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Because I knew I would be out of town for several days at the beginning of this past week, I began thinking about this morning's sermon LAST week. The big story in the news at the time was the Don Imus debacle. I admit I found it a little disconcerting that the foolish remarks of a rich, old white guy that demeaned a young, predominantly African-American women's college basketball team would end up as the lead story on the national news - I mean, we DO have some things in the world that are immeasurably more important. But the sad truth is that our culture has experienced an almost psychotic outburst of Imus-isms in the past year - Comedian Michael Richards "losing it" during a night club performance and challenging his hecklers with the "N-word;" "Grey's Anatomy" star Isaiah Washington and his "faggot" slur against one of his co-stars; Virginia Senator George Allen and his "macaca" reference that cost him an election; Mel Gibson and his drunken rant against Jews. Dealing with the kind of bigotry that underlies that kind of talk, from Don Imus or anyone else, is certainly worth a sermon.
Then there is the continuing soap opera in Washington with the hearings about the operation of our Justice Department and the firing of the US Attorneys. The image we are getting of a department insuring "liberty and justice for all" if you happen to be in the right political party is somewhat disquieting. "Justice for all," regardless of political affiliation, is certainly a biblical theme and lends itself to preaching.
That huge snow storm this part of the nation experienced last weekend (and which Christie and I gratefully missed down in the Carolinas) was probably exacerbated by the global warming problem - hotter hots, colder colds, wetter wets, drier drys. Today is being observed as Earth Day in this nation, and people are being asked to pay attention to the things we can do to save our planet for future generations - things we might not think about enough...turn off your computer overnight, unplug cellphone chargers when not in use, do FULL loads of laundry or dishes.
That Wal-Mart ad in yesterday's paper was intriguing. It asked, "Can a funny looking light bulb change the world?" It went on to say that if every Wal-Mart shopper bought (and used) just one compact fluorescent light bulb, it would be the oil-burning equivalent of taking over a million cars off the road. (1) Wow. Well, the Bible is surely clear that God has given us management responsibility for this planet. This will certainly preach.
So saying, we all know that all this news pales in comparison to what happened at Virginia Tech on Monday. A sad, mentally ill young man went on a rampage. By the time the shooting stopped, he and 32 others were dead, the worst incident of its kind in the history of the nation, a nation, by the way, that is no stranger to horrors like this. And what is it about the third week in April and murderous violence? It was 14 years ago this week that we saw the Branch Davidian disaster in Waco, Texas - 82 people dead; this week marked the 12th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrah Federal Building and 163 dead; this was the 8th anniversary of Columbine High School shootings - two teenage students killed twelve students and a teacher, as well as wounding twenty-four others, before committing suicide. The third week in April.
It is intriguing the way the lectionary texts sometimes lend themselves to current events even though they were selected years in advance. For example, one of this week's lessons is about the conversion of the Apostle Paul. It is a story you remember from your Sunday School days. It seems that an upstart group had begun preaching and teaching that Jesus of Nazareth, the young rabbi who had made such an impact with his preaching and teaching and healing but who had been crucified by the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, had risen from the dead and was, in fact, the long-awaited Messiah. The chief priests and leaders of the Temple were not pleased. After all, of all the provinces of the Roman world, only Israel had been allowed the freedom of their own religion. True, this was not out of any respect that the Caesars had for Judaism, rather this was simply less trouble than forcing something else. So saying, the Roman rulers were not about to accept a Judaism that might be seen as fomenting political unrest. So the Jewish leaders wanted this stamped out before Rome could step in to stamp THEM out. This was a Jewish concern that should be handled "in house."
Here we meet young Saul of Tarsus. Our first introduction is as he plays coat-room monitor while some of this colleagues murder one of these so-called "Christians." Stephen, a leader of this band of upstarts, was beaten to death with stones. In the midst of his ordeal, Stephen looked toward heaven and prayed, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." If that prayer made any impact on Saul, it was certainly not apparent. As scripture has it, this angry young man, bent on stamping out this Christian heresy and, in the process, maintaining the political status quo that was so important to the Temple leaders, redoubled his efforts and "began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison." (2) So says scripture.
The conversion story that we find in the lectionary lesson finds Saul, in the language of the old King James Version, "breathing out threatenings and slaughter" against the church (sounds sadly like the video manifesto of Seung Hui Cho). Saul is ready to take his act on the road, so he arranges with the Jerusalem authorities to travel to Damascus to track down Christians who had fled there to escape the danger in the Holy City. Here we find the famous Damascus Road scene - Saul is literally knocked off his high horse, blinded by the light, and hears the voice from heaven, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" Saul is not sure about the question, so he begs who is asking. "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." Then follows the instruction to go on into the city and wait for further word.
Wait a minute. Jesus? Jesus is dead. Oh my. They had been saying that he had risen. Oh my. This changes everything. Oh my. So he goes into Damascus and waits. The blindness continues for three days.
Meanwhile, God comes to a faithful Christian by the name of Ananias with instructions to go to Saul and lay hands on him to restore his sight. Ananias objects: "Lord...I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name." But the Lord tells him to do it anyway because Saul has been specially chosen for ministry. Ananias does what he is told, Saul's sight is restored, and suddenly the world is introduced to the man who would become known as PAUL and nothing has been the same since.
There are lots of lessons that one could take from this story, but the one that resonates most with me is that the Lord uses some surprising individuals and events to accomplish divine purposes. I mean, a religious fanatic like Saul, whose murderous hatred for all things Christian was out there for all to see, would be the one who would spread the gospel like no one else??? C'mon... But that is exactly what happened. Go figure.
As might be expected, many of the Virginia Tech family have been looking to their faith in response to this week's tragedy. There have been prayer services and vigils, one after another, since the horror struck. There have been affirmations that God will work good out of this, even though we might be at a loss at the moment as to how that might be accomplished.
Of course, there have been questions as to WHY? and Where was God in all this? Those questions always come when tragedy strikes in any form. Those were the questions of Job so many centuries ago. Those were the questions of Christians in the early days of the church when a profession of faith could be an issue of life or death.
Here again we find that the lectionary, prepared years ago, has something as relevant as tomorrow. The lesson from Revelation, indeed the whole BOOK of Revelation, has a word for those confronting the horrors of life. Revelation was written by someone named John, probably the early church's bishop of the congregations in Asia Minor, the western coast of what is now Turkey. It was probably written around the end of the first century during the reign of Emperor Domitian who was notorious for his terrible persecution of the church. Bishop John wants to encourage his little flocks in the face of a hostile environment. His message is that Caesar is not Lord, JESUS is Lord, and that despite all the evidence to the contrary at the moment, evil does not ultimately win, the Lord God Almighty does. It was a most needed word of hope in the midst of a life of despair.
If you read through Revelation you will encounter any number of strange images. The book is written in a "code" known as Apocalyptic, which had its roots in earlier religious writing such as Ezekiel and Daniel and Zechariah. It is designed to convey a message to the faithful without endangering them anymore than was already the case - thus, the "code." But you will also note as you read that there are familiar phrases all over the place - Revelation, of all the books of scripture, is quoted in our liturgy and hymnody more than any other:
Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang: "Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!"If you want to break into the Hallelujah Chorus, go right ahead. That too is from Revelation.
Revelation is a book written to give hope to people suffering in the midst of devastation, either the first century or the 21st, whenever anyone reads or hears it. Yes, it was written to give hope, but not a naive hope, not a hope that has to pretend that there is no violence or suffering or horror. The Bible is completely honest about the tragic realities out there. For that matter, the Bible is completely honest about the tragic realities in here. But the Bible insists, and the life and death and resurrection of Jesus affirm, that the tragic realities are not the end of the story.
As I have told you before, the imagery in Revelation is poetic, not photographic, but that does not make it any less true. In fact, sometimes the only way we can convey truth is through poetry - prose is insufficient.
When Martin Luther King spoke before the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 and gave his immortal "I Have A Dream" speech, it was a bleak time for the Civil Rights struggle in America. Things were not going well. The March on Washington that August was meant to infuse new life into the movement, to give new energy so that the warriors might fight on, despite the obstacles. Dr. King gave the assembled throng a vision:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed --- "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal."This was poetry, a vision of a world not yet arrived, but one that was on the way. It was a song to keep people moving, a song to sing in the present darkness, a song which spoke of the coming light.
Will Willimon tells of a man in one of his congregations who had been in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. It was a place of unbearable torture and human degradation. The prisoners were treated horribly and their lives seemed not worth living. One of the prisoners, a wonderfully defiant chap from Illinois, would sometimes hum songs to himself as the prisoners were being led out to the fields to work each day. Walking along in the sweltering heat, miserable, unfed, unwashed, he would sing. He often hummed "America, the Beautiful." The Japanese guards did not know the tune, so the song meant nothing to them. But to the prisoners, the tune, evoking the "amber waves of grain" and "purple mountain majesties," reminded them of home, filled them with hope and courage. Soon, the whole camp was humming the tune each day on the way out to work, with the guards oblivious to the revolutionary significance of this defiant gesture. (4)
In a way, that is precisely what the songs and symbols of Revelation do for us. They remind us, as we go about our daily lives, as we hear of 33 dead in Blacksburg or of 3300 young Americans dead in Baghdad, that evil does not ultimately win, God does. In the Virginia Tech memorial convocation Tuesday evening, Professor and poet Nikki Giovanni said:
We are sad today, and we will be sad for quite a while. We are not moving on, we are embracing our mourning... We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did nothing to deserve it, but neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS, neither do the invisible children walking the night away to avoid being captured by the rogue army, neither does the baby elephant watching his community being devastated for ivory, neither does the Mexican child looking for fresh water, neither does the Appalachian infant killed in the middle of the night in his crib in the home his father built with his own hands being run over by a boulder because the land was destabilized. No one deserves a tragedy.How true. But tragedy is NOT the final word. Revelation helps me hear that. I NEED to hear that. And THAT is why I need to have the newspaper in one hand, and the Bible in the other! That is the only way I can make sense of it all.
1. ©Wal-Mart Stores in USA Weekend, April 20-22, 2007
2. Acts 8:3
3. Delivered on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963. Source: Martin Luther King, Jr: The Peaceful Warrior, Pocket Books, NY 1968
4. "A Song to Shake the World," 4/26/1998, http://www.chapel.duke.edu/worship/sunday/viewsermon.aspx?id=70