If you wish, you can hear this sermon as it was preached in the pulpit of the United Church of Jaffrey. Simply click to the play button below.
Delivered at the United Church of Jaffrey
February 18th, 2018
The Response of an Educator
On Friday of last week I received an email from the Superintendent of the Schools in the region of Western Massachusetts where I live.
The email, which was sent to all the parents of children in the schools, was intended to reassure us that our school system had taken and continues to take serious and appropriate measures to ensure the safety of our children, should an active shooter scenario occur.
These measures included…
Coordination with local law enforcement…
Was I, the father of two middle school boys, reassured?
The email concluded with a list of strategies that parents can take to limit the potential trauma that our children might experience as, together, our nation struggles, yet again, with the aftermath of another mass shooting.
- Turn off, or monitor the television. The email suggested. Endless news programs are likely to heighten anxiety, and young children cannot distinguish between images on television and their personal reality.
- Maintain a normal routine.
- Stick to facts. Answer questions factually. “Yes, there was a very sad incident in Florida yesterday, but your teacher and principal are working very hard to keep you safe.”
- Remain calm and reassuring. Children take their cues from their parents, teachers and adults.
- Be optimistic.
- Be a good listener and observer. Pay attention to changes in behavior.
- Take care of yourself. You are better able to help your children if you are coping well. If you are anxious or upset, your children are more likely to be so as well.
This is an educator’s response to a mass shooting.
An educator wants to know…
How are the kids doing?
Let’s make sure the kids are safe.
Let’s make sure the kids are ok.
This makes total sense to me.
A school superintendent has a clear responsibility.
I’m willing to bet that if you look at the job description of a superintendent of schools, that “the safety and well-being of students” is probably on the top of the list.
As a public servant, the superintendent of schools has a clear mission.
So there can be no doubt that, in the aftermath of a school shooting, a Superintendent of Schools must focus his or her attention on the safety and well-being of the students.
When I read the email, I thought to myself… this guy, at least is trying to do his job.
He can’t do much, but what he can do, he is doing.
And it made me wonder…
What can I do?
What is my job description?
The Ways of the Spirit
On Tuesday of last week — a day before any of the devastating news came through from Florida — we convened the first meeting of this year’s Lenten Discussion group: Matters of the Spirit.
The first matter that we discussed was the scripture reading for today — the one that Tina just read for us, that tells the story of the Baptism of Jesus according to Mark’s gospel.
Whenever you look closely at a piece of scripture — no matter how short — you are bound to find something interesting.
And this reading was no exception.
We noticed, for example, that the first thing that happens after Jesus is baptised in the river Jordan, is that the spirit drove him out into the wilderness.
The spirit drove him…
The spirit does not request…
Would you care for some wilderness with your baptism sir?
The spirit does not suggest…
You might consider taking a tour of the desert, it’s beautiful this time of year…
The spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness!
As we were discussing this word, I imagined Jesus running into the wilderness, with the spirit chasing him, nipping at his heels like Wiley Coyote.
I said to myself — I better look that up and see what the Greek word is.
Well I did look it up, and I found something very interesting…
The Greek word that is translated here as drove is ekballei (ἐκβάλλει).
That may not ring any bells with you. There are no bells ringing in my head… but guess what…
The verb Ekballei shows up 10 times in the gospels, and in eight of those times it is the verb used when Jesus casts evil spirits out of possessed people.
So, in the immediate wake of the baptism, the spirit casts Jesus out into the wilderness, with the same authority and forcefulness that Jesus himself would later use to cast out demons!
This unravelling of the meaning of the text leads me to the idea that there may be times, in our lives, when God takes us by the scruff of the neck, as it were, and demands that we do something.
Now hold that thought for a moment, because if we are now in the business of speculating about how God speaks to us, there are a couple of other things in this story that we need to consider…
Because the spirit — the one that just grabbed Jesus by the scruff of the neck — you may remember, a mere moment before, descended “like a dove” on him.
Descended like a dove.
A dove is not the kind of ferocious beast that is known for driving or casting out.
A dove does not roar — a dove coos.
A dove is fleeting.
A dove is beautiful
A dove is vulnerable.
So just in these few sentences, that tell the story of the baptism, the spirit is revealed in two radically different ways:
As a vulnerable, beautiful dove that descends from heaven…
And as a forceful power, not to be trifled with, who casts Jesus out into the wilderness.
But since we’re looking for ways that God speaks to us, there is even more to be found in this text.
You may recall from the story that immediately after the dove descended…
A voice came from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
We do not know if other people besides Jesus heard this voice. Was this a public pronouncement to the multitudes gathered by the Jordan, or was it a private stirring in the heart of Jesus? The text does not say.
But there is one thing that the text is clear about.
God does not mince words. God, here, is expressing a clear, unapologetic, and deep love for Jesus.
This love is echoed, later in the story when, in the wilderness, Jesus is “waited on” by Angels.
Interesting isn’t it?
First a beautiful vulnerable dove. Then a clear throated expression of devotion. Next — cast out into the wilderness. Then: waited on by Angels.
One thing is clear from this reading — God speaks to us in many different ways.
But how are we to decipher all this, in our daily lives?
An Anonymous Phone Message
Not long ago, I received an anonymous message on my office phone.
Apparently, the person who left the message had come to worship with us the Sunday before.
The church was beautiful and the service was lovely, the person said, but then… the preaching started.
The person said that I betrayed my role as a minister of God when I spoke of political matters from the pulpit.
You may recall the Sunday in question, when I made a not-so-veiled reference to the manner in which a prominent political figure described certain Caribbean and African nations.
When I brought up this concern, my anonymous critic felt that I broke a cardinal rule of church.
Church is where we worship God.
Being political, according to this person, is not part of my job description as a person of the cloth.
If I could engage this person in conversation, I would agree that it is not my job to tell you who to vote for, and who to vote against.
But I would argue that it is my job to address moral concerns, and that, in this, my job overlaps with the work of a politician.
The difference is, that a politician addresses moral issues through policy and lawmaking.
And I address morality by interpreting scripture, and trying, in this way, to discern where God’s love leads us.
If I believed that the only way to worship God, is by heaping adoration on God — I would not be able to do my job.
Indeed, I believe that addressing the moral concerns that beset our society, is a form of worship.
It shows our respect for the complexity of creation.
Just as there are many ways that God communicates with us — there are many ways that we can worship God
My Job Description
So what, then, is my job description?
How can I, like the superintendent of schools, do my job in the face of the horrifying reality that faces us today?
What is a minister of God called to do in response to the senseless deaths of fifteen teenagers, and two teachers.
I wondered this, as I sat alone, at my dining room table, looking at the beautiful faces of the young people, who now, unbelievably, are dead…
I did not feel like a minister of God.
I felt like a father.
These children were not stranger to me.
I recognized, in their faces, the joys, the hopes, the uncertainties of adolescence…
I recognized an abundant, beautiful life.
And I saw my sons.
I saw my daughter.
These children are not strangers.
They are our children.
And my job, as a minister, is to praise God by insisting that their is no constitutional amendment…
There is no powerful lobbying interest…
There is no self-defence
There is no profit-margin
There is no rationale
That is precious enough to be purchased with the lives of these children.
The faces of those children are the doves — the beautiful, vulnerable expressions of God.
Their deaths cast us all into the wilderness!
We wait for common sense gun control legislation that will remove semi-automatic AR-15’s from circulation.
Jesus said “Truly I tell you, just as you have done to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me.”
If this is so, Jesus is dead in Parkland Florida.
If this is so, my sons and my daughters are dead in Parkland Florida.
If this is so, it is my job, as a minister of God, to say no.