Oregon, Charlestown, Sandy Hook… grief and peace

This morning I awoke ill at ease. I had this dis-quiet in my spirit. I picked up my coffee and sat down for my Sunday ritual of prayer and a final sermon edit. Oregon sat heavy on my heart. I felt my prepared sermon was sufficient for the day. As I drove to church for the 8am service I felt this deep grief for our nation. Down in my bones I sensed the need to speak directly to the mourning in our land at another mass shooting.   Twenty one minutes before eight I decided to pull together some remarks around several passages that seem to speak to the day. I pray my change of sermon is born of a holy-restlessness and godly grief. What was my prepared sermon text is available in the display boxes as you leave. Let us listen for a Word from God and lean into the Holy Spirit.

I am grieving for Oregon. We grieve for Sandy Hook, Fort Hood, Umpaqua Community College, Charlestown, Chattanooga, and 100 unnamed others places. I am mourning for America. As grief comes again close to our home, we must mourn for the world, where violence drives people from their homes. Today, I am grieving for pastors, rabbis, and people gathered for worship in Roseburg. I feel for those who have no church to call home and no faith to uphold them. I sympathize with those so crushed by grief or distracted by anger that they can’t open their hearts to the Sacred. What shall we do? Let us turn to the Sacred Text and listen for words of comfort, courage, stamina, faith, hope, healing, love, and life.

Our President asked a good question “are we numb?” No matter our politics or proclivities, this a deep searching question. Are we numb? Are we desensitized to the violence that visits our land?

Violence is nothing new. It is as old as humanity.   After God creates the world and Adam and Eve bring sin into the world, murder enters our vocabulary. Genesis 4:5b tells us “So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.  The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? … sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”  But Cain does not listen to God. Cain does not master his inner anger and he kills his brother.   And the Lord comes to Cain and inquires “Where is your brother Abel?…What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”   The Eternal Judge demands “What have you done?- Where is your brother?- What have you done?” Listen, your brother’s blood cries out to God from the ground. The Creator so structures the cosmos that spilt life-blood calls out from the very earth for justice and remembrance. Christian, perhaps we should consider how the Eternal Judge- Witness-Jury-Jailer treats the guilty. God who presides directly over Cain’s case does not demand an eye for an eye. No the Eternal Judge offers mercy while imprinting “what have you done” onto Cain’s soul.

Two chapters later we read of the Flood.   What sin raised God’s Wrath? “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” (Genesis 6:11) The earth is filled with violence. After saving humanity with Noah’s grand boat, God hangs his war-bow in the sky and declares “never again”.   The war-bow was the most advanced weapons system of the age. The rainbow becomes the sign of God’s Covenant and blessing.   Violence is nothing new.   The ancient writer asserts that violence brought the flood.

Or consider the Sodom and Gomorra story in Genesis 19. You may think you know that story, but read it again. Imagine you are sitting in Lot’s den. Listen to the violence, listen to how the residents “came near to the door to break it down” so that they might violently rape and abuse the strangers in Lot’s care. Violence is nothing new.   It is a sinful story that fills our history.

Or consider God’s plan to save the world.   God sent Moses to bring the law, prophets to speak truth to power, priests to make atonement, but finally God decided to come and live among us. God hatched a risky plan coming to us in the most vulnerable human state. The Creator came as a newborn child. How did we welcome the Savior of the World? How did we greet the newborn Prince of Peace?   Some Persian Astrologers came to pay homage stirring King Herod to fear. Herod let the lurking fear give birth to rage which ended in slaughter. “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” (Matthew 2:13) So that night Joseph awoke and fled with Mary and the child as refugees to Egypt. Often we cry out “give us a king”.   Some may long for salvation to come in the next election cycle. It will not.  It is the ruling class that crucified Christ. It the prophets who usually speak what becomes the Word of God against the king!  And Jesus tells us in Matthew 24 that violence and persecution will remain until that day when God finally swallows up history with love and righteousness.

So how do we respond to this legacy of violence? What do we offer our hurting world? Friends, beyond any policy solutions we must offer Christ as the Light and Antidote to the violent illness that infects our communities. Excellent public policy alone will not heal our land, even if we could agree as to what that policy might be. Our social ills demand more than needed legislation.  So we turn to the Good News of Jesus Christ. Let us consider the teachings of Christ.

Matthew Five, Six and Seven contain the main teachings of Jesus. Some scholars tell us that “The Sermon On The Mount” is a compilation of Jesus’ main teachings. Jesus often taught with a story, saying “a man had two sons” or “Consider, the mustard seed”.   The disciples and early church bundled together the main ideas of Jesus into this one sermon. These 3 chapters became the core teachings of Jesus that the disciples memorized. Perhaps we who follow Christ might read this Jesus’ sermon weekly or at least once a month. It tells how to live.

In Matthew 5:9 Jesus preaches a sermon in one sentence: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Oh friends, can that be said of us? Are we peacemakers? Do we end conflicts? Do we sew peace into our relationships, neighborhoods, communities and world?   Does the church in America known for offering peace?   I fear we church folks are so enamored with being theologically correct that we are known more for our quarrels, dissention and division that our efforts for peace.   Oh that we might be peacemakers in a violent world. Oh that we might model peace.

How can we bring peace? Let us listen to the wisdom of James. If you are ever feeling especially self-righteous read James. It will bring you down a notch.

“You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” (James 1:19-20)   James is very direct saying “you must understand this: let everyone be quick to listen”. I will confess that I love to speak. I have had to learn to listen. We are such terrible listeners. We reach for our ready-made arguments before the period of mourning is over. How can we say we love our neighbors, when we do not listen to them, when we do not listen long enough to hear their cries? How can we pretend to love our enemies, when we formulate our comebacks before anyone can finish a sentence? Our society is coming unglued due to a lack of listening. Our political dialogue has descended into eye-rolling, name-calling, point-scoring, sound-biting and come-backing. Where are we as an electorate: 51% to 49% with 10-20% undecided?   Do we think we can yell down or send off the other half of the country? Who likes to be yelled at or put down? I pray I am not yelling right now!  We do not personally endure put-downs and yelling from others unless they hold power over us. Why do we vote such buck-passing name-calling people into power?   Do we think we might woo others to our point of view through anger?  If we want peace we must learn to listen. We must pause to digest before we speak! If we want to be heard then someone needs to end our over-talking culture by beginning to listen!

“You must understand this, my beloved: your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” Anger feels good for a moment but rarely achieves a lasting good. Anger flashes and destroys. Anger builds nothing lasting for God. We will be angry. You may be angry right and seeking to find someone to blame. When angry let us not sin. Violence may light a fire inside us that our better selves must control. Anger crouches at the door, we must master it. Anger does not produce righteousness.

How shall we make peace? Will we listen? Will we speak only after hearing? How shall we speak? Listen to James 3 beginning in verse 2: “For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. (Here, James speaks such beautiful theology for when we speak evil of another we speak evil of one made in the very image of God) From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. … But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” (James 3:2-13 & 17-18)

Right now, we need wise leaders. We need wisdom to deal with the violence crouching inside our communal walls. We need wisdom to end the division and partiality that tears us apart. What does Godly wisdom look like? It is pure, peaceful, gentle, willing to yield, and full of mercy.   Are we wise? Are we willing to yield?   Are we full of mercy?   Does God’s Wisdom tame our fiery tongues? Does Godly Wisdom birth gentleness and good works into us?  Are we wise? Are we pure, peaceful, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and full of good works?

As a sophomore at the University of Kentucky a sociologist spoke to a student symposium. I was sure I would never forget his name. I was so struck by his lecture that I blew off the BSU and attended the evening session at the Catholic Newman Center. Although, I have forgotten the professor’s name his message did not leave me. He said, “the great failure of the church in America today is our failure to offer an alternative vision of living to our nation”. The professor asserted there is not a measurable difference in the way Church folk and secular people live. Christians do not offer a differing vision of how to live. We do not stand out from the secular. We do not inspire people towards Christ. The church speaks about what it believes but the world sees that our lives are not very different. We have failed to model a different perspective.   Christians are not known by our good works but by our oppositions.   Our society is now sick with a quarrelling violence do we offer another pattern of living? Do we offer peace?   Are we known for peace in our marriages, our families, our friendships, our congregations, our Conferences, and our committees?   Has anyone remarked that we seem like God’s children- making peace, yielding, offering mercy and doing good? Can others see Christ not through our various Confessions of Faith but by simply observing our daily pattern of living? Do we offer a perceptible difference?

The non-believing world needs the church to offer a Christ-like lubricant in order to simply survive. If we do not model peace, purity, gentleness, grace-filled speech, a willingness to listen, a tamed tongue, a willingness to yield and a commitment to forgiveness then who will?   When we lift high the light of Christ by our good works we offer the path of peace and goodness to more than ourselves, we offer guidance to many who will never wear the name Christian.   Will we offer Christ?  Will our goodness help heal our land?

Jesus tells us “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-16) There are people dwelling in dark corners of the room who need your light. There are lonely people whose countenance has fallen who need your words of encouragement.   There are people mourning who need your comfort. There are people giving up on goodness who need to be re-energized by your good works. There are angry voices that need to know that peaceful voices will listen.

Sin lurks inside the doors of our society, violence tears the fabric of our common bonds, partiality infects our community will we overcome?  Shine your light!

Shine your light.   We never know how a sandwich feed to a child at Dossett, a story heard at the Food Bank, a prayer offered with a teen, a sympathetic tear shed for a stranger, a generous gift, or this morning’s handbell selection might sooth a hurting soul. Shine your light- it might change the world.   Shine your light it may prevent a tragic headline. Shine your light stand up for justice. Shine your light-stand with the oppressed. Shine your light comfort those who mourn.   Shine your lightlisten to the other side. Shine your light- it may show some lost hurting soul the path. Shine your light- our society needs it’s brightness. Shine your light- so we might see!

May there be a measurable difference in us; may people have an alternative vision because we are pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good works, and without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy! May that hopeful vision of a more peaceful and good nation begin in us! Let us scatter righteousness seeds and pray for a harvest of peace. Let us live a measurable difference! Let us offer Christ.

I watched on TV as a Oregon town gathered for a candle light vigil in a field.   They held up their lights against the darkness and sang “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound”. That is our song. Oh friends, many unchurched folks long to sing our song, to lift up the light, to reach out to others, to comfort the hurting, to stand against evil, and to do good.   Let us listen for their song. Let hear the cries of those who mourn. Let us grieve. Let us comfort. Let us be slow to speak. Let us master lurking anger. Let us tame our tongues. Let be peacemakers. Let us lead by our example. Let us do good. Let us offer mercy and good works. Perhaps someone will notice and join our song of amazing grace.  Amen.

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