Blessing the Corners

Thank you to everyone who has offered prayers on behalf of Kalamazoo today. We are all exhausted.

As many of you know already, Jason Dalton went on a shooting spree last night, killing six and wounding two others in seemingly random acts of violence around our community.

I scrapped the sermon I had prepared for this morning and started over from the beginning. The text is Luke 13:31-35. Here is the sermon:

Jason (the suspected shooter) was arrested at the corner of Ransom and Porter, a scant three blocks from our church’s building at Ransom and Burdick. North Church is the closest Presbyterian congregation to the scene. After worship this morning, I took the water from our baptismal font and walked down to that intersection, sprinkling the four corners in an act of blessing. This ritual was done in your name and in the name of all who support Kalamazoo with their prayers today. Thank you. Your presence is felt.

Our closing hymn this morning was written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and set to music by the Iona Community:

Goodness is stronger than evil.
Love is stronger than hate.
Light is stronger than darkness.
Life is stronger than death.
Victory is ours, victory is ours,
through God who loves us.

If you live locally, please come and join us at an interfaith community prayer vigil on Monday night (February 22), 6pm at First Congregational Church (345 W Michigan Ave).

Water from the baptismal font.
The corner of Ransom and Porter, where Jason was arrested.
And the promise still holds true.

Violence in Herkimer

The eyes of the nation have been on Central New York this week as Kurt Myers ripped through the villages of Mohawk and Herkimer (a half hour drive from my house) with a shotgun, killing four and wounding two, plus killing one police dog.  Lydia Dittrich, one of my newest congregants at Boonville Presbyterian, had this to say on Facebook:

I am probably going to be throwing gasoline on sparks here but I just have to say……

I am saddened and distraught at the loss of 4 lives today here in Central New York. My heart goes out to everyone affected by this, from the families left behind, to the parents anguishing over their children’s safety at school, to the law enforcement officers who wake up with a job to do praying today is not that day.

It is a difficult thing when tragedy hits you where you live. It makes fear surge to the front of all other emotions. Adrenaline surges and the defensive response of “I will do whatever it takes to protect what is mine” kicks into high gear. You want to do nothing more than hole up with your family and count each hair on their head until the storm passes. Next comes the wave of community reaction, outcry and grief at the loss of life in their back yard.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross is the definitive work on Grieving. There are five stages that each of us will go through as we begin to process and absorb the events of today’s attack in Herkimer NY. Denial (I can’t believe this is happening where I live), Anger (that sonofabitch ought to burn in hell for this), Bargaining (If only we could get those beloved people back, If only we could have prevented this–I would do anything), Despair (there is nothing I can do, and we failed) and Acceptance (it is terrible that tragedy has found us, but we are a community and we will come back stronger from this than ever before).

We all have different views on how the government and our communities will respond to this tragedy politically. Another strong reason for every person that can vote SHOULD vote…every election, every time.

My only request to my Facebook friends and family is that we accept each others’ points of view with grace on this topic. We don’t have to agree on it (how boring would life be if we did?) but the real crime in this tragedy will be the resulting social schism this senseless violence leaves behind if we stoop to word wars and status updates blasting the NRA, the government, our nations mental health system, the VA or any other entity that might be involved. Be KIND TO EACH OTHER and remember that everyone will respond to this in their own way, in their own time. Simply because we may disagree politically, does NOT mean it is worth hurting a friend that is still here.

To borrow my pastor’s favorite closing (thank you J. Barrett Lee)
I love you all, God loves you all, and there is NOTHING you can do about it. Be blessed, and be a blessing.

This community is going to need it.

Lydia and her family will be formally joining our church on Easter.

The Dark Side of Joy

Image by SolLuna. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons

You can listen to a recording of this sermon by clicking here.

Last week, I told you that we would be looking at the life and message of St. John the Baptist today.  I assure you that I had planned a brilliant and eloquent sermon that would have surely expanded your minds and lifted your hearts to heaven.  However, last Friday’s news headlines of a school massacre in Connecticut led me to set aside that work-in-progress.

By the end of the day, I knew that I would not be able to read the words of this week’s Epistle Lesson with any integrity and not comment on them.  This brief passage comes to us from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  It’s short, so I’ll read it again here in its entirety for the sake of those who are listening to this sermon online or on the radio:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  (Philippians 4:4-7)

“Rejoice in the Lord always…”

“How in the world,” I thought to myself, “can I (or any minister) have the audacity to stand in a pulpit 48 hours after the mass murder of children (two weeks before Christmas, no less) and utter the word ‘Rejoice’?”  It almost seems vulgar.

Joy is a big theme for Paul in his little letter to the Christians at Philippi.  The book is only four chapters long.  Reading out loud, you could get through the entire letter in about fifteen minutes.  However, in those few minutes, you would hear the words “joy” and “rejoice” sixteen times altogether.  Philippians is sometimes referred to as “the Letter of Joy” because of this persistent theme.  Paul can’t seem to say enough about it.

The fact that Paul emphasizes the theme of joy so strongly becomes especially curious when you realize that Paul wrote this letter from a Roman prison, which would have looked and felt more like a medieval dungeon than a modern penitentiary.  So, joy seems like an odd topic for him to focus on at that particular time and place.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”

We Americans are used to associating joy with happiness, an emotional condition brought about by favorable circumstances, but real joy, in the sense that Paul means it, must be something else entirely.  I think joy has to be deeper and wider than mere happiness if it can survive in a Roman dungeon.

I think joy, in the sense that Paul meant it, is something that arises from our experience of harmony in the universe.  Joy can, and often does, bring a smile to your face.  You can feel it surging up inside when you get lost in a sunset or a clear night sky, when you hold your newborn child for the first time and your heart feels like it’s about to leap outside your chest, or when some piece of art or literature touches something deep within your soul.  In such moments, we experience joy.  We marvel at the wonderful and beautiful way in which the universe is put together.  Joy.

Joy is easy to recognize in such moments.  It really does feel like happiness.  We feel the touch of beauty and harmony in the universe and that touch makes us want to smile, laugh, jump, or even weep for joy.

However, there is another side to joy.  This side is not so easily recognized.  I believe the shock, sadness, and anger we have all been experiencing since Friday are also, in their essence, expressions of joy.  These unhappy feelings come from the same places in our hearts that gave rise to our experience of wonder.  Something within our hearts instinctively embraces harmony when it is present and yearns for it when it is absent.  Last Friday, the harmony of the universe was violently shattered and our hearts have been screaming inside ever since.  That scream is the scream of joy, the dark side of joy to be sure, but joy nevertheless.

I call this pain “the dark side of joy” because it would mean that our hearts were dead if we didn’t feel a stinging outrage at what happened.  If we anesthetize ourselves to joy’s dark side, we will also be numb to joy’s light side: the happiness and wonder at the world I mentioned before.  The truly cynical people in this world are not those who are mad at the world, but those who have ceased to care altogether.  They are the ones who heard the news on Friday, shrugged their shoulders apathetically, and went on with their lives as if nothing had happened.  Such people have been so wounded by life that, in order to protect themselves from experiencing more pain, they’ve had to close themselves off to all emotions whatsoever.  If you are angry about this, it means that you care.  So long as you are still able to feel the anger, you are still able to experience joy.

Joy then, in this sense, in the sense that Paul meant it, is an act of defiance.  “Rejoice in the Lord always,” is a call to action.  We, the angry joyful ones, declare ourselves to be in open rebellion against the powers of chaos, hatred, and violence.  In the spirit of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, we will resist you nonviolently.  In the Spirit of Jesus, we will kill you with kindness.  We walk in the shadows of joy’s dark side.  Victory is ours: for we know that, so long as there remains even a single soul that still feels outrage at the murder of children, then joy is still alive.  Therefore, even in our anger and pain, today we celebrate the Sunday of Joy.

We who worship in the Christian tradition have come to identify the harmony we observe in the universe with the hand of God.  We believe that all joy has its origin in the presence of infinite love at the heart of reality.  We further believe that the person Jesus of Nazareth is, for us, the paradigmatic embodiment of that selfsame love in a human life.

We, as Christians, seek to follow him by honoring harmony and embodying love in our lives in whatever way we are able.  The late Rev. Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister who was better known as the host of the children’s TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, once said:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

In order to help us be better “helpers,” as Mr. Rogers said, I would like to share with you some good advice I came across this week in an article in the Huffington Post by the Rev. Emily C. Heath, a pastor in the United Church of Christ.  The title of her article is:

 Dealing With Grief: Five Things NOT to Say and Five Things to Say In a Trauma Involving Children. 

Click here to read Rev. Emily’s article at Huffington Post.

I hope you will keep these suggestions in the back of your mind and find them helpful in this crisis and whenever you are called upon to care for someone who has lost a child under any circumstances.

As Christians, our first duty is to love like Jesus and thereby testify to the truth that love is the heart of reality.  As Christmas approaches, we prepare to celebrate the presence of love, not enthroned in some far-away heaven, but embodied in our midst.  This infinite love, the harmony we observe in the universe, is here: within us and among us.  The Light of the World, the little Christ Child, reigns from a feeding trough in a stable, from whence his little light is passed from candle to candle, soul to soul, person to person, in all the little ways that we are able to embody that same love in our own lives.

This morning, I’m calling for a temporary suspension of the liturgical calendar.  Christmas is coming early this year, because we need it more than ever.  I proclaim to you the good news that Christ is here: in you and in me.  His love, the wonderful harmony at the heart of the universe, is embodied in our acts of love and compassion.

This morning, on this Christmas before Christmas, I call out to you from the dark side of joy.  I call upon you to rise up and rejoice as an act of defiance and resistance against the carnage we witnessed on Friday.  Proclaim with me the truth, as it says in John’s gospel, that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  The very pain we feel this morning is the sure sign that joy is not dead, that Christ is alive, and that God is love.

So, sing with me now.  Sing, “Joy to the world!”  Proclaim with me, in this hymn of radical, revolutionary defiance: “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground,” for Christ “comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.”  Sing out loudly, confident in the knowledge that God loves you and there is nothing you can do about it.  Let us sing…


God Loves Your Enemies

This week’s sermon from Boonville Presbyterian.
Excerpt from chapter 4 of the book:

Dear child of God, if we are truly to understand that God loves all of us, we must recognize that He loves our enemies, too.  God does not share our hatred, no matter what the offense we have endured.  We try to claim God for ourselves and for our cause, but God’s love is too great to be confined to any one side of a conflict or to any one religion.  And our prejudices, regardless of whether they are based on religion, race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, or anything else, are absolutely and utterly ridiculous in God’s eyes.

This past week was one of those weeks for me when current events caused me to rethink my entire Sunday sermon.  We’ve been making our way through this book, God Has A Dream by Desmond Tutu, and I was already planning to preach this week on chapter 4: “God Loves Your Enemies”.  I had planned on using historical figures and events in order to illustrate my points about justice and forgiveness, but then we all woke up yesterday morning to news reports about a brutal massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.  With 71 people wounded or killed, some of them children as young as 6, this is now being called the worst shooting spree in U.S. history.

Integrity prevents me from ignoring this awful headline while I extol the virtue of forgiveness in your presence.  I’m a firm believer that anything we talk about, sing about, or pray about “in here” (i.e. in this sanctuary on a Sunday morning) has to matter “out there” (i.e. in places like Aurora, Colorado) or else it just doesn’t matter.

In moments like this, I think justice and forgiveness matter now more than ever.  However, unlike some other preachers you might hear, I won’t be offering you Bible verses or bumper-sticker slogans designed to help you get around or get over horrible tragedies like this.  Instead, just like we’ve been doing these past few weeks, we’ll be talking today about the kinds of spiritual values that can help us get through the horror.

The main value I want to talk about today is one that guided Archbishop Tutu and the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in their work of rebuilding South Africa after the fall of the racist Apartheid regime.  They knew that if they were going to create a new society where people of all races could live together in freedom and equality as “the rainbow nation”, then they would need a different model of justice than the one most commonly associated with western culture.

You see, the model of justice to which we westerners are most accustomed is technically referred to as retributive justice.  You might not have heard that term before, but you are almost certainly familiar with the concept.  Retributive justice is built on the principle of crime & punishment.  “You do the crime, you do the time” is one example of retributive justice.  “An eye for an eye” is another example of the same principle.  The idea behind retributive justice is that, if a perpetrator suffers to the same extent that he or she has caused others to suffer, then justice has been served.

On the whole, this isn’t a bad starting point for thinking about justice.  It’s based, first of all, on the principle of reciprocation.  “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” is a positive example of the principle of retributive justice in action.  Many of our professional and business relationships are solidly built upon this idea.  The promise of reciprocation provides people with an incentive for cooperation, since they can accomplish more together than they can alone.  Reciprocation works out pretty well for most people, most of the time.

When it comes to crime and punishment, this same principle seems to apply as a good foundation for fairness: “If you give me something, then I owe you something of equal value; If you take something from me, then you owe me something of equal value.”  All in all, it sounds pretty fair.

Over time, we’ve managed to build a complex criminal justice system around this basic idea of fairness.  The development of governments means that some offenses aren’t committed just against individual people, but against society as a whole.  We’ve come up with multiple ways for offenders to pay back the debt they owe to society: through paying fines, performing mandatory acts of community service, serving time in prison, or (in extreme cases) paying with their lives.  Some other cultures who operate with a retributive model of justice still make use of physical suffering as a means of restoring the balance of fairness.  In those societies, thieves have their hands cut off and delinquents are publicly whipped, although most people in our country find the ideas of maiming and torture distasteful, to say the least.

So, while the basic principle of retributive justice tends to work pretty well for most people, most of the time, it does have its limits.  There comes a point when we need to go beyond it in order to serve the causes of real peace and justice.

For example: what do you do when a perpetrator commits a crime so heinous that no amount of retribution can restore the balance of fairness?  I think we’re all finding ourselves in just such a situation this weekend as headlines pour in about the massacre in Colorado.  12 people are dead and dozens more wounded.  Even if James Holmes (the shooter in Colorado) was to receive the death penalty, there’s no way for him to be killed 12 times.  It’s just not possible for the balance of fairness to ever be restored through retribution in a case like this one.

Here is another example: what do you do when retribution brings no peace?  Larry Whicher, whose brother Alan was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, was present for the execution of Timothy McVeigh, the man responsible for that attack.  After it was over and McVeigh was dead, Larry said, ”I expected more of a sense of closure and relief than I had. It was weird.”  “An eye for an eye” was not enough to serve justice and bring peace to Larry Whicher.

Jesus seemed to have an inner sense that retribution was not enough to right all the wrongs of this world.  In defiance of his own culture and religious tradition, he called upon his followers to move beyond the “eye for an eye” principle of justice.  He seemed to indicate that something more is needed if people truly want to find peace in the wake of injustice.  What could that “something more” be?

Desmond Tutu ventures a guess, drawing on his own cultural traditions.  He says:

We have a had a jurisprudence, a penology in Africa that was not retributive but restorative.  In the traditional setting, when people quarreled the main intention was not to punish the miscreant but to restore good relations.  For Africa is concerned, or has traditionally been concerned, about the wholeness of relationship.  That is something we need in our world, a world that is polarized, a world that is fragmented, a world that destroys people.  It is also something we need in our families and friendships, for restoration heals and makes whole while retribution only wounds and divides us from one another.

The end-result, the goal, of the justice process, according to Desmond Tutu, is not punishment but forgiveness.  Justice is served and peace is found when genuine friendship between victim and offender is able to emerge.

This is difficult.  Forgiveness is far more difficult than mere punishment.  Some might even call it impossible.  But if we are going to call ourselves Christians and followers of Jesus, then we have to at least allow for the possibility that he was onto something when he said what he said about moving beyond “an eye for an eye.”  The call to Christian peacemaking is a call to trust that forgiveness is much more foundational to the fabric of the universe than retribution.  We might even say that forgiveness lies at the very heart of God.  Therefore, when we mere mortals choose to walk the hard road of forgiveness, we aren’t just laying the foundation for greater peace in our hearts and justice in the world, we are drawing near to God.  In fact, I would venture to say that we are never closer to God than when we find it in our hearts to forgive those who have sinned against us.  Forgiveness is the single hardest, yet most worthwhile, calling of the spiritual life.

While I was preparing for this sermon, I came across the story of Rais Bhuiyan, a gas station attendant from Bangladesh, living in Texas in 2002.  One day, he was working behind the counter when a man came in and pointed a shotgun at his face.

The man with the gun asked him, “Where are you from?”  Before Rais could answer, the man shot him in the face at point blank range.  Miraculously, he survived, although he was horribly scarred and lost his right eye.  The man with the gun, Mark Stroman, had already killed two other men in the same way.  Mark called himself “the Arab Slayer” and claimed to be carrying out these killings as vengeance for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

While he was recovering in the hospital, Rais Bhuiyan promised Allah that he would make a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca if he was allowed to live.  As it turned out, Rais lived and made good on his promise to Allah.  During his pilgrimage, Rais came to the conclusion that God was calling him to forgive the man who shot him.  From then on, Rais formed a relationship with Mark Stroman and tried to stop his execution.

“This campaign is all about passion, forgiveness, tolerance and healing. We should not stay in the past, we must move forward,” Rais said, “If I can forgive my offender who tried to take my life, we can all work together to forgive each other and move forward and take a new narrative on the 10th anniversary of 11 September.”

In response to this, Mark Stroman had this to say, “”I tried to kill this man, and this man is now trying to save my life. This man is inspiring to me.  Here it is, the attacker and the attackee, you know, pulling together. The hate has to stop – one second of hate will cause a lifetime of misery. I’ve done that – it’s wrong, and if me and Rais can reach one person, mission accomplished.”

Ultimately, Rais Bhuiyan’s attempts to stop Mark Stroman’s execution failed and Mark was put to death by lethal injection.  The article I read was published on the day he died and I was shocked when I looked up at the date it was published: July 20, 2011.  Exactly one year to the day before James Holmes opened fire on a movie theater full of people in Aurora, Colorado.

This is what restorative justice looks like.  This is what we get when we move beyond “an eye for an eye”.

I’m not saying that it comes easily or quickly.  The road to forgiveness is a long one.  It’s full of twists and turns and pot-holes along the way.  Sometimes, it feels like you’ve been traveling it forever with no end in sight.

When I think about the struggle to forgive, I think about the closing scene from the movie Dead Man Walking, starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.  The scene takes place at the funeral of Matthew Poncelet, a young man who has just been put to death for murder.  Sister Helen, the main character of the film, looks up to see Mr. Delacroix, the father of the murder victim, standing on the outskirts of the cemetery during the service.  After it’s over, she walks up and talks to him.

He says to her, “I don’t know why I’m here.  I got a lot of hate.  I don’t have your faith.”

Sister Helen responds, “It’s not faith.  I wish it were that easy.  It’s work.  Maybe we could help each other find a way out of the hate.”

“I don’t know,” he says, “I don’t think so.”  And then he walks away.

But then, in the very last shot of the movie, we see Sister Helen walking into a church.  The camera peers through one of the windows from the outside.  Inside the church, we see Sister Helen and Mr. Delacroix kneeling together in prayer.  I love this final image.  Here we have a man who is not there yet, when it comes to forgiveness, but is walking the path and working through the problems.  I love this image because I think it’s a perfect analogy for where we are today: you and I, together in this church.

Only two short days since a brutal massacre, you and I are not there yet when it comes to forgiveness.  Yet, we have come together this morning because we choose to have faith in “that which is within each of us and yet greater than all of us.”  We have come here today because we suspect that there is more to this universe than senseless violence, that life itself has meaning, and that the powers of death and hatred will not have the final word.  We have come here today following a “holy hunch” that there is more at work within us and around us than the blind forces of reciprocation and retribution.  When it comes to forgiveness, we may not be there yet, but we are walking the path, participating in the process, and working through the problems.

We are here today, we are together, and we are not alone.  That fact, by itself, gives me hope and strength enough to keep going on the journey toward forgiveness.

I love you.

God loves you, God loves each and every person who was in that movie theater on Friday, God even loves James Holmes, and there is nothing we can do about it.

Be blessed and be a blessing.