Don’t Worry (About That)
Scriptures: Luke 12:13-34 & Hebrews 4:12-16
Given on 10/11/2015 @ UPC of Amsterdam, NY
Each year, about this time, the Nobel committee in Stockholm, Sweden announces its winners in the different categories, and that has been going on for about the last week. And because of the 6 hour time difference between Stockholm and here, the announcements are made right before my alarm goes off in the morning and so I have had a news flash waiting on my phone each day this week. Now, I am a Nobel follower, not just the peace award, but all the different ways in which the committees choices to recognize innovation in several fields. And so each day this week I have read the announced winners and then gone to learn as much as I can about them. The winner for physics were a pair of scientists who, near as I can tell, keeping in mind I am not a physicist, discovered that the particles which leave the sun change in character between their departure and arrival on earth. The Nobel Prize for chemistry for three men who studied DNA repair, the award for medicine for three men who are working to eradicate the effects of infections caused by roundworm parasites, literature for a lady who wrote about the experience of living in Soviet and post-Soviet Belarus, and for peace, a quartet of Tunisians who laid the groundwork for conversations about a democratically led Tunisia following the Jasmine revolution of 2011. And what is notable about all these people is the manner in which they offered a new vision for each of their fields. The quest of science is to challenge all that is unknown about the material makeup of the world and the cosmos. It is the chief challenge of science to ask people to view the world is radically different ways. The quest of medicine, of chemistry, is to give people hope where hope does not exist. Whether that comes in the form of curative therapies for illnesses long thought unassailable, or through repair of mutated DNA, the building blocks of all life. And the quest for peace is to create a more sustainable culture, society, and life for all people. To look at governments and leaders believed to be beyond the reach of change and see a time in which all persons could come to the table as equals living amongst each other. In short, each of these people sought to challenge the way things are and envision a time in which they were radically different.
Virtually all the great ideas that have shaped the western world and our place within it emerged when one person no longer could allow the status quo to remain intact. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this is reflected by the earliest pronouncements of the prophets concerning the welcoming of strangers into one’s midst with warmth and hospitality and aiding the poor until the day came when all people could live peaceably and have what they needed to survive. It is reflected in the words of Jesus who proclaimed sight to the blind, release to the captives, and a time of God’s favor for all people. It is reflected in the great thinkers of each era from Aristotle to Augustine, Thomas Aquinas to Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther to John Calvin, Isaac Newton to Albert Einstein, Gandhi to King, each taking what was believed to be the unchallengable wisdom of the moment and offering a new manner in which to see the world and our place within it. Never satisfied with the current state of the culture and society in which each found themselves they challenge the world to think in new ways, to see the planet in a starkly different manner, to rock the foundations of what it meant to be human and in relationship with one another until we acted with greater kindness and respect towards each other. And yet with each successive generation, we must ask ourselves anew to confront our own feelings of complacency in the face of the struggle found in our own time. We must feel that the current state of being is wholly insufficient and not in line with the desire that God has for all of God’s children and then choose to stand somewhere and do something to make the lives of all people more dignified and whole. And as Christians, we must never be satisfied in resting on our laurels, in enjoying our own comfort, in deciding that contesting the current path on which our culture seems destined is too hard. We must never shy away from the difficult in favor of the easy.
I suppose it is always the challenge of the pastor missing a week from the pulpit when major events happen within the world that demand both comfort and response from scripture and so it is that I almost came back early last week from my time with my son in Boston getting medical treatment following the shooting on the campus of Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. As I have said many times from this very pulpit, I am moved to work for peace in a world that is turning increasingly violent as I am moved to make the world more peaceful for my children and all our children as they go off to school in the morning. I know the pain of walking around a campus the day after a mass shooting, the hollow (though necessary) act of the president coming to campus to participate as healer-in-chief in a memorial service, the near impossible nature of trying to ever return to something the resembles normalcy in the wake of such an event and with whatever powers of thought or voice I have in this world, I am committed to calling on the leaders of our government, our churches, our society to come together and work for a solution that will bring an end to horrific shootings. Each time one of these events happens whether Aurora, or Newtown, or Roseburg, or any of the other hundreds of places that mass shootings have happened since April 16, 2007, I am transported back to that day, that moment, that women running through the parking lot telling me and my wife that there was a man somewhere on campus shooting people, the sound of our car doors shutting, us speeding off, the first time afterwards that I reached out and touched my wife’s belly where my son was growing, the calls to family and friends, saying, “yes, we are ok,” knowing that we weren’t. The feelings of the brisk April air sitting in the bleachers of Lane Stadium at the memorial service. The fear that shot through both of our bodies as we walked into my wife’s classroom for the first time after the shooting and noticed, also for the first time, that it was a windowless room, with a single point of entry and exit in the back of the classroom, as we both closed our eyes and could see the shooter coming in and killing everybody. I, and she, are transported back to those feelings, that sadness, that fear, that hopelessness, each time the report comes in of yet another mass shooting. But being out of town, getting back in time to fully prepare would be very difficult and knowing that y’all were in good hands with Bill I made the choice not to come back. But I remember cynically thinking in the back of my mind, in that place where wound has been replaced by scab and scar, “don’t worry, there will probably be another one before the next Sunday.” But I was wrong. Because there were two.
I neither pretend to have all the answers, nor deny that some of the smartest people in the world have been working on this issue for well over a decade but I do know, as anyone with eyes can discern, that this is a problem in our society that has become an epidemic. And the reason you can tell that it has become an epidemic is because in each of our minds, there is no longer feelings of shock. This is an event that has played itself out in different settings with different numbers of casualties and injuries literally hundreds of times in the past decade. And so, on our current trajectory, it really is not a matter of if but when. So certain are we of future killings that even our responses to each individual tragedy have become rote and rehearsed. One camp calling for stricter gun control policies to be enacted on a national level. Another decrying the mental health of those who carry out the shootings, but neither able to ever offer up any sort of change to the manner in which we as members of the nation are in relationship with one another. Nobody believes that this is a sustainable path on which we find ourselves and yet everybody is paralyzed by feelings of comfort that is derived by maintaining the way things have always been. So we are left both with the knowledge that it is still too easy for persons who shouldn’t have access to guns to acquire them and that the state of the way in which we care for those with mental illness is in shambles. Rendering everything that political leaders say, meaningless. Kabuki theater and demagoguery in between campaign stops. Luckily, we, as followers of Jesus, are told to be in this world, but not off it.
The author of Hebrews offers powerful word for his readers today. Forceful images ladened with visceral language. “God’s word is living and active,” he writes, “sharper than any double-edged sword. it pierces so deeply that it divides even soul and spirit, bone and marrow, and is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” God’s word is alive and active, sharper than any double-edge sword.” God’s word is active, moving throughout the world, moving with the spirit wherever she blows, bringing about chaos in the lives of the comfortable, and comfort to those who struggle, and we are called to follow her. To disrupt the seats of power whether in the society or the faith. To challenge one another to work, not just for change but for radical alterations to the manner in which we see and experience the world. The word of God pierces so deeply because throughout so much of our lives we seek the path of least resistance, we seek the path of greatest ease, in order to create predictable days, days that lack in surprise, days that remain even keel. And it is not until the spirit of God comes into our lives, and tosses everything around the room, flips the tables and demands that we live in radically different ways that we are able to see the brokenness of the world in such a tangible manner. This is why Jesus, when approached by the one seeking to increase in material comfort through inheritance, challenged the belief that true peace, true foundation, can come from the stuff of this world. This is why Jesus warned against storing up treasures on earth rather than treasures in heaven, because it is all ultimately an illusion. The one who built up bigger and bigger silos, the one who declared, that he would now “Relax, eat, drink, and be merry!” still died and in the end had nothing in heaven to show for his time on earth.” Because, in the words of the author of Hebrews, when we return to God, we are bare and exposed, and left to render an account of our time of living with none of the things in this life to hide behind. All we have is the gifts that we can give to others. The actions that we take that fundamentally improve creation. That bring comfort and hope to a world often devoid of both. All we have are the seeds that we can plant for the future and right now, the church, the peacemakers of the world, are being called upon to plant seeds that will eventually end the scourge of gun violence in the world. End the seemingly constant threat of mass shootings in schools and malls, in movie theaters, and on our highways. While our leaders hem and haw and refuse to make a single change in the manner in which we interact with one another as a people, the church must stand and declare itself for peace at any cost, for the triumph of love at any price, reminding all that those who live by the sword (or gun) will inevitably die by the sword (or gun.) Courageously standing with Jesus demands that we say things that are counter to the prevailing culture, that we challenge the status quo with words and deeds of sacrificial love, that we call on our world to take care of the least of these within each time and place, whether that is the poor in material goods, the poor in spirit, or the mentally troubled. It is not easy. The first guy that tried to do it got nailed to a cross, the violence of his society mete out against him. But if we are to follow him we must take our place in the long line of those who have come after him, who offered up their single grain of spiritual sand on the scales of peace, and who declared that there can and must be a better way to live in harmony with each other. That’s our job. Let’s go do it. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, amen.