Friday morning, my wife and I left the house at nine o’clock to spend the day in Nashville. She had lunch with friends she used to work with, and I had lunch with my good friend that I blame for getting me into the ministry. 🙂
Then we did some Christmas shopping at Opry Mills, and drove to Murfreesboro to eat dinner with our son. As we were waiting for him to get off work, my wife checked her Facebook page and saw that someone had posted a prayer for the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. That’s when we found out that twenty-six people had been killed, twenty of them innocent first graders and six educators. In this time that we say ‘tis the season to be jolly, God help the families of all these people.
I cannot begin to imagine such grief, the pain that so many parents are now bearing for their lost little ones. They have to be asking, “Oh God, where are you now?” Are you in the midst of the grief of all those parents, of that town, of every child who survived but experienced something no child should ever see or hear? Were you there as little ones died at the hand of an unstable man?
My faith tells me that you were there, that your heart was breaking just as mine and their families. My faith tells me you know what it’s like to lose a son who was innocent of any wrongdoing. But, the truth is, it is hard to believe in anything in the middle of such heartbreaking turmoil.
This morning we were in church. In prayer. These were wonderful things to be doing on a Sunday morning. But what good are ceremonies and pious words while the world falls apart around us?
I think this is John the Baptist’s point from our gospel story today. People were coming to him to be baptized. They were humbling themselves to participate in a sacred ritual. And he called them snakes. Wow. These people were expressing that they wanted to do the right thing as prescribed by religious leaders and go through this ceremony…and the one who came to prepare the way for Christ insults them. What’s that all about?
I think John is saying, “This wonderful religious ceremony you are coming to perform in front of your friends and relatives means nothing — if you don’t follow through and act like a child of God.” He tells the crowd they should produce fruits worthy of repentance. And maybe this is what it means that he was preparing the way of Christ: he was putting actions ahead of rituals in the practice of religion.
I was looking up what the Hebrew word for “repentance” and found that it has more meanings than only “to be sorry.” “Repent” in Hebrew can mean three other meanings. If I replace them in John’s statement, “Produce fruits worthy of repentance,” they sound like this: Produce fruits worthy of compassion. Produce fruits that will bring comfort to you. Produce fruits that will make you feel at ease. When you do compassionate things – it makes you feel good about what you have done.
The people asked, “If baptism isn’t all God wants, what should we do?” How do we produce fruits worthy of compassion/that will make us feel at ease?”
He said to them: “Those of you who have two coats, give one to someone who has none. Those who have more food than you can eat today, give it to someone who is hungry.” He told the tax collectors “Don’t make people pay more than they owe.” He told the soldiers “Don’t force people to do things for you just because you have power over them. Do your job and be satisfied with your blessings.”
And then we ask, in the midst of our wonderful ceremonies: Teacher, in the wake of the tragedy we’ve watched, what should we do? John the Baptist equated people to trees that are supposed to produce good fruits. He might tell us, “Thinking and speaking and feeling sad, offering prayers and lighting candles for people in pain and suffering are nice platitudes and expressions, but they are like dead leaves falling from a tree. What good are they? Bear the fruit of compassion with your actions. Do something. Anything less is just religion.”
What can we do a thousand miles away from Newtown, Connecticut? The best answer I can come up with is to do what Jesus said, “Repay evil with good.” Only the light can drive out the darkness.
- You can send money to Connecticut…that would be a fruit of compassion. You will have given up something you have at your disposal to help in the psychological treatment, or funeral costs, or educational needs in the heart of the pain.
- Decide your religion is going to make you a person of action…that you’ll turn your “I ought to do this’s and that’s” which you’ve been speaking, into actions of kindness and compassion.
- Provide a scholarship for a disadvantaged child in your community to attend a preschool. It might cost $80-100 per month for a child to attend. There are people in your community who, in this economy, can’t afford for their children to keep up with those families who do have money. It’s helpful if the family is held accountable to pay half the cost, but a scholarship to pay fifty percent can help many to afford it.
- Set aside and commit some of your time to helping at a local elementary school, for tutoring children, or reading to them.
- Stop waiting for legislators to do the right things. Stop waiting for them to solve our problems. If you think early childhood training is important to the future of our world, find out what our schools need and donate what you can. Make education a priority for you, for your grandchildren. Just because legislators won’t do the right thing doesn’t let you off the hook – you do the right thing.
- Darkness can only be driven out by light. Be the light. Decide that whenever evil happens that touches you deeply, you personally will make three good things happen to improve someone’s life. Send thinking of you cards to people you know who’ve lost children to sickness or accidents. Giving comfort to them will bring peace to your own heart.
With God’s help, you can make good come out of this evil. As Ghandi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
Religious practices are supposed to make us better people. We are called into action, to lives of compassion. When actions that bring goodness finally replace actions that perpetuate the cycle of evil, that will be the kingdom of heaven.