Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday)

In the beginning, the Scriptures tell us, God created the heavens and the earth. And God saw that it was good. All of it: sun and moon and stars and all the living creatures of land and sea and sky; human beings, male and female in God’s own image. God saw that it was very good. And then God rested. 

Jon Levenson is a Biblical scholar who teaches at Harvard. In his book, Creation and the Persistence of Evil, he argues that while this is indeed the beginning of the story, it is clearly not the end. The art of creating is about ordering the chaos, but it’s not a static thing. After God rests, there is more creative work to be done. And in fact after that first week God decides not to go it alone. Human beings, male and female, are invited to share with God in that creative work. Or not. Human beings are also free to work against the Creator. And so Levenson’s title: creation and the persistence of evil. Think of C.S. Lewis’ The Narnia Chronicles or J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series. Lewis and Rowling are so clearly shaped by the Biblical narrative in the way they tell their stories.

In all three cases there is so much to tell—volumes to tell—because the main story line is not that “God created… and they all lived happily ever after” but that God created and yet evil persists. But it will not prevail. In the end, life will triumph over death. In the end, good will be shown to be stronger than evil.  

In the end, love wins. That is what the Book of Revelation is about. It is a complicated and highly coded book for sure, that like all of Scripture needs to be read with an understanding of its historical and cultural context. It is not a prediction about some future expiration date of the world. There is no rapture in Revelation; I promise you, it’s just not there. Rather, the Revelation to John on Patmos is about the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer—our prayer: thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. It book-ends the Book of Genesis. And so today we heard these words on the Fourth Sunday of Easter from the seventh chapter of the Book of Revelation
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!" And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen."  

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."
This is what Easter looks like in full bloom. We’ve just peaked at the end of the story. Often we hear these words at funerals, in times of devastating loss, because they insist that death does not get the last word. And because they remind us when we hurt that God is not the One inflicting the pain, but the one who wipes away our tears. These words point us to the Lamb at the center; to the One who is with us, and through us. 

And yet, we live in the meantime. We live not in the Garden of Eden, nor in the New Jerusalem, but in a world where evil persists, a world where there is heartache and pain and struggle. We live in the meantime, where a moment of joy can turn so quickly on a dime into a moment of great tragedy. Monday’s events at the finish line of the Boston marathon felt like they unleashed chaos. It felt, at least to me, like the persistence of evil... 

We live in the meantime when there are tears to shed, tears not easily wiped away. Tears for those who lost their lives on Monday in Boston: Matthew Richard and Krystle Campbell and Lu Lingzi and for their families. Tears for the MIT police officer Sean Collier, who lost his life on Thursday night in Cambridge. And tears for so many others who lost so much this week, including the Tsarnaev family.
Yet even in the midst of our grief, we are driven back to wise guides like Fred Rogers, whose words were shared again this week as they were after Sandy Hook in the social media.  They are words not only for our children, but for all of us who in some ways are pushed back in time and feel like lost and scared children, vulnerable in the face of so much evil. And so these words, if you have not seen them before, from Mr. Rogers:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.
This week in Boston, the helpers were everywhere. In the midst of the chaos at the finish line at the Marathon it was unmistakable: not only were firefighters and police officers running toward the blasts but ordinary people were running toward the devastation, to help others. 

One of those helpers was Tyler Dodd, who was on his way to Back Bay station when he turned around and ran back toward the finish line. He told Piers Morgan on CNN this week when asked why that he tries to live by a set of principles, and that when he wakes up in the morning he says a little prayer to be God’s instrument in whatever way he can. He wasn’t preaching; he was only responding to the question from the reporter. His preaching of the gospel had already happened, without words, when he turned back to help others. And then he said (and I find these words as incredible as his actions) - “I saw humanity at its finest.” 

Another helper was Carlos Arredondo. Some of you may have seen the image of Carlos wearing a white cowboy hat and pushing a man whose legs had been blown off in a wheel chair. He had gone to the marathon to honor his own dead sons by handing out 200 American flags. His oldest son, Alexander, was a U. S. Marine killed in Iraq and his younger son, Brian, took his own life. Carlos shows up at the Marathon each year to honor and support others, as so many do including those from this congregation who run to support Best Buddies or to end Alzheimer’s.

But as the week unfolded, it seemed easy to feel as if we could just get the bad guys, and then all would be right again. Justice would be served. I hate hearing the word “closure” used when it comes to any tragedy or loss, because people seem to think they can get to closure quickly. My experience tells me that life goes on, but closure is an illusion. But it’s a word the media loves and I’m sure we’ll hear it a lot in the week ahead, now that one perpetrator is dead and the other is in custody. I agree, of course, that life goes on and that it must go on. I agree, of course, that we must not let our lives be defined by fear. But that’s not the same as putting it all behind us.

For me, at least, and perhaps for some of you as well, as this week unfolded it got more and more difficult to make any sense out of it. Especially after we learned that the perpetrators were a couple of kids, the youngest of whom in particular seemed like a normal teenager:  a wrestler, a college student with lots of friend.  . The media tried to make this nationalist: he must be a “Chechnian rebel.” Sounds bad, doesn’t it. Except that these young men weren’t really even from Chechnia and certainly had not grown up there. And Chechnian anger is directed at Russia, not the United States. No matter: “Chechnian rebel” helps us think we understand. Or the media made it religious; clearly these two were “Islamist terrorists.” We think we understand what that looks like too and then before you know it people are going out and beating up Arab Muslims. We expect, I think, to see someone who looks like Lord Voldomort; not like our own kids. So when we see a college kid from UMass Dartmouth on our televisions and his friends all keep insisting that he’s a great kid and they’ll be there for him to testify on his behalf, it is almost too much to take in and to bear.

There is still so much we do not know about these two brothers and along the way on Friday there was a lot of bad information and false information put out there. For me it was a reminder of the shadow side of 24 hour news; half of the time is spent correcting what was inaccurately reported earlier.  But we get sucked in, don’t we? So this week maybe we need to step back and give as much time to prayer as we gave to the media this past week. We don’t know, and we may never know, what really happened. Why does one person allow their pain to turn them to inflict more pain on others, while someone like Carlos Arredondo channels his pain toward the good? I wish I could answer that question definitively and write a book with seven habits or ten rules.

Here is what I do know: when we dare to use words like good and evil we must realize those are forces at work in all of our lives and that life is a daily practice of learning to turn toward the light. We cannot divide the world into the good people and the evil people; it’s just way more complicated than that. Our children do most definitely live in an unsteady and confusing world; we all do. It is a world without easy answers, a world where religion itself can be so quickly corrupted and manipulated and turned and used to perpetuate violence and fear and terror. I don’t want people to define my faith by the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church, as I’m sure our Muslim neighbors do not want their faith defined by the actions of a few bad apples who manipulate the teachings of the prophet. 

In moments like this, words fail us and all of our theologies are exposed as inadequate. And yet in such moments, what remains by God’s mercy, is love. That is the deep truth of Easter: that love really is stronger than death. In the beginning, God created in love. In the end, God will wipe away all tears, in love. 

In the meantime, we have been commanded to love one another, with God’s help.

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