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Now, as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Acts 9: 3-4
Recently, I asked us all what it is that we are afraid of. What is this fear response that we do frequently live in, and what does it do to us? We talked about our willingness to do great violence – physical, and emotional, and spiritual – from that place of fear that we all so frequently inhabit. Today, we see it laid out before us, illustrated so neatly: this week, we see Saul – he’ll become Paul, he’ll eventually write just about half of our New Testament, but he hasn’t gotten there yet. He’s still out there, not only preaching hellfire and brimstone, but actually rounding up the followers of this early Jesus movement – not Christians, yet, we haven’t gotten that far yet, they’re not quite that organized. They’re still Jews, in their synagogues, talking about Messiah and Resurrection. We see Saul rounding these people up, bringing them, bound, back to Jerusalem to stand trial before the authorities for this horrible thing that they’ve been doing: preaching that Jesus is the Son of God. What we see here, if we look closely, is Saul in a position of fearfulness, very much as we saw the Sadducees just recently.
From both Saul and the Sadducees, we see how deeply they felt that this Jesus movement was a threat to their own faith – a threat to Judaism. They feared Roman repercussions of what could easily appear to be a schism within the Jewish community, unrest within Judea that might bring the ire of the occupiers down upon them; might take away whatever autonomy they had left. They feared their own loss of power: the Jesus movement looked, on the surface, like Saul’s own group, like a group of Pharisees, of Rabbis, talking in synagogues. To an outsider, it might be easy to lump the two together. Saul was terrified, as were many of the Pharisees, that they would get caught up in a broad net of those who were trying to round up the disciples; that they would be tarred with the same brush, and found guilty by association.
And we find, in this moment, a growing fear, that we only saw a glimmer of before, in one Sadducee. We see it loud and clear where Saul is concerned: the beginnings of a real fear of God. A fear that this whole time, in all of these persecutions, maybe they’re the ones getting it wrong. Because the real persecution of the Jesus movement began not long before; the authorities had been harassing the disciples, but they hadn’t killed anyone. Until Stephen came along, and preached Jesus as the Son of God, and preached the resurrection, and got arrested for it (as happened), and gave an impassioned defense – which we didn’t read, because it’s a good two chapters long, and my sermons are long enough without reading two chapters of the Bible first. Stephen got up in front of the authorities, called to account for this radical preaching, and he said, “You know you always get it wrong, don’t you? Had that occurred to you yet? That any time a prophet comes along who speaks the word of God, you arrest him and torture him and persecute him and possibly kill him, only to find out that you, yourselves, screwed up in God’s eyes, and that the tortures and persecutions are going to be way worse for you. Think about this for a moment, you guys, do you really want this to happen again? Is history doomed to repeat itself? Because we can make that happen, if you want to…”
Now, if this were a novel – which it isn’t – this passionate defense would evoke all sorts of soul-searching on the part of the authorities. They would ask themselves if Stephen might possibly be right, if they were really working against God. Stephen would get off scot-free and everyone’s hearts would be turned, and there would be a happy ending. Just goes to show that this is not a novel. It’s a much more realistic book, a much more human book. Because in order to have that moment of soul-searching and questioning, then those in authority – those in the religious establishment, would have to be willing to do some real, in-depth self-reflection. They would have to be willing to acknowledge that they are wrong, and take responsibility for being wrong, which is not something that we do very well. They would have to be willing to relinquish their power for the sake of what is right.
Because this is the Bible, because this is a true story – truth in the sense that this is how we would all react in that moment and with that much fear, they took Stephen out and killed him. It was the easier thing for them to do.
On Good Friday of this year, ironically, there was an oil spill. It was in Mayflower, Arkansas. A pipeline burst, and five thousand barrels of oil came running down the street. Twenty two homes were evacuated. And ExxonMobil came running in, they were there within hours. The coverage of this has been fascinating. Because regardless of the news outlet, this is being treated as a PR disaster – not as an environmental disaster. And it is – don’t get me wrong, this is a PR disaster for ExxonMobil, and so they’re treating it that way, because to them, that’s the important factor here.
I spent a lot of time this week reading reports from across the media spectrum, and what I hear from all of them is that ExxonMobil is dishing out hundreds of thousands of dollars to the residents of Mayflower – a very small town. For all of those who have been displaced, they’re paying for hotels, and food, and gas for their cars. If someone asks for $140, they give $200. There aren’t that many residents, and there are only twenty-two families directly affected. So they’ve given out approximately – the last report I heard – about $200,000, which sounds like a lot of money. And I’m sure that it is in Mayflower. Or here, for that matter. The problem, of course, is that ExxonMobil is valued at $400 billion dollars. So for them to give out $200,000 is the equivalent of someone who makes $100,000 giving one nickel.
The oil spill flowed right past the elementary school, and the children, understandably, complained of headaches and nausea – several of them had to receive medical attention. ExxonMobil responded by funding an end-of-the-year party for the children, and promising to fund a new science program – because the state of Arkansas had so far neglected to fund a science program in that town. So I don’t doubt they needed it, but I wonder if it was really that big a priority, in that moment.
But you know, I can kind of see this all from ExxonMobil’s perspective. It is easier to treat symptoms, rather that root causes. And often, simply treating the symptoms keep people happy – if you give a painkiller, you stop caring quite as much about why you’re having pain and where it’s coming from. All you really care is that it has gone away. And that’s what they’re doing. They’re taking away the discomfort, they’re keeping the voices of discontent at a low level, and who can blame them? Because it’s working out fairly well for them, actually. At least, on a human level, ti’s working.
In one report, out of all of the articles I read, there was mention of a larger impact, beyond the human cost of this 5000-barrel oil spill. One article. It said that they had managed to contain the spill within the swamp; it’s not going to damage the pristine lake that so many people come to for the fishing – because we wouldn’t want to lose the income. And really, we haven’t lost a lot of animals, most of the damage has been confined to venomous snakes. The implication, of course, is that no one really cares about venomous snakes.
I don’t like snakes. I admit this. Part of the reason that I love New England is the distinct lack of venomous snakes. So we lost a few venomous snakes from a swamp in Arkansas – that’s just kind of awesome, right? It makes the swamp safer! Who really cares about a whole bunch of venomous snakes? And a couple of ducks. And a water-rat.
Want to know who cares? Their eco-system cares. I can guarantee you that. Doesn’t matter how much we like venomous snakes, or how much we like water rats, doesn’t matter how much we like all of the stuff that gets damaged – or even whether or not we notice how much stuff gets damaged. Would we honestly care if a whole bunch of Spanish Moss died? It lacks the cute-value of a kitten, for instance. But I’m pretty sure that everything that eats those snakes – and some things do eat venomous snakes and their eggs – I bet they care. And all of the things that get eaten by things that the snakes eat – the ones who suddenly have more predators because those predators aren’t being eaten by snakes? I bet those things care.
And there’s this funny thing, as you look at this eco-system that has been so badly damaged, and you look at the human response to it: the funny thing is that I’m pretty sure that God cares.
Because back in Eden, when God got really mad at the snake, and condemned it to slither about on its belly for the rest of time, it’s worth noting that God didn’t kill off snakes. It’s worth noting that there were snakes on Noah’s Ark – wonder how Noah felt about that? God saved the snakes. God cared about the snakes. I bet God cared about these, too.
I’m pretty sure God cares about the oil that is just below the surface of the swamp, just below the surface of the earth – the stuff that sinks in and doesn’t get cleaned up. The stuff that doesn’t get taken away from the pipeline that’s still buried below the town. I’m pretty sure God cares about the chemicals that are mixed into this oil to make this tarry, sticky substance flow at 18,000 barrels per day. That’s not a normal rate of flow for tar. I’m pretty sure God cares.
I’m pretty sure that God cares that this is all going to continue to damage the eco-system, that this is going to show up in longitudinal studies that biologists will do in twenty years, that will find their way into the pages of scientific journals that not a one of us is ever going to read.
I think God cares that this is going to affect the reproduction of all of the animals in that eco-system. It’s going to affect vegetation growth, and that it’s going to affect the vernal pools with all those little, delicate amphibians living in them. And it’s going to affect this swamp that no one seems to care about it because there was a lake, with yummy fish in it, right downstream. And I’m pretty sure that God is going to care that eventually, that lake will also be contaminated, because what’s in the swamp will end up in the lake.
And I’m pretty sure that God will continue to care, even after we’ve moved on to the next big news story, if we even heard about this one at all. Because I’m pretty sure that God still cares about the Gulf Coast, where tar balls still wash up on the beach every day, and the decimated vegetation in the dunes and barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico cannot grow. Where habitats have been destroyed, and they’re not going to come back without a lot of help – there has been a chain reaction, and these islands are going to be washed away because without vegetation, these islands cannot exist. And we’re not going to care until the next major hurricane comes churning up through the Gulf, and we wonder how cities get washed away in the process.
And I’m pretty sure that God still cares about Prince William Sound, up there in Alaska. That’s been back in the news recently, because the Mayflower, Arkansas oil spill was also caused by Exxon. They’ve finally seen fit to mention that if you dig down, just a few inches, on the beaches on the Alaskan coast, you still hit oil.
I’m pretty sure God still cares about the Kalamazoo River. Remember that? That was an oil spill about six months ago – a burst pipeline, a lot like Mayflower.
I’m pretty sure that God still cares about the Yellowstone River – they just had an oil spill, didn’t you hear about it? I certainly didn’t.
And I’m pretty sure that God cares about the thirty oil spills that happened in this country since Good Friday. Thirty oil spills in sixteen days. Most of them not at the rate of 5000 barrels, but how does that make them somehow “not wrong”? And we don’t hear about those, because it isn’t 5000 barrels, and because it doesn’t affect human property. These are in wilderness areas, most of them. A couple of barrels here, a couple of barrels there, and what’s a venomous snake or two?
The only ones affected, by thirty oil spills in sixteen days, are those without the voice to complain about it. But I’m pretty sure God still cares.
And I’m pretty sure God will continue to care, even as we delight in gas prices, and home heating oil prices, that remain under $4 per gallon. Don’t get me wrong – my house is heated with oil, too. And all of those little things, that are a lot more convenient, especially when we don’t feel the cost ourselves.
The analogy here, between the oil spill and Saul – which is maybe not as obvious as it might be – is a fun analogy, isn’t it? It’s a fairly easy analogy, once you have it laid out before you: ExxonMobil, $400 billion, huge corporation, international power. Saul: power of the Temple priests, legion of soldiers behind him, both of them in it to wreck the little guy. It’s a great analogy, right? It’s a great story – it’s an underdog story, and we love underdog stories, especially when we really feel like the underdog in it all – the ones who don’t have power. It’s a nice story because this analogy doesn’t demand a lot from us – sure, we’ll pray for the people in Arkansas, we’ll even pray for a few venomous snakes today.
But analogies are never that easy. And it’s a funny thing: all those stories about the great big powerful players bullying the underdog: power never exists in a vacuum. Where would Saul have been without the authority of the High Priest in Jerusalem behind him, backing him up? Where would he have been without the legion of soldiers with their swords and their ropes and their big cart, ready to haul the believers back to Jerusalem? Do you really think that Saul could have walked alone into Damascus and said to the disciples, “Oh, you believe in Jesus? Come with me, I’m going to bind you and take you to Jerusalem.” And that the disciples would have said, “Oh, okay.”
I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have worked very well for Saul.
But that’s the other think you really need, in order to have power, and Saul had it in spades: he had the consent of the people to be threatened by him. He had the consent not only of the disciples, who saw him coming and were terrified and hid, and granted him that power. But he had the consent as well of their neighbors. Of their friends in the synagogue where they all still worshiped together, Jews and Jesus-movement together. He had the consent of all those who weren’t directly involved and were willing to turn a blind eye to what he was doing. Who were not willing to hide their neighbors, to save them; who were more willing to act out of their own fear, of their own self-interest, than out of any love for others. Saul wouldn’t have had one ounce of power if others hadn’t relinquished some of their own power to him, somewhere along the way.
And I’m pretty sure that ought to make us a little less comfortable in this analogy.
It is a lot easier to go with the flow* than to do the self-examination that is often required when a situation like this arises. It is easier to just allow yourselves to be moved on the tide of public opinion than to question what is right, versus what is convenient. It is easier to go with the flow than to take responsibility for things that, right now, might seem like they are someone else’s problem, and to not see how they affect each and every one of us personally. To recognize our own responsibility when things like this happen, our own collusion in the problem. It is easier fro us not to recognize that not acting, that closing our eyes and putting our fingers in our ears and singing “La la la la I can’t see you”, is an action in its own right, with profound and real repercussions, and that to do that is to relinquish our own power to whomever will reach out and grab it. Do you want to leave that one up to chance?
To recognize that ExxonMobil – just one of many examples that I could have chosen, I don’t mean to single them out as the one-and-only bad guy this day – but to realize that they would not be a $400 billion company without some of our money in their coffers. To realize that they could not spin this whole thing as a PR disaster rather than an environmental disaster without our assent, and without our willingness to be silent. To recognize that there are ways for us to break that silence, to revoke our consent, to assert our power: to divest from fossil fuels, as the UCC is talking about doing at General Synod in June. We are called to recognize, every single day, that we are to speak for the voiceless. You’ve heard me say this before, you’ll hear it again: we are called to house the homeless and feed the hungry and visit the sick and imprisoned. It’s a great passage, if you haven’t read it: Matthew 25, one of my favorites. That call does not end, however, with humanity. It doesn’t end with the Body of Christ as we like to envision it, as looking like any one of us. We are called to care for the image of God, and that is bigger than us. We are called to care as God cares, for all of Creation, to love Creation as God has loved Creation in all its complexity and beauty; to see in it the reflection of the complex beauty that is, in fact, the image of God. We are called to take a hold of the power that we have so long relinquished, power that we have been given by God to be stewards of this creation. To do any less is to ignore God’s call, and our own discipleship.
So are we willing? Are we willing to stand, for once, on the side of what is right rather than what is known, or comfortable, or convenient? Are we willing to hear Creation itself crying out, “Why are you persecuting me?” Why do you serve your own self-interest instead of God? Are we willing to hear this call to discipleship anew, to hear it with new ears and to see it with new eyes, that go beyond an image of God that looks like us, to an image of God that looks like… God?
Are we willing to let the scales fall from our eyes, to be blinded by the power that we are being offered? Are we willing to stand up and say, “Here I am, Lord”, and to follow wherever that leads?
*I know. “Go with the flow” in a sermon about oil spills. Sorry.
The guy who died was a monster, he plotted to take away precious human life and he killed a child – even though he was a father!!! I have no doubt if he survived he would feel no remorse…but for some reason, hearing this man referred to as a speed bump on talk radio really bothered me. So now I go searching for “why” it bothered me? Is it because I’m a Christian and value all human life? How can I value his life when he aimed to hurt so many and successfully killed 4 people?
To call this guy “speed bump” is to reduce him to something less than human. Which is an understandable impulse, because we struggle so with how any human could commit acts of violence, especially at this level. To dehumanize someone takes away the work that we would otherwise have to do: to look at someone’s reasoning, the despair that drove them to a horrific act, the parts of their lives that were “normal”. To dehumanize someone is to make them as unlike us as possible, to not have to consider that someone with whom we might share characteristics actually committed a crime of this magnitude. It means that those of us who are parents do not have to think of him as holding his daughter – feeding her at 3am, changing her diapers, making her laugh. It means that those of us who are parents don’t have to think of him as our son – don’t have to feel his mother’s grief (and it means we can laugh at “that stupid woman’s” denial – but really, could you ever believe such a thing if it were your kids? I couldn’t.) To dehumanize someone means that we don’t have to examine our own violent tendencies – our love of blowing things up on the computer, or on a movie screen; our ease in armchair judgements of who deserves to live or die, who deserves love, or mercy…
But unless we are willing to say that human beings are born evil – to believe that Tamerlane and Dzokhar were never, from birth, able to be anything except monsters – then this act of dehumanization is as detrimental to us as it is to them. It tears us apart as human beings, keeps us from looking at the alienation, the fear, the pain that other young men and women in this world might be feeling. It keeps us from admitting to the fears of our own hearts, and from accepting the solace that someone might be able to offer. As hurt and angry as we might get, most of us can restrain the impulse to spread that pain – to lash out in such a premeditated, thoughtful way. Most of us have enough empathy to recognize that hurting others physically will not make our own pain go away. It would be helpful if we recognized that verbal and emotional violence is nearly as painful – maybe moreso for being invisible – that it tears our souls and tears our hearts and we try to fill the resulting holes with something – militancy, patriotism, conspiracy… fill in the blanks.
It’s worth recognizing as well that to simply call this guy a “terrorist” or a “jihadist” is also, to a lesser extent, dehumanizing. These terms reduce him to this one act, this one thing that clearly and distinctly makes him different from the rest of us. It’s worth listening closely to all of the ways in which these two young men are “othered” – how they went from being white, American citizens to being militant Muslim terrorist immigrants. It is worth noting how hard we push back against anything that makes them similar to us, how we are willing to make this attack more like 9/11 than like Aurora (which, in actuality, it more closely resembles). It is worth noting the emotional violence that we are currently doing to so many people who are watching coverage of these events, and who might look a lot more like Tamerlane or Dzokhar…
When people dehumanize others – dead or alive; when people suggest that anyone is inherently unlovable or unworthy, the question becomes, “what is the implication of what you just said?” What is beneath it – what fear, especially. Translate such comments into “I’m afraid of…” and generally you will hit upon the truth of what is really being said – about each other and about God.
So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe.” John 10: 24-25
I think it’s safe to say that this has been an incredibly tough week for everyone. This has been a week when the unthinkable happened, close to home. This has been a week of grief: a week in which we lost a little bit more of our innocence. I think that all of us wanted to believe, in those first minutes and hours, that this was an accident, that the manhole covers had blown up, as they had in Harvard Square a couple of years ago. But the words came up, as they were going to; not as much on Monday but over the course of the week. This was an act of terror, with all of the baggage that the word now has attached to it, whether or not we ever wanted it to, about race and ethnicity and nationality and motivation. But this was an act that did, in fact, terrify us; we who live close to Boston, who have ties to the city, many of us who knew people who were at the race.
But by far the most terrifying thing, to me, at any rate, was listening to the rampant, unbridled speculation in which every noise was the next bomb, and every backpack was suspicious, and every nerve was kept on edge for as long as possible. Over the course of the week every possible motivation was aired, and everyone who looked suspicious was wrongly accused.
We don’t do well with not knowing. We are vry curious creatures, and there are days when I wonder if God knew what God was doing when adding “curiosity” to the human mix. I wonder if God realized before we ate the fruit off that tree in Eden just where curiosity would lead us. BEcause you can’t really blame the snake for that one – human beings would have eaten that fruit eventually because we just had to know what it was that was so cool that we couldn’t have it. We have to experience things first hand. We have to touch and grab and taste, and if you don’t believe me, think about this: how many times have you taken a bite or a sip of something and said to the person with you, “Oh, this is so awful, you have to taste it!” And the thing is, we do.
We have to know, we have to experience.
Curiosity isn’t all bad – it isn’t all bad tastes and experiences – it got us this far, for better or for worse. We are innovative, creative people who build beautiful churches, lighted with electricity, with sound amplification and everything. We are constantly asking, constantly seeking, constantly striving, and that is not always a bad thing. But we’re like toddlers, inevitably asking “but why? but why?” I think the reason that the continual toddler questioning drives us so crazy is that we want to be doing the same thing; we’ve just learned how annoying it is. It’s not annoying because we don’t want to know, ourselves, but because we don’t have the answers despite the curiosity. It reminds us of all the things that we don’t know. Sometimes the constant asking “why” is a good thing: it allows us to get to know one another better, it allows us to get to know our environment. But sometimes it’s not quite the right question; sometimes it’s that we’re too impatient for an answer; or more likely, that the answer we get does not fit our own worldview. All too often, we pit our intellect against emotion and experience, weighting one more heavily than the other, as we seek the answer. And inevitably, we do ask why, but equally inevitably, we answer that question within our own minds and our own hearts, and those answers can be very hard to change.
Jesus is in the Temple on Hanukkah. That’s what the Feast of Dedication is, in case you were wondering, in case that helps you locate this text, within the Gospels. Hanukkah is the feast in which we celebrate not only the liberation of an occupied city – because Jerusalem was occupied, and the Temple was used to worship gods other than the God of Israel – it was totally desecrated, according to the Jews. Can you imagine how violating that must have felt? And then a rebellion, lead by Judas Maccabeus, drove out the occupiers, and they were able to cleanse and rededicate the Temple. That is what Hanukkah celebrates, that’s what Jesus was in the Temple to celebrate, and that’s the context for the question he was asked. And within all of that is the fear that prompted the question in the first place. Remembered fear, re-experienced fear, is every but as real as current fear, and we have the same responses to uncertainty and not knowing: this time, shouldn’t we be able to do something? Shouldn’t we somehow be ready?
That is what was running through the heads of those Jews in Solomon’s portico, face to face with Jesus: these Jews in an occupied Jerusalem, worrying that once again, their Temple might be desecrated, might be destroyed again. Wondering who might rescue them this time. So: Jesus, tell us plainly, are you the next Judas Maccabeus? Because we’d really like it if you were. Could you go on, get a move on, get the Romans out of Jerusalem, maybe before the Temple gets desecrated this time? They don’t know the answer to their question: they hope, they desire, but they don’t know. The problem is that there is still a correct answer to their question, even though it wasn’t the one Jesus gave.
This text was very much stuck in my head all week. It’s not a totally uncommon thing to have happen, I do read the texts through several times during my sermon preparation, and during Bible Study… but I think it goes deeper than that. Because it resonated, this week, as I followed the news cycle, as I listened to the press conferences, and to what people were saying about what happened this week, and as time and time and time again people asked, “Why?” And it occurred to me that when we ask “why”, when we ask questions like that, we’re not really asking questions. What we’re saying when we ask “Why”, is “Well, isn’t it because…”; we’re suggesting answers, and giving leading questions that only really serve to display our own biases for all the world to see. And we become angry when we don’t hear what we expect, when we don’t have our own biases and opinions confirmed. Every press conference, all week long. Every interaction on social media, all week long. And it shouldn’t surprise us. This is not a new, human reaction to the events of this one, past week. We’ve been hearing these same, leading questions; these same, expected answers, for the past several years around climate change. All those climate scientists who have been questioned, and poked, and prodded, and held up to ridicule and scorn among those who want human ingenuity and human innovation to be always good and never bad – we didn’t mean any harm, after all. Among those who do not want to give up the comfort and convenience that this modern life can offer us, for the responsibility that might be involved in actually hearing those scientists. It’s the same thing we heard from those who questioned Jesus; when his own answer didn’t satisfy them, in the next verse – the part we didn’t read – they took him out to stone him. It’s a pretty gruesome, horrible scanario: “we didn’t like your answer, we’re going to kill you now.” It sounds like overkill, but how many stones have we cast upon climate scientists? And how many stones have we cast upon the media, when we, ourselves, have forced them in to a rapid-fire, twenty-four-hour news cycle, where being first is far more important than being accurate; where the reporting is fraught with cynicism, with biases showing from every which way, where rumors are what are reported until they are proven entirely false. And heaven forbid we do not hear what we want or expect to hear.
So what do we hear?
What do we hear in those moments when we actually sit, quietly, and listen? What do we hear in Jesus’ response to those who would have him be the next Maccabeus? What do we hear, but the still, small voice of God who is still speaking, calling us to open our hearts and our minds to the movement of God right here and right now. We hear a reminder that God is present among us, right here and right now; that God is always present among us. That when we don’t know, when we don’t understand – which is frequent – that it might be because we are asking the wrong question, and that we are more intent upon ourselves than upon God.
Maybe the question isn’t whether the climate is changing, but whether we are treating the Earth as we would treat God incarnate. Maybe the question isn’t whether the climate is changing, but whether we are honoring our relationships with one another, humans and non-humans, really holding those and honoring those relationships, and only using that which we really need, rather than that which we simply desire.
Maybe the question to be asked is not “So, where were you on Monday anyway, God?” although that is one being asked. Maybe the question is what it is that God requires of us, on a day like Monday. Because I think that we’ve all come to the point now where we are learning to see God present in moments like that, to see God in the flashing lights and the first responders and the many, many people who ran towards the danger. To see God present in those who finished a 26.2 mile marathon and then kept on running to the hospital to give blood. But if we’re all affected, and I think we all were, this week, doesn’t that make each and every one of us first responders? And doens’t htat call into question where we see God?
Maybe the question isn’t, actually, “Why?” Maybe the question isn’t, actually, “Why would anyone do this?” But the question is how any one person could get to such a deep place of pain and isolation. The desire to inflict pain can only come out of a place of pain and fear. It is easier to dehumanize the perpetrators; it is easier to see them as monsters, to see them only as they currently are. But I defy any one among you to look into the eyes of a baby, and to claim that they are a monster and born that way. I defy any one among you, sitting here with Christ as our head and cornerstone, and say that any one human being is irredeemable. Because that’s what you would be saying, if you said that these men were nothing but monsters.
It is a lot easier to create a category of “other” – of “not like us” – by virtue of race or ethnicity or immigration status. To make these people different. It is far easier to do that than it is to love our neighbors as ourselves. To weep for their fear and their pain as we would for our own, even when we don’t understand it. But let’s face it: who else really does understand our fear, or our pain?
It is easier to say that they don’t deserve our love; that they don’t deserve our prayers, that they don’t deserve even our system of justice. All of that has been said this week. But God doesn’t see things the way we do. God doesn’t act on merit. If God did, we would not be sitting here right now. We would not be Christians; there would be no Christians, because there would have been no Christ, sent to a people who we cannot say deserved to have love incarnate walk among them.
Maybe the question is not, now, how we keep ourselves or our own cities safe. But it is the same question that it has always been: how do we love our neighbors.
Maybe the question is not, now, about national security – that’s not our job, after all. It is not about how we intercept the next plot. Because maybe the question is not about this realm at all, and never has been. Maybe the question is about bringing God’s realm – that is our call, that is our discipleship. Maybe the question is about how we fill the next broken heart, how we soothe the next wounded spirit. Perhaps it is the one sitting next to you, today.
Maybe the question we should be asking is the one for which our scriptures give the same answer over, and over, and over, and over, until you’re sick of hearing it preached from the pulpit every single Sunday. But maybe it’s the answer to the question that we should be asking. And if we listen, then the Kingdom might be a whole lot closer than any of us know.
Not a sermon, not as theological as usual, but still a Christian issue. First do no harm, second, love your neighbor as yourself. Neither happened yesterday; here is my response.
Dear Senator Ayotte,
I just wanted to express how incredibly disappointed I am in your decision vote No on yesterday’s gun control legislation. Not only did you not represent the people of New Hampshire, who overwhelmingly support background checks, but you did so for the most spurious and flimsy of reasons.
None of what was submitted to the US Senate yesterday would have in any way impacted the Second Amendment; to say that it did is a bold-faced and outright lie. There are restrictions in place already on gun ownership and sales – restrictions that the vast majority of NRA members approve of and that those very same members would like to see applied without exception. How can you possibly suggest that closing the loopholes in the current legislation is somehow detrimental to the Second Amendment? How can you suggest that restricting military-style weapon to the military and law enforcement infringes upon my right to keep and bear arms? The holes in your argument are larger than the holes in background check legislation, and far more dangerous: that you believe these claims, and are willing to espouse them as your own, can only be damaging to our trust in you as our Senator.
It is clear to me, Senator Ayotte, that you place the interest of lobbyists ahead of the lives of the children of our state. It is clear to me that you care more about your campaign coffers and your re-election bid than you do about keeping the citizens of this country safe. I wonder that you are able to sleep at night; I wonder how you will live with yourself, when the next, preventable, shooting rampage occurs? Will you look into the faces of the victims’ families, knowing that you could have acted to prevent the deaths that they grieve?
To be a Senator is not only a privilege, it is a great responsibility. You bear the weight of our voices, of our hearts. You bear the weight of our very lives, and the lives of our children, in the votes you take. We trusted you, and you threw that trust away for the desire to retain your privileged office. You chose the cowardly, rather than the loving choice. I am disappointed.
Please know, Senator Ayotte, that not only have you lost my vote for your re-election, but that I will work hard for anyone, Democrat or Republican, who will seek to implement the laws this country so desperately needs to keep its children safe.
Yours most sincerely,
If you ever needed proof that the Bible is, in fact, quite dangerous, then you can use this text as your prime example. It shows us, here in this moment in Acts when Peter and the other disciples have been called before the Sadducees – the religious authorities of the time – to account for their actions, their daring to preach on the Temple grounds. We see in this passage what a revolutionary text – what a revolutionary preaching, this is. There is recognition in this moment that the living and the preaching of the Gospel is not always popular, not always safe. It is a reminder that preaching, and teaching, and living the Gospel, we are all of us called to difficult choices and difficult places.
We don’t have to go far back into history at all to recognize that. If you’ve ever seen the movie Dead Man Walking, then you know Sr. Helen Prejean, who accompanied those who were on Death Row. People who had done horrible things. Her call was to minister to them. It didn’t necessarily earn her any accolades among people who had been good all their lives, didn’t necessarily earn her any accolades among her own religions community. But it was the Gospel. I don’t need to remind you of what it is that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., did – his own way of living the Gospel, his own way of calling us all to that mountaintop. And I don’t need to remind you of what it cost, either. Those of you who have heard me preach for a while know about Dietrich Bonhoeffer who gave up a position at Columbia University in the 1930s, to return to his native Germany, despite the risk, and to start there a Christian community that wouldn’t be co-opted by the authoritarian regime. He went back to show people how to be Christian under an authoritarian regime. That, in itself, should have gotten himself locked up in that time and in that place – well before he ever decided to dabble in politics. Living and teaching and preaching the Gospel can get you into trouble. Ask the Massachusetts Conference Minister, the Rev. Jim Antal, who was arrested with several others about a month ago for protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline in Washington DC.
These people are not weirdos, but a part of our sacred tradition, following in the footsteps of Peter and the other disciples, arrested on charges of… preaching the Gospel. And living the Gospel. In these few verses, in this tiny sliver of a very long story in the book of Acts, we have a stunning call to, not only a joyful discipleship, a Resurrection discipleship, but a costly one as well. We have a wake-up call for everyone who attends worship every Sunday and yet walks away untransformed, unmoved by what can happen in this place. This text is a wake-up call for all of us who value convenience, and comfort and pleasure – which is, I believe, everyone. We’re human, after all. This is a wake-up call that reminds us that following God, rather than following humanity, isn’t always going to be a simple case of standing up to fearful, power-hungry authority, as we see with the Sadducees in this case, that indeed the lines aren’t always so clear-cut. They’re nearly never quite this black and white, with somebody coming to us, saying, “Now, don’t you preach in Jesus’ name anymore!”
Because that would be easy, wouldn’t it?
But that brings us to the other reason that this book is so dangerous. This book out of which we try to live our lives, this Gospel narrative; this Bible is dangerous because it can be so easily misused. It can be so easily used to justify our own worldviews, rather than challenging us to see things in the way that God does, and the way that God would have us do. To suggest that we have a right to do all of the violence that we want – to each other and to creation. Which sounds a little harsh, but let’s just take one verse: Genesis 1:28, where God says to Adam, “Fill the Earth and subdue it.” We took that one and ran with it, didn’t we? Seven billion people later, and what have we done with Earth’s resources? I’m pretty sure that when God said that to Adam, God wasn’t talking rape and pillage. Just a gut feeling. But that’s certainly how we took it, and a lot of that has been done with religion as the justification.
The Bible has been used throughout history to subjugate people. Just in the past couple of hundred years, the Bible has been used to justify colonialism, racism, sexism, slavery.
This forces us to an inevitable truth, although it’s one we don’t particularly like to hear: we all cherry-pick. We’re all “cafeteria Christians” – we walk along with our tray, picking what we want and leaving the rest in warming trays. We have to read the Bible that way, it’s the only possible way to read it. Because it is not one great, coherent text, is it? It was written over too many hundreds of years, in too many times, in too many places, by too many different authors speaking to too many audiences, with too many agendas in mind. It was a text written in too many languages, all of which have been translated, and updated, and interpreted, and distilled down into sound-bytes and images, especially ones that fit well into a given time and place. We don’t see the Bible as justifying slavery anymore, because we’re not trying to justify slavery anymore, although if you dig a little bit in the text, it’s not that hard to do. We justify other things, now, instead.
And that’s not even talking about all of the times when this book that we hold so dear is twisted and perverted in ways that are so subtle that we often miss them. We read a quote, a little while ago in Bible study, and it was shocking to hear it: it started off really familiar, but it didn’t end in the way that people thought it did. Because it started off, “Whoever is not…” and it seemed like something we’d heard a lot recently and knew well. But the quote is actually, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:20) Funny, that’s not the way we usually hear that one, anymore.
We don’t like to admit to picking and choosing. We don’t like to call ourselves cafeteria Christians, despite being so. But the more we use this book for our own self-justification, the less likely we are to admit to how we read it in reality. And that makes it more dangerous. Because it turns the Bible, an already-dangerous, already-revolutionary text, into a weapon. One we can wield, against those who disagree. Something we can use to bash them over the head. Which makes the Bible not just revolutionary but really violent.
I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, if you’ve been reading this blog for more than one post or so, that I’m a fairly political person. And for someone like me, this has been an interesting week in terms of the examination of violence. A lot went on this week. There was a DA in Texas killed, as well as a Prison Official in Colorado – and those two cases seem linked. There were admissions this week that state legislators in several different states have been given extra protection because they brought up the issue of gun control in their states. Just bringing up that issue was enough for one state legislator in Maryland to call, on his Facebook page, for the formation of an armed militia to overthrow the government. It’s been an interesting week in violence when we consider the attempts at voter suppression in North Carolina. It’s been an interesting week in violence when we look at the firing of the Rutgers University basketball coach after a video showed him abusing students. It’s been an interesting week, when we look at the commemorations in disparate places over disparate issues, commemorations of lives lost to violence and violence that broke out as a result of lives lost. The life of George Tiller, the only physician who performed abortions in Kansas, who was shot dead in church, but whose clinic will reopen this week. The life of the Rev. Dr. King, with the anniversary of his assassination this week. The suicide just the other day of Matthew Warren, son of the evangelical pastor Rick Warren. It’s all spurred a lot of discussion in many circles in my life, around violence and mental health and theology.
It’s spurred a lot of thought in my own head, around violence, and power, and fear. Because these are very closely intertwined. People who are afraid, who are insecure – and I think that’s a lot of us, frankly – will find and hang onto power in any way possible. They will take whatever authority is granted them and hang onto it with both hands, white-knuckled. And when they feel threatened, they will perform acts of violence. Not necessarily physical – there are other forms, as well. They will perform acts of violence, as this week demonstrated time and time again, as the past weeks have demonstrated time and time again. And nearly always, it is a fear response, whether the threats are real or perceived.
And we see that in today’s scripture as well. Because what we see is not Peter and the disciples hauled in for breaking the law, precisely: they were just hanging out in Solomon’s Portico at the Temple, preaching their own brand of reform Judaism with a resurrection thrown in for good measure. But the Sadducees didn’t see it that way – the Sadducees who were already in a precarious position, who were already clinging as hard as they could to whatever power they were allowed by the Romans. And they saw this little group – granted, this growing group – but still, this relatively little group in Jerusalem of Jesus followers, and they were afraid. Insecure in their position already, they feared their own loss of power. They feared what the Romans would do to them, if they allowed this to continue. One among them – if you kept reading in this passage, you would hear about Gamaliel – the one among them who argued against killing the disciples only did so because he was afraid too. He, at least, had the good sense to be afraid of God, and to sense that killing the disciples might not serve the establishment well in the long run, but what he couldn’t do was to totally dispel the fear response of the Sadducees. Now that they had hauled Peter and the disciples in, now that they had heard what they had to say, they had to respond to it in some way, shape or form – because the disciples were questioning authority. So the Sadducees took them out and had them flogged. Their fear of God only went so far against their fear of losing face, losing status.
And in this particular scripture, we certainly see the disciples as sympathetic characters, and we don’t want to see anyone get flogged – bad enough that we had to see that happen to Jesus, who was flogged and killed for a very similar fear response. We look at the disciples and rejoice that they’re finally getting everything right, but we also have to remember that this is a very parenthetical moment in the Bible. The disciples get it, finally, but back in the Gospels, that never happened. The disciples were the one questing after power and authority; they were the ones promoting violent revolution. Peter himself was the one who cut off the ear of the High Priest’s servant, when they came to arrest Jesus. Fear response: leads to violence, yet again. Just a year before this scripture, it was the disciples themselves. Soon enough, there will be epistles to the young churches, letters that address the struggles for power and authority that always come up when you have a group of human beings hanging out together. We read Paul’s responses to what was going on in those churches, begging them to do exactly what Peter said to the Sadducees.
When we read the Bible, we can’t help but be reminded that it’s a human book. It is a book full of human weaknesses and human understandings, of people who are not unlike us, who don’t want to change. Who don’t want to be challenged, and who certainly don’t want to relinquish control because the status quo is just fine, thank you. And that only serves us once again as a reminder of just how dangerous the Bible really is, how dangerous it can be when we start thinking of God being like us, rather than of ourselves as striving to be like God.
Which is what we’re called to do.
That’s Peter’s great call, in this moment as he faces the Sadducees: we must obey God, rather than human authority.
Which leaves us where, exactly? When our scriptures are so dangerous, so often misused and so prone to humanity: that leaves us on thin ice.
Some will say – I have often said, and you will hear me say it again – that if there is any love within us, that should be the lens. That should be how we read these scriptures, the guide to how we treat one another. But even love is corruptible. The people at the Westboro Baptist – I cannot call that a church – you know, the ones who picket military funerals with hate-filled signs? Do you know why they do it? In their own words, they do it because they love us all so much. They want us to be saved. They don’t want us to burn in hell, which they are absolutely convinced that every last one of us is going to do. That is their version of a loving response. So you can see how that, too, can be dangerous.
It makes us realize that love is not the first step on the path to discipleship. It can’t be. Because when love is the first step, then you can tell a grieving mother at a military funeral that you love her so much that you’re going to make her grief worse. It starts before that, this path to discipleship that we’re all on. It starts a long time before that, before we’re ready to step up and love anyone else. Perhaps we, too, as Christians, need to take a Hippocratic Oath: remind ourselves to first, do no harm.
We need to turn this whole thing around, and examine the violence that we continually do to one another in God’s name. Physical hurts, because that still does happen on a regular basis. But more commonly, more subtly: the shaming, the bullying that we continually inflict one upon another. The denial of humanity, of equality, of dignity, even of the right to have a voice. We have to start there. We have to start well before the imagined future reactions of the other, the one to whom we are speaking so lovingly; we have to start before we imagine, “Oh, aren’t they going to be so grateful for all the love that I am turning in their direction!” – which is really quite patronizing. We need to see underneath all of that, our own motivations, our own reactions, our own fears, that keep us from hearing God saying anything other than what we want God to say. We need to recognize the motivations, the pulls of comfort and complacency, of the knee-jerk resistance to change that exists within each and every one of us, especially if it really asks something of us, in the process. We have to start with the need to see others – however it is that we “other” people, by race or gender or religion – we need to start by seeing them as something that isn’t simply “less-than”. We need to start by seeing that this is a large creation and that we, all seven billion of us, are not the sole inheritors. Are not the sole beloved of God. Are not the only ones with lives at stake.
Before we can ever love, before we can get to that point on this road set before us, on the Way that is Jesus Christ, we must ask ourselves: what on earth are we afraid of, anyway?
We must obey God rather than human authority. We must be called outside of ourselves, able to see beyond ourselves; but first we need to take the initial steps. We need to be able to see one another in love, and to treat one another with respect, humans and all of Creation. You’ve heard that from me before, and believe me that you will hear it again. But we have to be ready. We have to be able to hear the still, small voice of the still-speaking God whispering from among the myriad of human voices that pervade our scripture and our tradition. To hear within our own hearts the pervasive fears, the ease with which we hurt each other in the name of a God who would hurt no one. To ask ourselves what really is at stake as we worship, and pray, and bring our faith out into the world. We have to know our own hearts, before we can call them God’s, before we can call ourselves obedient.
We must obey God rather than human authority. What better place to start than with ourselves?