What follows is my sermon, preached on November 12, 2017. It builds upon some earlier reflections on the mass shooting in Texas on November 5.
I’m afraid, following the attack on a Texas church last week, I feel the need to take an interlude from our series on “Heroes: Flawed and Faithful 1.” But it’s important for us to come together and meditate on what an attack like this means for all churches, and what our responsibilities are in Christ moving forward. Because last week, a group of believers got together to worship Jesus, much like we’re doing here. 26 were murdered, and another 20 wounded. And we need to figure out what to do in response. But there is no one passage which can weave together all the thoughts and struggles with which I’ve been wrestling, so this morning I’m going to take a rare opportunity to preach topically as I draw on several texts which will help us weave our way into the wider story of Scripture.
I begin my reflection in prophetic corpus of the Old Testament. Faced with the broken reality of this world, we can’t be like the corrupt priests and prophets in Jeremiah’s time who were so desperate for gain they ignored the realities of the world around them. To keep people quite they told them, “Peace, peace!” But the word of the LORD said back, “But there is no peace.” If we were to take tack of saying, “But this would never happen here,” the LORD might say the same to us. In a society which is increasingly fractured and hostile toward one another, violence is possible. And it’s not a reality we can ignore. We can’t say, “Well everything is all right here,” and expect it will always be so. We can hope it will be so, not just for us but for others, but in this world we can’t be certain of this.
I think, in the light of terrorist attacks perpetrated upon a Texas Church, New York City pedestrians, and Vegas concert goers 2 have experienced should sober us up about the realities of this world. Perhaps even almost to the point of despondency. This is one of the reasons why one of my favorite Christmas Carols is “I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day.” This carol, based on the poem “Christmas Bells,” by Henry W. Longfellow, speaks from a hurting and desperate heart. The verses were written at the height of the American Civil War. For nearly three years Longfellow watched the country descend into madness and violence, all because 1/3 of the white population though it was an absolute right for white people to own black people. His own son had even signed up to fight and was wounded in battle. So on Christmas day in 1864, as he heard the bells announcing the old angel proclamation, “Peace on Earth, good will to men.” He felt that pang of near despondency and wrote,
And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth, I said,
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
He couldn’t say, “Peace Peace!” when there wasn’t any peace.
But near despondency must not be our final destination, because faith drives us forward. Jesus, in Matthew 7, calls us to trust in our Heavenly Father to give us the good gifts we need in order to live and do our Lord’s work in this world. And, as part of that trust we are supposed to live out what we now call “the Golden Rule,”
…do to others what you would have them do to you (Matthew 7:12b)
In this world, following that command is difficult. We worry we’ll be taken advantage of. Or, as we have seen in attacks over and over, that our hospitality will be used as an avenue of hatred instead of a pathway toward friendship. And, truth be told, sometimes “doing to others what you would have them do to you” can lead to people taking advantage of both kindness and hospitality. At the same time we have to mark how our savior goes out of his way to not say, “Give people what they deserve.” And it’s a good thing he didn’t declare “give people what they deserve” as his teaching philosophy, because had he done so he may have never gone to the Cross in the first place! None of us deserve the love and kindness of Jesus, that’s what makes it grace. And it’s a grace we are called to pay forward to other underserving people — even if it opens us up to being wounded.
This is why I can’t see transforming church sanctuaries into fortresses, or encouraging people to carry weapons so we’ll be able to “fight back,” as a viable way forward. How can we greet the stranger, or show hospitality to our neighbors, if our first response to the outside world is suspicion and fear? Where is the Kingdom of Heaven in such a posture?
So what can we do? We can continue to be a people of faith. In John 16, during what’s called Jesus’ “High Priestly discourse,” our savior says,
I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16:33).”
How did Jesus overcome the world? By living faithfully before his Father and going to the cross. There is trouble in this world, and it can come even into this space, but our trust must always be in our Lord Jesus — who overcame this world. And — by virtue of our inclusion into his life, death, and resurrection through our baptism — so have we. And if we have overcome this world with Christ, then we must also continue to love this world like Christ himself loves it. We must continue to show hospitality, charity, and self-sacrificial love especially in the face of hatred and violence. Because that’s the way of the Cross.
Now this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider how we should respond to violence should it be directed toward us, especially when we are gathered together in worship. In fact, in a pastoral letter sent to all ABCUSA churches this week, Dr. Spitzer encouraged us to work on practical crisis management policies in conjunction with local agencies like the police. And I will be reaching out to Chief Perlman to do just what. But in our considerations we we must not allow the possibility of this world’s violence to lead us into fear. As 1 John 4:18 says,
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18a)
Seasons of near despondency should lead us to be sober-minded and prepared for as many possibilities as we can, but they should also cause us to cling even more firmly to our hope. And in that hope, granted to us by the love Christ has showered upon us, fear is cast out.
I see this movement in Longfellow’s poem. It travels so close to despondency we might be tempted to think he’s given up on the possibility of “peace on Earth, good will to men.” But at that dark moment he listens to the bells, speaking with the voice of the angel chorus, and continues to write,
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.
Let us fixate on this voice, calling down to us from heaven. And as we hear it, in hope, may we not “…be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).” Amen.