Sermon on the Seventh Sunday After Pentecost. The Rev. Anne Edison-Albright, preaching. Text for today: Mark 6:14-29
My first thought when I read the Gospel lesson for today,
The first word that came to my mind,
It’s a word that’s been on my mind a lot lately, actually.
It came to my mind after the shootings in Charleston,
And then I had to think about that word a little harder,
When some of my friends and colleagues pointed out that the word “senseless”
Was being used as an excuse not to examine the reasons
For the attack on the AME church.
If something is senseless, we don’t have to struggle with it anymore.
We don’t have to face up to the frightening truth of widespread racism,
Or homegrown terrorism,
Or white supremacists.
If it’s senseless, the conversation ends there.
It doesn’t make any sense, so it’s not worth talking or thinking about anymore.
And that’s how I felt about our Gospel lesson today, at first.
Because my first reaction to the way John the Baptist died
Is to be so horrified and grossed out by it,
That I didn’t really want to think about it anymore than that.
What senseless violence.
What a waste of life … what a crime it was for John to be killed
Because of some poorly-considered promise,
And Herod not having the nerve to stop everything and just say,
“No, sorry, you can’t have John the Baptist’s head on a platter.”
“Ask me for something else.”
Certainly he was haunted enough by his brutal murder of John …
Herod is certain that Jesus is John’s ghost.
But whatever regrets he had about doing it,
He didn’t stop it from happening.
And that seems … senseless, to me.
But maybe I’m just trying to find an easy way out,
Trying to end the conversation without searching for the hard truths.
And that’s certainly part of it.
Because lurking around in the Gospel lesson today is one of those difficult questions,
A question most of us ask ourselves at some point in our lives
When faced with tragedy or loss that doesn’t make sense:
“Why did God let this happen?”
There’s a wonderful page on facebook called Humans of New York,
Where they post beautiful pictures of people along with quotes
That reveal something about that person and about humans in general.
This picture was posted there recently, along with this quote:
“I’ve been a deep believer my whole life. 18 years as a Southern Baptist. More than 40 years as a mainline Protestant. I’m an ordained pastor. But it’s just stopped making sense to me. You see people doing terrible things in the name of religion, and you think: ‘Those people believe just as strongly as I do. They’re just as convinced as I am.’ And it just doesn’t make sense anymore. It doesn’t make sense to believe in a God that dabbles in people’s lives. If a plane crashes, and one person survives, everyone thanks God. They say: ‘God had a purpose for that person. God saved her for a reason!’ Do we not realize how cruel that is? Do we not realize how cruel it is to say that if God had a purpose for that person, he also had a purpose in killing everyone else on that plane? And a purpose in starving millions of children? A purpose in slavery and genocide? For every time you say that there’s a purpose behind one person’s success, you invalidate billions of people. You say there is a purpose to their suffering. And that’s just cruel.”
One of the comments on the post made the point even more clearly:
Daniella wrote: “Could not agree more. Yesterday a 3 year old child was crushed by a security gate at a Rita’s Water Ice here in Philadelphia. And in the comments on the news article, so many people said “it’s so sad, but it happened for a reason” and I’m like what possible reason could there be to crush a child’s skull with a security gate while she was waiting in line to get some ice cream?”
It’s a tough question, but we can answer it.
There’s no reason for that.
There’s no purpose for that.
As Christians we can, and we must, unequivocally say that it was
NOT God’s will for that 3 year old to die.
God is not cruel.
God does not will or cause or plan the suffering of anyone.
We get confused about this,
Because on a superficial level it may seem comforting to think that,
When something terrible happens,
It was all part of God’s plan.
But you don’t want to believe in that god, trust me.
That god is sitting on a cloud, waiting to zap you.
You can’t trust that god.
That god IS cruel.
But, fortunately, the real God is nothing like that.
God is present in suffering,
God is actively working to end suffering,
But God does not will,
Or cause suffering.
I’ve read to you from The Reverend William Sloane Coffin’s eulogy for his, son,
Alex, before, but it bears repeating.
Alex died in a car accident when he was 23 years old,
And I read his dad’s sermon at least once a year,
Whenever I need a reminder of how to make sense of senseless loss,
And how NOT to makes sense of it.
The Revered Coffin said this, slightly abridged:
“When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said. The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister’s house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking, middle-aged woman, carrying about eighteen quiches. When she saw me, she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, “I just don’t understand the will of God.” Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. “I’ll say you don’t, lady!” I said.
For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness. The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is “It is the will of God.” Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”
When John the Baptist was murdered, God’s heart broke.
When Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Daniel Simmons Sr., and DePayne Middleton-Doctor, were murdered, God’s heart broke.
God’s heart breaks for violent deaths, and accidental deaths,
And all kinds of loss and suffering … all those senseless things.
And God is working to bring good in the midst of each loss,
But that’s different than saying that it happened for reason.
Even if good comes from bad, and by the grace of God, it often does,
That doesn’t mean God created the bad so that the good could happen.
God didn’t have John the Baptist beheaded so that
Jesus could feed 5,000 hungry people.
But, for reasons that some of the Gospels connect to John’s death,
Jesus did feed people.
And heal people.
And haunt old Herod something fierce.
I mentioned last week that I’ve been having some good conversations
Out and about lately,
As I’ve been going about my daily life wearing a clerical collar,
And people have been approaching me with questions and concerns.
One woman shared with me recently that she felt like every time she did something nice for herself—buy a new dress, go out for dinner, simple things—
Bad things would happen, usually expensive things that made her wish
She hadn’t spent money on something she didn’t need.
And she wondered if God was punishing her for buying the dress,
Or maybe it was karma,
But whatever it was … she felt like she couldn’t get ahead of it.
And I shared with her something I’d like to share with you now,
Which is the most straightforward way I know of answering this God question:
God is not out to get you.
When we think of God this way, it’s like God is hovering over us,
Waiting for us to do something bad, and then … zap.
God is not going to zap you.
Bad things are going to happen,
And sometimes the timing is really awful,
Like an expensive car repair right after you’ve spent money on something else.
But that’s not God trying to hurt you, or teach you a lesson.
There are a lot of things in the world that don’t make sense.
And there are even more things we call senseless,
So that we don’t have to think about them anymore,
And the conversation ends.
But with God, the conversation never ends.
God is right there in the middle of the most senseless,
terrible situations we can imagine,
With a broken heart, yes,
But at work for good, and at work for healing,
And at work for bringing hope, love and forgiveness,
Right in the face of sin and death and loss. Amen.
**This was originally published 6/18/15, 4pm Central Time. Edited at 10:30 pm Central Time on 6/18/15 to add two new ELCA resources: this important letter from Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and this press release including messages from other ELCA leaders. Finding out that the white supremacist shooter was a member of an ELCA congregation makes me feel like my choice to focus my reading only on the victims today was actually a little self-serving. I will take an even longer, more uncomfortable look in the mirror tomorrow.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Last night, a young white man went to a historic African American Episcopal congregation in Charleston, was invited in to join their Bible study, sat with them, and then opened fire, killing nine people. This morning, the first post I saw on the subject was from my friend and classmate, the Rev. Yejide Peters. She wrote:
“To enter the house of the Lord and murder the pastor and his flock? This hatred of Black folks is diabolical. If this generation was waiting for its Selma, its 16th street baptist church moment, well, it has most definitely arrived. Those have been silent can no longer remain so in good conscience. Those who feel helpless in the face of what seems like endless injustices must realize that God will be our help, if we are willing to work on behalf of justice, if we are willing to examine, speak up, confess, and confront. No one can afford to remain silent. The way I see it, silence=complicity at this point.
‘I lift my eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.’ (Psalm 121)”
This post woke me up, literally, and made me wonder. I believe that God does not leave us inarticulate, even in the face of the worst loss and tragedy and suffering in the world. Sometimes silence itself is the most articulate, and appropriate, response, but God also gives us the Word, and God gives us a living hope. God does not leave us in hopeless, helpless, silent despair. But what can a white pastor, of a white congregation, in a predominantly white community and a predominantly white denomination, really say today?
Not much, but here are a couple thoughts and resources I’ve found to help me as I pray today.
***I am keeping up with the news from various sources, but as I do I am giving more time and attention to the voices of black writers, journalists and friends. I’m also spending more of my time on stories about the victims than on the shooter today. I’ve found both these practices helpful in grounding me in prayer for the victims’ families today. It is also exposing me to discussions about race that are outside of my usual perspective and comfort zone, which is important to me.
Strangely enough, buzzfeed, that site that is kind of famous for silly internet quizzes, is doing a pretty wonderful job of collecting information about the people who were murdered yesterday. Here is a story about all the victims, which will be updated throughout the day as they find information from various sources. Here is a story about The Honorable Rev. Clementa Pickney, state senator and the senior pastor of the congregation.
Let us pray. God we remember your beloved children: Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Daniel Simmons Sr., and DePayne Middleton-Doctor. We know you never left them for a single moment, and they are with you. We give you thanks for their lives and weep with you for the loss of their lives with us on earth. We pray for their families, and for all the people who love them and are in mourning today. We pray for the congregation of Mother Emanuel AME Church, our brothers and sisters in Christ. They are your love, God; may your healing flow along with their tears. Make us all instruments of your love, in Jesus’ name, Amen.
***I am allowing myself to be uncomfortable, knowing that my discomfort is nothing compared to the real, everyday experience of racism faced by people of color in this country. So, I’m not trying to make the discussion about something other than race, though it would be much more comfortable for me to do so. Instead, I’d like to lean into that discomfort and see if it is God leading me, and maybe us as a congregation, into not only discussion, but action. After all, we live in Wisconsin, the state with the highest black male incarceration rate in the United States. There is a lot of anti-racism work to be done right here in Wisconsin. Here is a link to the 11 x 15 movement. And here is a link to the ELCA’s social statement on race, ethnicity and culture.
Let us pray. God, save us from the evil of racism in our hearts and in our institutions. We have a real problem, and only you can save us. Give us, as white people, the guidance, wisdom, and strength necessary to struggle with and overcome racism wherever it is, even and especially where we can’t see it. Amen.
Finally, and I’m not sure how else to say this, or where it really fits in with everything else … but I love you. So much. It is my joy to be your pastor. Thank you for reading this, for praying with me, for caring about and being connected to the world beyond our walls. If we were an isolated, small, white church in the middle of Wisconsin, we would surely turn inward and slowly, surely, die. But we are part of something larger than ourselves, and each of us (individually, and as a congregation, synod and denomination) has real relationships which connect us across differences and divides to the whole of God’s creation. God is always in community, and God has made us in God’s image–so we must find a way to be community, too, in big and small ways.
And I’m grateful for this community, Redeemer Lutheran Church, truly and with my whole heart.
Let us pray. God, thank you for our congregation, and for all the people of faith who will gather around the world to worship and praise you this week. May we all be one in our love and service of you and our neighbors in need. May we all, by your grace, work for justice and peace. Amen.
Your sister in Christ,
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, February 1, 2015, the Rev. Anne Edison-Albright preaching. Today’s text: Mark 1:21-28. Audio improves after about 35 seconds. This sermon contains two video clips. Click the control in the lower-right corner of the screen to view full-screen. Press Escape when you’re done viewing to leave full-screen mode.