Wednesday, April 17, 2013

After Boston Marathon Bombing

Sermon was originally given at The "Longest Night" worship service at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, held on or close to December 21st, the longest night of the year.  In the service, the fact that, amidst the joy of the season, many know grief and loss and sadness, is acknowledged, marked, and inwardly digested.  What follows was my "Meditation" for this year's service.  The sermon followed closely upon the tragic events of Sandy Hook Elementary School.

What to say after tragedy?  What to say amidst loss?  I suppose writing is a form of “saying” and Annie Dillard says of writing:
Write as if you were dying. At the same time assume you write for an audience consisting of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage for its triviality?1
In light of tragedy, what could I say, we say, that will not enrage by its triviality?
Many preachers seemed to revel in the trivial this week.  Their theologizing only deepened our grief.  Preachers are called to preach, but sometimes the preacher would do best to remain silent.  In light of tragedy, what could the preacher say, that will not enrage by its triviality?  It is with fear and trembling I break my silence.
We are staggered by the events in Sandy Hook.  In those events we feel (not merely observe) the evil of our world made manifest.  Falling about, unbalanced, we find ourselves praying--saying stumbling, searching, beseeching prayers.  We pray, instinctively, familiar prayers.  I found myself muttering:  
Save us in the time of trial
and deliver us from evil.
Traditionally, we pray: "Lead us not into temptation."  That phrasing, however, has troubled many followers. Does the phrase not suggest that sometimes God does lead us into temptation? The phrase was confusing enough that before the New Testament was even finished James felt it important to say:
Let no one say when tempted:  "I am tempted by God;" for God...tempts no one  (James 1:13).
Later, Latin manuscripts tried to help out by translating the petition: "Do not permit us to be led into temptation."  The prayer book’s contemporary translation of our Lord’s prayer is the one I found myself praying:  “Save us in the time of trial.”  It’s the translation we most often use at the Saturday evening worship at St. Mark’s.  
“Save us in the time of trial.”
In times of testing or trial we are called upon to prove our true identity and character, who we are and whose we are. Sometimes the temptation comes in the form of sin; other times it comes as a time of great difficulty or suffering; other times it is a life-changing moment of choice, choice between two paths, good and evil. Will we in this moment of trial be true to God? Be true to our best self?
A Jewish, evening prayer of Jesus’ day may help us understand:
Bring me not into sin, nor into iniquity, nor into temptation.  May the good inclination (yetzer hatov) hold sway over me, and let not the evil inclination (yetzer hara) have it’s way.
As in the Lord’s Prayer, we have this Hebrew idiom "lead me not" or "bring me not" into temptation; it really means "do not let me be overcome" by temptation or sin. So we pray,  “Save us in the time of trial.”  On the longest night, we pray, “Do not let the darkness overcome the light”
The first century, Jewish, evening prayer also emphasizes that in any time of trial or testing we have a choice between the good impulse and the bad impulse. We can be pulled in either direction. So we pray to stay true to God’s way, for the true self to prevail over the false self:  “Save us in the time of trial.”
To use the language of Abraham Lincoln in his First Inaugural Address, we pray for "the better angels of our nature" to prevail.
To be human is to face temptation, trial, tests.  So we pray:  “Save us in the time of trial.”
Look back at the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness. They were a test of who he was and what he was called to be and do in this world.
Luke’s telling of the temptation of Jesus ends with these words:
And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time (Luke 4:13).

Evil is an opportunistic disease which waits until the right moment of vulnerability to attack. So we pray every day, all days, any day: “Save us in the time of trial.”
The tests, trials, temptations will come, some by way of the evil one, some by way of our own stumbling--but God is with us there too, even in our stumbling--some as part and parcel of the human condition. These are soul-making moments: times of spiritual formation and re-formation. We therefore pray:  “Save us in the time of trial.”
At Sandy Hook, we have looked evil in the face. We have seen the "heart of darkness."  So, the next phrase of the prayer, takes on an anguished urgency:  “Deliver us from evil.”
Or, as some manuscripts have it, "from the evil one."  Jesus recognized a malevolent power at work in the world, and he knew that apart from the power of God, we could be overwhelmed by this evil.
Sometimes the evil is within us; other times it comes from without. We pray to be delivered from the evil we would do and from what evil can do to us.  
On a very personal level, tonight, we are made acutely aware, in this liturgy, of the evil we have experienced; the tragedies inflicted upon us personally; not just those of which we have become aware via modern communication, but the way evil has done it’s work where our own eyes have seenour own hears have heardour own hands have felt--where evil has come close.
There is a mystery to the presence of evil in the world, a mystery we cannot explain but which enters into our world through the freedom which God has placed in the fabric of the universe, a freedom which allows the terrible and the wonderful to happen.
Evil is that which destroys life. It creates lies and thrives on falsehood and deceit.  Evil can happen when we project our inner shadow, inner darkness, onto others. We project our inner darkness onto others and do them violence.  Perhaps, this is what happened in Sandy Hook.  Perhaps, the gunman’s inner darkness was projected onto others and great violence ensued.
Evil can take hold of institutions and groups of people and cause individuals to do what they would never do as individuals, apart from the group. The New Testament calls these supra-personal powers which can be overtaken by evil "principalities and powers."  Perhaps, in the days to come, we will discover this kind of evil was at play in Sandy Hook.  Tonight, it is too early to know.  But, I know you know, from personal experience, the evil of principalities and powers.
Jesus was not naive about the power and pressure of evil. He saw the Kingdom of God laying siege to the strongholds of evil, whether that evil was in the human heart and mind, or whether it was imbedded in social systems of oppression and exploitation. No wonder the New Testament says that it was these "powers that be," the "rulers of this age" who put Jesus to death (I Cor. 2:8).
In the face of such evil, we cry, “How can we defeat such evil without becoming evil ourselves?”
One of the marks of evil is the demonization of your enemy.  This is what fundamentalist Islamic leaders have done to America. They call America, "The Great Satan." When you call your enemy Satan you are apt to justify any measure you take to defeat them. "Allah wills it," was the battle cry of 9/11. 
But remember, in 1095, Pope Urban began the Crusades, a two-hundred year war against Muslims, with the rallying cry, "Deus lo Volt!": "God wills it!"
Jesus refused the way of the Zealots of his day who called Rome "The Great Satan" and opposed it with violent measures.
Here is a distinction important to me. We can call what a person does, or group does "evil." But it is dangerous to say that person or group is evil. When we do, we are apt to do evil ourselves in order to defeat them.  We must, therefore, be careful in the face of evil.  The dangers posed are many and not all immediate nor obvious.
The bringing to justice those who do violence and harm is part of the way this world restrains evil and maintains a minimum of order and safety. Theologians have termed the system of justice and community-sanctioned violence to restrain evil "the left-hand of God."  The nature of the evil of Sandy Hook will call us to our best reasoning about the reach and the use of “God’s left-hand."
You would be right to remind us, however, that Jesus, of course, concentrated on the "right-hand of God."  "Love your enemy." he said, "Do not return evil for evil." How does this apply to Sandy Hook? I struggle to know. We will each struggle how to follow this one we call Lord.
But, perhaps, it begins as we pray our stumbling prayers. Maybe we will find ourselves praying Jesus’ prayers after Jesus: the Lord’s Prayer; or perhaps, some of the prayers he prayed on the cross. As we go through the agony of the cross of Sandy Hook, or our very personal crosses we must bear, his prayers can guide ours. Two of them come to my mind on this night:  his cry of desolation, and his prayer of relinquishment.
The honest cry of abandonment: "Eli, Eli lama sabachthani, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"  We must be honest with God and with ourselves as Jesus was honest.  We must name before God the truth as we experience it, as we know it.  Jesus felt abandoned and he cried out:  “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
And, then, the prayer of relinquishment, "Abba, into your hands I commit my spirit." It is a prayer that relinquishes our lives and the life of the world into the hands of God, trusting in the justice and mercy of God. It "faiths" that though the darkness is great; (darkness as thick as that which engulfed Sandy Hook or as lengthy as the darkness of the longest night) that light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not put it out.
Save us in the time of trial
And deliver us from evil
we pray; then...the prayer issues into the impossible possibility of praise, doxology amid the ruins:
For thine is the Kingdom
and the power and the glory
forever and ever. Amen.

1. Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), p. 68.

Sermon was originally given at The "Longest Night" worship service at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, held on or close to December 21st, the longest night of the year.  In the service, the fact that, amidst the joy of the season, many know grief and loss and sadness, is acknowledged, marked, and inwardly digested.  What follows was my "Meditation" for this year's service.  The sermon followed closely upon the tragic events of Sandy Hook Elementary School.

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