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Psalm 127

Matthew 18.2-6; 19.13-15

Our Children, Our Hope

Ascension

I got a text from my older daughter Clare earlier this week.  Her son Connor is in Pre-Kindergarten in a Boston Public School right around the corner from their home, he’ll be five in two months, and he’s got a sibling on the way.   Clare was looking for some parenting pointers from us.  And I’m certain you’ll infer what prompted her question:  “How old were Blythe and I when you parents started telling us the terrible things that were happening in the news?”  Obviously she and her husband Brian are struggling, as are so many parents these days, with how they communicate to their children the fact that little ones just like them have been randomly killed at school.  And to be candid, I didn’t have a definitive answer.  As our first child, Clare was the one who taught us how to be parents.  I’ll never forget the feeling of bringing our first-born home from the hospital:  when she and Debbie were discharged, I thought to myself, “That’s it?  We don’t have to take a quiz, or read a manual?  We just bring her home and then it’s all trial and error and pray for the best from there on out?”  Well, in some ways it was.  Which explains why our reply to her was definitively ambiguous.  When there was a shooting or a tragedy of considerable proportion, sometimes we waited until she brought questions home from school or the playground; other times we brought the topic up first, and I tell you up front, there was no calculated logic about which happened when.  Since I often speak to contemporary realities from the pulpit, these were the times I wanted her to hear it from me at home before she heard me speak about it in church.  Better to approach it frankly, yet without being graphic or frightening.  Who even knows if any one method works better than another?  Like I said, trial and error, and pray for the best.  But I suppose the fact that she came to us seeking guidance indicates that it wasn’t all error all the time.

So what do we tell our children about Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School that we haven’t said before?  That we haven’t said after Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, after Sandy Hook, after Virginia Tech, after Michigan’s Oxford High School, after Santa Fe High School, after Oregon’s Umpqua Community College, after West Nickel Mines Amish School, after Minnesota’s Red Lake High School?  What more can we tell our children?  What more can we tell our congregations?  I don’t know – sometimes I think we’ve run out of words.  In April of 1999 I was participating in a post-Easter pulpit swap, where a bunch of us UCC clergy were going to preach in one another’s pulpits.  I mentioned to one of my Deacons that it would be a bit of a relief for me.  After all the work I had done during Holy Week, all I had to do for the pulpit swap was pull out an old sermon which my guest congregation had obviously never heard before.  It would be a welcome break from having to write a completely new sermon.  Then Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School and killed twelve of their classmates and their teacher.  And suddenly not only did I have to write a fresh sermon, about an incredibly difficult topic, but I had to bring God’s word of hope and comfort and mercy to a completely unfamiliar congregation and hope and pray that they would hear me and trust me as much as they trusted their own minister, and as my own congregation would trust me.  After all that has come before, what more can we tell our congregations?  What more can we tell our children?

The Boston Globe both asked and answered that question in a striking manner this week.  Under the headline “There Is Nothing Else to Say,” they reprinted excerpts from editorials that followed fourteen different previous school shootings.  The point was clear:  there is nothing left to say if nobody can be bothered to do anything about it.  And so I thought it might be a good idea this morning to go through all my old sermons and pull out quotes after every mass shooting, whether in schools, synagogues, mosques, black churches, gay bars, grocery stores, dance halls, the whole nine yards.  But there would be at least two things wrong with that approach.  First, it would be too depressing, too enervating.  Second, it would be misleading.  If no one else does, the church of Jesus Christ always, always has something to say about every facet of human life and death.  As Jeremiah wrote in the book of Lamentations, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”  They are new every morning; God always has something new, and fresh, and spot-on germane, to say to us in every circumstance.

“Little children were being brought to Jesus in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.”  Let the… children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.  Children were precious to Jesus.  Our children are precious to Jesus.  The children of Robb Elementary School are precious to Jesus.  Which means the heart of God wept uncontrollably Tuesday afternoon, as did many, including our own.  When I heard the news, I had to sit down because my legs wouldn’t stand any more.  And I wept.  It was a hard strike.  I remember running at the Y ten years ago when the treadmill’s television monitor delivered the news of Sandy Hook.  The moment  was so surreal, so incomprehensible that a part of me refused to believe it.  Surely there had to be something wrong:  nobody walks into an elementary school with an assault rifle and shoots little kids.  Sadly, only half that sentence is correct; something was definitely wrong, but it wasn’t the news.  It was the reality that was wrong.  I’ve told you about my friend Steve, who was a first responder for Newtown.  The experience broke him; he was never the same person.  And in some ways, that is the appropriate response:  something fundamental changes after witnessing that kind of horror firsthand.  And I can’t begin to imagine the brokenness of the parents and families.  “If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones,” Jesus said,  “it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”   What is there left to say after it happens again, and again, and again?  Well, maybe that’s the wrong question.  Maybe it isn’t a matter of saying anything at all, which is a difficult thing to say for a person who makes his living with words.  Perhaps the better question is, what is there left to do?  When words fail, as they do more often than we’d like, it is time do let deeds do the talking for us.  Doing nothing is not an option.  Because years of doing nothing meaningful have brought us to Uvalde.

How providential then, how perfect that we have the blessed act of this morning’s baptism to remind us of the power of hope.  When Alexander was baptized, he was surrounded, not just by the love of his parents, sponsors and family, nor just by the love of the God in whose name he was baptized, nor even just by the entire congregation, including those who aren’t here in the room this morning, but by the entire community in which he will grow up and begin to make his mark.  Chester is a village that knows how to be a village, and we know what it means to surround one another in our times of celebration and we know what it means to surround one another in our times of need.  And this morning, just when we need most to hear God’s word of hope, hope flows from the font like an everlasting stream.  Because our children are our hope and our future.  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me.”  Welcome, Jesus.  Welcome, Alexander, into a community that loves you before you even know who we are, because we know who you are.  You are a beloved child of God.

Surrounding one another with blessing.  Embracing the grieving.  Encouraging the reluctant.  Comforting the anxious.  Building relationships, one neighbor at a time.  This is what the church of Jesus Christ does, and does well.  In the wake of Uvalde, an expert on school safety voiced his skepticism of many of the too=clever-by-half solutions to school shootings.  Curtis Lavarello, the executive director of the School Safety Advocacy Council calls suggestions like arming teachers, establishing choke points, and posting police in school buildings “school security theater.”  What really works, Lavarello says, are relationships.  Building strong relationships between students and staff and robust staff training, instilling confidence in others to influence what may seem like small decisions by school personnel may be at least as important [as the latest techniques and technologies], if not more important.  Building relationships.  And folks, building relationships and instilling confidence and hope in one another and in our neighbors and creating community are among those things the church of Jesus Christ is uniquely positioned to do.  Tragedy’s strategy is to shatter families and communities.  As people of faith, we are both called and equipped to pick up the pieces, to begin to make the broken whole, to mend broken hearts made heavy by sorrow, and to build back the beacon of hope.  We surround each other and our community and our world with the comfort, the care and the salving embrace of God.  We may be called to do this again and again, and we may wish we didn’t have to.  But the church does this like few others can.  As the Psalmist wrote, our children are our heritage from the Lord, they are the gift of life and the hope and promise of the future.  This morning as we lift Alexander up in the light of that hope, we lift up every one of God’s beloved children.

Amen.

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