Six years ago I preached a sermon to a congregation in Pittsburgh two days after one of its members killed five people in one of the worst rampage killings in that area's history. I dug those words up today after reading the Post's stories about the shootings at Virginia Tech this week.
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”
News like Friday’s spreads quickly. Friday evening my brother-in-law called from Chicago. He’d heard the news. He was, naturally, shocked to hear that the person being held in connection with the shootings is a member of our church. In the conversation, Cheryl asked him, “so, what would Jesus say if a member of his congregation did this?” “Whoops?” said John.
I smiled at his ever-quick wit, but it occurred to me that, in fact, Jesus had such an experience. Judas was a beloved follower and his betrayal led to Jesus’ suffering and death. So, what did Jesus say? As he hung on the cross in agony, he said, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
But what can we say, this morning, that might bring some of the healing that Jesus, even in death, was bringing to the world with his words.
Words. Words. Words. Sometimes they can be enough, but not today – not in the face of this. And yet, words are all we have. We can search the scriptures for words and find some comfort there, but we cannot use them to undo the horrible things that have been done. Indeed, mere words will not prevent such things from happening again.
We were talking with our children Friday evening about the shootings and Martin, our six-year-old, said, “I wish we could just rewind this day and start it over again.”
We held him close and said we wished the same thing. He expressed the wish of everyone in the community, I’m sure. But we can’t go back, so this morning we seek the strength to go forward. And in this moment, many of us seek answers to the simple question, “why?”
The plain and simple truth is, we may never be able to answer that question. In the aftermath of the mass shootings here and in Utah Thursday evening, we are already hearing some of the usual suspects trotted out:
· A media culture saturated in violence. Games, music and so-called entertainment that at the same time glorify and sanitize violence.
· A society awash in guns and state and federal lawmakers too timid and tepid to respond with effective restrictions.
· A culture that stigmatizes mental illness to the extent that families still do not feel comfortable “coming out” and seeking broad-based community support for themselves and their loved ones.
These issues are real and important, but this morning is not the time to speak to them. Today is not the day to say what we stand against, rather, it is time to say what we stand for – to state clearly what we believe about the God we worship this morning.
We believe in the God who created us, who sustains us, and who redeems us.
Such a God is not the author of our pain. God did not will these shootings. Indeed, the first heart broken Friday afternoon was the oft-broken heart of God. The Bible tells us that Jesus wept at the death of a friend. Brothers and sisters, Jesus wept again Friday afternoon. Jesus wept at the Gordon’s home. Jesus wept at the temples. Jesus wept at the Indian grocery store. Jesus wept at the Chinese restaurant. Jesus wept at the karate center. And Jesus wept at the Baumhammers’s home as well.
God reigns over all of history. Yes. God is working still in the world to redeem history. Yes. And we trust that even in the midst of our worst brokenness, God can work again to redeem us and to make us whole.
God created the world and called it “good.” God created human beings and called us “good,” as well. And so you and I, we bear within us the image of God. We are children of God. Richard Baumhammers is a child of God, as well. But he is deeply scarred. And each of us also bears scars. We suffer. We are broken. And in our brokenness, we are capable of horrific acts of terror and evil.
God does not call us to such an end. God does not will us to do such deeds. God does not will our suffering and brokenness. God does not will anyone to suffer a mind so broken that it leads one to lash out in senseless, violent spasms. God did not will Richard Baumhammers to kill five people Friday afternoon.
Where was God, then, in the midst of this violence? In the short story Night, Elie Wiesel’s holocaust memoir, he recounts the hanging of a small child in Auschwitz. The Nazi guards forced the prisoners to line up and watch the execution, and as the child was hanged, one of the prisoners asked, “where is God? Where is God, now?” Wiesel writes, “And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows.’”
God with us. Emmanuel. That is the name we call the God we worship. Even in the midst of our worst suffering, in the middle of our greatest fear, God is with us. There is a balm in Gilead. God is there, hanging on the gallows.
But the story does not end with God hanging on the gallows. We know that God has created us. We know that God is with us. The prophet Isaiah puts is this way: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” We know that God sustains us even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
But the story does not end in the shadows. God redeems us. We are a resurrection people. We are the people of Easter. Hear the word of the Lord from the gospel of Luke:
“But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
He is risen. Risen indeed.
Right now, on this second Sunday of Easter, it’s extremely difficult for many families in our community to see the bright sun of Easter in the midst of the darkness of last Friday. But the lesson of that weekend 2,000 years ago is this: God is at work in the world, reconciling the world to God’s self through the love of Jesus Christ. God is at work in the world redeeming history. Out of the darkness of Good Friday, God brought forth the light of Easter Sunday. There is a balm in Gilead.
I do not pretend to know why the events of Friday occurred. And I do not know today what may come in the way of redemption, forgiveness and reconciliation in our community. I do not know how God will work with God’s people here to bring light into this darkness.
But I do know God in Jesus Christ. I know the God who loves us and forgives us. I know the God who created us, who sustains us, and who redeems us. I do know, there is a balm in Gilead.