eating-crunchy-locusts-way-too-long” kind of insult:

7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

John was aware of the growing epidemic of revolutionary fever in the air, and, as Jesus would later confirm, that plan could only end in violent disaster – he called it the “wrath to come.”

The point John was making is clear: you cannot even begin to ask the right questions from a position of neutrality with respect to the answer.  You have to start by being committed to the answer you will get.  The answer is going to involve some kind of change of heart and mind: repentance.  You can’t even ask rightly without having first committed to doing whatever it takes.

This is the opposite of a negotiation.  In negotiations you decide what is on the table and what is off, from the start; the preconditions.  You can say

all in
all in

in advance what outcome is unacceptable.  This approach may be appropriate for labor or budget negotiations, but not for this.  For John, this is not a negotiation.  Everything has to be on the table from the start.

Our Preconditions?

But before we get all smug and superior towards the “brood of vipers” with their phony motives, let us ask ourselves: what could God ask of me that would be too much?  What could he want me to change my thinking about that I would not even put on the table?  Do I have my own preconditions?  What if it touched my lifestyle?  What if it went to my budget?  What if it required that I stop numbing my pain?

I think this really gets to the heart of what we think about God.  If God is good, and  wants our good, our flourishing, our eudaimonia, what basis would we have for keeping things off the table?

There are many things we do not understand about God.  But when the bible lists those things that God is, what are they?  Easy question.  God is long-suffering.  God is faithful.  God is holy.  God is merciful.  God is love.  God is good.

So if this kind of God asks us to change our minds about something, would it not actually be in our best interests to simply ask him sincerely: “OK, everything is on offer; no pre-conditions: so, what should I do?

Three Groups: all the same Question

There are four questions here: John asked the first one – “who warned you to flee?” The other three are identical; the same question asked by different groups of people: the crowds, the tax collectors and the soldiers all ask, “what shall I do?”

This is the right question, and all three groups are there at the Jordan river to be baptized as a symbol of their readiness to change their thinking, to repent.  Everything is on offer; nothing is ruled out as a precondition.  They are not negotiating.  They intend to live out the answers that John gives them.

I love it that John does not give them all the same answer.  There is no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all way of responding to God’s call.  Each of us is different, and God meets each of us where we are, with our own unique characteristics, our own individual background, and our own histories, scars, and injuries.

First, fixing the damage

We all have a past.  Some of it was good.  It made us who we are today.  But all of us have a past that includes times of failure, moments of capitulation to the forces of evil, even times of indulgence.  And as a result, evil did to us what evil always does: damage.  This is true, not only when a gunman kills innocent people.   Evil damages our relationships, it damages our communities, and it damages ourselves – spiritually, physically, psychically, – in all the ways we can be damaged.

Which is why it always starts with repentance.  Change is required when the direction is wrong, because going further just gets us more lost.  The question we all ask ourselves then, is where is the pain in my life?  Where does it hurt?  Is it in my anxious, fearful, stressed-out mind? Is it in my difficult or broken relationships?   Is the pain I’m feeling showing itself in the thin disguise of anger? Is the pain in my heart?  Hurt? Guilt?  Depression?  We all have it.  We all have a past that has included the damage done.  So that’s where the change is needed.  And for each of us, it’s a different place.

It is exactly the same for our culture.  Where is the pain?  In places where people kill randomly?  Is it in places where homeless people sleep?  How about where people with long-term mental illness hide?  Perhaps our entire society needs to consider where collective repentance is needed.

Specific answers

arm around

So these three groups with the same “What should we do?” question each get a different answer.  To the crowds, the commoners, the normal village folks, he says, you are to look out for each other.

The two-coat people are to look out for the no-coat people and do something about it.  The food-on-the-plate people are to look out for the no-food-on-the-plate people and do something about it.

We are all connected.  We are all part of the human family.  We are all worthy of dignity and respect: so we treat each other as we would wish to be treated. Question:  Are we our brother’s keeper?  Answer: You bet we are!  What should we do?  Answer: look out for each other.  It’s really that simple.

Stop it

To the tax collectors and the soldiers – people who had both lived by their ability to extort money from their neighbors, albeit in different ways, John said they simply had to stop it.  Some things are simply part of the evil, damaging system, and there is no adjusting them.   There is simply no basis for a person using his/her position of power to abuse others, even if it comes with a job-title, or a uniform, or is officially tolerated.

Why not?   Because power of any kind – physical, social, political, military, or the power of rank or of office, never legitimizes abuse.  Each of us is made in the image of God, regardless of rank or authority.  Nobody gets permission to profit by the misery of others.  No person gets that permission, no government gets it, no corporation gets it, no institution, no bank, no school, no church, no police force, no bureaucrat, no boss, no parent, nobody gets permission to abuse; no exceptions.

So it is incredibly beautiful when a person who has benefited from systematic abuse, like first-century tax-collectors and soldiers come in vulnerable, humble, repentance and asks, in all sincerity “What should I do?”  It is the right question; but a difficult one.  It is one that we all are to be asking every day, with open and willing hearts, embracing the changes required by the answers.

The Sign of Baptism

So these groups of people all come, willing to repent, to change, asking John, “What should I do?”  And then they are baptized.  In those days they


went into the river, most likely to be submerged, or immersed.  The waters of baptism are waters of cleansing.  It’s like a spiritual bath.

But they are also more.  Going down under water where it’s “as silent as the grave” is like being buried.  So then, coming back up out from under the water, into the bright sunlight is like being raised from the dead.  Baptism is both a cleansing bath and a death and resurrection to new life.

This is why Jesus took this baptismal practice, which many groups were using, and gave it to his followers as the sacramental sign of membership in his community.  He said,

“19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”  (Matt. 18:18-20)

To be a part of the new community of followers of Jesus is to be baptized.  We are the people who have been  washed clean in the bath of baptism, where the soil and stains of evil are washed away.   We are the people who have gone down into the waters of death and have risen again.  By our baptism, we are made to share in the death and resurrection of Jesus himself.  Now we are alive in him, to live new lives of faith, hope, and love, empowered by his powerful, present Spirit.

“Renunciations” – the right questions and answers

So it is fitting that at our baptism, just as at John’s, there are questions asked. We call these questions and their answers, “renunciations.”  They go back all the way to

baptismal font in Presbyterian logo
baptismal font in Presbyterian logo

the early church.    The answers are given in the form of vows.  Every time we witness a baptism and hear those questions, we remember and renew our baptismal vows.

We will hear them again today as we baptize a baby boy and welcome him into the body of Christ.  His parents, will make these vows on his behalf, and likewise, we in this congregation will make vows to nurture William’s faith on behalf of the worldwide body of Christ.

So what are the baptismal questions we live by?  The first is this:

“Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its  power in the world?”

Evil damages us, our communities, even our planet.  We vow to oppose evil at every turn.  No preconditions.

The second baptismal question we live by is:

“Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love?”

Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord.  He is the one who can save us from the evil around us and in us, and he does it by infinite quantities of grace and love.  The question asks whether we are willing to trust – to cast ourselves upon that promise of grace and love,  and live unconditionally committed to doing as our Lord commands.

Finally, we ask:

“Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love?”

And we vow:   “I will, with God’s help.”

Baptismal waters in the name of the triune God invisibly mark us as God’s people.  People of the unconditional, continuous questions, asked every day of our discipleship, “What should I do?”

Answer: live by that question, every day, as a baptized child of God.

sunrise on Sea of Galilee
sunrise on Sea of Galilee


What’s Wrong with us?

When I heard the news today about the school shootings in Connecticut, I instantly pictured a class full of little children looking at a man pointing a gun at them, imagining the looks


on their faces.  Immediately I was filled with emotion – I am a father.  I know what it is to awaken in the middle of the night to a child’s screams, run into a dark bedroom and give comfort to a terrified little boy, in panic from a nightmare.  But today was not a nightmare; it was a real man with a gun, firing repeatedly into the little bodies of children.

These are early hours – we know nothing about the shooter, his history, his background, his story.  We will though.  And probably it will turn out that there were lots of things that had gone wrong for him, most likely that he has a form of mental illness.   His life, already personally tragic, became the tragedy for so many others – adults at the school as well as children.  In these early hours it appears that perhaps he may have killed his mother at his house before going to the school where she was a teacher.   It has been reported that the guns he used were legally purchased, not by him, but by her.  Did she buy them for him because he was unable to?  Did she buy them to protect herself from fear of him?  The questions stack up instantly.

I read Psychiatrist Scott Peck’s book People of the Lie long ago.  I don’t have the book anymore to check my memory, so some details may be wrong, but I think I remember enough of one account that makes me shiver.  Dr. Peck was counseling a boy whose older brother had committed suicide.  He had shot himself.  Scott was having no success trying to counsel the boy,; he wouldn’t speak.  He was clearly upset, self-inflicting wounds on his arms with his fingernails.  It was just after Christmas.  Dr. Peck recounted that in an attempt to get him to say something, he  asked him what gifts he got from his parents,.  The boy replied “…gun.”  Dr. Peck was horrified that the surviving brother of a suicide by gun shot would be given a gun by his own parents.  He questioned him further – “You got a gun?”  “No,” the boy corrected, “not a gun; the gun.”  His parents had given him the same gun his brother had killed himself with.   Later, in a session with the mother, who was the picture of proper manners and politeness, Dr. Peck reports that she told him that knowing that their younger son like guns in general (a lie), and that gun in particular (a further lie) and being short on cash (yet another lie) they thought it best to give their younger son his brother’s suicide weapon.

Why do people do things?  Are we even aware of why we do things?  On the surface, yes, but we all know enough from magazine articles and from a million other random sources a few things about psychology.  We know that trauma, including abuse can do damage to the mind.  We know that brain chemistry can be out of balance with terrible consequences.  We know that genetics plays a role in mental illness.  We know that illegal drugs can have all kinds of effects on a person’s thinking – recently here in Mobile, AL. a man stoned on garden-variety cocaine threw five of his own children off a bridge to their deaths.  We know that  people who suffer from schizophrenia can hear voices in their heads who tell them to do things, and they feel compelled to obey (this is a very present, very sad reality for our community, right now).  So, in every population, we know that there will be some people who are capable of doing things like the massacre of innocents that happened today.  We know that most of us will be totally surprised when it happens – those of us who had a passing acquaintance with the murderer will speak of how normal we all thought he/she was, and how shocked we are to learn about this dark side that must have been there all along.

There will be some people who had clues; his family perhaps, a few close friends, maybe even a counselor who was treating him knew that all was not well.  But right now, there are thousands of people, pastors, like me, or counselors, or parents of troubled youth, who know about mental illness or depression or even irrational behavior of people we are trying to help, the overwhelming majority of whom will not commit mass murder.   Yes they will go back and find the clues, but none of these people were probably in a position to imagine that this would or even could happen.  But it did.

Another layer of the tragedy today is that, as a psychologist who was interviewed on the news said, other people with mental illness will become copy-cats of today’s horror.  We just don’t know who or when.

What else do we know?  We know that one of the guns used to kill 20 children and 6 adults today  was called a Glock.  ABC news reports that it is a favorite among mass murderers.  The Glock is semi-automatic, accurate, and uses a high volume magazine of bullets that can be reloaded quickly and easily.  The same gun was used by the man who opened fire in the Batman movie in Aurora, Colorado this past July where 12 people died and dozens were injured.  It was used by the man who shot and nearly killed Gabrielle Giffords; 12 others did not survive.  The list of these mass killings by means of this one type of gun goes on and on.  The ban on such weapons expired in 2004, but was too hot politically for anyone to take up.  So now they are legal again.

We know that mentally unstable people should never have access to guns.  But we know that with all the guns available, they do.  We know that guns alone do not account for the bizarre murder rate we have in America.  Canadians own a lot of guns, but do not use them to kill each other at anything close to the rate we kill our own.  So, what’s up, America?

Truth is, we believe in violence.  As a culture, we believe we have been saved by our superior violence.  That’s the way we tell the story of our history: WWI, WWII, and we believe that we are saved today by our superior violence – or the threat it imposes.  We believe that we are the good guys who, like the vigilante  character Batman, are authorized by our own righteousness, to use violence as a means.

We actually love violence, used in the pursuit of our natural goodness.  We love the violence of a dead Bin Laden.  We love the impersonal violence of drone strikes against “known militants.”  of Al Qaeda in Yemen and in Pakistan.  We love violence against Hezbollah in Gaza.

We just received a video game producer’s Christmas magazine.  Nearly every new video seems to be an orgy of violence.  It’s entertainment.  I don’t believe that it has been demonstrated that all these violent games makes people act violently in ways they would not have otherwise, but these games are deeply imbedded in our culture; part of the way we celebrate violence.

This is the world in which a mother, a teacher of young children, feels OK about going out and buying military-style semi-automatic weapons and ammunition.  Did she see herself as a potential shooter?  Whose body did she imagine unloading burst of multiple rounds of bullets into?  Or were these weapons gifts she gave?  Who did she think would use them?  On whom?  These are not target or hunting guns.  What kind of world makes these weapons available to a woman-mother-school teacher in a small town in Connecticut as if she might have some justifiable reason to own them?

This is not about the guns, it’s about the world that wants to be awash in guns and not blush.  Of course they will get into the hands of people who will use them to kill people.  Of course these people will walk into schools, movie theaters, shopping malls, political rallies, summer youth camps, army bases, anywhere where people gather, and start shooting.  And we will all wring our hands and grieve and ask what could possibly be done as if we were not part of this culture, as if it caught us off guard.  Again.