December 16, 2012
St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver
The Rev. Ruth Woodliff-Stanley

I ask you to join me in a few moments of silent prayer for all those impacted by the tragic shootings in Connecticut and Oregon this week.


It must stop.  Violence rips us apart. It is time for us to say No to a world in which assault weapons can be casually obtained to massacre little children in a classroom and their teachers and principles or people out for a stroll in a local mall or people at a movie or at worship.

While John the Baptist’s confrontation of his listeners may make us squirm, he is the image we need today.  A clear voice crying in the wildnerness.  NO. STOP. NOT ON MY WATCH.  This weekend, amid all our other feelings, we are outraged.  Outraged that families dropped children off for school never to see them alive again.  Outraged that one person could rob so many lives so utterly. We are outraged. And that is as it should be.

Yet, in times like these, our most demanding task is not to come together in outrage.  Of course, outrage is a natural response.  But the less obvious, more difficult challenge is to try to understand the connections between such horrific violence and our own lives.  What is our connection, if any, to the evils of this world?  What ought we be doing to bear Christ in our communities? Addressing mental illness early and providing interventions before a crisis? Noticing and mentoring at risk youth before their paths become irrevocably destructive? Ridding our culture of easy access to assault weapons that no citizen could possibly need for hunting or self defense? What are the connections between our lives and the evils we face?  I think this is the question John the Baptist is really asking today in the gospel.

To address that question, you and I must be willing to examine our lives with both the unconditional love of the shepherd and the razor sharp critique of the prophet. Every one of us has sinned.  Every one of us bears the glory of God.  Both are true.  Knowing this gives us empathy as well as insight about how to make change.

It’s easy to call people who commit heinous crimes evil.  Not so easy to focus, instead, on understanding the anatomy of evil and the fabric out of which it grows.  Not so easy to make connections between our lives and these events--connections that both challenge us and truly enable us to do something about it. Within each of us there are radically divergent forces at work. The world is not made up of good people and bad people.  The world is a place where good and evil are constantly at play in all of human life.  We all bear responsibility for understanding both forces and learning to address this mix effectively.

During the past week, I’ve seen two movies in theatres.  The first was The Life of Pi, and the second was an early preview of The Hobbit. Both address in some way this idea of holding together different parts of human nature—tame and wild, heroic and fearful, saintly and sinful.

The Life of Pi deals with two stories explaining one event.  In one of the stories, a relationship develops between a tiger named Richard Parker and a young Indian man named Pi.  There is a scene in which the Richard Parker and Pi are together on a boat under desperate conditions.  Pi had the upper hand and could have let the tiger Richard Parker die.  But their eyes fix on each other. They understand their connection. In that moment, the viewer sees that the wild beast and the civilized man are inextricably linked and must make peace with each other in order to survive.  The viewer takes the lesson: peace is not obtained by one person demonizing another. Peace is hammered out in relationships that are not optional to us.  The NRA member and the pacifist must work together to create a way to stop gun violence.

In The Hobbit, the young Bilbo Baggins, a person very attached to his creature comforts, finds himself on an adventure with a group of warriors and wild men.  The king of the dwarves, Thorin, scrorns Baggins for much of the movie.  Baggins is both drawn to yet repelled by the warrior.  And then something happens: Baggins saves Throrin’s life, much to his own amazement.  After that event, the two have an unbreakable bond. The point is taken: safety requires interdependence. To create a safe world, we must value the life of someone else enough to risk ourselves for that person. The people we do not value can either be harmed or can harm us because they have become cut off from us.  We need to create a fabric of support so that no one lives in isolation, in fear, in shame, in unnamed grief, or with a lack of the accountability that true connections foster. 

Both movies juxtaposed opposites to show the need they had one for another. I think this juxtaposition of opposites is a first step in the repentance John calls for. Every time you see things about yourself or the world that you cannot easily reconcile, you are glimpsing something God needs to heal. God’s work is reconciliation—which means, literally, to bring back together into one whole the creation that has been ripped apart—by our sin, our violence, our blindness to the needs of others.

When I re-read today’s well known story of John preaching repentance, I noticed something that had never before caught my attention.  Just after John calls his hearers a bunch of snakes, just about the time we’d expect them to be trying to get away from John, the writer says this: “the people were filled with expectation.” They were drawn toward this wild, strange man—compelled by his challenge. The word we translate “expectation” means literally to watch towards something or someone.  It involves being awake, alert.

The people listening to John heard in all his harsh words a wake up call.

In The Hobbit, after he’s first received the invitation to join an adventure and turned it down, Bilbo Baggins wakes up the next morning, wipes the sleep from his eyes, and reconsiders.  Grabbing his pack, he runs as fast as he can across meadow and road and over fences—until he catches up to those beginning the adventure.  He realized, despite all he hadn’t wanted to hear the night before, that the adventure will help him know himself more fully—to find the parts of himself he’s let sleep for too long. Are you in? his strange visitors had wanted to know the night before, holding a contract out for him to sign.  When he woke up, he ran expectantly toward them, waving the signed contract with his answer.  He was in.

We love comfort—be it the comfort of our homes or of our known personality traits and habits.  We are used to what we know.  Few of us like being challenged to look at the opposite of what is familiar to us, at least not initially.
Yet, that’s precisely what John is asking us to prepare for.  He sounds an alarm, a wake up call. Like Pi and like Bilbo Baggins, we have the potential to wake up sleeping parts of ourselves when God’s adventure calls. 

John’s words are an invitation to adventure.  Try hearing them this way, “Listen to me…God doesn’t care about your status in Denver, the money you make, the job you have or don’t have.  Some day, the playing field will be leveled for all of us.  Wake up; what you should do is fairly simple.  Share your extra coats with the homeless---Denver gets cold.  Work to set up more humane and effective ways to heal your sisters and brothers with mental illnesses.  Don’t ignore family violence; speak honestly about it and address it. Use your power to bring justice. Ask how you can help prevent another massacre--advocate, serve, question, learn. Your life matters.  Everything God wants to do begins with people like you.”

Imagine going to the Pepsi Center to hear the Dali Lama say these things to you.  Imagine leaning forward on the edge of your seat, awake, alert, expectant.  That’s how John’s hearers were—not hardened or guilt ridden.  No, they were ready, readyfor an adventure—that’s why they were there listening to him in the first place.

The problem is, adventures by nature offer no guarantees. We don’t take them because they are a sure bet. Far from it.  We take them because we sense they might wake up heroes within us. We take them wondering if we they will lead us to stare into the eyes of  a tiger and there find our souls. We take them because we sense they are the only things that can heal us and put the torn up pieces back together again.

The violence we saw this week must stop.  Our world is torn apart. And you and I, John proclaims, are not separate from it all, sitting by our hearth at home. No. We are hereby summoned to be in the company of adventurers, called to stare down the tigers, called to change the world.

So, the question is, are you in?