Peace & Peace (A Reflection on Tragedy)

Scripture: Philippians 4:4-7

Originally Given on December 16th, 2012 at UPC of Amsterdam, NY

Many don’t know that five and a half years ago, Lesley, 6 months pregnant with Jameson and myself were on the campus of Virginia Tech when a troubled individual entered into Norris Hall, about 100 yards from where we were, and began moving classroom to classroom indiscriminately shooting professors and students before eventually killing himself. Lesley is a PhD candidate attending Virginia Tech and we were living in Blacksburg at the time. We had come onto campus to run a few errands before going to the coffee shop to work on our school work together as was our usual routine. As we got out of the car, a student came towards us to tell us that the whole campus was locked down and that there was a shooter on the loose at which point our flight response arose and we got back in the car and sped off campus and away from the carnage that was unfolding in our rearview mirror. In the aftermath, calls were made to family and close friends, news was watched, and memorials for the victims attended but one could not shake the feeling that Blacksburg, as we had come to know it, was gone and what was left was a community of specters floating from location to location unsure what to do anymore or if doing anything at all was even worth it. And I was no different. Even as time passed, I found and still find myself returning to that time, that place, that moment in which the cocoon of safety that often comes with living in a small town community was shattered and not unlike others from that time and place who have spoken out about the events I still bear many of the scars of that day. And when these horrendous events have replayed themselves over and over again throughout the country over the past five years I find myself drawn back to that morning in April but more than that, I ache. An ache that exists deep down in the very base of my soul, I ache. I ache for the folks in each of these situations, Aurora, Portland, Oak Creek, and now Newtown. I ache because I know, at least on some level, of what will come next for so many of those who have survived. The ghostlike trances that they will enter into as they traverse through their normal life that can never ever be normal again. The search for meaning both in the tragedy but also in the greater world. For those who believe, the search for God will be soul-wrenching and dark.

I don’t know what exactly to say following the tragic events that unfolded on Friday in a small community not particularly different from our own. I don’t know what to say when I think about a school not particularly different from the one in which I trust to take care of my son and keep him safe having someone clearly mentally disturbed walk in and begin to kill children my own son’s age in a cold and calculating manner. I don’t know what to say when each of us know that this event will replay itself sometime and somewhere in the near future and without a real shift in our national dialogue around violence in our culture this event will continue to replay itself again and again and again. I don’t know what to say.

If the recurring language about people dwelling in darkness that we have been using the last few weeks had felt foreign to you and your experience of the world it is hard to imagine that this is still the case. It is hard to imagine that any feeling person does not feel a little more helpless today a little more uneasy about the country and the culture in which we dwell. A little more like we want to shun the darkness by holing up in our own little worlds and holding on to whatever there is that can give us safety and reassurance. A little more like we need to close doors from the outside world and lock them tight. A little more like we need to sequester ourselves only with those who look like us, think like us, talk like us. A little more like we just don’t want to reach out to the stranger in our midst and offer a drink of water or a crust of bread, a warm embrace or a kind smile. We might feel like the bad overcomes the good and so it goes and so it goes and so it goes. But maybe just maybe that is exactly why we need Christmas to come at the end of Advent. Maybe just maybe that is why we need to be reminded that light does and can still shine in darkness. Maybe just maybe that is why we need God to connect with creation in real and powerful ways because apart from God we have no hope. We have no hope. And so maybe that’s why in the deepest darkness of the night, in an otherwise unimportant town in central Israel, in a trough where pig and cow feed, God chose to enter into creation again. In this dark and dank and lowly place God entered into creation. So that even in the midst of our pain, even in the midst of our sorrow, even in the midst of our despair, God remains a sure presence in our lives.

We are told Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi in Christ Jesus we can experience an inner peace, a peace that will guard our hearts and minds, a peace that surpasses all understanding. All understanding. A peace that wraps our whole being in the light of Christ, in the peace of the Holy Spirit, in the love of God. A peace that allows us to stare into the deepest darkness, the most horrible actions in which people can engage. A peace that allows us to know that we are beloved children of God but that so are they as well. A peace that brings us calm when all the world seems to be slowly spinning of into the chaos of violence and hatred and pain. A peace that slowly, quietly, patiently, continuously reassures us that we remain intimately connected with the Divine, the whole of the universe, and all humanity in a web of love out of which we were created and to which we shall one day return. And it is good. It is good news. It is the gospel. But it cannot remain simply inside of you. It cannot remain inside of you because it is simply too wonderful to keep to yourself. And with it comes a huge responsibility. It comes with the responsibility of putting the pin back in the grenade.

The events of Friday in Connecticut are just the most recent to occur because we live in a culture and a world that is horribly broken and must, must, must begin to be put back together. It is little surprise in a culture that has so romanced the gun within our American myth that there are those who now use it to do harm. We permit our kids to play with toy guns, we avert our sight from our teenagers playing incredibly violent and realistic video games. We remain silent while atrocities are carried out around the world both by Americans and by others all the while living by the creed that “might makes right.” In a world in which we know, we know that there are those who have significant mental health needs we continue to cut back on the funding that would more easily provide for those needs. We demonize therapists and suggest to all people, but especially to men, that to seek that help is a sign of weakness. That real men don’t cry that we are tough and rugged and can go it on our own. We castigate those who cry out for help as weird or dangerous or scary and we hope and pray that we are nowhere near// when whatever acute stressor it is that finally flips the switch// sets violent acts into motion. And they are in our midst today. They are in our classrooms and our places of work and they need someone to reach out to them and begin the process of getting them the help they need. And we need desperately to have a conversation, as a nation, about the role that violence plays in our culture, about the accessibility of guns, about the way in which too many people who clearly have no business holding a firearm seem to continue to end up with them. We need that conversation and we need it now. And we need the church to rededicate itself to the role to which it was called at its inception.

“Blessed are the peacemakers,” we are told, “for they will be called children of God.” That’s us, that’s our calling, that’s the chief reason for being on this planet at this time. We are called to be peacemakers. And nothing is more radical, nothing more important, nothing more necessary than for the Church to recommit itself to non-violent action for the life of the planet and for each person that will come after us. Look around you, there is no one left to pass this responsibility onto. There is not the next generation to pick up where we faltered and try to put the pieces back together again. We are staring into an abyss in which the balance of the human race is at stake. If persons are going into movie theaters or malls or schools with 5 year old children with guns and the intention to kill as many people as possible then there is not a next generation to pass this onto, we must act now. If the security of the world is pinned on the hopes that each of the countries in the world with nuclear weapons keeps them pointed at each other creating a scenario of Mutually Assured Destruction than there is no time left to ponder if we are called to act, we are. If the strategy of the United States to maintain its safety and supremacy over the rest of the world is to outspend the next 14 highest spending countries combined on defense and the military then we need be about the work of making peace both here and around the world. We are all in this thing together. As Howard Zinn said,

History has come to that point. We have run out of space and boundary lines. We are all crowded together on a planet which must find universal brotherhood and sisterhood, across lines of class, race, of religion, of nationality–or we will all go down, whether it be nuclear holocaust or endless civil war.

Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.

It is too late for 20 children in Connecticut. Their lives have been cut tragically too short and the mourning that is and will continue to occur will leave at least 20 sets of parents with holes in their lives and their souls that will never be filled, not ever. But we can begin to pave the way so that the next 20 children killed never happens. We can start the process to make sure that movie theaters are not shot up or trips to shopping malls turn deadly. We can start the process of making sure that all those who need help are able to get it and to get it in abundance because we are called to be peacemakers and at this time in our history, at the place at which we have arrived in our culture apathy is inexcusable.

As time passed following that horrific April day in Blacksburg,I found myself listening to one piece of music over and over again, much like the passage from Isaiah that we have been using for our Advent season. It was Simon and Garfunkel’s version of Silent Night, their two voices accompanied by piano, but the track was laid over a recording of the Seven o’clock news, as the reporter offered a telling of the events of the day. All the pain of the 60’s, all the depression brought on by wars that seemingly had no end, racial tensions that had begun to boil over in congress, the strained relationship between those who sought peace and those who believed war to be the answer, all of that captured in a track that was a mere one miniute and 58 seconds long. And at some point, slowly, very quietly at first, I began to hear it. I began to here the words of John the Baptist and the psalmist, I began to here the words of Gospels and the prophet Isaiah. I began to hear that the people who dwelt in darkness had seen a great light, that the kingdom of God had passed near, that the lion would soon lie down with the lamb and the cow and bear would graze together, that no one would bring hurt and pain on all of God’s holy mountain anymore, and a child would lead them. By laying Silent Night down on top of a sad news report, Simon and Garfunkel had called all of America to Repent and see that the Kingdom of Heaven had come near. In the midst of tragedy always lies hope, in the midst of darkness there is light, in the midst of hate, love, and it is a love that calls us to something different. “Silent Night, Holy Night, All is Calm, All is bright, Round yon virgin, mother and child, holy infant so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.” We are called to something different.

And we can do it. I know we can. I know we can because on a dark night in an otherwise unknown town in central Israel God slipped into creation and  gave us light to show us the way and for us to spread amongst all God’s children. God slipped into creation and gave us a peace that surpasses all understanding. God slipped into creation and gave us faith to step out in just an inch, just a little, hope to pray without ceasing, and love to share with all those with whom we come in contact. Faith, hope, and love, these three remain, and the greatest of these is love. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, Amen.

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