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.