Scripture: Psalm 51 and Romans 5:1-5
Rev. Leanne S. Walt
This morning we continue to work through Brian McLaren’s book, Naked Spirituality: a life with God in 12 simple words. We explored the practice of confession several weeks ago through the word “sorry” and now, as we consider the word “Help”, I am compelled to do so within the context of the shooting in Aurora, Colorado.
For, it is our Christian duty to acknowledge that we proclaim our halleluiah’s while being full of sin and in need of help. That we draw upon our halleluiah’s in the face of a sadness that festers from deep within. That we cling to our halleluiah’s over and against the fear that pervades and sing our halleluiah’s into the wounds of violence.
I would like to share a version of this morning’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans from a biblical translation called “The Message.” This is a modern translation of the Bible that is considered academic. The translator, Eugene Peterson was working from the original Greek and Hebrew and he translates Romans 5:3-5 as follows:
We continue to shout our praise even when we're hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next.
This past week we’ve received a stark reminder of the hemmed troubles of this world, of a deep sadness and dark darkness that permeates our nation. It is the church in its right and true and purest state which shines the light to combat the sadness and overcome the darkness that infects God’s people ~ “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.”
It is the church in its right and true and purest state, which sings praise in the face of these troubles - “Halleluiah!” “Lo!” “Behold!” “Hallowed Be!” Glory Be!” “Halleluiah” “Praise Ye the Lord!” – praise, a call to action, to live better, to speak better, to do better, to be better.
It is the church in its right and true and purest state which tends to the spiritual health and wellness of God’s people, developing that passionate patience about which Paul writes, that passionate patience within us that gives way to virtue, to wholeness, to righteousness, to goodness, to peace, to true prosperity and true life.
Last Friday our family woke up on Cape Cod, in a quaint cottage of peace and security tucked back in the woods yet still within nose-shot of that ocean air. I was feeding James his morning carrots and looking toward a day of beach jumping, hopefully topped off with lobsters and steamers and the glimpse of a sunset. This as we received the news that one of the more popular movies of the year, the latest in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy had opened in a suburb of Denver the previous day. The theater was packed for the midnight showing and as many of you know, in the middle of the first act a young man, a student of neuroscience, walked into the exit door of the theater wearing a tactical vest and helmet and a gas mask and began to shoot into the seats. Many thought this was part of the show, but they quickly learned that it was not. He had with him an AR-15 assault rifle, a shotgun, and a handgun. He had a magazine for the AR-15 that would have allowed him to shoot a hundred bullets before reloading, all purchased legally. Although the magazine jammed while he was shooting, he killed 12 people and wounded 58.
Immediately, I was brought back to another day and time, one that you may or may not remember so vividly. I was transported to the moment at 16 years old when I watched the news of the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. The next day I joined the other 15 million high school students across the country in walking into a place of learning and growth with my innocence marred and trust diminished - like all those who boarded a plane in the wake of September 11, 2001 or who have walked into a movie theater this past week. Freedom in the free world.
We experience devastation and destruction in various ways throughout our lives. Sometimes it occurs in our personal lives through cancer, mental illness, a car accident, job loss, addiction. Other times, whole communities experience trauma through natural disasters - a hurricane, a tsunami, or earthquake, just last year we saw the devastation a tornado brought to the western part of the state. Such tragedies are like waves crashing on an ocean, their arrival is beyond our control and their reach cannot be contained.
Yet, there are other kinds of tragedies we experience that are not like the waves but rather like bulldozers that destroy the dunes and crush sand castles along the shoreline - gang violence, a drunk driving accident, mass bombings and shootings.
When a tragedy that falls into this second category occurs, it ignites a dormant anger in us that wakes us up from our malaise, our ennui, from our apathetic notions that we so often carry that what we do doesn’t and won’t make a measureable difference in the world. We are, at these times, compelled to ask if our actions could have changed the course of the bulldozer, if we could have done more to stop it.
A senseless national or communal tragedy charged with such public symbolism, like the shooting in Aurora, Colorado urges us toward corporate confession - as a nation and as a people - for not doing more to prevent the legal purchase of assault weapons and for not better defending the forefathers’ intent as to the nature of our freedom.
Several weeks ago we lifted up the importance of naming our sin – both individual and corporate - as a way of deepening our relationship with God, of engaging in change, in transformation, in a process of becoming. This morning we go one step further and, after recognizing our weakness and failures, ask God for help.
There is this interesting juxtaposition in scripture and one that we discover as we delve into our own spiritual life and practice that when we approach God through our weakness, we actually become strong. When we consider, even, the image central to our faith, the image of Christ on the cross, we see that it is one of ultimate despair, of need, of weakness, and yet we know also that it is an image of unspeakable strength that gives way to beauty beyond comprehension and restoration beyond all imagining.
The apostle Paul is very instructive in this regard, especially in the 5th chapter of Romans where he writes that that there is a kind of strength to be garnered from our weakness, that we ought to celebrate our sufferings, because they produce in us endurance, which in turn produces character, which in turn produces hope, which in turn makes us receptive to the outpouring of God’s love in our hearts.
For there is no such thing as patience without delay, courage without danger, forgiveness without offense, generosity without need, skill without discipline, endurance without fatigue, persistence without obstacles, strength without resistance, virtue without temptation, and strong love without hard-to-love people (108).
Paul does not, nor should we glorify suffering or wish upon humanity any kind of violence or senseless tragedy. Yet, he does urge us to recognize our needs, our wounds, and sufferings and in turn reach out beyond ourselves to God, to Jesus, so that we see healing is possible, that transformation is reality, that a change is gonna come – and we are taken to a place where hope floats and grace prevails.
Brian McLaren points out that oftentimes when we approach God in prayer and petition we are ask God to help us by removing a particular burden from our lives:
We are running late, due to bad planning on our part so we ask God for no traffic and a parking space.
Someone is angry or disappointed in us and we pray that God will change their heart so that we won’t have to deal with whatever it is that’s bothering them.
We say yes to too many things and then ask God for strength to accomplish all of them.
Instead he suggests that we reframe the situation and rename our need or our pain so that it has the power to transform us:
God, I’m running late again, and once again, it’s because I thought I could get just two or three extra things done. Please help me develop wisdom so that I won’t be so prone to tackle too much in too short a time.
God, I have a problem with ____ (you can fill in the blank with that person's name). I need to speak frankly with him about it. Please help me to tell the truth and not hold back, but help me to do it cleanly, without bitterness or hurt.”
God, once again I’ve taken on too much. Now I’m exhausted. Please liberate me from the fears and insecurities of saying, “No, I can’t.”
We exercise this practice in the case of the Aurora, Colorado shooting – to reframe the situation, to rename our need so that we transform our pain into strength and empowerment.
Lord, yet again we are outraged, angry and heartbroken because of the senseless killing of innocent civilians not by terrorists or foreign powers, but by one of our own. Please help us to use the gifts of reason, voice, compassion, and love that you have given us to react to this situation responsibly and productively. May our pain inspire us to action that will strengthen and protect the virtue of our freedom.
Scripture: Deut 31:1-3, 6-8 and John 14:16-23
Rev. Estelle Margarones
The Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, passage we heard was about Moses knowing he'd come to the end of his time with the Israelites. He wouldn't be going on with them, but Joshua, a successor would continue to lead them...and help them navigate the way to the Promised Land. It helps to have someone guide you along the way. Or at least to be there with you, to serve as a resource if you get lost or are unsure of how to proceed.
In the New Testament, the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus knows his time with the disciples is nearing an end. He tells them that he will send another to be with them and, we can infer, all people, forever. After all, Jesus said that he asked these things on behalf of all who would believe. Jesus said he would send an Advocate, a Comforter to be with us.
Last month, I went to church with my family in Maine. There was a visitor with two little boys, about 4 and 9. At the children's time, the woman brought the boys forward. The boys sat on the steps to hear the children's message and the woman sat in the first pew. The younger boy covered his face, in shyness, fear, and anxiety. His brother, about nine, put his arm around the littler one. With that comfort and support, the smaller child could take his hand away and face the congregation.
Each of us has had to face something challenging, or uncomfortable, or new. When we do it alone, it can be overwhelming, but when we have support and assistance, it can make even most unbearable conditions tolerable. Having someone alongside us can give us courage and strength.
The actual word the gospel uses is “Paraclete” which can be translated 'one called alongside or one called to help'. In old Greek, it means “strengthener or supporter.”
Who among us hasn't needed help, strength, and support at one time or another? Maybe it was during a time of illness or bereavement. Maybe it was during a time when you were not feeling very good about yourself. Maybe it was at a time you were secretly enduring some private shame.
There are places that can help with these kinds of issues, thanks be to God for that, but that doesn't absolve us of the responsibility to intercede and bring comfort and assistance where we can, when we can, however we can.
This may mean sending a donation check to a charitable nonprofit...or it may mean providing a ride for someone who otherwise has no means to get to a doctor's appointment.... It could mean writing to your government representative about an issue or taking a stand in other ways, but it means taking action.
One very well known advocacy group began when, according to their website, “...(a) heartbroken mother made a pledge in her deceased daughter’s bedroom. She would do something about the outrage of drunk driving—a decision that quickly inspired a handful of grieving, determined mothers to join in the fight.” The pledge that Cindy Lightner made over 30 years ago would help her process her grief over her daughter Cari's death, would help other grieving parents and families, and save countless of thousands of lives along the way. According to their website, it wasn't easy. “Though united in cause, they had no office, no money and no clout. In fact, all they had was sorrow, pluck and a picture of a pretty, 13-year-old girl killed by a drunk driver. Yet they initiated one of the great grassroots successes in American history. They were as their name suggests: MADD. As their fledgling organization grew, they stood toe to toe with politicians who knew the stats but did not act. They took on a powerful industry that put profit over safety. They challenged a society that viewed drinking and driving as acceptable...(a) nd they caused a visceral reaction”.( http://www.madd.org/about-us/)
The organization MADD, and hundreds, even thousands of others across the country began when someone wanted to make a difference. These organizations provide education, advocacy, intercession, and comfort.
Jesus was a teacher, helper, comforter, and advocate during his time here on Earth. In his time on earth, Jesus brought hope to the people. He interceded, working miracles from distance healing to turning water into wine for a wedding celebration. He brought comfort and support....and we feel it even today. Having Jesus in our lives can give each of us courage and strength. With God, all things are possible.
Jesus said he would send an advocate. The advocate would understand the ways of the law or the industry or the system help an outsider navigate it. This person may walk alongside us and be a guide like Joshua from our Old Testament reading. This person may be a counselor, an intercessor and a comforter.
Faith provides a strong foundation from which we can act. Our faithful actions can strengthen & support another's foundation. As people of faith, we can bring comfort to one another. We can help one another. We can intercede for one another.
When my father died, my mother was instantly plunged into a new reality. You see, the last time she regularly paid credit card bills or dealt with utility companies was in 1965. She just didn't know that long gone were the days of going to an office to meet with someone or pay a bill. You no longer call a local number and speak with someone you know. Today, oftentimes, you get a call center overseas and you begin the conversation with your account number, rather than your name.
My sister and I took care of notifying most of the creditors and utilities that my parents used. When she finally began to make some of the calls herself, my mother was astounded at being on hold for thirty minutes and at reaching a customer service representative who simply read responses off a flow chart. We had offered assistance because we understood the system and we could intercede for my mother.
Someone who can intercede...someone who could offer counsel and comfort....He said he would send someone, so Jesus must have sent the Advocate, but the Bible isn't specific about naming the Paraclete...
Could it be that the Advocate was named Paul and he founded several churches in Asia? We know from his letters that he talked a lot about relationship, responsibility, and interdependence. He talked about sharing when one had abundance and receiving when one was in need.
What if that Intercessor was named Martin, and he led Black Americans to a place of equality? He told his followers that as a people they would get to the Promised Land. 40 years later Barack Obama became the first Black US President.
Perhaps the Comforter was named Teresa, Mother Teresa, who worked with the poorest of poor in Calcutta. Teresa herself said, “As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus.”
People of God, has the Advocate walked alongside you? Have you walked with another? Is it possible that you already know the Advocate's name?
How can you help others navigate life issues? That feeling of going it alone can be terrifying and debilitating. Having another walking alongside can make all the difference. Just knowing that others care makes a tremendous difference. That presence, call, text, email, or hand you lend may go so much further than you ever know.
There's a simple children's with these lyrics: From you, I receive. To you, I give. Together we share and from this we live. We give and receive all of the time. We need each other not just when we fall, but when we fear. We need each other when we stray from right paths and need to be reminded that we can live a better life. We need to share our joys & excitement. All of us always need the other. And the others always need us.
In the gospel, Jesus said, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” What if...that home is in our hearts?
Jesus is our Savior, the one who saves, rescues and delivers. We are Christians, followers of Christ. May we all be inspired to step up to our calling to do our part to end all oppression and suffering in the world. Let us take action rooted in--and born of--a foundation in faith. May we do what we can, however we can, as often as we can to walk alongside others, bringing comfort where we can.
Blessed be and amen.