Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.
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;
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
where does it hurt?
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
where does it hurt?
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.