I knew it wasn’t just me when on the Tuesday night after Labor Day Weekend, Brian Williams opened his Nightly News broadcast with, “If any of your conversations around barbeques or tables this weekend turned serious, you may have noticed that our world seems to be falling apart.” A world map was then displayed with all the “hotspots” highlighted, mostly where radical Islamists had attacked or raged, though there was also Ukraine and western Africa and Ferguson, MO. It was a week marked by the release of a gruesome videotape showing the beheading of a second American journalist, Scott Sotloff. “The world seems to be falling apart.” The way of the wicked seems to be everywhere.
So, I’ve been wondering–What are we to do with this? How shall we respond? Not in the sense of foreign policy recommendations, as important as that level of response is, and for now not advocating any particular legislation or action by Congress, [if such a thing were even possible], but rather, how are we to deal with the relentless barage of violence and bad news? What kind of conversations do we have around our kitchen tables? How do we talk to our children and one another about this? How do we live our lives, day by day, in such a time?
One option is to try to avoid the news–don’t read the papers, don’t watch tv, don’t listen to the radio, set the picture of your homepage to a photo of cats or puppies or flowers. And, actually, sometimes we do need to fast from the news–it really can become almost an obsession, an onslaught of horror and depravity that threatens to overwhelm us. Some times we do need to just step away–for a little while.
But even if we can avoid the news media, human conflict and tragedy has a way of finding us. Difficult encounters with loved ones or friends arise. Someone at work does something that hurts you or infuriates you. Somebody cuts you off in traffic or is obnoxious in the grocery line. Your credit card information gets hacked at Home Depot. “You know what” happens.
It’s nothing new.
“If another member of the church sins against you,” [imagine that!] Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel, “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
There’s no mention of parking lots here, as in “talk about the person behind their back in the parking lot.” It’s a very pro-active, engaged, courageous prescription. Do what you can to restore your relationship. And, oh, by the way, the last resort? – “If they won’t listen to the congregation, let them be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”? Lest you think this gives permission for shunning or excluding, consider who the author of this gospel is, according to tradition–Matthew, a tax collector. How did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors? He sat at table with them, he drew the circle wide.
Even in the Hebrew Scriptures, what we Christians tend to call “the Old Testament,” which was, of course, the only testament Jesus knew, the sweeping generalization about the God of Hebrew Scriptures is that “He” merely orders Israel to wipe out their enemies or does it Himself, as in the story of the Passover, which some communities are reading today, about the angel of death passing over the houses of the Israelites whose lintels are smeared with lamb’s blood and killing all the firstborn of the Egyptians. That is how the Israelites understood their exodus from slavery in Egypt, writing the story down hundreds of years later, but in a violent world of competing gods, how else could they understand their impossible escape?
That’s not the only way they thought of God. The story of Jonah, with his commission by God to go preach to the Ninevites and warn them of the consequences of their evil ways, shows God with quite a sense of humor as the whale swallows Jonah up when he tries to shirk his assignment, and then, after being vomited up on shore, and reluctantly preaching to Ninevah, Jonah hides out under a tree and pouts. God presses him saying, “You don’t think I can desire the repentance of the wicked?”
God gives Ezekiel a similar command.
So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel: whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked ones, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.
Here God seems to be saying, “your life is wrapped up with the life of the wicked. If what they’re doing has disastrous consequences for their souls or for others, then you are obligated to warn them. If they don’t listen to you and don’t change, you have done what you can and they get what is coming to them. If you don’t engage them at all, however, and they continue in their wicked ways, you bear part of the blame.
I confess I have never watched the show, but a friend commented that the patriarch of the Duck Dynasty has declared his recommendation for dealing with Muslims: “Convert ‘em or kill ‘em.” I’m pretty sure that’s not the kind of engagement God had in mind when speaking to Jonah or Ezekiel. And how would that make us any better than ISIL or the Taliban or Al Qaeda?
In his letter to the Romans, in the section suggested as preparation for worship today, Paul writes, “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” This is a call to a pro-active, engaged response to the presence of evil, just as Jesus recommended in that well-known but often misinterpreted passage about turning the other cheek or giving one’s cloak or walking the second mile, not resisting evil with evil but with creative, engaged response. “You cannot drive out darkness with darkness,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote; “only light can do that. You cannot drive out hate with hate; only love can do that.”
Listen to part of this letter written by a teacher at Richboro Middle School in Bucks County, PA, to the students there who were reeling from the tragic death of three of their schoolmates–
You, I love you, and I believe in you [Mr. Cunningham wrote]…These are tough times. You need to know that these tough times did not come to stay, they have come to pass. You need to know it, and you need to believe it. They will pass and you will be left to decide your future…
When I say, “these tough times will pass” I do not mean that we will forget the boys. What I am saying is that eventually the sadness you have inside of you will subside. When it subsides it will leave a void. You may already feel a void inside of you. An emptiness that you feel can seemingly never be filled. However, it will be filled, and we must decide with what. Unfortunately, some of you may choose to fill it with substances. Some with anger and frustration. I am challenging you to make sure that everyone around you fills this void with empowerment. A sense of purpose and clarity that you cannot even imagine. Purpose to look despair in the face and say, ‘You can’t stop me.’ Purpose to wake up everyday with an overwhelming sense of ‘I can do it!’…
… You can, you will, and you must be empowered. The very nature of our survival is dependent on it. The way to honor the boys is to walk out of the dark corner that we are all sitting in, step out into the light, and be stronger than ever before. Finding your way out of the dark corner is a process. A process that may take weeks but eventually you will walk out. And when you walk out, you can, will, and must reach into the darkness and pull others out as well…
(–posted on Facebook)
What wise words to speak to middle-schoolers! Or middle-agers…or anyone in the midst of life.
What will you choose to fill the void with? Will you let Love and Light come in, or block it with substances or numbing or rage or fear?
And of course there’s always the wise words of Mr. Rogers to children experiencing tragedies – “Look for the helpers,” his mother told him. “There are always helpers in the midst of these situations. What will you look for? What will you focus on?
Or what about our response to the horrendous killings of Scott Sotloff and James Foley? Maren Tirabassi, the UCC pastor in Portsmouth, NH, near where James Foley lived, wrote this prayer in response to this death–
God shelter his soul under the wings of your presence.
God hold Scott Sotloff as a life to be known and remembered in honor
not for the violence of his death, but for the beauty of his life, for the kindness of his care for children, for the honesty and imagination of his journalism, for the love of those who loved him and for the courage in his death.
God, shelter his soul under the wings of your presence.
God hold Scott Sotloff as a life to be known and remembered in honor
not for the responses to his death to be played out on the international stage, nor for the Rachel-chorus weeping for this child of us all, but for the man he was. Amen.
How do we fill the void? Where do we put our energies?
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” No wonder Annie Dillard warned that we have no idea what we’re doing when we come together for worship! We’re like kids playing with a chemistry set–we ought to have crash helmits and kevlar vests. What incredible power is available to those who come together not just in the “name” of Jesus, like some kind of magic word, but in the spirit and power of Jesus. “If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by God in heaven”! This isn’t like Janice Joplin singing, “O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?” Jesus is saying that if we come together in the Christ-energy, adding our energies together, and direct those energies toward someone or something, God will fulfill that request! That request may be fulfilled by filling us with the courage and power to act or it may change us and direct our energies toward continuing to send Love and Light into those dark corners or places of wickedness. If we put on the armor of Light, or a cloak of Light, we may avoid getting seduced or sucked into all the negative energies and evil that seem to be everywhere around us, and so free us up to direct our energies toward making a positive difference, being part of the Light.
…These tough times did not come to stay, they have come to pass. You need to know it, and you need to believe it. They will pass and you will be left to decide your future…“The night is far gone, the day is near,” Paul wrote. “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…Put on Christ,”; and take in Christ, in this bread and this cup. May these words be hope and strength and courage for us, for the living of these days. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark