Scripture: Jeremiah 5:19–28 & I Thessalonians 5:12-24, 28
Given on 10/8/2017
Our memories are powerful agents against the slings and arrows of the contemporary moment. They give us strength to face uncertainty. To reach back in time to periods of hope and love, of assurance and faith. To think back to moments from our childhood in which our faith seemed so easy, so effortless. Times when all the world seemed like a magical place, a place teeming with life and spirit and love and God. Times before the weight of the world comes crashing down on us. Times when we sit in stunned silence and the news of the day causes us to tremble and to shutter, to sob tears of agony as we, in our minds take the place of those who are suffering in other parts of our land and our world. Today, this whole of this service is built on memories of my own childhood. When my faith was in its infancy. When I was in Gertie Ballou’s fourth grade Sunday school class singing “Open My Eyes That I May See.” Or sitting in the sanctuary of my home church listening to Carolyn Snow and Pam Stone sing the aria over the top of Holy, Holy, Holy and thinking that their voices could reach up to the heavens. Or listening to the congregation behind me sing, “Be Thou My Vision” the one hymn my grandmother wanted to make sure was sung at her funeral. That time in the story of my life in which heaven was right above me with my grandparents both looking down at me and the whole of the town seemingly seated behind us, holding us in love while we all went through the sadness of losing someone so beloved. Of hearing my first pastor, Sam Shumate as he stood before us every week and sent us out with the same words taken from Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica, in which he declared, “Go out into the world in peace. Be of good courage! Hold fast to that which is good. Return no one evil for evil. Strengthen the faint-hearted, support the weak, help the suffering. Honor all people. Love and serve the Lord your God, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. And the love of the Lord Jesus Christ be and abide with you all, now and forever, Amen.” There is a great deal of comfort at this moment that emanates just from uttering those words and, in my mind’s eye, seeing Sam standing before us, both giving us the charge that we needed to go out into the world as the hands and feet of Christ and the close with the benediction, the good word of God for the people of God. You can never know how meaningful, how deeply ingrained into your soul, words can be until you really, really need to hear them again. Today feels like one of those times. For it seems like an incredibly uncertain time in our nation and in our world, when the threats that have been posed by the forces of nature, the violence that, too often invades our peace, the drums of war beating as it feels as if we could be on the precipice of nuclear conflict. Much feels uncertain about our nation and our planet and yet, in the story of our faith, we don’t need to search long and hard for similar experiences, similar stories, similar feelings of doubt and instability. We need only look to the story of Israel captured in the words of the Hebrew Scriptures.
It’s hard to know whether the Israelites found these moments of conquest to be completely unsettling or a common occurrence. Perhaps it was both. For ever since they had become a nation with their own territory and governance, trade practices and economy, they had been the crown jewel of every empire with visions of taking over all the world. The combination of Israel’s prime location next to the Mediterranean Sea and their small size made them a near constant target for invading armies and rulers. They did, at times, manage to fight off the invaders. They possessed some degree of wealth attained from their geographic locale, and wealth often leads to powerful military might, but this did not preclude invading forces from trying and, mostly succeeding, in overtaking the land for their own devices. But, this near constant state of chaos and uncertainty ran counter to everything the Hebrew people, as a nation, understood about themselves. They were a chosen people. Their ancestors had made covenants with God and God promised to protect them, to make their numbers as numerous as the stars, to forge a powerful alliance with the people and to never, ever abandon them. Yet, with each new invader, the people of Israel were forced to confront tragedy and struggle head-on. They were forced to delve deep into questions of why such things were allowed to happen. They were forced into moment of deep introspection in which their relationship to one another and to God were pushed under a microscope and dissected until they made some sense of what was going on. Then the prophets began to lift their voice. Softly, at first—like the folks who sit on corners today and declare that the end of the world is near and often, the prophets were viewed in a similar light. Israel, as with most nations, ignored the voices, the pleas, the recriminations, the critiques of these people claiming to speak for God. And each time they spoke up, rulers sought to put them down, to silence their voices, often times to have them killed, because they represented such a challenge to the status quo and the power and wealth amassed by those at the top. Prophets represented a challenge to the nations that sought to explain the disconnect between the how they believed things should be and how they actually were. Prophets brought condemnation of the rich and powerful. Prophets brought praise and elevation of those who were abused and neglected by the rich and the powerful. Prophets stood in that unenviable place between God and nation. Of pointing the way to God and showing the people where they had veered off course. They were the mouthpiece of God, the word of God for the people of God, the keepers of the glory of God and those who forever spoke words of challenge and comfort for the nation to be who God had called them to be. In the midst of chaos and confusion, it was prophets who provided stability when earthly rulers could not. As we hear the words of the prophet Jeremiah declaring to his people that there are those among them whose inequities deny the rest of the populace the things they need for the living of this day, whose wickedness knows no limits, who neither judge with justice, or take up the cause of the orphan or the needy. As we hear those words from thousands of years ago, spoken in this place and at this time, do we ask with one voice, who will speak these words to us today and will we be able to hear them when they do?
I have to confess that I don’t really know what to say as I stand before you this morning as the struggle to compose this sermon will surely testify to. I don’t really know what sort of words I can offer in the midst of another mass shooting that is both painfully shocking and maddeningly commonplace. I am a firm believer that the church should offer the moral compass in times like this, that we should be able to point the direction to the light even in the morass of darkness that has seemingly descended on all of us on this day. But today doesn’t feel like that kind of day. This moment doesn’t feel like the kind of moment when I can offer words of hope and I don’t know that we as a nation are in any kind of place to hear words of challenge. We are hurting, aching, yearning for relief from what has felt like the constant onslaught of bad news and events and hurricanes and earthquakes and mudslides and flooding and destruction and death and pain and as much as I want to give you some degree of good news on this morning, some ray of hope that can pierce through this dark night, I’m not even sure what I can offer. We are, in many ways, a people who are paralyzed by our own sadness and struggle. We have become resigned to replay this moment in various settings and with various body counts but with the same dramatic rendering each time and we feel powerless to do anything about it. We have become a people who are polarized. Polarized by our placement in one political corner or another. Polarized in our inability to see the common nationality, the common humanity that we all possess. Polarized to the point in which I can’t declare that, as a Christian, I believe that there are far too many guns in this country, that we have made it terrifyingly easy for people who clearly shouldn’t have them to get them, that we are willing to trade the lives of the dead for the freedom to have unfettered access to them. At the same time, we have been robbed. Robbed of our ability to move through this world unafraid of what might happen to ourselves or those closest to us. I was speaking with a friend last Monday who said that her daughter was going to a concert this weekend and that she was utterly terrified at what might happen to her. I told her I felt the exact same the first time I sent my kindergartener to school the day after 20 children his age were shot in Newtown. When it no longer feels safe to send our 5 year olds to school or our teenagers to concerts, then we have been thoroughly robbed of our ability to enjoy the gifts of this life without believing that they could potentially cost us or our loved ones their lives.
It has struck me over the course of the last couple of months that we have been asked to stare deeply into the horror by which this world has become enveloped . Time and again we have seen the devastation that is wrought when the collective natural energies of the planet come together to form powerful storms, earthquakes, floods, devastation. We have all seen the images of collapsed buildings, structures with their roofs ripped off, peoples whole lives strewn about the landscape as wind and rain and thunder and lightening and violent shakes and mudslides carried off people and possessions both of which were never to be seen again. It has been an almost hourly ritual of seeing what images, videos, reporting we could find about the ongoing suffering of brothers and sisters close by and half and world away. And yet, even in the midst of such heartache, of such struggle, of the seemingly endless cavalcade of stories of natural disaster that have appeared on our television screens, the mass shooting in Las Vegas was so utterly devastating and yet so, incredibly normal at this point that it is difficult to know how to make sense of any of it. Last Sunday evening, a man, who evidently had been planning an attack for some time opened fire on a crowd of 22,000 people lost in the rapture of a concert 32 floors beneath him. Using a series of weapons that he had altered to dramatically improve their speed and lethality, he injured well over 600 people and killed 58 before turning one of his guns on himself. In the ongoing aftermath of the event, of course there are questions as to why this happened, why he did it? But does it really matter. As sure as I am standing here, it will happen again and again until it feels like it is a fait accompli and I’m just not sure what to say in order to help you, help me put any of the pieces back in place.
In the aftermath of the Newtown Shooting, the following Sunday, at my church we had to both mark the tragedy of the event and recognize that we were in the midst of Advent, of our preparation to welcome the Christ Child into the world. We had traditionally asked families to light the candles during Advent but that week, I stood before them, alone, with a single candle held in my hand. I told them about the people who dwelt in darkness, about the light that was found in Christ, and about how it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, and that in defiance against the people who would rob each of us of our light, we would light the Advent candles and boldly declare that hatred, no matter how devastating would never, ever get the last word. That violence could never overcome the coming of the Prince of Peace. That we would send the word forth from that place that Jesus is still coming. That he is arriving a little more each moment. That we, as his followers, must be about the work of preparing the world for his arrival and that we must take our own little candles out into the world as a shelter from the storms of gathering darkness. I can’t offer much to you today. I can’t give you some kind of magical incantation that can put the toothpaste back in the tube. That can unring bells that have been clanging out of control for sometime. All I know for sure, all I know for certain is that we can leave this place and carry a little more kindness into the world. All I know for sure, all I know for certain is that we can be beacons of light if we will but allow the spirit of God to work through us. All I know for sure, all I know for certain is that we are forever and always called to be repairers of the breach, that we are anointed to bring good news to the poor and release to all the captives in the world. Those trapped in prisons of injustice, those stuck in the prisons of their own minds in which guilt and self-loathing render them unable to see the love of God present in their live, that we are called to bring sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed, and to always, always, always, declare and live into the year of God’s favor for all people until that day when God calls all of us home. And Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace, for the love of God, amongst all God’s children. Alleluia, amen.