November 15, 2017

What did we do?


Text: 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18: …For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died…Therefore, encourage one another with these words.

[Editor's note: What follows, courtesy of the preacher, is the outline from which this sermon was delivered.]

Point 1: I was going to talk about the Wisdom readings for today.

  • Then I woke up on Monday morning and had an overwhelming urge to write something about the most recent church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where 26 people were gunned down during the process of worship.
  • I actually pretty much missed the whole thing - was driving to and from Basking Ridge, NJ to a Tae Kwan Do tourney for my15-year-old and we listened to a book on tape there and back.
  • But that ubiquitous newsfeed eventually pushed it into our awareness, and I emerged into the constant coverage when we got home.
  • Sometimes, I feel an overwhelming urge to write after something horrible happens - to try to be a teacher in some way, as a way to help myself process and hopefully, in the pursuit of that, help others, too.
  • I’m sitting at my desk on Monday thinking, “I don’t have time to write something.  I have to get this talk done for Sunday,” when the idiocy of what I was saying hit me.  
  • Then I went back to the readings for today and saw Thessalonians, and it came together for me.  So today, you get my processing of Texas.  I’m so grateful to do so in a worship community, during an act of worship, as an act of solidarity.

Point 2: My willfully simplistic interpretation of the reading is, “What are we going to tell them we did when we meet again in heaven?”

  • I think part of what struck me so hard about Texas - besides the obvious horror of it - is that it made me realize, this is a thing.  It’s a thing now.  People go to worship, to celebrate and explore faith in community together, and someone walks in and shoots them.  It’s a thing.
  • There was an article in the Boston Globe on Monday called, “A list of shootings at U.S. houses of worship since 2012.”  They had enough of a list to make an article. And it wasn’t a short one.
  • When I read Thessalonians, I had a simple interpretation of it.  I’m quite sure it’s not a thorough interpretation, and even have a sneaking suspicion that, in part, I may have missed the point. But what I took into my heart was, “We’ll be together again.”
  • So, I just started picturing this ever growing group of people waiting for the rest of us in heaven - at peace, full of worship, and celebration, and welcoming if and when we are blessed enough to join them, and I wondered, “What are we going to tell them we did?”  
  • 26 at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, 9 at Emanuel AME in Charleston, 6 at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, and several more in ones and twos across the US and across faith traditions.  What are we going to tell them we did when we meet them again?

Point 3: I need to tell them I acted in love.  

  • I don’t think any of us really knows what to do.  
  • We think we know.  
    • Some groups think it is about doing more to support mental health care. 
    • Some groups think it is about gun control.  
    • Some think the best route is to better arm others to protect each other.
  • Each group has a well-formed theory and at least anecdotal evidence to support it.  
  • But I think, in truth, we don’t know.  Years of working on generational poverty has helped me understand how difficult it really is to map our understanding of a complex, systemic problem sufficiently to understand its drivers, in sequence, so that we can affect each of them in the proper order to get massive change.  
  • I think maybe Malcolm Gladwell, with his theory of thresholds of violence - which he pursued as a way to explain how school shootings spread - may be doing as good a job as any at getting that map right.  But it’s hard, and we’re still operating in the realm of theory, of best hypothesis, and we’re certainly at the point where mass shootings - including those in churches - are now part of a system-level phenomenon.
  • So what do we know?  We know these killings happened in churches. We know what brought people together was their desire to worship, to find community, to marry faith into the reason of their lives.
  • And we know that love, some call to love of one another, and some call to solidarity with one another, is present across faith traditions.
  • So, to honor them, to tell those who died in the act of faith what we did once they were gone, what we did before we see them again, I know I need to tell them I acted in love.  Maybe the other stuff, too, but I’m going to start with love.

Point 4: For me, pursuing love means pursuing solidarity.

  • This is a very difficult time to be called to love.  Some of you may have seen the old film the Witches of Eastwick. In it, three women have the power of witches without, at least at first, being aware of it.  At one point in the film, they argue, and as the argument intensifies, they produce so much kinetic energy that the ground literally splits beneath them.
  • We are producing enough kinetic energy of hate, anger and fear in our country - group hate and fear, political hate and fear, interpersonal hate and fear, neighborly hate and fear - that it could have fueled all of the recent natural disasters without need for further explanation.  (Note that I’m not saying that’s what actually happened.  Just, to think about how strong the force of that energy really is.)
  • But we are called to Christian love. And we are called to that Christian love because we believe in solidarity.
  • What does solidarity mean?  It is a widely used term, with a range of definitions.
    • Social science - social cohesion based on interdependence in more advanced societies
    • I like the way scholar Gerald Byer* (2014) discusses it.  He notes solidarity is not in New Testament or Hebrew Bible, but was long a “Christian Praxis” before being defined in Catholic Social Teaching as (paraphrasing John Paul II), “solidarity helps us to see the other … as an equal partner sent by God to share in the ‘banquet of life’ and stewardship of God’s creation.”  
    • At its root, it’s fundamental interdependence as a result of our common human dignity and spiritual creation.
  • Solidarity is 
    • spiritually both salvific and necessary.  
    • At the community level, it preserves the complex interdependence we rely upon to function and survive together.  
    • Interpersonally, it is the manifestation of the common love that formed us all, runs through us all, and connects us all.

*Gerald J. Beyer (2014) The Meaning of Solidarity in Catholic Social Teaching, Political Theology, 15:1, 7-25

Point 5: What if we recommit to that Christian praxis of solidarity in the face of our divisions and the pain of fear and violence today?

  • What does it mean to 
    • vote in solidarity?
    • spend in solidarity?
    • practice our philanthropy in solidarity?
    • read in solidarity?
    • listen in solidarity?
    • discuss in solidarity?
  • What would it mean if we could tell those who were worshipping in solidarity when they were gunned down that we each chose just one of those acts and recommitted ourselves wholly to that simple manifestation of love?  To that one demonstration of the Christian praxis?
  • It is so hard.  I spend so much time angry these days.
    • Now, some of that is that I’m raising teenagers.
    • But much if it is the poison in the air - the absence of love, and my own failure to practice love, to recognize that I am love, and more importantly, the ones who are frightening me and angering me in this world actually are, too.  They may be disconnected from it - as I have been of late -but they are.
  • But I have come to understand that in my speaking, in teaching in the classroom, in the news analysis that I do for public radio and television - that solidarity must be the message I carry always, and the practice to which I recommit daily, even when I am doing it poorly.

Point 6: “Therefore, encourage one another with these words.”

  • I never know how to end any talk I give.  I never have brilliant conclusions.  Instead, I usually just sort of run out of steam.
  • But Thessolonians does, thank goodness.  

Therefore, encourage one another with these words.

  • We are a world of words right now. Those words become weapons, and they invoke weapons, all too often.
  • Let us encourage each other with these words - words of love.  Words of solidarity.  
  • I truly believe therein begins the difference.