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So, this is how it works. I had two beginnings to this sermon, which I expected would end up talking about the solstice, and about how the solstice is a reminder, and I think has been since the beginning of history, a reminder of the cyclical nature of the world, of how things go round and come round. A reminder that at times of the year, it is good to look back and look forward, think about what has happened and anticipate what might come.

newtown memorial

I do not think our early ancestors were afraid the sun would not return, and do not think they created rituals to ensure that return. I think – after all – remember the paintings in the cave in Chauvet – 30,000 years old – they were sophisticated enough to figure out the seasons as regular. It may have been that the priests encouraged fear that the sun would not return for that gave them power. That is still the case of much of the religion of the world – creating fear so that power is concentrated. Leaders hold on to power or seek it by sowing fear.

We see that in the re-action to marriage equality or to the browning of the US [fear and arrogance is a deadly combination]. We see it in the reaction to gun control; we see it in absolutely unforgivable comments like that made by Mike Huckabee, or by the head of Gun Owners of America who claimed that the blood of the children killed in Connecticut was on the hands of those favoring gun control, that if teachers and the principal had had guns this would not have happened. Unbelievable.

And in this sermon I wanted to honor Hanukkah and its affirmation of courage and religious freedom. And share some feelings of nostalgia and holiday traditions and give in to some of the sentimentality of this time of the year.

I had a story about a young man who got stuck on a mountain road and froze to death; even though he was less than 100 yards from dry pavement, but he was afraid to get out of his truck to look, and how we all let ourselves get stuck at times and are unwilling to take a risk which might save us or save part of our lives.

But then someone walked into an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut and started shooting. Started shooting elementary school aged children, children all 6 and 7 years old. He wore body armor and carried a number of weapons and he shot little kids. Twenty children and seven adults, plus himself.

Here are their names:

Charlotte Bacon, 6
Daniel Barden, 7
Olivia Engel, 6
Josephine Gay, 7
Ana Marquez-Greene, 6
Dylan Hockley, 6
Madeleine Hsu, 6
Catherine Hubbard, 6
Chase Kowalski, 7
Jesse Lewis, 6
James Mattioli, 6
Grace McDonnell, 7
Emilie Parker, 6
Jack Pinto, 6
Noah Pozner, 6
Caroline Previdi, 6
Jessica Rekos, 6
Avielle Richman, 6
Benjamin Wheeler, 6
Allison Wyatt, 6
Rachel Davino, 29, Teacher
Dawn Hochsprung, 47, School principal
Nancy Lanza, 52, Mother of gunman
Anne Marie Murphy, 52, Teacher
Lauren Rousseau, 30, Teacher
Mary Sherlach, 56, School psychologist
Victoria Soto, 27, Teacher

I do not know what to make of this or what to say. People shot in a mall in Oregon while Christmas carols play. Shots were fired last night at Fashion Island in Newport Beach. There is the stink of death in the air. It has struck here way too much in the past month: a father dead from an aneurism and found by his 13 year old son; a teenager dead tragically and found by his mother; a woman committed to strengthening communities and the work of justice and equity dead too soon from a rampant infection; a young woman dead from an overdose of something and discovered several days later by her mother; a gifted young pianist who thrilled us with his playing is dead at 22.

A man executed on the busy streets of New York. People shot in a mall; kids shot at school; several people shot in a hospital. Sikhs shot at their temple and on and on and on. All around the world people die by the hand of another every day, in and out every day. It is estimated there are over 200 million privately owned guns in the US – this does not include those owned by military or law enforcement agencies. Add those and it comes to about 350,000,000 – one for every person. We are the most armed people in the world.

12,000 plus people are killed by guns each year. Another similar number use guns to take their own life.

I am sick and tired and I hope you are too. This is what I want to ask of everyone here today: if you have a gun, or guns, in your home, get rid of them. Take them to the police and have them decommissioned. Get rid of them. I don’t care if you hunt, or target shoot, or if they are family treasures. Just get rid of them. You do not need them. And then tell others you have done this and ask them to do the same. Put it on your Facebook page or in a blog; tweet it. Tell your neighbors and co-workers, friends and family. That’s part of
the deal – tell people. Make this a congregation without guns. Let me know. Get rid of them.

How are the children after all? How are they supposed to be when one of our political parties is willing to let poor children go with less food and less medical care, with decaying schools and substandard housing so that the very wealthy might buy more yachts and third homes that are filled with too much stuff, spend thousands of dollars on a meal or a bottle of wine, buy jeans costing three to four figures. How are the children when leaders refuse to stand up to the National Rifle Association? The children are not well.

How are the children, when our political leaders refuse to fund schools adequately, seemingly afraid to ask us to actually be a nation rather than a collection of greedy and selfish narcissists. How are the children when professional athletes are such bores and so ego driven to think they matter - $25 million a year, really? – and sports like football and hockey are nothing more than spectacles of violence, players paid to try to hurt opponents. We see violence when Supreme Court Justices link murder and homosexuality. We see it when states uphold the death penalty. How are the children when politicians of both parties refuse to do anything about guns? They are not well.

Really, shooting ducks and elk and deer and clay discs for sport is more important than the lives of 20 children at an elementary school? Six bullets each second? Really? You cannot be serious.

How are the children? Are they well? No they are not well in our country. They are not well at all. We rank 41st in the world in child mortality. We have the 2nd highest child poverty rating among 35 developed countries, and it is growing. About 1.6 million children will be homeless at some point in the coming year, up 33% in three years.

Children are shot at an elementary school and the US Congress can’t ban assault rifles?

How are the children? Are they well? The answer is ‘No, they are not well.’

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I don’t know what to do anymore about all the violence. The terrible violence of US movies and TV shows; the violence in too much music, the swaggering and tough posing, the rottenness of many video games, the really destructive violent language of our political life.

This is how sermons come about, trying to make sense out of life when it seems so senseless. How are the children? Ask yourself that. When you go back to work tomorrow, ask yourself that, ask your co-workers, and how are the children, are they well?

I understand perfectly well that violence is a part of the world – nature is red in tooth and claw wrote Tennyson, but gratuitous violence is not a necessary part of nature. We seem to specialize in it.

Why is this? It is not because of mental illness, though sometimes that is a cause. And, yes, we should put more resources into caring for the mentally ill – but of course, then we might have to raise revenues. Is it something to do with young men because they are responsible for a disproportionate amount of the violence? Perhaps.

The closest I can come to some answer is what Wendell Berry once proposed as the cause of our disregard for the health of the earth. He suggested that it lay in our willingness to think of ourselves as being superior to our condition; that is, when we think life or the world owes us, violence happens, when we are better and more important than what is around us, violence becomes more possible.

Does this make sense? The idea that the Jews were God’s chosen people –meaning that others were not – or the idea that Christianity is alone the way to salvation, or that Muhammad completed the prophetic tradition and there was nothing more to say. And while all of these traditions are filled with yearnings for justice and acts of compassion, they are also filled with violence to those on the outside. Read the Hebrew Bible or the history of Christianity and of Islam – they are filled with the blood of conquest.

The idea of American exceptionalism, or 20thccentury communist ideologies – all imbued with the notion of superiority. And if you are better than, worth more than, more important than – well, the rest follows.

Thinking you are better or thinking you are superior, thinking you deserve more. . .
Here is what I know. Violence is less likely when people come together to hear each other’s stories, when they do not judge each other, when they do not come together thinking they are more right or better than others. This applies to us every bit as much as it applies to the most rabid fundamentalist.

And I know this too – I love this congregation and it is a good congregation, filled with people with open hearts and open minds. It is a beloved community. When I first came here we experienced a tragedy when one of our teenagers was paralyzed in an accident; we have not turned our back but have been there for him and his family. This year a teenager died tragically but we have not turned our back; we are there in support. We have opened our hearts and our minds to the LGBT community and will keep the banner out on Orange Grove until the law changes. We have taken steps to be a green sanctuary, opening our heart to the earth, to be a welcoming congregation, to establish a People of Color group, to fund local non-profits, to have a pastoral care group. This does not make us better than other congregations, but it does make us good because we are doing what we say we believe. If tragedy struck in our lives, I would want to come here.

Carl Sandberg became a UU late in his life and left a substantial legacy to hisx congregation. He said that congregations – not just UU congregations – but congregations are the last great hope of humankind. I do not know if that is true, but I do believe that this congregation does offer hope in a weary and violent and broken world.

All we have is each other. Nothing else. Whether there is a God or not, I do not know, but God was absent on Friday in Connecticut. We do have each other. That we know. We have each other.

My Christmas Eve homily will be titled ‘Standing at the Gates of Hope.’ It is where we stand when we come together – with the hope that we can make a difference, that together we can help heal the world, that we might make for more peace, that we can hope the future is better, that the children will be well. We can stand at the gates of hope and welcome others to stand with us, that we can open those gates and walk in, together hand in hand, all God’s children as King said.

jim nelson

And we might then be able to say ‘The children are well. Yes, the children are well.’

All our prayers, our thoughts, our love goes to our brothers and our sisters in Connecticut.

If prayer would do it
I'd pray.

If reading esteemed thinkers would do it
I'd be halfway through the Patriarchs.

If discourse would do it
I'd be sitting with His Holiness
every moment he was free.

If contemplation would do it
I'd have translated the Periodic Table
to hermit poems, converting
matter to spirit.

If even fighting would do it
I'd already be a black belt.

If anything other than love could do it
I've done it already
and left the hardest for last.

~ Stephen Levine

Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson
Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church

Wednesday, 26 December 2012