Everywhere, Everywhere, Everywhere

Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-25
Mark 12:1-8

Where is God in a world where a suicide bomber steps into a funeral procession in Baghdad, Iraq and blows himself up, killing 19 people?

Where is God in a world where suicide bombers in Beirut, Lebanon do the same, killing 43 people?

Where is God in a world where gunmen open fire in Paris, France, killing 129 people?

You may only be familiar with one of these, as that’s the only one being reported in the news. But the truth is, this weekend has been the definition of hell on earth.

Baghdad and Beirut were both attacked on Thursday. Paris was attacked on Friday. It’s still not exactly known who is responsible for all of the attacks or whether they were coordinated together on purpose (ISIS has claimed responsibility for some of them).

And so I find myself standing up here in front of you, yet again, in the wake of a horrific tragedy, and wondering what words I could possibly say.

There is a poet by the name of Warsan Shire. Shire was born in Kenya to Somali parents, and emigrated to the United Kingdom when she was one year old. An excerpt from one her poems, “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon”*, appeared on Facebook yesterday. The entire poem goes like this.

“they set my aunt’s house on fire
i cried the way women on tv do
folding at the middle
like a five pound note.
i called the boy who use to love me
tried to ‘okay’ my voice
i said hello
he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?

i’ve been praying,
and these are what my prayers look like;
dear god
i come from two countries
one is thirsty
the other is on fire
both need water.

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered

I know that we like to think that our world is worse now than it used to be. Every generation grows up thinking things were better when they were kids, and that goes for my generation too.

But the sad truth is that our world has always, always been broken and in pain. It has always hurt everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. We are just better equipped to see it now. Much as a doctor now has far more sophisticated and innovative ways to examine a body and see all the things wrong with it, so too do we have the ability to see beyond our front doors and our neighborhood to the rest of the hurting world around us.

It’s this pain, this realization that the world is broken, that drives authors to write apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic literature, such as our words this morning from the book of Daniel and the gospel according to Mark, generally speaks of times of great suffering, followed by the hope of better things to come.

Well, we are in a time of suffering. We are in a time of great pain. We grieve and mourn with all of those who lost loved ones in the attacks in Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris. We grieve and mourn with refugees fleeing violence and death in their countries, looking for anywhere at all that might be safe. We grieve and mourn with everyone in our own town who suffer daily with needs as basic as food. And as we grieve, we cry out, “How long, Lord? How long?”

How long are we going to hear about people blowing themselves up and taking innocent lives with them? How long are we going to hear about shooters going on rampages and killing dozens, hundreds of people at once? How long are we going to demonize and vilify entire cultures and groups of people, entire religions, calling for immediate and deadly consequences for those who don’t share our views? How long?

It not only upsets me, but it makes me angry. Angry that we are hearing, again, about another mass murder. Angry that not all mass murders are treated the same in terms of reporting or public response—no one cared about the suicide bombings, for example. Angry that people will use them as excuses to call for the extermination of entire populations they deem “dangerous”. Angry that these things keep happening and I can’t stop them, not with changing my Facebook profile picture to a French flag, not by sending my thoughts and prayers to those affected, not by getting up on a soapbox or in a pulpit and ranting about how unjust, how evil all of this is.

What I need is hope, and when I look around, I don’t see very much of it. I don’t see how we can actually stop people intent on killing people from doing so. I don’t see how we can change the mind of the nutcases in our own country who seriously suggest that we should exterminate the followers of an entire religion. Even in our own communities, the churches and social service agencies are struggling to keep up with the demand for help that our own people experience. I need hope. I need Daniel and Mark. I need an apocalypse.

By that, I don’t mean that I need some fantastic end of the world scenario we tend to think of when we think of an apocalypse. Nor do I need the flawed vision of millenialism, dispensationalism, or the rapture nonsense spouted by TV and street corner preachers claiming that the book of Revelation is a literal road map for the future. Let me be clear: the apocalyptic prophecies in the book of Daniel are mostly about Seleucid Emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and the apocalyptic prophecies in Revelation are probably mostly about the struggles of the early Christians in the view of the broader Roman society in which they lived. Neither of these writings are specific predictions about the end times.

No, I need an apocalypse because of what these writings tell me about God and where God is.

In apocalyptic writing, it is plainly evident where God is. The situations these writings describe are painful, horrific, full of suffering. They include wars, earthquakes, famines, disease, death, violence, and tragedy. They speak of times when oppression and hatred are the norms of the day, when, as Warsan Spire said, the pain is “everywhere, everywhere, everywhere”. They talk about times when there is no hope to be found, when all around flies fear, despair, and mourning. They depict times and places that seem the least likely to be places where God is.

And yet, there God is. The answer to the question “Where is God?” is this: God is in Baghdad. God is in Beirut. God is in Paris. God is there because that is who God is. God enters into these places, where there is so much death, and reveals Godself. These apocalyptic stories remind us that God hears the cries of an aching, grieving world, that God takes broken communities in God’s arms and says, “No more. It’s time for something new.”

Apocalyptic stories give me hope because they reveal a God that doesn’t abandon us when we are in the depths of our pain, our anger, and our depression. They give me hope because they reveal the very farthest lengths God is willing to go to redeem and rescue all of creation from itself. They give me hope because they reveal the truth about life: that God is Lord of Sovereign of all, and not even death can take that away.

My hope is in the Lord, in whom I take refuge, not because I have no fear but precisely because I am afraid. I am afraid that this violence and hatred will never stop. I am afraid that maybe I’ll wake up one day and be in the same position of millions of people around the world who worry every single day that they might be next; that the next bomb will go off next to them. That the next children taken and forced into war or the sex trade will be theirs. That the next drone strike will accidentally hit their house or school or hospital.
It is fear that apocalyptic stories confront. And in these stories, which neither deny nor wash away the very real fears we and everyone else face day after day, God’s ultimate love and grace are revealed, the same love and grace revealed in Jesus Christ crucified and risen. In our helplessness or even unwillingness to do anything about our world’s pain, God comes, bringing a new world, a new way, and new life, even and especially to those who have died.

“later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered

And God answered, “Then everywhere is where I’ll be.”

Featured Image: “Candle Light Vigil For Paris. Praying for those who lost there live in Paris and Beirut and all around the world.” by Lion Multimedia Production U.S.A. is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

*I wouldn’t normally just quote an entire poem without reference. But I thought it important enough to do on this occasion.

A Partnership Dies Too Soon

Today, the sixteen-year partnership between Trinity Lutheran Seminary and Bexley Hall Episcopal Seminary came to an end when the Board of Directors of the Bexley Seabury Seminary Federation voted unanimously to terminate the ecumenical relationship between the seminaries and move all of BSSF’s operations back to Chicago. BSSF says it’s for the best. Trinity hasn’t yet released a statement.

I am heartbroken. The partnership between Trinity and Bexley Hall was one of the pivotal influences in my formation as a pastor. The relationship was a strong, visible example of the work our two churches can accomplish together, as Called to Common Mission hoped. We lived together. We learned together. We worshiped together. We served together. Through our daily life together, we learned about each other, and about ourselves. That kind of interaction, that kind of dialogue, is the very heart of ecumenical work. And now it’s gone.

I don’t know exactly what happened. I hear rumors, but rumors are not facts. All I know is that something great and beautiful has been lost, and in its place returns the same old way of doing things, the way that we know is unsustainable and doesn’t work.

I hope that the Holy Spirit still has some breathing in store for both institutions, because right now, it feels like the breath has been knocked right out. Please, pray for both communities as they suffer through this transitional time.

Life Hurts

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Genesis 2:18-24
Psalm 8
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16

We are in that time of year when Jesus hits us with a bunch of speeches that frankly, we just don’t like and we don’t want to hear.

Two weeks ago, he chastised his disciples for worrying about who was the greatest, taking our very popular dreams of being great, powerful, and well-known, and smashing them to bits, telling us that we need to be the least, servants, and people others walk on.

Last week, he blasted his disciples for sticking to a harmful notion that you have to belong to a certain group in order to belong to Christ, and in the process challenged us and the way we perceive membership in our community and in the eyes of God.

Next week, Jesus tells a man that selling everything that he owns and giving it to the poor—everything that he owns—is the only way he can inherit eternal life. In our culture and society, where obsession with money and control over it is basically the bedrock of our civilization, be prepared to be uncomfortable.

And then there’s this week. This week, Jesus is put to the test and asked a simple question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” And his answer is scathing and absolute.

This is never an easy text to tackle, and it comes up every three years in the Revised Common Lectionary. It’s easy to preach about things that don’t affect us personally. Heck, compared to this text, preaching about racism a few weeks ago could be considered easy because we as a community of faith by and large never have to deal with the evil of racism.

Marriage and divorce, though—those are personal. Incredibly personal. I know that some of you have gone through the pain of divorce. I have watched friends go through it, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. It is a terrible ordeal to go through, one that is usually not planned when a wedding takes place. Very few people get married planning on having a divorce later.

The Pharisees’ question is actually easy to answer. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The answer, by their own admission, using the laws of Moses as their guide, is “yes”. According to the Torah, the laws of Judaism, a man could divorce his wife. The problem is, the answer is more a “yes…but”. “Yes, it’s legal, but, it’s wrong.” As Jesus says, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate”.

Jesus’s words, then, speak to a reality we already know. We know that divorce is not what God meant for us as people in relationships. We know that it is destructive and painful. We know that it is the result of broken relationships, betrayed trusts, failed attempts at reconciliation. We know that.

Yet Jesus doesn’t hide his feeling on the matter. Divorce isn’t supposed to be a part of life. It shouldn’t happen, but it does.

It’s amazing to me how deadly and venomous these words of Jesus have become when they are used against people. While it is a little less prevalent today than it was 50 years ago in the self-proclaimed “golden age” of the church, it is still too often that a Christian woman in a marriage with a physically, verbally, or emotionally abusive husband is told that she has no choice but to remain in the marriage because “Jesus said so.” In many churches, a divorce is more evil than a man who beats his wife, many times to death.

I don’t believe that, and I hope you don’t, either. Unfortunately, we tend to take other parts of the Bible this way, using other laws and commands as sharp blades against other people.

This is what happens when we take a legalistic approach to any of Jesus’s words and use them as weapons against each other. Believe it or not, the world is very infrequently black and white. Instead, it is a nuanced collection of greys. Ethics and morality are complicated, and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise, that tries to make everything easy and clear and summariz-able in a little sound byte, is selling you something.

Jesus himself is not concerned with the legalistic interpretations of the law concerning divorce. His responses, both to the Pharisees and to his disciples, never touch on whether divorce should be legal or not. Instead, he is concerned with something else, something that gets at the heart of Christian ethics and morality: relationships.

Relationships have been at the heart of the human experience from the very beginning. In the second creation story, presented in Genesis 2 (yes, there are two, and they conflict on many points), after God forms the dust of the earth into an earth creature and breathes life into it, it dawns on God that it is not good for the creature to be alone. And so God creates many other creatures, hoping that one of them will be for the earth creature a partner. When none of them are able to be in that relationship God hoped for, God molds flesh and blood from the earth creature into another earth creature, and finally, in this mutual reflection of itself, the earth creature declares that it has finally found a partner, an equal, someone to be in intimate relationship with; and thus are man and woman created, together, at the same time, and humanity realizes that it is best when it is together.

Of course, we know how the story continues, how humanity distorts its interdependent relationship with itself and with God. It’s a story that continues to this day. We are a people who’s relationships are shattered. We see it every time there’s yet another mass shooting we can’t seem to do anything about, or civil war, or international conflict, or nasty political debate—and yes, we see it when our most intimate relationships break down in divorce. We are an imperfect people in imperfect relationship to one another.

And it is into this mess of humanity that God comes incarnate. Into this wreck, into this disaster, God is made present. I admit, you wouldn’t know that by looking at just this story, just this pericope of Jesus and the Pharisees arguing about divorce. But the entire Biblical history, from Genesis to Revelation, a collection of writings compiled over a thousand years or more, is one big story of the reconciliation of human beings with God and with each other.

It’s a constant uphill and downhill battle. God creates the world and all that is in it, including human beings, and all is good. Then human beings break that relationship, introducing pain and suffering into the world. God calls Abraham and his descendants to a new, special relationship; and they turn out to be a bunch of tricksters, thieves, and liars. God rescues the enslaved Israelites from captivity in Egypt; and they make a golden calf, worshiping someone else. God raises up the Judges, and then Kings for the Israelites; and the Judges and Kings are mostly bad apples who turn their backs on God. God calls prophets to speak words of wisdom, judgment, mercy, and sometimes terror to the people; and the prophets are often hunted or reviled.

There’s something peculiar about that pattern. It’s peculiar because, no matter what happens in the Biblical narrative, no matter how damaged the relationship gets, God keeps coming back. God enters those times of hurt and devastation, and God works to make the people—to make us whole again. The story of God is the story of broken relationships that God, through grace, attempts to make whole again.

It doesn’t mean we’re free from the pain. A divorce is still a divorce, a terrible thing, and Jesus is right to grieve, even in his own day, that it exists. But neither does it mean that in those times, God is absent. On the contrary. It is in those times, when we need grace the most, when our relationships with each other and with God are at their worst, that God is present in our grief, offering peace, grace, mercy, and yes, forgiveness.

Featured Image: “Pareja (Couple)” by Daniel Lobo is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

An ELCA Pastor's reflections on life and the church


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 268 other followers

%d bloggers like this: