This is a hard sermon.
It was hard to write.
It will be hard to hear.
But it was also so very clear
from the moment I began working with our Scripture.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts
be pleasing and acceptable in Your sight, God, our rock and redeemer.
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder ….
Unfortunately we know something about that, don’t we?
Our past week and Scripture came together in ways we really wish they hadn’t.
We wish we didn’t know about people who breathe in hatred
and breathe out threats and murder,
who breathe in prejudice and breathe out violence,
who breathe in radically partisan perspective
and breathe out a cruel and utter disregard for anyone else,
people so focused on their own perceived prerogatives—
who breathe in their particular way of life, their perspectives,
their presuppositions, and breathe out a brutal intolerance of anyone else’s.
And yes, those who breathe in despair and loneliness,
isolation and abuse, and breathe out savage ferocity in response.
They live in an atmosphere of toxicity.
They inhale it. They exhale it. It’s their life.
We know them as terrifying threat to us all.
They introduce risk to our routine and we hate them for that.
We despise them.
We fear them.
Susan Reimert, in this past Thursday’s Sun, wrote:
“Oklahoma City, Columbine, 9/11, the Washington Beltway sniper,
Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Gabrielle Giffords at the Tucson shopping center,
the Aurora movie theater, Sandy Hook Elementary.
Now Boston and its marathon….
Each new horror causes me to revisit the others,
and the memories don’t simply return.
They come back stronger, amplified.
You can never completely remove the stain of blood
from the pavement or from the memory….
We are wounded.
The meaning of all these deaths and maimings is, in part,
that we are changed by them….
I will be unafraid tomorrow. I will be resilient tomorrow.
Today, I will give in to despair.”
Because it’s been that kind of a week.
The bombs in Boston on Monday.
Then with over 3,500 gun related deaths since Sandy Hook,
a minority in the Senate shut down proposed,
fairly innocuous gun control measures
supported by many if not most in the NRA …
but not by gun manufacturers.
There was the explosion in West, Texas—a different kind of tragedy.
Then there was the shootout in Boston. The lockdown.
Scenes on our televisions looking like they came from another country.
And we talk about resilience.
And we marvel at the good will
and the courage of ordinary people.
And we talk about ordinary heroes.
About runners who finished and ran two more miles
to the hospital to give blood,
of bystanders who ran toward the explosion—
toward the injured to hold someone’s hand, to tie off a tourniquet,
to kneel beside one of the wounded
and show them shrapnel wounds sustained in the Middle East
and say, “You’ll get through this.”
We heard about the runner who finished the race
who met another who was two miles out when the bombs went off
and gave her his medal saying, “In my eyes, you’re a finisher,”
of the Boston ER doctor
who ordered $100 worth of pizza for ER doctors in Waco, TX
with a note “from one member of the ER family,”
“thanks for all your hard work.”
The silence before the London marathon.
The group of Syrians standing in front of a bombed out building
holding a banner with the words, “our condolences.”
We’ve heard multiple stories testifying yet again
how when things are at their worst, we’re at our best.
But things will get back to normal,
and it will happen again. Somewhere else.
And more lives will be shattered—
more families—more communities.
And what do we do—
when it comes to the terror people intentionally visit on each other?
Well, we declare war on terrorism—
we authorize wars in various countries.
We let Homeland Security do pretty much whatever they want
in the name of keeping us safe—
though we don’t pass any meaningful gun control legislation.
We do what we can to intimidate countries that support terrorists.
We send attack drones across international borders
to kill people we’ve designated as targets.
We shock and awe with all the resources of our vast military machine,
and we make that machine ever bigger—
as if the bigger that machine, the safer we’ll be.
We scare. We pursue, and we kill.
“Stop breathing in what you’re breathing in,” we say,
“so you’ll stop breathing out what you’re breathing out.”
And we kill you to ensure you do—stop breathing in and out.
“Now you won’t breathe out threats and murder any more.
Because obviously there’s something bad wrong about you.
Or there was.”
And thus, the argument goes, we deter.
Only it doesn’t work. It won’t work. It has never worked.
Violence does not win—
when directed at us … nor when we direct it at others.
Violence does not suppress a person or a message.
What if not that, is the message of Easter?
So what if those who know the affirmation of Easter,
instead of blessing our culture’s violent response to violence,
instead spoke out with the voice of God?
What if the people of God spoke up
to name the value of identifying the concerns of terrorists?
Oh, my God!
I know, it sounds like—well, it sounds like what?
Wimpy? Like a loser? Like someone weak?
Someone not standing up for themselves or their country?
Not standing up for what’s right? Not standing up for justice?
Or like the daring initiative of transformative grace?
To affirm the value of acknowledging some of those concerns
and addressing them where and as appropriate?
None of which is, in any way, to condone terrorism—
are you hearing the distinction?
Because, we know this—
because much of the world perceives us
as those breathing threats and murder.
Much of the world lives in our shadow
with so many fewer choices, so many fewer options,
so many fewer resources and advantages,
and know us only as prejudiced,
and so very protective of our prerogatives
and our way of life, disregarding others in violent intolerance.
And much of the world is not wrong.
I have wondered where all that might be said and heard.
Certainly can’t be said and heard everywhere.
Because such words are often condemned
out of hand as unpatriotic—as treacherous,
as disloyal—as dangerous.
As if acknowledging who we are and what we do at our worst
calls our best into question.
As if naming what’s wrong is not the path to doing what’s right.
And again, what if it had been the voice of those
who claim to speak for God,
who had consistently said,
we understand both the need to confess
and the transformative possibilities that arise from confession.
This we know from our very own experience
of being confronted with both disappointment and expectation
always in the context of love and acceptance.
We can be better than we are.
But the people of God have, by in large, apparently settled,
as much as we as citizens of this country have, by and large, settled—
for a cheap story, if a loud one—a shallow one.
We have settled for cheap grace and cheap freedom and cheap bravery.
I got on facebook in the aftermath of Boston
and congressional disregard of the will of the people.
First, I wrote grieving the loss of life of innocents—
of children—of the pain and horror that ripple out from each victim
through shattered families and loved ones.
I wrote of knowing both the utter disbelief
that such tragedy was not just condoned by someone, but planned,
and the absolute outrage at the violence perpetrated—
the callous disregard of human life.
We condemn such action—such choices.
And we desperately yearn for the identification of those responsible
and their punishment.
Yet around the world innocents suffer daily,
in the loss of the lives of the innocents—the children.
Boston was “only” the fourth worst terrorist attack this week
and that was only by Wednesday
So much pain and horror rippling out
through shattered families and loved ones,
in utter disbelief that such tragedies are condoned and planned,
in outrage at the violence and disregard for human life,
in condemnation and the yearning for those responsible
to be identified and punished.
And on Monday, the day of the Boston marathon,
in Uruzghan, Afghanistan, 30 were killed, many more wounded
by one of our bombs, an errant bomb, at a wedding celebration.
And if in our insular cultural bubble,
we cannot acknowledge the condemnation directed our way—
sometimes illegitimately, yes,
but sometimes, terribly, legitimately,
if our insular bubble cannot be pierced by love—
love of the other—
if it cannot be pierced by a sense of justice
that transcends national borders and cultural identity,
that provokes a hard kind of self-assessment
that could actually lead to change—
if we cannot take initiative to show those outside our bubble
the courage and compassion, the kindness and selflessness
we manifest within that bubble in times of our tragedy—
if that bubble only breaks when we or ours are affected,
never when they and theirs are,
then transformation will remain out of reach,
retribution our reactive option,
and nothing will change.
Isn’t that what the people of God need to be saying?
“Don’t be some cheap version of who you could be.”
Our foreparents risked death for the sake of principles.
We’re the ones risking principles out of a fear of death.
Our heritage is one of standing for what’s right and just,
our present practice, I fear,
is more one of standing for what’s comfortable.
After the Senate vote, I got on a facebook roll of pithy statements—
or at least of statements aspiring to pithiness!
But statements born out of grief for the dreams and hopes
for which we’ve settled—
statements rooted in the profound conviction
we can and must do better.
My dream of freedom
is so much bigger than the freedom to carry a gun
to feel safe,
it is rather the freedom to feel safe
without carrying one.
The brave are not those
who face armed lunatics in their fantasies,
but those who face discrimination, prejudice,
poverty and injustice
in their jobs and families and relationships.
“High Noon” is not my hope for the future.
It is a past I thought we survived and escaped.
And please understand, I do not believe we can legislate safety.
There are too many random and human variables.
And I understand the frustration of legislation assumed to be ineffective,
and the concern about freedom encroached upon,
but what we do and what we don’t legislate is symbolic.
And we can and we do legislate priorities.
And I’m so very unimpressed with too many of the priorities we’re choosing.
And here in this place, in worship,
we’re the ones supposed to be telling a story
different from our culture’s, right?
One that might not even make sense.
Might not seem effective.
Might not seem safe.
One we don’t always live, but the one we profess.
Through the years I have enjoyed
(in chronological order): Frederick Buechner’s
Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC,
Kathleen Norris’ Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith,
and, most recently, Marcus Borg’s Speaking Christian:
Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—
And How They Can Be Restored.
each book affirms that the meanings of the important words and stories,
names and terms of our faith, settle into less—
less rich—less layered—less multivalent—less profound.
They veer off course, and while we think we know what they mean,
in their familiarity, they desperately need to be redefined.
That’s true for our faith.
That’s true for our country.
And because I haven’t read any books on
why the American dream has lost its meaning and power
and how they can be restored,
it seems to me we’ve settled for a cheap, shallow and easy story
in which we’re the heroes
instead of the ones who wake up to discover we don’t see—
that we’re blind—that we’ve been blind—
that the road on which we were was the wrong road.
I was listening to Simon and Garfunkel’s Concert in Central Park—
the song “America,” and was struck by the line:
“counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike
they’ve all gone to look for America.”
In America, they’ve gone to look for America.
Part of the problem, I think, we’ve stopped looking for America—
stopped looking for the kingdom of God—
either thinking we found it,
or found as much of it as we can—as we’re going to,
when all we really did was settle
for something so much less than we should’ve.
And we’ve been encouraged to settle, no doubt,
but we’ve also allowed ourselves to settle—
settle for what is in many ways a good dream
just so much less than the profound one.
Imagine what it would be like for us as the people of God,
and for us as citizens of a land committed to justice
to say what we’ve been saying all along
to those who breathe threats and murder,
“You have to stop breathing in what you’re breathing in
and stop breathing out what you’re breathing out,”
but then instead of hunting them down
and killing them to achieve that goal,
we were to say, “We’re going to work to change what you breathe in.
We’re going to work to change that atmosphere of toxicity.
We’re not going to contribute to it.
We’re going to identify resources we can respectfully share.
We’re going to work for hope—for more options and better choices.
We’re going to work for love—with love—in love—by love.”
I know, again, might not make sense—
maybe not effective—
maybe not safe.
It may, in fact, feel a touch wrong
to reach out to those who seek us ill,
but transformative initiative—initiatives of grace—
that’s our story, right?
And what we’re doing’s working so well!
We need to be Ananias and reach out to
those who have done much evil
as much as we (like Ananias) can’t believe that’s what we’re doing—
that that’s what God asks of us,
but we also need to allow Ananias to reach out to us
who have been a part of so much evil
so scales can fall from eyes
and sight be restored—
the vision of what’s possible.
So we can again be immensely proud of our faith and our country
and not so defensive about them.
So that we can punt on settling for less
and challenge those who peddle less—
embracing the profound dream
that is God’s dream—
that is, I do believe, integral to our dream as a country—
a dream of freedom and equality—
a dream of justice for all—
God’s dream, established on earth, as it is in heaven—
the richest, the best, the most profound story of all.
May we never settle for less.