As I said before I read the two Scriptures this morning, I had planned on a completely different sermon for today. I had planned to preach on the Old Testament story of Job. It is one of the most powerful stories in the Old Testament.
But after the horrific massacre at the synagogue in Pittsburgh yesterday, I feel compelled to change my message. I do not feel it is responsible for me as a Christian minister to remain silent on what occurred and its wider significance.
I feel I must speak out what’s on my mind, as I believe a lot of you are reeling from the tragedy of yesterday as well. What are we to make of what happened? And what are we to make of the country we are becoming?
I want to reflect on those two questions this morning. As I do so, I do not want to dish out judgment and guilt upon you as the congregation of South Plains Presbyterian Church. None of you fired that rifle. And I assume many of you, if not all of you, feel the same sense of horror and shock over what has happened.
Instead I want to reflect out loud for a few minutes some of my personal thoughts and reactions about this tragedy in the light of the Scriptures. Maybe we then can hear a word from God for us today.
The first Scripture I want to turn to is the psalm I read this morning. This psalm is one of what are called the lament psalms of the Book of Psalms. You may be surprised to learn that lament psalms far outnumber the psalms of praise and thanksgiving in the Book of Psalms.
There’s a very good reason for that. The poetry of the Book of Psalms is deeply realistic. The psalmists recognize that evil and the sorrow it brings are very much a part of life as we all experience it. The psalmists will not sugarcoat that dimension of life. Instead they accept it as reality and raise it up to God.
The evil that Psalm 74 laments was one of the great tragedies in the life of ancient Israel. In the beginning years of the 6th century B.C. the militaristic Babylonian empire swept through the Middle East. The Babylonians laid siege to the city of Jerusalem. And in 586 B.C., after enormous suffering within, the city fell.
The Babylonians, in effect, wiped Jerusalem’s slate clean. They destroyed the city completely. They tore down its walls. They demolished the royal palace. And most painful of all to the Judaeans, they burned and leveled the great and glorious temple of God that King Solomon had built.
Those who survived the fall faced horrible options. Some were executed. A large number of Judaeans were carried off into captivity to Babylon. Others fled to Egypt. And some remained on the land, but reduced to dire poverty.
The great experience of Judaean independence had vanished like smoke up a chimney.
What we get in this psalm is the psychological impact of that disaster. You heard the despair of the psalmist, expressing the despair of the people at large. But most of all, they all feel betrayed by God. God did not come to their rescue. Why? They were after all God’s chosen people. Why had not God come to their defense?
What the lament psalms, like Psalm 74, do is give us permission to raise our laments and cries of despair up to God. We are not told to be silent in our pain. We are given sanction for weeping and lament, for cries of anger and despair, even cries for revenge.
This is not to say that God will necessarily act on our desires for revenge. But what these psalms do is show us that the first step in healing is a release of the pain that we feel.
But what is important is how we release our pain. The lament psalms teach us is not to direct our rage at other people, especially other innocent people, but to raise it up to God and place it in God’s hands. Once it is in God’s hands, God can begin to work with us to bring a measure of healing.
So at a time like this, faced with the horror we face in Pittsburgh, but also faced with the horror we have experienced in many other mass shootings, it is perfectly appropriate to raise our laments to God and ask, “How long, O Lord, will the unrighteous prevail?”
There will be many prayer vigils and candle lightings following this tragedy just as there have been in other tragedies we have experienced in recent years. Such vigils are necessary, for we must have outlets for our grief, and sorrow, and horror.
But if after we have released those feeling we go back to life as normal, then we will block the process of divine healing. For the next step after we release our grief is that we must ask how can we change the circumstances that keep bringing these mass shootings upon our country.
This is a call to repentance in its Biblical meaning. The Greek word that the New Testament uses for the word repentance is the Greek word metanoia. Metanoia does not mean primarily a feeling of remorse. It means literally a change of mind, or more accurately, a change of mindset.
If we are to begin to bring a sense of sanity back to our country, then I believe we as Americans must undergo a serious process of repentance, a process of changing our mindsets.
There are many things we need to change our national mind about, but one is the supreme virtue we have made of our obsession with individualism. We believe that all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
We take that to mean that therefore every individual should be free of all constraints on their freedom. We believe that what is important in life is me and my own. Life is a competitive battle. This is to ignore the responsibilities we have to the community in which we live.
Human beings are communal animals, and we flourish best when we live in community, with its many mutual givings and receivings. That’s why I think family is so important to the human cause. We are born as helpless infants. We only come into our own as adults as we grow up in caring, nurturing families.
I have noticed that too many of the people who perpetrate our mass shootings are young or middle-aged men who tend to be loners. After their shootings, neighbors will say, “I can’t believe he did it. He was always a quiet, withdrawn person. He always kept to himself.”
For whatever reason many of these shooters have lost their bonds to family and to the society in which they live. Sometimes because of mental illness. Sometimes because they grew up in uncaring and abusive families. And sometimes they were bullied and made to feel like outsiders.
So whether we are parents or grandparents or neighbors we need to be deeply concerned that we are providing a truly nurturing environment to the children and young people who are growing up around us. For the health of the community hinges in large part on that.
The other Scripture I chose this morning comes out of the letter the apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians. If we read that letter carefully, we find Paul tries to penetrate into the mystery of God’s purpose disclosed in the gospel.
He sees that purpose is one that addresses the deep divisions within humanity, especially the division between Jew and Gentile, a division that bred hostility and suspicion on both sides in the ancient world.
The antipathies of this division were seeping into the life of the church. They were creating a division in Christian ranks between Christians of Jewish descent and Christians of Gentile descent.
Walls are being built to separate the communities. Paul is alarmed at this because he sees it as a corruption of the gospel. Christ came, Paul says, “...that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”
We learn from this that Christ came not to create walls between communities but to tear down walls and to create one new humanity out of hostile communities. If that is what Christ’s work is all about, then it needs to be an important part of our mission as his disciples, too.
One of the oldest hostilities in Western civilization is the long-standing hostility between Christians and Jews. And for this hostility Christians bear a huge responsibility. We have engaged in centuries of hate-filled attacks, verbally and physically, on Jews. Our hatred has permeated the culture outside the church, and we saw one bitter fruit in the massacre yesterday.
We Christians, I believe, must repent of our long history of anti-Semitism. An important step in that is coming to recognize that we Christians are not a replacement for the Jews before God. Rather we are adopted brothers and sisters in the enlarged family of God that includes both Jews and Christians.
That is the point of the Ephesians passage. Christ is making one humanity out of both Jews and Gentiles. And our anti-Semitism is a serious rebellion against the mission of Christ.
But the division between Jew and Christian is not the only serious division disrupting the peace of America. We experience mistrust and hostilities pervading our country. We see it in relations between the races, between ethnic groups, between religions, between geographic regions, between political parties, and among economic and social classes.
I see these divisions being capsulized in the attitude that prevails in our politics that the winner takes all, the losers be damned. The problem with that is that the losers don’t go away. They just harbor their resentments and wait for their opportunity for revenge.
In my opinion, for the health of the country, we must lift up compromise as a political virtue, not a vice. Otherwise, I fear our politics can become a breeding ground for another civil war. This time the war will not pit North against South, but Americans of one extreme against another.
Furthermore, I think white Americans have the huge psychological task of coming to accept that we are not on top anymore. We share this country with African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, with poor whites and well as rich whites, with gays and lesbians, and the disabled.
The American identity has always aspired to be a broad one, not a narrow identity. Loyalty to our ideals calls us to the task of making that ideal a reality.
Now I harbor no illusions that the gospel offers quick and instantaneous solutions to our climate of hostility. Each of us as individuals cannot change the culture alone. But we can take up our individual task of tearing down walls, not building them up. Our little steps count. They can build up to big changes.
Let me finish by telling you a story that illustrates that point. It’s a story about a young man named Bill. He was college student, but not a conventional one. He had wild hair, wore a T-shirt with holes in it, blue jeans, and no shoes. Rain, sleet, or snow, he walked barefoot.
He became a Christian while attending college. Across the street from the campus was a church full of well-dressed, middle-class people. They wanted to develop a ministry to college-students, but were not sure how to do it.
One day, Bill came to worship in this church. He walked in, complete with his wild hair, torn T-shirt, jeans, and bare feet. The church was completely packed and the service had begun. Bill started down the aisle to find a place to sit. By now people were looking uncomfortable, but no one said anything.
As Bill moved closer to the pulpit, he realized there were no empty pews. So he squatted and sat down on the carpet right up front. By now the congregation was real uptight. Tension in the air was thickening.
Right about the time Bill took his seat, a deacon began slowly making his way down the aisle from the back of the sanctuary. The deacon was in his 80s. He had silver-grey hair, a three-piece suit, and pocket watch. He was a godly man—very elegant, dignified, and courtly.
He walked with a cane, and as he neared Bill, the church members were thinking, “You can’t blame him for what he’s going to do. How can you expect a man of his age and background to understand some college kid on the floor?”
It took a long time for the man to reach the boy. The church was utterly silent, except for the clicking of the cane. All eyes were on the deacon.
Then they saw the elderly man drop his cane on the floor. With great difficulty, he sat down on the floor next to Bill and there started to worship with him.
Everyone in the congregation choked up with emotion. When the minister regained control, he told the people, “What I am about to preach, you will never remember. What you’ve just seen, you will never forget.”
I might say the same thing today. You will probably not remember what I say, but I suspect you will remember this story.
So how can we help remove the walls that are tearing this country apart? Well, we might start by dropping our cane upon the floor and sitting down with the Bills in our world, sitting down to talk together, to serve the community together, and to acknowledge our common humanity in God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
-- Gordon Lindsey
October 28, 2018