Marta Morris Flanagan grew up in Westport. A graduate of Staples High School (1979), Smith College and Harvard Divinity School, she was ordained as a minister 25 years ago.
She served Unitarian Universalist churches in Salem, Massachusetts — where she was the first female minister since the Witch Trials of 1692 — and 2 others, prior to her call to First Parish Church of Arlington, Massachusetts in 2009.
On Sunday she delivered a sermon to 300 people at First Parish. She talked about 2 people: Mary, Jesus’ mother — and Karl Decker, the former Westport teacher, whose words she’d read on “06880.” She said:
In keeping with this third Sunday in Advent, we just heard the choir sing the Magnificat. The words are from the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, They are the words of Mary, an unwed teen carrying a child.
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices.
What comes next in the song is dangerous stuff.
In the 1500s, in the midst of what would come to be called the Reformation, Martin Lather translated the Bible into German. Out of fear, Luther left the lines of the Magnificat in Latin. He did not want to offend the German princes who supported his struggles with Rome
Upon learning that she is pregnant, this unmarried woman chooses to sing about a revolution with an upheaval in values and an overturning of conventional mores. She sings:
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
It was oddly silent in the school when officers rushed in just 2 mornings ago with their rifles drawn. There were the dead, or the dying, in one section of the building. Elsewhere, children who had eluded the bullets were under orders from their teachers to remain quiet in their hiding places.
The 20 children and 6 adults killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, were each shot multiple times. The state’s chief medical examiner said it was worst scene he had witnessed in 3 decades poring through crime scenes and the bodies of people killed.
First responders described a scene of carnage in the 1st grade classrooms. With no movement, everything was perfectly still when the first responders arrived.
What would Mary do? Mary, the mother of Jesus? Mary, who sang the Magnificat? What would she do when 20 children in classrooms with construction paper on the bulletin boards are shot and killed?
When tragedies occur, we feel pain for those who suffer, confusion at the irrationality, and anger at the injustice of it all. We ask, “Why?”
Our need for an explanation often leads us to find something or someone to blame: a person, a group, even God.
There is certainly a time for seeking explanations, including investigating fault.
But we make a mistake in merely believing that explaining and blaming will help us escape the pain.
What would Mary do? Mary, the woman scripture tells us “pondered all these things in her heart?”
When tragedy strikes, pain is something that must be borne, that must in a sense crash over us like a wave, shake us so that we truly feel our feelings; so that we can speak of them, share them, and exchange with others’ sympathy, empathy, and grief.
This kind of sorrow need not make us bitter. No, this kind of sorrow makes us better. This sorrow doesn’t make us smug at having an explanation; it makes us humble as we understand our shared vulnerability. This sorrow doesn’t make us put up walls of blame; it tears down walls as we feel our common humanity. This sorrow teaches us wisdom. It softens us, makes us more sensitive to the pain that others suffer. It forms compassion in us.
We often are tempted to run from this softening process. But when we share in an experience of tragedy, when we walk through the unrushable process of feeling and then healing, a Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Life, can form us into people who are more gracious, compassionate, and wise.
And doing so other questions will arise: How can I help?
How can we open ourselves that healing presence that binds the broken-hearted?
What would Mary do? Mary who, like parents in all times and all places, offered her child his first lessons in love, a love made real in the simple acts of listening for a cry, of feeding, cleaning, and holding?
Sandy Hook, Connecticut, is not far from where I went to school. In my high school, Karl Decker was an English teacher. On the web last evening, I read Karl Decker’s account of driving to Newtown yesterday to volunteer at the crisis center. At the end of the day, he posted to his family and friends.
Just back from the crisis center, the…Newtown Middle School. I got there just before 10. The place was packed. Police there, but in low profile…. No media allowed. I went in … made myself known, signed the sign-up sheet for on-call counselors. I signed up for 24/7
Karl Decker made himself available. Still he wasn’t sure what he would do. His story continues:
But as I left, my job brought itself to me: to greet people as they started walking across the parking lot from their cars. It happened at once. A family was walking towards me and I approached them and said, “My name is Karl. I’m a counselor. May I walk you to the entrance?” I had no refusals. And that was my routine until 3:30 when things thinned down, the sun fell behind clouds and a chilly wind came up.
In the few minutes it took to walk to the doors, Karl heard the stories:
My son’s little buddy was killed…
We know the family of…
The teacher was at our house for dinner a week ago…
We used to live in Sandy Hook…
My daughter doesn’t know what happened yet, how do I tell her…
I just wanted to be with people today…
And some just walked in silence…
Karl Decker wrote:
Little children, moms and burly firemen fathers held my hand the length of the walk…and there was a therapy dog (from Vermont!) outside, too, which we all stopped to pat. I’d take them to the door… and get back out for the next ones…groups of kids from the high school, the high school football captain came alone and then, after noon, counselors, psychologists began to arrive to volunteer–they came from all over–Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York City, Rhode Island, towns in Fairfield County. Some asked me for directions to a motel so they could stay in case called.
Two unusually well-groomed and lovely young women arrived in a car with Maryland plates. Karl approached them as he did the others. They turned out to be from the FBI. Their jackets read “FBI Incident Investigations.” But mostly moms, dads, grandparents, and families, one after the other came. Then the food arrived. A truckload of pizzas, two SUVs from Panera’s, cases of water, a portable coffee canteen, and ice cream, and a cafeteria was set up. Families bringing food. Flowers.
Karl Decker wrote of a little boy named Casey who he had walked with. There was a big children’s therapy room with art supplies. On his way out, Casey came over to show Karl the drawing he had made of his friends … a row of colorful figures in joined hands with smiles and hats and toys and one figure, in black and white, clearly a skeleton.
A man brought out a ham and cheese sandwich and hot coffee for Karl.
I ask again what would Mary do? It would be easy to end here, to summarize the very real need for kindness, for shared sorrow and for gentle love. But that would not be honest, or fair to Mary.
Mary was a woman living in a time and place of occupation. The Roman Empire ruled with a mighty fist. Caesar Augustus turned the Roman republic into a dictatorship, a power grab he reinforced by proclaiming himself divine. Mary knew that to call her soon-to-be-born son a “savior” was to repudiate Caesar’s claim to be “savior to the world.” Mary also knew that when a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered, this would tighten the empire’s grip on its subject people.
Think of German Jews and the Nuremberg Laws. Think of undocumented workers in our country.
Knowing all this, Mary did not keep mum. She sang a song, a Magnificat. That song was a song of protest, a political analysis of the world she knows, a declaration of hope for what might be: “He has lifted up the lowly….”
Mary would not stop at helping to heal the brokenhearted. She would say it is not enough to grieve and hold our children close.
What song would Mary sing today? She would sing of 20 first-graders killed with a semiautomatic rifle in a picturesque Connecticut suburb, 3 days after a gunman shot up a mall in Oregon, in the same year as fatal mass shootings in Minneapolis, in Tulsa, in a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, in a movie theater in Colorado, a coffee bar in Seattle, and a college in California.
She would sing of an America whose gun murder rate is almost 20 times higher than the next 22 richest and most populous nations combined. And that every one of those nations has stricter gun control laws.
She would sing that we can’t just do as we did after Columbine, after Virginia Tech. She would sing that 8 children die from gun violence every day… along with 75 adult Americans.
She would sing while knowing that no legislation will eliminate gun deaths any more than safety measures have eliminated auto accidents. But if we could reduce gun deaths by one-third, that would be 10,000 lives saved annually.
She would sing of her great hopes.
She would sing of Australia. In 1996, a mass killing of 35 people galvanized Australia to ban rapid-fire long guns, with high-capacity magazines so a shooter can kill many more people without stopping to reload. The “national firearms agreement,” as it was known in Australia, led to the buyback of 650,000 guns and to tighter rules for licensing and safe storage of those firearms remaining in public hands.
The law did not end gun ownership in Australia. It reduced the number of firearms in private hands by 1/5, and they were the kinds most likely to be used in mass shootings.
In the 18 years before the law, Australia suffered 13 mass shootings. In the 14 years since the law took full effect, there has been not one mass shooting. The murder rate with firearms dropped by more than 40 percent and the suicide rate with firearms has dropped by more than half.
Mary would sing that our central job as parents and as adults committed to a good future is to keep our children safe, so they can grow up. Easy access to guns keeps us from doing that job for Jalen, Vivi, Addie, Clara — 4 children who this congregation dedicated today — and all our children.
Karl Decker ended his account last night with these words.
So there are some fragments of the day. I do not know what tomorrow’s schedule will be, but I’ll be there.
What would Mary do? She would ponder all these things in her heart and she would sing of protest and of hope, a song moving us to speak out and to act, to create another way in our world.
Let us take a moment of silence to ponder our common sorrow before singing our final hymn.