A sermon preached on January 16th, 2011 based upon John 1: 29 – 42.
Twice in this passage, the witness John the Baptist refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. To understand the Lamb of God, you have to go back to the formative story of the Hebrew people – the Passover, in which God delivered the people in bondage to Pharaoh in Egypt. The final plague sent by God to was the angel of death. The Hebrew people were instructed to sacrifice an unblemished lamb to the Lord and to pour the blood of the lamb on the doors of their homes. When the angel of death came through the land to unleash his violence, killing the first born sons of each household, homes with the blood of the lamb were passed over.
In the wake of yet another news story of violence unleashed, we are reminded once more of our great need for the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world – takes away the violence and hostility and cruelty, overcoming all our divisions.
The news out of Tucson is all too familiar, hearkening back to Columbine and Virginia Tech and to hundreds of other stories of violence and bloodshed that did not make it to page 1 of our newspapers.
As followers of the Lamb of God, how are we to respond to a tragedy like the one Tucson?
In the days following the shootings, controversy quickly swirled. Who is to blame for this? I was struck by these words that I read in the magazine “Sojourners.”
Not long after the bullets, an opinion was voiced. Then another. And another. And another. Shattering the silence. Even before the families have mourned, we have not stopped playing our games of who is right and who is wrong. Westboro Baptist Church is planning to be at the funeral of the victims, claiming that the shooter is a messenger of God, trying to claim what they desire most, the public’s attention. Pundits give us an ongoing scorecard of who can score political points. know many readers at this point have their dukes raised to answer any perceived attack. Let them down for once as Gabrielle fights for her life. Let’s unclench our fists and clasp our hands in a sign of prayer, at least for a little while longer.oday, stop and kiss your child on her forehead; caress your wife or husband; tell your parents you love them. Today, stop and do not ask whose side will benefit, who is wrong and who is right, but remember the delicate crystal gift that is our small lives. Remember that love is the better portion. Remember that we are all ashes and to ashes we will return. One day, for all of us, the mundane will become something different.
How are we to regard Jared Loughner, the young killer behind the Tucson massacre?
His friends describe him as having been in years past a gifted musician — very bright, a sensitive, gentle soul. They describe how at some point he cut himself from all his old friends; and how his behavior became bizarre. Brought down by mental illness, he became lost in his own little world of darkness.
Waiting for Bobby at a soccer practice this week, I heard a Dad go off on the subject of the shootings to whoever would listen. Referring to Jared Loughner, he declared: They should have just shot the guy. Why should he live? Why should we bother, as a society to pay attention to him, what is there to learn? Why should we pay for his incarceration, or for that matter, his trial? Just execute him and be done with it.
I did not try to argue with him. After all, it is an understandable response, arising from the gut.
I am reminded of the question that Cain — the first murderer — asked of God:
Are we our brother’s keeper?
Jared Loughner unleashed horrific pain on so many, but nonetheless, he, too is a victim, a lost soul. A lost soul, however that the Good Shepherd — also known as the Lamb of God who Takes Away the Sin of the World – refuses to give up on.
How is his outburst symptomatic of greater sickness that afflicts our society at large?
How is it that in this day and age it is possible to become so isolated, one from another, that a person can fall into the abyss of their own dark unreality? We live in a society that will produce countless Jared Loughners in the days to come if we do not learn better how to love one another.
A society is only as strong as its weakest member, or as strong as it treats its weakest member, with the awareness that sooner or later everyone of us becomes one of those weakest members. And the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the whole world shed his blood for every one of us, for Jared and for Gabrielle.
And the powers of sin and darkness aren’t just out there; they are inside of each us. If we search our hearts we know that there is light and there is darkness; there is creativity and there is destruction; there is life and there is death. Like it or not, Jared Loughner lives inside all of us.
And so Jesus showed up there by the river Jordan where John was baptizing, and John declares, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes way the sin of the world” — the one can overcome the divisions both within us and between us.
And because of John’s testimony, two of his disciples follow Jesus, and he turns to them and says, “What are you looking for?” And they answer, “Teacher, where are you staying?” And he said, “Come and see.” And they went and hung out with Jesus for the rest of the day, absorbing his presence.
And feeling something shift within them, a certain freedom from the power of sin and death, one of them went and found his brother Simon, and said, “We have found the Messiah.” And they brought Simon to Jesus to hand, and he became Peter.
And so the community grew.
I am struck by the fact that the “Truth” of Jesus isn’t an abstract idea… it is a matter of abiding in his presence… being a part of his living body in which His life is shared.
In this world where it is so easy the to drift off into our own little universes, it is important to notice that at the beginning of the Gospel a community of grace is created, at the center of which the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is present.
In the midst of all the bad news coming out of Tucson I heard a story on the evening news of hope — of light shining in the darkness.
Back in 2002 a young mother’s heart broke when her little boy died. Unlike the present tragedy, her child’s death didn’t make the headlines. She described herself as unable to get out of bed — simply wanting to die — so deep was her grief. She began to notice, however that it was the little things that stood out for her — little acts of kindness.
People holding a door open for a stranger — that sort of thing.
As a memorial to her son whose name was Ben, she began making colorful ceramic wind chimes – beautiful little works of artistic beauty — and attached them randomly about town, with a note that read:
“You have found Ben’s bell. Take it home, hang it, and remember to spread kindness.” It concluded with a quote from Henry James: “Three things inhuman life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”
She did this without fanfare, but somehow it caught on, and hundreds would gather each week to make Ben’s bells. Then the tragic shooting at the Safeway took place. In the past week, following the shootings, 1400 Ben’s bells were hung all around town. Even a couple by FBI agents managed to hang the bells behind the police tape at the scene of the crime.
I am reminded of the opening of our mission statement: In a hurting, hostile world, we reach out with kindness.
In October of 2006 a man named Charles Roberts was overcome by mental illness that led him into a bloody violence similar to that committed by Jared Loughner. Though he had a wife and children, he fell into a deadly isolation as he went about his work as the driver of a milk truck. He lived among the Amish of Pennsylvania Dutch country, and one day he entered a small school house, where he executed five little Amish girls and seriously wounded five others, before taking his own life.
The murder stunned the world, but perhaps even more stunning was the response of the Amish community, which reached out to the family of the murderer. The story is recounted in a book I have entitled “Amish Grace.”
“The parents of several of the slain children invited members of the Roberts family to attend their daughters’ funerals. More surprisingly, when the Roberts family gathered on Saturday to bury the gunman in the cemetery of Georgetown United Methodist Church, more than half of the seventy-five mourners were Amish. Amos, an Amish neighbor who was present at the gravesite, thought it was imply the right thing to do. ‘A number of us just talked and thought we should go,’ he said. ‘Many of us knew the family very well. So we met at the firehouse just informally, and then we walked across the back way, behind a long garage. We waited there until we saw them bring the body to the cemetery… Many of our people went up to Amy and greeted her and the children.” In fact, some of the parents who had buried their own children just a day or two before offered condolences and hugs to Amy at the gravesite.
“The funeral director recalled the moving moment: ‘I was lucky enough to be at the cemetery when the Amish families of the children who had been killed came to greet Amy Roberts and offer their forgiveness. And this is something I’ll never forget, nor ever. I knew that I was witnessing a miracle.’
“A Roberts family member, also an eyewitness to the ‘miracle’, described it this way: ‘About thirty-five or forty Amish came to the burial. They shook our hands and cried. They embraced Amy and the children. There were no grudges, no hard feelings, only forgiveness. It’s just hard to believe that they were able to do that.’
“The presence of Amish mourners at Robert’s burial may have been the most dramatic expression of their grace, but it was not the final one. Several weeks after the shooting, a meeting took place at the Bart firehouse between members of the Roberts family – Amy, her sister, her parents, and Charles’ parents – and the Amish families who lost children. It was a profound time of grief and healing, according to some present. ‘We went around the circle and introduced ourselves,’ an Amish leader said. ‘Amy just cried and cried and cried. We talked and cried and talked and cried. She was near me, and I put my hand on her shoulder, and then I stood up and I talked and cried. She was near me, and I put my hand on her shoulder, and then I stood up and talked and cried. It was very moving and very intense.’ In the words of another Amish participant, ‘There were a lot of tears shed that day. There was a higher power in the room.’*
I daresay, there was the presence of the one who takes away the sin of the world.
In the book I discovered how central the Lord’s Prayer is to the worship and spiritual life of the Amish. They don’t make up their own prayers – a concept that seems strange to our way of thinking – because they see too much potential in doing so for vanity. Instead, they stick to the words Jesus himself taught his disciples to pray, continually coming face to face with these petitions:
Forgive us our trespasses and we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Lead us not into to temptation, for we know that when it comes down to it, we are weak like the Jared Loughners of the world.
Returning to our Gospel story… two guys go hang out for a day or so with the lamb of God, then go out and invite another to come and hang with them with the lamb, and the church was begun, starting a ripple effect that changed the world. And here we are two thousand years later, a ripple of those first gatherings.
Sometimes we wonder what we’re doing here; our little church, the Parsippany United Methodist Church. We presence here is more important that we know. We are a community in which Jesus — the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world — is present. Where the transforming power of His grace is shared – where we realize we’re all in this together.
We have no idea how many destructive outbursts like unto the one that took place last week in the Safeway in Tucson our presence in this community has deterred. The Lamb of God is here calling our fragile souls back from the edge of the abyss – back into the endless circle of His love.
*Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, pp. 45 -46