I have tremendous admiration for the men and women who serve as religious leaders these days. In an increasingly secular age, it can’t be easy to climb those pulpit stairs each week to say a few words on behalf of the Almighty. And on a day like today most of us would play Ricky Ricardo to God’s Lucy in saying, “You’ve got some ‘splaining to do!”
Most Sundays I leave services feeling renewed in spirit. But not today. Today it felt like our preacher missed an important opportunity to raise some fundamental questions.
On most Sundays it would have been enough to talk about soldiers or prophets or tax collectors, but today it wasn’t sufficient. Today we had to focus on the slaughter of innocents in Newtown, Ct.
It would have been a difficult sermon to deliver, but I wish we had heard something about
1. Our need to do more to help those battling mental illness. (Even as we debate cutting social welfare programs.)
2. Our need to change gun laws. (The founding fathers would not have approved of citizens’ possessing assault rifles.)
3. Our need to recognize that evil exists in a fallen world.
4. Our need to think through the tension that exists between belief in a good and loving God and the belief in free will. (I shudder at the thought of some well-intentioned soul’s trying to console a victim’s family by saying that the mass murder in Newtown was a part of God’s “plan.”)
A religious studies teacher once told me that, as much as God loves man, He also loves free will, and without this gift, we would be something like puppets on a string.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be so critical of the parish priest. I’m sure he was doing his best. Perhaps I should recognize that the sermon I needed to hear came to me courtesy of Ross Douthat and the New York Times:
“…the only thing that my religious tradition has to offer to the bereaved of Newtown today — besides an appropriately respectful witness to their awful sorrow — is a version of that story, and the realism about suffering that it contains.
That realism may be hard to see at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of faith owns the cultural stage. But the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild.
The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.
In the leafless hills of western Connecticut, this is the only Christmas spirit that could possibly matter now.”