A sermon preached on April 22, 2007 based on Acts 9:1 – 20, addressing the violence that took place the previous week on the campus of Virginia Tech.
With the horror of the shootings that took place on the campus of Virginia Tech, we were once more reminded of how very fragile and vulnerable we human beings are in this world. In the aftermath of the shootings, there was the inevitable second guessing of the response by the police and university officials, but although the analysis is necessary, part of this second guessing arises from a need to cling to the illusion that with proper planning, we could make ourselves and our children invulnerable from such threats.
But the fact of the matter is, if someone with a fragile psyche and lots of rage — and there are times in the lives of most of us, if not all of us, when the description “fragile psyche and lots of rage” aptly describes us — if a person in such a state decides to get a hold of a gun and start shooting, well, there’s not much we can do except hope we are ready to meet our Maker.
Thirty three people died Monday. Reading over the brief bios published in the newspapers of those who lost their lives I note that the victims represented all possible races and ethnicities: white, black, Asian, Hispanic, Middle eastern, Eastern European, Indian. They represented various faiths: there was a 76 year old Jewish professor who survived the Holocaust but died trying to barricade the door to his classroom so that his students could flee, there was a born again Christian, a friend of a friend of Barb’s, there was a warm-hearted United Methodist from Illinois who went on mission trips with her church youth group to work on the homes of the poor in Appalachia, there were Roman Catholics, Moslems, Hindus, and God only knows what else.
The tragedy touched all sorts of folk; we are all linked together in sharing the fragility and the vulnerability that marks the human condition; we all share in the common grief that breaks our hearts.
I want to take note of the fact that the young man who pulled the trigger so many times was a very sick man. His brain chemistry didn’t work the way it was supposed to. This is not to excuse him of all responsibility for his actions; we all are accountable for what we do with the obstacles and opportunities presented to us in life. But it is to say that he suffered from a disease which in certain ways is more insidious, more brutal than all the afflictions we readily acknowledge as diseases: cancer, heart disease, and the like, because mental illness more often than not goes unrecognized as illness, and unlike other diseases, it directly affects a person’s capacity to perceive reality and make choices regarding behavior and attitude.
There have always been people who suffered from mental illness. In the New Testament, these people were described as being possessed by demonic spirits, acknowledging they had lost the capacity to choose their way in life in the face of the destructive powers that moved inside them.
There is a difference today, however. And that would be the fact that whereas in the past,
mental illness more often took place in the context of relatively stable social networks.
In the modern age, everything is in upheaval, and to a greater extent than ever before, the person suffering from mental illness is more likely to find him or herself alone, cut off,
without the social support that can keep them from disintegrating even further.
In the past, communal connections were a given of life. A person grew up as a part of a family, a neighborhood, a church — these networks simply were — they didn’t have to created. They were there, like the water a fish lived and moved within. There was, of course, a down side to this, but it did keep people connected.
Nowadays, extended families simply don’t exist the way they once did, nuclear families are taking a terrible hit. Most people know relatively little about who their neighbors are,
and most don’t grow up in a close church family like we enjoy here, where you can count on folks being there for you in your time of need.
And if the tragedy at Virginia Tech teaches us anything, it is that we truly do need one another. Simple care and concern for one another is more important than we know.
For we who live in America, this violence that erupted on a beautiful, seemingly peaceful college campus touches us in a way that much of the violence of this world does not. I have felt on the edge of tears listening to the stories of heartbreak coming from Virginia Tech. There are other places in this world where violence is much more common place,
and I found myself this past week identifying more clearly with the pain felt throughout the world. These days in Iraq 33 deaths in a day would be a relatively quiet day; there was a bombing in Baghdad this week that took the lives of 180 people with each one of these persons killed leaving behind as much heartbreak as the people who died at Virginia Tech. The grief of this world is so great, and most of the time we succeed in shutting it out of our hearts. But this week it wasn’t possible.
And so in a week in which it was easy to despair regarding the violence and hatred that is so much a part of this world, once again, I am struck by the peculiar way that the Bible story in the lectionary assigned for this Sunday speaks to us where we are.
In the midst of the horror we felt this week over violence, the scriptures bring us an encouraging word, a story of a man described at the outset as “breathing threats and murder”, and who is brought through a remarkable conversion that leads him to make peace with his enemies, and to devote his life to being a peacemaker of the grandest proportions. The scripture testifies to the presence of an extraordinary power actively at work in this world whose nature is love and whose purpose is the reconciliation of all creation — to God, to one another, indeed to creation itself.
And so in the midst of the violence of this week, and under the guidance of the scripture we have heard, I want to ask the question: What does it take for a person to become a real peacemaker in this troubled world? For nothing seems quite so important now as the creation of peacemakers.
And the first thing to be said is that the creation of a peacemaker requires the grace of God: with human beings alone, as Jesus said, nothing is possible, but with God all things are possible, and the story is an encouragement reminding us that the grace of God is actively out there in the world working in absolutely surprising ways, as when it took this violence-breathing Saul and turning him into a peacemaking Paul.
And the second thing I would say is that in order to become a real peacemaker an encounter with our shadow self is required.
We talked about the shadow self last week. The events of holy week ask us to look inside ourselves, to view our own darkness, as a kind of prerequisite of encountering the astonishing light that shines in the resurrection. As I said last week, “there is the self that we present to the world — that self we aspire to be; that self we allow others to see, and want them to see us as. And then there is the self that we try our best to keep hidden — the self that thinks thoughts we would be ashamed if others could listen in on — the self that does things in secret that we would be ashamed for others to witness;“ the self we even try to keep hidden from ourselves.
This past week the actor Alec Baldwin made the news in a way he never intended: apparently Baldwin, like Saul, breathing threats, if not murder itself, left a long, enraged message for his pre-adolescent daughter, (designed, of course, only to be heard by his daughter.) The message, however ended up on the web as well as on the news outlets for all the world to hear.
I listened to the recording, which, I realize says something about myself of which I’m not especially proud, and I had two reactions:
1) What an animal, what a despicable creep Alec Baldwin is! And
2) there are things I’ve said to my kids which I, too, would be deeply embarrassed and ashamed about if they were broadcast for the whole world to hear, and I expect that this is true for pretty nearly every parent who ever lived.
When we say such regrettable things, afterwards, if we have the good fortune of coming to regret them, we realize that when we were actually saying them, we felt justified, we felt righteously indignant. Which is precisely how Saul felt when he was breathing those threats, persecuting the first Christians, and which is how the mentally ill gunman felt when he was on his rampage (which, I admit, I also listened to on the web.)
Again the words of Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
So what happened to Saul? He is headed down the road to Damascus, feeling justified, righteously indignant in his plan to do violence to the Christians whom he considers blasphemers. Suddenly, there is a bright light from heaven, and a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus, who you are persecuting.”
At which moment Saul began to realize that the violence and rage within him that he had assumed to be so righteous, was, in fact, evil.
It is only when we recognize the destructive capacities that are within our own hearts that we can begin to look at someone we have labeled enemy and see a brother or a sister.
Another thing I said in my sermon last week is that life has a way of humbling us over time. We grow up to be adults, and unfortunately along the way we tend to leave behind our humility. We come to think we know things we don’t. We come to think ourselves stronger than we are. We can make it through life without help. And then life brings us to our knees. And it can seem like the worst thing in the world to us, which is certainly how it felt to Saul that day long ago.
But in the humbling there is grace; the very presence of Jesus, risen from the dead, looking to transform us in to the real deal: into peacemakers, who are simultaneously strong and weak.
Saul starts off proud and strong, certain of what he knows, righteous in his rage. He ends up, blinded and helpless, lead by the hand, needing to rely on the kindness of strangers, like a child.
Jesus said, unless you turn and become like a little child, you will never enter the Kingdom of God.
Sarah Jernstrom shared a story with me recently that touched my heart, involving the children of our church. During one of my children’s sermons recently, six year old Eddie Cogan was talking to Sarah’s four year old Zak. Sarah was focusing on what I was saying, but Eddie’s insistence on saying something to her son finally caught her attention,
and this is what she heard Eddie saying. “Zak, your Daddy died.”
He kept repeating this to Zak, because Zak wasn’t really responding, until finally Zak said, “Yeah, I know.” At which point, Eddie turned his attention to Sarah and this is what he said: “Your husband died. Some people die young, and some people live to be 100, and we don’t know why. I’m sorry that your husband died.”
We don’t know why. We don’t know why on a whole lot of stuff. We are like children, like Eddie, humbled by the mystery of life. But with some simple kindness, with taking the time to say things like, “I’m sorry your husband died,” we will make it together.