Losing Your Head.

It is difficult to know exactly what to say this morning. When I began putting this sermon series together months ago the notion of the connection between starting the Season of Lent on Ash Wednesday with Valentine’s Day and celebrating Resurrection Day on Easter morning with April Fool’s Day seemed an opportunity for theological challenge and homiletical creativity. My intent in the series was/is to hold in tension that notion of love from Valentine’s Day/Ash Wednesday, an image of love that is not the sentimental all’s well image, but rather the difficult, vulnerable, even dangerous image of love. An image of love where we lay our lives down for our friends. An image of love that is costly, prophetic, life and world changing, and transformative.

And with all of this pondering and thought for the series, I confess I was not prepared to begin the journey of Lent with such a heart wrenching, real, and horrific image of vulnerability and danger as this last Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, Valentine’s Day. I did not expect to be rendered speechless last Wednesday by the senseless violence of yet another mass shooting in one of our nation’s schools and the loss of seventeen lives. And still today, five days later, I struggle to find the words. And not just words, but to speak for the church, to have the audacity to try and discern, ponder, pray, consider, and find some way to utter what I, what we might hear from God on such a day as this, in such days as these.

It is difficult to know what to say, in some sense, what to say that we haven’t already said. I have preached on, written about, conversed with those on all sides of the issue of gun violence in our nation. What more do we say? What can we say and do to make a difference? How do we express the kind of love in the world, in our lives, with our families and friends that makes a difference? How do we share the kind of vulnerability that transforms the world around us into that beloved community where violence against one another, against our children is a distant memory rather than a horrific reality?

What should be our voice as the church sound like? What is our task? Is there any way to stop this tragic increasing trend in our country? What is our calling as the church, as followers of the Way of Jesus, the Way of Christ? Because, it is certainly not the notion of offering thoughts and prayers and then sitting back and hoping for the best. Prayer is participatory, reciprocal, and active. If our thoughts and prayers are not followed by action in bringing comfort for the hurting, conviction for the complacent, truth to the complicit, and justice for the vulnerable and innocent, it is not prayer at all, such prayers are an empty void of faithless self-righteousness.

We live in a dangerous time. We live in a day when we long for a safe place. We ache to know we can or we can watch our children walk away from us as they go to go to school, to a movie, a concert, to work, and not have to worry it will be the last time we see them. How do we exist in such an anxiety laden and fear driven society and culture? I am drawn to the words of theologian and author Walter Brueggemann in considering the task and role of the church, those of us who follow the Way. I believe his words begin to help us bring focus to what we might be about and how we might rise up and carry on.

Brueggemann says, “The prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial, and express hope in a society that lives in despair.”

“To tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion.” It is an illusion to believe we live in the greatest nation in the world when we are and continue to be a nation fueled by fear and violence. It is an illusion to believe we live in the greatest nation in the world when 56,755 of our citizens were killed by guns from 2014 to 2017, both intentional and accidental deaths, the number is even larger if we include suicide. In 2017 alone, 15,590 Americans died. It is an illusion to believe we live in the greatest country in the world when in that same 3-year span 2,710 children under the age of 12 died as the result of guns. Difficult truths to hear, but unless we shake off the illusion we live under and hear these numbers we will never overcome our addiction. We have a gun fetish in our country, an addiction to firearms and violence. After every mass shooting, classified as 4 or more deaths, gun sales and stocks spike! Guns have been discharged on school grounds so far 2018 somewhere around 18 times. I have read counter opinion articles to that number. I it is important to know that that around 18 is not shootings as in with the intent to harm. Some were accidental discharges, a student pulled the trigger of an officer’s gun in the holster, some were after hours, and other accidental discharges of a fire arm, suicide, etc… Yet still, think about it, firearms discharged on school property. The fact that that they were discharged at all on school property, regardless of the reason, should be alarming!

And it is not just the guns, it is our whole culture, we have immersed ourselves in a culture of violence, individualism, and isolationism. What is good for me trumps what is good for the community. And the church is not innocent either. Every time the church turns inward and isolates itself from the culture around it,  every time the church says we need to get back to the bible and get out of the social justice business, every time the church refuses to speak out against this violent culture we have created, where we allow games that glorify rape, gun violence, war, street fights, and other forms of violence, every time the church covers up sexual abuse, the diminishing and discrimination of a group of people, the objectification and dismissing of women, the allowing of bullying, we contribute to the violent culture we say we abhor.

Our task is to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion.

Our text today refers to the violent death of John the Baptist. Just when Jesus ministry is beginning to get some traction and reputation is spreading. A reputation of a healing, community building, compassionate, truth speaking ministry, one that will in the end cost him his own life, here in the text we read remember John’s death. While I have not necessarily always appreciated the image I invoke of John’s style of preaching, it is just that kind of prophetic preaching John found out can cost you your head, your life, telling the truth in a society that lives in illusion is dangerous business.  John has told the religious leaders they are snakes of deceit and greed. John has told the ruling powers that be they are living sinful lives and they will reap what they sow, and it cost him his life.

Telling the truth to a culture and society a church that lives in illusion can cost one everything. The truth is, we have a society and culture that is willing to overlook the sins of violence against women, violence against children, violence against health care, violence against those with disabilities, violence against the most vulnerable in our midst because it serves the culture’s consumeristic individualism. Our culture lives the illusion that it doesn’t have to care for the whole as long as it gets what it wants. Brueggemann writes, “Our society is dominated by the self-serving who proceed by ways of calculation and cunning and manipulation and deceit. But such a society – with its violence, its consumerism, its militarism, its alienation – is no way to live.”

Telling the truth is dangerous business and forces us to take stock in what is important in our lives, in our churches, in our families, in our communities, in our country and world. Taking stock of our priorities, counting the cost, also involves grief. What has been lost? What continues to be lost? What could be lost? It is about vulnerability.

“The prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion, and grieve in a society that practices denial” We live in a culture and society in denial. We are in denial that we are reaping what we have sown. No, it Is not just about the guns, though guns are a huge part, it is about access to proper health care, it is about a culture saturated in violence, it is about individualism and isolation, it is about ease of access to firearms, it is about the types of guns, especially military style guns that increase mass deaths, it is about an unwillingness to relinquish some of our privilege for the common good of all. We need to grieve. We need to repent, lament our apathy, our individualism, our greed, our silence, our complacency, our complicities, and our denial.

We need to grieve that our children no longer have a safe place to simply be children, our youth have to look over the shoulder constantly, we need to grieve that a hoodie and the color of one’s skin can determine whether or not they should fear for their lives. We need to grieve that individuals would rather stockpile guns and ammunition than get to know their neighbor. We need to wake up from the darkness of denial and take care of each other.

We need to grieve because these are not political issues, or rights issues, or even constitutional issues. For the prophetic church these are moral issues, issues of righteousness, and justice, and compassion! We need to grieve the church’s silence and the country’s denial that we have created this beast of violence and isolationism.

And…

We need to “express hope in a society that lives in despair.” The prophetic task of the church needs to speak to the hope that we are not alone, that we do not have to live in a world of individualism and isolation! We are a COMMUNITY of Faith, and we do need to be in prayer! A quote I saw yesterday reads, “Yes, it is usually better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, but sometimes you need to remind the darkness just how loud you can be.” Speak the truth… even if your voice shakes.

The church, our church, needs to express hope in a society in despair. The despair can be overwhelming and exhausting, I know, but if we are to participate in the kindom of which God is calling us to be, if we are to embrace the work, life, and ministry of Christ, if we are to follow the vulnerability of what it means to be the prophetic church, we must rise up once again and again,  we must be present in the culture around us, and be the hope it so desperately needs. Brueggemann writes, “To ponder an alternative, (–to a society with its violence, its consumerism, its militarism, its alienation), to ponder the alternative, from greed to generosity, from self -serving to gratitude, is transformative. Such a way of life contradicts the way of the world.” We need to be “counter culture” Reject the wretched fear of violence and weaponry! Be the hope in our corner of the world that shines a light and brings people together! Begin the conversations that heal rather than wound.

The answers, whatever they are, will not be easy. What to do in response to such violence, tragedy, and fear is often so very uncertain. I do not have the answers. But we need to talk and have these difficult conversations. And, at a minimum, do not be silent, be the prophetic voice of truth, grief, and hope.

By all means, PRAY! AND THEN do something! Work for common sense gun laws, not a free for all. Work for policy change to make our country safer. Work for the change of hearts of those who are fearful of change. Work for better access to healthcare. Work for more compassionate governance.

Be aware of your surroundings. Get to know your neighbors better. Notice the loner, the isolated, the excluded and get to know them. Be builders of community. Don’t let the fear mongers beat you down. Be the Prophetic CHURCH I know you are. Be the Hope we need in the world.

You are NOT alone. You are NOT alone. This IS So. Thanks be to God! Amen.

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