Psalm 46: 1-11; Philippians 4: 4-7
April 21, 2013
But I need to let you know this morning that you are going to get an unbalanced sermon today, because this one is coming almost exclusively from the heart – from my gut, really. That’s where I feel I’ve been for most of the past week, since Monday afternoon. I was actually working on one of those nice balanced sermons, one you’ll eventually get to hear, I’m sure.
And then I heard the news. It popped up in my Twitter feed first: the Boston Marathon. An explosion. No wait, two. Right at the finish line. I went online and watched the video footage once, twice, three, four, more times. So many times that, within an hour, I was able to play it out in my mind without looking at the screen: the runners running along, the finish line in sight, a gorgeous Monday afternoon in a great American downtown city. And then BOOM, and runners instinctively veering in the opposite direction; one runner crumpling to the ground under the shockwave. Smoke billowing up in the air. Sirens and screams.
I went to Ridgecrest that night for my monthly dinner with the Presbyterian saints there – we talked about it some, but details were still scarce. When I got home, there was more coming from the TV. Scores had been injured, my wife told me, and two were dead – one of which was an eight-year old boy. I looked over to the couch at my eight-year old boy, and you know what I felt? Anger. I was angry. Still am.
And it’s not just the senseless death of innocent people, and our children, that I’m angry about. It’s the foreboding familiarity of it all. I’m tired of this ritual our society seems to be engaging in more and more these days: the sudden, out-of-nowhere "breaking news," the multi-tasking of watching cable news and scanning websites, trying to piece together a puzzle whose final picture we already know we will not want to see; the increasing injury and death counts, the names and pictures and faces and personal stories of lives ended, the revelation of the perpetrators’ identity and how quickly their story overshadows the others; the conclusion-jumping some engage in when that person’s name is hard to pronounce or when they subscribe to a different religion than ours (as if no one in the history of Christianity has ever done anything horrible), and the inevitable movie/music star benefit concert televised live on a Friday night with the 888 number scrolling at the bottom of the screen.
I'm tired of the ritual of having one more location stripped of its innocence, a mental checklist we keep and remember: elementary schools, movie theaters, houses of worship, college campuses, summer youth camps, and now marathon finish lines. I'm tired of the thought that eventually settles in my head, after the initial shock wears off when I momentarily pull my thoughts away from the television screen and the websites: the thought, Here we go again. It is a ritual I hate and despise; and because it’s feeling more and more familiar, I hate it even more.
What can I say – I told you this sermon was coming from the gut.
So here we are yet again, First Presbyterian: proclaimers of the “Good News,” slapped in the face with “Breaking News.” Here we are, yet again – people of Easter’s new life facing horrific tragedy and death. Here we are, yet again – awash in a sea of anger and fear and vulnerability that always gets stirred up by random and senseless acts of violence.
And I so wish I could share with you some magic formula that takes the world’s chaos and strings it all together in a way that makes perfect sense. But that magic formula does not exist. I wish I could tell you with 100% certainty that everything will be okay and a tragedy like this will never happen again. But I care too much about you as your pastor to give you that false sense of hope. If being authentic in our Christian faith means being authentic in how we live our lives, we have to face the fact that, first and foremost, there is no easy answer to this kind of madness, and that asking the “why” questions will get us nowhere fast.
No, our job as followers of Jesus is to lift our collective voices to the God who never stops hearing us, no matter how loud the bombs blast. And if there’s any place in our ritual of faith where the people’s voice is lifted to God the most, it is in the Psalms. All voices of the people – sometimes sung, sometimes whispered, sometimes cried, sometimes screamed. All voices. We look here, and the scripture that Nelson read earlier:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
Right off the bat, we get the sense that this is the voice of someone in distress, do we not? Someone awash in uncertainty and fear, clinging to God amidst the chaos. Someone like us. I actually prefer the way The Message translation renders those last two verses. Listen:
We stand fearless at the cliff-edge of doom,
courageous in seastorm and earthquake,
Before the rush and roar of oceans,
the tremors that shift mountains.
Isn’t that what this past week has felt like – “the tremors that shift mountains?” Tremors that shake us much deeper than bomb blasts and shockwaves ever could. Tremors that shake our very soul, and remind us that we live in a world of both light and darkness; and that every now and then the darkness rears its ugly head in such grotesque fashion that, if we’re not careful, it consumes us through our fears and our vulnerability and our anger. That same anger I was feeling so acutely Monday night.
Paul Rauschenbusch, a religious writer and blogger, had something interesting to say about that anger, by the way. He said that being angry in light of the Boston Marathon bombings is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as it’s the right kind of anger. There is what he calls “demonic anger,” which he describes as “…a fury that takes over or possesses us; demanding a clear target no matter how blunt or unrelated, and compels a fulfillment of our anger.” The problem with demonic anger, Rauschenbusch says, is that it never can be fulfilled. There is no end to it. When demonic anger has conquered our heart, it has completed its mission.
But there is another anger we can choose – what he calls “holy anger.” As he puts it,
(Holy anger) means taking time to stop, to pray, to meditate, to ask for wisdom and to not let my anger take over my heart, head and spirit. (Holy anger means) supporting the first responders and those investigating the crime; praying for those who suffer and if necessary offer financial support. And when we know more, supporting the effort to bring justice for those who perpetrated this horrible crime. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-raushenbush/responding-to-boston anger_b_3092758.html?utm_hp_ref=religion&ncid=edlinkusaolp00000008, visited on 4.16.2013)
So when the tremors shift mountains, when we are rocked to our core with the worst kind of tragedy – yet again – we as people of faith can respond faithfully with holy anger.
We can also respond with something else, according to the apostle Paul – a man who penned words we heard earlier; words penned while he was incarcerated in prison:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice!
Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Now how was it, that during that darkest time of his life, Paul was still able to say “rejoice”? How does someone do that?
I remember something a pastor friend of mine shared in a sermon she preached the Sunday after the Newtown shootings; about a member of her former church. His name was Wassim. She described Wassim as “one of those irritatingly happy people, kind of like a human smurf.” She talked about he would go around saying to people, Rejoice in the Lord, always! - even when the circumstances didn’t always merit it. “To be completely honest,” she said, “it kind of annoyed me.” (from “Rejoice In The Lord. Always?”, a sermon by Meghan Davis)
Over time, though she learned about Wassim’s story – how as a Lebanese man he had lived in Beirut during the years of brutal civil war and the Israeli invasion. She found out that Wassim was a hostage survivor and had seen some of the worst that human beings could do to one another, when the darkness is at its darkest. And it was then she realized that “Rejoice in the Lord always” was not a pithy catch-phrase for Wassim. It was his statement of faith! It was his life’s mantra! It was rejoicing that got Wassim through all those horrible years; and it was rejoicing that helped him understand for the rest of his life the crucial difference between happiness and joy. Happiness, my pastor friend said, is something outside of ourselves that, as our Declaration of Independence reminds us, we pursue. Happiness is circumstantial. Lots of things can make us happy: chocolate, a pedicure, a sunny Saturday on the golf course. And lots of things can take that happiness away, too.
But joy – the joy that Paul speaks about to those Philippian Christians and to us – joy runs much, much deeper. Joy is not “out there” – it resides here, in the heart and in the soul. And it is not circumstantial. Joy cannot be imprisoned or held captive or blown up or shot to death.
You know how we respond as people of faith to the Boston bombings and the Newtown shootings and every other tragedy that has happened and has yet to happen? We respond with heartfelt prayer. We respond with holy anger. We respond with assistance, if the situation merits. And we respond by countering the ritual of our fear-based “Breaking News” culture with the rituals of daily, joy-filled living. So we go to work and school. We run marathons. We fly in airplanes. We live on college campuses. We gather in churches. We never succumb to fear and we live in joy! Because no matter how dark the world may get, there is always light shining in it. Shining in and revealing the darkness for what it is: powerless over us, cowardly in the face of truth, weak in the presence of God’s mighty and everlasting love.
This is a giant planet, someone wrote this past Monday, and we're lucky to live on it, but there’s a price we pay for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is that, every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they're pointed towards darkness.
But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evildoers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak.
So when you see violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, “The good outnumber you, and we always will.” (http://www.wxii12.com/news/project-economy/technology/Patton-Oswalt-s-post-about-Boston-attacks-goes-viral/-/9677548/19769514/-/12lh00kz/-/index.html#ixzz2Qdu8kLeJ, visited 4.16.2013)
Beautiful, isn’t it? Who do you think penned those awesome words – a noted theologian? A great statesman? No, it was Patton Oswalt, a Bostonian comedian and actor, best known perhaps as the voice of “Remy the Rat” in the animated movie Ratatouille.
The heart of the gospel message in trying times, from the voice of a rat – how about that! How about that indeed. My dear, dear friends, never forget that you are the light of Jesus’ love, shining in the darkness. You are the light. And the darkness – no matter how dark it may get – the darkness will never overcome you. So do not fear. Rejoice and live in the light. Live in joy! In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God. AMEN.