Heidi Neumark is a Lutheran pastor and writer who says she loves Advent because it is a season that reflects how she feels much of the time. As we anticipate and reflect on the coming of Christ on so many levels — in the nativity, in our hearts, in a future completion of all creation — we are so painfully aware that the world is not as it should be, that we are not as we should be. It conjures for Neumark the Spanish word anhelo; that is, longing, deep desire. She writes, “Advent is when the church can no longer contain its unbearable, unfulfilled desire and the the cry of anhelo bursts forth: Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus! O Come, O Come Emmanuel!” (1) But how do we know that there is more yet to come, that God’s ultimate vision for creation is not what we see?
Neumark tells the story of her son Hans, who seemed to have an aversion, even as a newborn, to a particular lullaby with a particularly beautiful and haunting melody, something with the sense of anhelo that many of us find in “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” After testing the theory many times, she obviously stopped playing that song, but when he got a bit older and had a few words, at 18 months, she played it again. His eyes filled up with tears and he said: “Music sad. No music sad.”
“Now,” she says, “he loves that music. But maybe as an infant Hans was remembering being with God. Maybe the music reminded him, arousing his tearful anhelo.” (2) I don’t know where it comes from or how it works, any more than I could explain to you the beautiful mystery of baby Hans’ sensitivity, but it seems that God has placed God’s dream for something more lovely, more just, and more holy on our hearts. It’s a dream older than Isaiah’s vision of a lion laying down with a lamb, and guns remade into garden tools: the divine dream seems like a holy fingerprint from our creation, indelible and pained anew by each act of violence and injustice.
This is one reason we are not alone, as Christians, in participating in this year’s National Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath Weekend, which is sponsored by Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence and the Washington National Cathedral. The event was born out of the Newtown Elementary school massacre that left 27 dead three years ago tomorrow, but of course the need for such a sabbath remembrance of those who suffer and die from gun violence doesn’t need much explaining. When adjusted for population, there are five gun homicides in the U.S. for every one in Canada. Based on statistical projects, about four hundred Americans will die by gunfire in this 4-day sabbath remembrance period. And apart from numbers, we know that every time a bullet shreds through human flesh, God mourns. Killing, maiming, shattering bones and young lives: this is not God’s dream. We know that. We already know that. Our repentance is always interlaced with, in some ways born of the beauty God seems to have placed on our hearts.
Shockingly, then, in an age of complexity, the ultimate goal is clear, and relatively uncontroversial: Eliminate gun violence. We know what is good, and right, and holy, in more areas than we might like to admit, including the matter of guns: the ultimate goal is to eliminate gun violence. This is not a delusional statement; it is an honest statement, no matter how far off that goal may seem. As a community, as a nation, as a church, we stand before this truth, this knowledge written on our hearts, and we repent, like the men and women who came to John the Baptist because they knew they, too, had fallen short. There is a dark gap between our society and God’s dream, and we all see it. We know. We repent.
So we seek to end gun violence. But what, then, shall we do?
We may not fully agree about next steps, but it is never a faithful option to throw up our hands and say, “we’ll never agree about everything, so we’ll never get anywhere!” The goal has been written on our hearts, and we labor toward its fulfillment with countless throngs before us, millions on this earth with us, and Christ himself beside us — the One who himself was pierced by human brutality when he came among us, yet was not overcome by it.
But what, then, shall we do?
If that phrase sounds familiar, it’s because we just heard it three times in today’s Gospel reading. A crowd of people stands before John the Baptist, recognizing their need for repentance, the ways in which the fruit they bear and the lives that they lead are unworthy of God and out of sync with God’s dream. They want to know, like us, what they’re supposed to do. And here is a wonderful thing: John answers each group differently, accounting for their differences in roles and responsibilities and possessions. His answer is different for soldiers, tax collectors, and the general crowd. And, perhaps even more remarkably, his advice is very practical and pointed: Share. Keep no more than you need. Be fair. Be honest. Don’t abuse your power, or feed your greed. These things are not easy, but they are not complicated or impossible.
I am not John the Baptist, and so I will not presume to tell you what you should do, but I will encourage you to ask Jesus, very seriously, that same question this week. Or today, in prayer after communion. Because I believe everything in our tradition and our hearts leads us to this place of repentance, and wants us to get really, really serious about that question: What then should we do? What, Lord, should I do?
If you are a gun owner, it may be ensuring that you are completely up-to-date on safety measures and all your firearms are properly stored and locked whether or not you have children living in your house. If you feel convicted that this crisis stems primarily from social disintegration and poor mental health services, it might mean significantly supporting a non-profit that you know provides excellent care. If you have children and want them to be safer in the years to come, it might mean advocating on a local, state, or national level for legislation that does work to enact changes statistically shown to reduce deaths by guns, like product adjustments to make firearms less prone to accidents and universal background checks.
Some of these actions will be individual and some will necessarily involve working with other people. Some of the discernment about what we should do will happen alone, in prayer, and some of it will happen in a crowded room of people who are disagreeing, respectfully, about our next steps on this issue as a society. But as our own bishop wrote this week, “we must press for discussion, debate, and action” on gun violence. Mournful silence is an option, but only if we sinfully close ourselves off to Christ’s clamoring in our hearts for change.
As followers of Jesus we are called to remember that “God chose to enter a time as violent and faithless as our own,” and that “the light of Christ cannot, will not, shall not ever be overcome by that darkness.” (3) What will we do with the light we have been given in the healing life, witness, death and resurrection of Christ? Will we stare at the flame and pretend we don’t see the darkness around us? Or will we carry Christ’s call to put down our swords, love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us in the neighborhood, city, country, and world where we live?
The writer Marilynne Robinson says this: “the haunting fact is that we are morally free. If everyone around us is [betraying Jesus and] calling for Barabbas, it is only probable, never necessary, that some of us join in. Since we have not yet burned the taper of earthly existence down to its end, we still have time to muster the dignity and graciousness and courage that are uniquely our gift. If we are making the last testament to the nature of human life, or if we are only one more beleaguered generation in a series whose end we cannot foresee, each of us and all of us know what human beauty would look like. We could let it have its moment.”(4)
It is Advent three, and we are aware of the darkness, and our need for repentance. But Christ is already here with us. And that is why three quarters of our texts are about rejoicing, even as we repent. The Spirit of the living God will indeed guide us, remind us of the beautiful and otherworldly melody written on our hearts and into our very nature if we are humble enough to sincerely ask: what then should we do? Christ will walk with us along the difficult path if we are brave enough to take the answer we hear seriously.
And yet I confess: in the face of gun violence in America, sometimes it feels like even these simple and difficult acts of repentance and faith might not be enough. We long for more help, for Christ to come in new and powerful ways, His love a consuming fire that will burn up all the trash — all the trash that mares the beauty we and God know is there. Sometimes the most honest and faithful prayer is this collective cry for help: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.”(5)
And in between those cries for Christ to come, to save us in ways we cannot, we are free to make choices, each day anew. We know what human beauty would look like, what it sounds like. Why don’t we let it have its moment?
The Rev. Laurel Mathewson
December 13, 2015: Advent 3, Year C
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego
National Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath Weekend