Message of Peace
July 10, 2016 (the Sunday following the deadly shooting of 5 officers in Dallas, Texas)
Through all that has taken place I keep having a bizarre recurring memory of drinking from a water hose. I grew up in the days when we would spend a lot of time outside and when we got hot and thirsty, we’d drink out of the water hose. I wasn’t supposed to do that. My mother would get on to me—she was a public health nurse. She’d insist that if I was thirsty, I could come inside and get a drink. That’s when my other problem developed. If I came inside just to get a drink and then when immediately back outside, my Dad would get on to me for coming in and out too much. He’d say, “come in and stay in or go out and stay out but enough of this in/out, in/out.” More than once, I determined it was safer to take my chances drinking from the water hose. Only you couldn’t turn it on too high or the parents inside would hear, bang on the window and tell me to stop. So, I’d turn it one just a little and suck what little water I could from the trickling quiet stream. It was never very satisfying. Not when you were as dehydrated as I was. But then there were those times when Mom and Dad weren’t home. Or I grew up just old enough not to worry about. OR, you know, last week when it was my hose and my house and I could do whatever I wanted. And I could turn on the hose full blast the pressure the water coming out of the hose would push its way into the mouth, down into the stomach, out to the cells in what seemed like a split second reaction.
The Apostle Paul spoke of God as the Father of mercy or compassion and the God of all comfort. Yet, for me the comfort and consolation that I feel scripture so often speaks of has been a bit of a trickle. It feels like a trickle. And it’s a trickle for the very same reason I was drinking from a trickling hose to begin with—because if you turn it on too high someone will be angry. If you go inside for a real drink and someone will get mad. Speak up about a racist system and cultural divides between whites and blacks and Hispanics and Asians and gays and straights and you’ll hear that bang on the window. Dare to suggest that the systems currently in place favor me and people like me and other people like me may just get their feelings hurt. There’s nothing wrong with the system the voice inside the house yells. The problem is, the voice is inside the house. Problems never seem that large from the inside. There’s no reason to confront any prejudices or bigotry. In fact don’t even use that word—racism. Racism is a word that sits outside coiled up like a snake in the dirt and grime. You don’t know what kinds of bugs and germs have climbed up in that word since it was last turned on. You put your mouth to that word and God only knows what might be spewing back into you with that water. –God. Only. Knows. On the flip side, speak up too forcefully for the police officers and you’ll get pelted theories and elaborations. You know they work for the government don’t you. Who, the police? No, I must have slept through civics 101. You mean our government, our government? The one of the people, by the people, for the people? You mean that government? Yeah, they do what we’ve asked them to do. We should show a level of grace when they do it. And then finally seek to express some sense of empathy with the whole of humanity—those who pull to the left and those who pull to the right—and suddenly that cranky old man rears his head again—come in and stay in or go out and stay out but enough of this in/out, in/out.
I long for the full stream of water. I long for discourse to be factual and sane and filled with more light and less heat. I long for a community of trust—not just one where I trust that you won’t shoot me. I long for a community where we trust what each other says at face value. A community where
we aren’t so willing to believe every conspiracy theory about how and why things happen when and where they do. The first duty we have as Christians is to pray and the second duty of the Christian is to listen. I long for that–prayers of praise, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. We are called to pray for more than ourselves and more than the family members whose illnesses cause us pain. We are called to pray for those we do not know indeed for those we would rather hate. Pray for your enemies, those are Jesus’s words not mine. Part of the reason I made changes to our order of worship this morning to include more prayer is because it feels like we needed to turn that hose on a little stronger. That our prayers have trickled and they needed to flow. May our prayers quiet our hearts long enough to listen to each other. That we may all help one another by our prayers so that many will give thanks for the blessings granted us through the prayers of many. Let this word of God flow like an ever rushing stream. Let it cleanse my mouth, pour down my dry throat and reach every cell of my body all at once.
The comfort Paul identifies is not some vague comforting mysticism. Rather for Paul the comfort for Christians comes in this most unlikely location—the cross of Jesus Christ. Open up the spigot a few more turns and you’ll see what I mean. “For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.” Abundant—that’s Paul’s word for turning on the hose full blast. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of Paul’s theology. The crucifixion of Jesus affirms a few core truths for us. One: it assures us that there are indeed mean, brutal and violent people in the world determined to do wrong. Sometimes they are represented in the criminal class hanging on either side of Christ and sometimes they are manifest in the powerful system that put Jesus on the cross. Christ is other than both—he is not like the lawless criminals who taunt him though they themselves are under the same sentence or like government officials who crucify him. Christ is not like the crowd that stands and gawks. Christ is other. Other than all who surround his cross he is other than each of them, yet for each of them. Christ is there singularly and alone. Yet, he bids us to come, take up our cross and follow him. And from the cross he demolishes the naïve belief that life is going to be fair just because it’s supposed to be.
Two: The cross assures us that innocent people die in the face of the cruelty of others. And Paul somehow sees comfort in that. He speaks over and over and over again of being conformed to the Cross. “That I may know Christ” Paul wrote elsewhere, “becoming like him in death so that somehow I may receive the resurrection.” “Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus, who took on the form of a servant and became obedient unto death. Even death on the cross.” “We carry around the death of Christ in our mortal bodies.” Yet, the comfort there comes in knowing that crucifixion is not conclusion. It precedes resurrection which is our hope also.
And three: Here is the kicker—those who crucify do not get to interpret the meaning of the crucifixion. Those who crucify do not get to interpret the meaning of the crucifixion. The word martyr means witness. It has come to mean for many of us someone who dies because of what they believe in. But originally the word means witness. The martyr proclaims for themselves the meaning of their life and their death. What Pilate meant to be an appeasement of the crowd, turned out to be the most world changing upheaval imaginable. What Herod meant to be the protection of his kingdom and crown, turned out to be the dawning of a new day and the Kingdom of God. What the Sanhedrin meant to be a silencing maneuver to keep down this rabble-rousing crowd was in fact a loud and long cry. And we as Christians have to learn to say that more faithfully and thoughtfully. The problem is we’ll say the name Jesus like it’s a blunt object. We’ll use it to pummel people who don’t believe like we do. That’s not how Jesus intended for us to use his name. It is to be spoken, yes, but spoken as an invitation in not a door slammed shut. And it’s not being politically incorrect to speak of Jesus Christ. We have to stop acting like victims. The Bible does not imagine the role of victim as a vocational place for anyone. God has called some to be prophets and some to be apostles and some teachers and some to be healers and God has called all of us to be people of faith, hope and love. We must be witnesses not whiners. The dividing line between a martyr and a victim is this: the martyr leaves behind a witness to what their life and death means. And the crucifiers do not get to give that interpretation—they will try. They placed a placard above the head of Jesus on the cross it declared what in their estimation he had claimed that deserved his execution. They thought it would be the last word on Jesus’s life. That would-be permanent record did not last. We know what it said only because the evangelists chose to include it in the witness—an ironic detail slipped in between the verses that said—Unto us is born and He is Risen, He is Risen, Indeed. I think they kept it there so that for 2000 years we would be able to say—wow, did they ever underestimate Jesus’s significance. The crucifiers were wrong. They are always wrong.
Though they are wrong, it feels as though the crucifiers have come for people in waves—from Charleston to Orlando, from Istanbul to St. Paul, from Dhaka, Bangladesh to Dallas, Texas. They unleashed their violence to make statements—statements about people’s faith and skin color and orientation and profession. Statements through terror, intimidation, the abuse of power, and cavalier attitudes. They have tried to place their placards above those killed by their deeds. May their efforts fail. May they fail because we refuse to let the aggressors be the loudest voice in the room. We refuse to accept the meanings they have assigned to the death they have unleashed. And while we are at it can we refuse to let meanings be assigned by those who have pre-existing political or financial agenda. As the people of God, we are entrusted with prayerful listening eyes and ears to see and hear the the unique imprint of God’s image emblazoned on each life. Each person is more than a hashtag more than facebook post. And we are the ones who bear responsibility to listen and reflect and say: this is how God’s Grace has been manifest in our world through their lives. And the crucifiers interpretation can be relegated to a footnote if we as evangelists permit their voices to be heard at all. But the Gospel manifest in each person’s life will be the main text–the placards can go into the garbage.
Brent Thompson was a family man dedicated to his children and his grandchildren. Patrick Zamarripa did three tours in Iraq as a Navy petty officer. He had a toddler and school-age child. Next month he would be 33 years old—the same age Jesus was when he died. Lorne Ahrens was described by a co-worker as a “big guy with an even bigger heart.” Michael Krol was an 8-year veteran of the police department. An uncle said of his work as a police officer, “He was all in, he was all in.” Michael Smith had already given 26 years to the protection of Dallas citizens. These five officers were not victims. They are martyrs. They are martyrs in defense of democracy and people’s right to speak out. They are martyrs in defense of tolerant community and mutual protection. Let the word victim never be used to sum up beautiful lives. Let us say rather, “Greater love has no one than this that they lay down their life for their friends.” This is, for me, what it means to turn on the full stream of water and drink deeply from the living water of Jesus Christ. It is to join with sisters and brother and loudly declare–“My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’s blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus name. ON Christ the solid rock I stand all other ground is sinking sand.” If we offer that testimony with humility and grace no one will be surprised. Yet if we keep silent they too many may be left dry and desperate for water.