Sermon at Allegheny College March 11, 2018
“When Thoughts and Prayers are Not Enough: Let the Children Lead”
Rev. Dr. Nancy Wilson
Today I chose as a scripture this simple, very familiar story – Jesus welcoming children.
It was a Jewish custom, to have rabbis, or leaders, spiritual leaders, bless children. Parents came with their babies, and children, and maybe some children found their own way that day to Jesus. Jesus, an itinerant preacher was a phenomenon, something of a celebrity, coming to their town. A rabbi who healed people, told stories, spoke of God in an intimate way.
The story’s simple arc then shifts to the disciples who try to shut it down. We really don’t know why. Maybe in the tension that was happening in their ministry, blessing children seemed trivial. In Mark’s gospel, the disciples often do not seem to get Jesus, or what he is doing. They are trying to help, but, they mess up. They step all over Jesus’ message and mission.
Children in the Middle East, in those times, like ours, are treated in a mixture of ways. On the one hand, we assume that children were loved and cherished in families. But fathers, in particular, had absolute powers. Children had no rights. They were definitely to be seen but not heard.
But, Jesus, in the gospels, pays attention to children. He heals them, as did prophets before him.
So, Jesus rebukes the disciples. It says he was “indignant,” – two words that literally translate, “much grief.” It pains him personally that the disciples do not see the worth of these children, perhaps the special joy they bring him.
He advocates for the honoring of children, the inclusion of them – and then even says -- unless we are like children, we cannot inherit the kingdom of God.
What is it about children? Usually we recount this story in a simple, sentimental way. But, I think there is more to it. Children represent change, a passionate idealism, unspoiled by adult cynicism and betrayal, or apathy. Children often say what they see and feel, uncensored. They can be more ready to see the reality, ready to right wrongs, to change the world!
We are at a powerful moment right now, in our history, and children are at the heart of it.
After the shooting in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed and many injured, the children of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School starting speaking up and organizing.
Even in the face of intractable politics, over decades – during which time more and more dangerous weapons have fallen into the hands of people who are unstable or who are terrorists -- these children started speaking up.
The unchallenged power of the National Rifle Association has bought Congress to such a degree that weapons of war, assault weapons have proliferated and made possible the worst mass shootings in history – in schools, churches, and other public venues. Even over the objections of most of its members, the NRA has become an extremist lobby that, until now, has not been seriously challenged.
Even after the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School, an event that dominated the news for weeks, the power of the NRA to keep Congress from passing sane gun safety laws went unchallenged.
All this has been justified under the cover of the 2nd Amendment. Even though Presidents, Supreme Court Justices and so many others have claimed time after time that the 2nd Amendment is not unlimited.
All rights have limits. The right to own and drive a car has limits, regulations for public safety. The right to free speech, freedom of religion, all have their limits.
Australia had one mass shooting, and they passed gun safety laws, and have never had another. This is a country known for its hunting and machismo. Like all countries, they have their share of mental illness. But, no mentally ill person has been able to purchase weapons of war for a mass shooting since they passed their laws. The same is true for so many countries around the world.
Our inability to pass sane gun laws is a symptom of a broken political system that is corrupted by money and paranoid, conspiratorial narratives based on fantasy and fake news.
No one wants to take away anyone’s hunting rifle – unless you are beating your wife and children.
These high students, still children, are rising up, because they have experienced the terror and violence first hand, and they know it is wrong. And, they are young enough, and smart enough, and committed enough to believe they can change something that adults have not been able to change.
I had an experience like that, at Allegheny College, 48 years ago, when I was 19 years old. When the 4 students were shot, 9 wounded at Kent State University, May 4th, 1970, so close to Allegheny, we knew everything had to change.
One of those students who was killed dated a friend of mine in high school. Jeff Miller was a math major, a quiet guy, who got in the way of the National Guard that day. I will never forget what it felt like to hear that he had been murdered during an anti-war protest on his college campus.
During those years, we were consumed by the Vietnam War, and many of us had gone to Washington DC, from Allegheny for protests. But, this was different. All over the country, students shut down their school, crying out that it could not be business as usual. Not only was the war killing civilians, and American soldiers, our peers, but now students in college, at Kent State and then Jackson State, were being gunned down.
And we, at Allegheny, shut the school down – we never finished that trimester, and had to make arrangements to finish courses in other ways.
We joined the anti-war movement nationally. We came to believe that the war had to end, that our government had been covering up the truth about the progress of the war and its prosecution.
We did things like go en-mass to Stone Methodist Church downtown, and get up in the middle of church and ask if we could have time to talk about the war. I cannot say that the church appreciated that . . .Some of us went door to door in Meadville, asking if we could talk to people about the war, how we felt about it, trying to engage them. Most people in Meadville did not welcome us – one day, in fact, as we came up on someone’s front porch, they met us at the door with a rifle. Thank God it was not an AK 47.
Even after that Moratorium, it took several more years to end the War in Vietnam. But, I learned that young people, students, can lead movements, we can risk ourselves, our safety, our reputations, to stand up for our ideals. Through that experience, as hard as it was at times, I learned that mass political action, movements for social change can really change things.
We were young adults, but we had a child-like faith in the truth, in the democratic process, in the power of speaking up.
We live in times that are dominated by cynicism, corruption and chaos in our politics. Now more than ever, we need to hear the clear, undiluted voices of our children who are calling for healing, sanity, for action from our public officials.
The only thing that will bring change is commitment to a mass movement that will persevere. The only thing that will work is when the people of this country vote and donations from the NRA hurt and don’t help candidates.
High school children have inspired us and called us out. They’ve asked us to get smart, to get committed, to stop being cynical. They’ve asked us to believe with them that change is possible. That lives can be spared, that the trend of mass murders can be stopped.
Children who cannot vote, pressured our Florida Governor and State legislature last week to pass the first gun safety laws in many decades. Not enough, but a start. Public pressure can work -- even from young people who can’t yet vote, and their allies.
Some public officials in Florida, and elsewhere have rebuked these children, saying they will not take orders from people who cannot vote! But, I tell you, those who are resisting will be driven out by this coming generation. By and by they will vote, and they will remember those who dismissed and rebuked them!
The day the Pulse Massacre happened in Orlando, Florida in 2016, I was with our MCC church and community members there. Not only the 49 nine victims, and the perpetrator were impacted: but hundreds, thousands of others who were wounded, their families and friends, law enforcement and first responders. There are first responders who were so traumatized by what they encountered that day that they have never been able to return to work. This will impact that community for a generation or more. And, it all could have been prevented if we had same gun laws.
I heard a great idea the other day, lowering the voting age to 16. I am all for that. I trust 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds more that people my own age, these days. We need their passion – and they need to have a say in the world that is being endangered by those of us who are much older.
To these children, facts matter, truth matters. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
The truth is, no one needs an assault rifle to hunt or protect their home.
The truth is, armed teachers in schools is a disastrous solution, it is no solution at all.
The truth is, we have allowed money to poison our political system and allow mass murders to proliferate.
More people will die in the next two years from gun violence in the US, than all the US soldiers who died over decades in Vietnam.
Jesus loved children, he saw himself in them. He remembered the time he stood up, precociously, as a 12-year-old, challenging his elders in the Temple. From childhood, he was a questioning and passionate human being.
Jesus loved their openness, their fearlessness. Their trust in life itself.
I was barely more than a child myself the first time I marched on Washington, the first time I sat in at a National Guard armory here in Meadville.
Speaking up, acting up then, gave me the inspiration to become a person who believed that my faith demanded action from me – to become a feminist, an LGBT human rights activist, an AIDS activist, a climate change activist. It changed my life, it gave me courage and faith.
There were faculty, staff, chaplains at Allegheny who supported us and stood up with us, against the rebuke of others in this place and in our country.
There are a lot of causes that need our attention. But, I would encourage all of us to pay attention to the children right now. They are fighting for their lives and the quality of life for children and teachers in their schools.
A lot of politicians find themselves glibly saying, one tragedy after another, saying, “You are in my thoughts and prayers.”
But, thoughts are prayers are not enough. They are hollow and insulting to the intelligence if not accompanied by action.
The high school students of Marjory Stone Douglas High School will not be so easily dismissed.
Thought and prayers are not enough, they never have been. To say that and do nothing is a cowardly copout.
Adults have made a mess of things. Let’s let the youth, the young adults, the students lead.
I am with those students, and I will be participating with the March 24th March for Our Lives. I hope you will consider marching, standing in solidarity with all of us -- for Jesus’ sake, for the sake of children, teachers, and our whole country. Thoughts and prayers are not enough. Amen.