Sermon: A response to the bad news this week

butterfly_greenTwenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

November 15, 2015

Listen to this sermon (mp3)

I had a pretty good sermon written for this week. It was going to be like a Part 2 of last week’s sermon about the widow from Zaraphath—this time focusing on the widow in Mark’s Gospel. I was going to suggest that Jesus points out this woman to his disciples, not because she is a perfect example of generosity (which is how the story is often interpreted), but so they can see what happens to vulnerable people when the wealthy, religious elite manipulate the system. I think Jesus was really angry when he saw this woman share her last two pennies while the keepers of the church treasury were using it to sustain their increasingly lavish lifestyles. I was going to emphasize the church’s call to work tirelessly to make sure that the example of the widow giving her last two coins would never be
repeated. It was a pretty good sermon, actually.

But then I had to let all that go because the world fell apart this week.

Friday evening terrorists staged a series of attacks throughout Paris killing at least 127 people and wounding hundreds more. The 8 known attackers have all been killed. This horror came fast upon the heels of a bombing in Beirut on Thursday that claimed over 40 lives, and a suicide bombing at a funeral in Baghdad that left 26 dead. And those atrocities happened alongside natural catastrophes including earthquakes in Japan and Mexico. Not to mention we’re still all reeling from the crash of a Russian jet over the Sinai Peninsula 2 weeks ago that killed 224 people or the seemingly never-ending parade of mass shootings in this country. There’s a word for times like this: apocalyptic.

So when I reread Mark’s Gospel lesson for today in which Jesus says, “Do not be alarmed,” I wanted to shoot back, “Hah! Easy for you to say, Jesus.” But of course, it could not have been. Jesus experienced everything it means to be human, so God knows, that had to include the experience of human fear. And though the words “Do not be afraid” (or some variation thereof) are used throughout Scripture, they are not used when everything is peaceful and comfortable, but in only situations where people have good reasons to be afraid.

Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples, “You have nothing to fear,” or “Your fears are unfounded.” No. He knows better than that. He knows better than anyone that the stones of the temple really will come crashing down. The Temple that seems so magnificent and powerful will be destroyed by Romans sacking the city of Jerusalem shortly after Mark wrote this Gospel. Furthermore, the temple of Jesus’ own body will shortly be arrested, tortured, and violently executed. The changes these events will bring to his friends will rock the foundations of their lives and of the world. Many of Jesus’ friends will be forced to practice their faith under persecution, and some will even be executed the same way Jesus was. Their lives will be so chaotic, uprooted, and violent that most of them will live and die convinced that the end of the world was coming “soon and very soon.”

I’m guessing that many of us feel that way about our world today, too, not only about terrorism and wars and earthquakes and famine, but about our personal lives too. Cancer and Alzheimers and depression can rattle our foundations too. Divorce and loneliness and financial struggles can feel like the end of the world. The death of a loved one changes the shape of our universe. And still, Jesus comes to using the midst of all these world ending experiences—all the global, local, and personal upheavals—full of compassion and understanding, saying, “God’s love is bigger than all that! Don’t be afraid. Try to understand these horrors as birth pangs.”

Now, I have never given birth, but no one I’ve ever talked to who has done so has described the experience as a soothing, pleasant one. As I understand it, there’s blood and sweat and sometimes cursing. There is fear, but also something else beneath the fear: hope. There is the belief, the unshakable conviction, that what’s coming that will make this agony worthwhile, a sense that this struggle will usher in LIFE. That force is stronger than any fear or pain.

With this image in mind, how can we, as a Christian community, react to the world shaking events of the past few days? Lucinda Laird, the Dean of the American Chapel in Paris, wrote a letter in response to the many emails from colleagues and friends who wrote asking, “How can we help?”

First, she asks us to pray. Second, she writes:

“I urge you to give some serious thought to next steps. Your expressions of support are strong and genuine – but where do they go? We have all held each other up before – after the Charlie Hebdo shootings, for instance, and after 9/11 – and shared a strong sense of unity. I’m not sure where I am going with this; I only mean that our prayers must lead us to action. Here in France I suspect there will be very, very strong anti-Muslim sentiment, and one thing we must do is stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters, and foster conversation and understanding. I think we also need to work harder to care for the flood of refugees fleeing terror in their own countries – work for immediate care and for political solutions. You will need to find your own mission in the US, but I know that it must involve continued dedication and commitment to making justice and making peace, and being a light in the darkness.”

Our birth pangs must lead not to some vague aspiration for unity, but to a genuine new birth that will change us and all those around us. How can we, here, in this place at this time, work for God’s dream of justice and peace for all? I hope that there are many ideas out there about this. I hope that we will not be afraid to share them with one another, even when moving forward involves the threat of old, familiar stones and structures coming down.

One thing we can do, right here and right now, is baptize baby Madyson. In so many ways, a baptism is one of the most important things we can do in response to terrorist attacks. For one thing baptism gathers us together as the Body of Christ in this place and time. And being together is really important. That’s what our epistle reading from Hebrews is all about. No matter what is going on in the world or in our personal lives, we need to be together at times like this to encourage each other to help each other grow in faith.

In rite of baptism, Madyson’s family and sponsors will promise to rear her in the Christian faith so that she will work for justice and peace for all people. Madyson may be tiny, but she is mighty. God is going to work through her to make the world a better place. She will grow up knowing she’s made in God’s image, and that all the other people in the world are, too. She will learn that it’s important for us to love and serve each other in our common humanity, and in our common dignity and love that comes from God.

Every baptism is a reminder to all of us of our own baptisms, of the truth that we are important to God, and that God has called us to work for justice and peace in all the earth, as well. We say that in baptism all the things that separate us from God—fear, hatred, racism and all of that awful stuff—are drowned and we are raised to new life—a life filled with courage and hope—in Jesus Christ. Birth pangs result in a new creation. And because we are made new, we CAN do something! We can shine like stars, just as we heard we would in the reading from Daniel. We will live out God’s mission of mercy and love for all people in our lives and in this faith community, where everyone matters and all belong! We will tear down systems that keep poor widows poor and rich hypocrites rich! And as long as there are people who are marginalized or abandoned, we will be agents of grace and generosity, rather than agents of fear and self aggrandizement.

(Hey look! I got to preach that other sermon after all!)

But to conclude, let’s go back to the first suggestion Lucinda Laird made, and pray. This prayer comes from the Presbyterian Church, USA.

“God of mercy, whose presence sustains us in every circumstance, in the midst of unfolding violence and the aftermath of terror and loss, we seek the grounding power of your love and compassion.

In these days of fearful danger and division, we need to believe somehow that your kingdom of peace in which all nations and tribes and languages dwell together in peace is still a possibility.

Give us hope and courage that we may not yield our humanity to fear even in these endless days of dwelling in the valley of the shadow of death.

We pray for neighbors in Paris, in Beirut, in Baghdad, who, in the midst of the grace of ordinary life–while at work, or at play, have been violently assaulted, their lives cut off without mercy.

We open our hearts in anger, sorrow and hope: that those who have been spared as well as those whose lives are changed forever may find solace, sustenance, and strength in the days of recovery and reflection that come. We give thanks for strangers who comfort the wounded and who welcome stranded strangers, for first responders who run toward the sound of gunfire and into the smoke and fire of bombing sites.

Once again, Holy One, we cry, how long, O Lord? We seek forgiveness for the ways in which we have tolerated enmity and endured cultures of violence with weary resignation. We grieve the continued erosion of the fabric of our common life, the reality of fear that warps the common good. We pray in grief, remembering the lives that have been lost and maimed, in body or spirit.

We ask for sustaining courage for those who are suffering; wisdom and diligence among global and national agencies and individuals assessing threat and directing relief efforts; and for our anger and sorrow to unite in service to the establishment of a reign of peace, where the lion and the lamb may dwell together, and terror will not hold sway over our common life.

In these days of shock and sorrow, open our eyes, our hearts, and our hands to the movements of your Spirit, who flows in us like the river whose streams makes glad the city of God, and the hearts of all who dwell in it, and in You.

In the name of Christ, our healer and our Light, we pray, Amen.”

~Pastor Susan Schneider

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