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“No More Hurting People” – The Vow of God to be with Us, and to Transform the World Through Us

April 27, 2013

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As he wandered on to Boylston Street to greet his father with a toothy smile and a hug at the finish line of the Boston marathon, Martin Richard was the picture of childish joy. Moments later, however, this bright and cheerful eight-year-old, who loved playing football and riding his bicycle, who is pictured below with a poster he made for peace saying “No more hurting people,” was killed in a flash of violence that shattered his family and left a city, and indeed people throughout the world, grieving.

We struggle with many questions when acts like this occur. We ask “Why?” And we ask “What?” – “What does God have to say to us about living in a world like this?”

The answer to this question is: “Much!”

This is the world of the Bible. The Bible was not written from a comfortable armchair, but from a world just like this.

And it’s also so fitting that today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, for this is always Good Shepherd Sunday, a day on which we focus on Our Lord’s love for us. Our Psalm is always the familiar Twenty-third Psalm about the Lord’s being our Shepherd, and our Gospel always shares Jesus’ words about himself as our Good Shepherd from John Chapter Ten. So with the tragic violence in Boston so much in our hearts and minds, I invite us to listen together to what these and our other passages from Holy Scripture have to share about God’s Presence with us in the midst of life’s darkest valleys, and where the true power in the universe lies.

First, let’s look at Psalm 23. It was written by David, who certainly had not had a life of comfort. For many months before becoming king, he had fled for his life from Saul. As king, he had been engaged in battles throughout his reign. And then, near the end of his life, he had been required to flee once more, this time from Absalom, his own son.

This is experience of the man who writes:

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me;

and 

Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

David expresses confidence, freedom from fear, because he trusts that God is with him, watching over him as a shepherd watches over the sheep.

Note what this psalm does not say. It does not say that the psalmist doesn’t go through the dark valley. It says that God is there with the psalmist when the psalmist walks in them – and that this is enough.

Today’s Passage from Acts 9 reminds us that the One who is with us is stronger than death, with the raising of Tabitha, which itself is reminiscent of Jesus’ raising Jairus’ daughter in the Gospels.

But we must never forget that this occurs just after the martyrdom of Stephen, who was NOT brought back to life.

Today’s Passage from Revelation 7 speaks of the worship of those, “who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb;” saying:

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

It reminds us of the world in which the writers of the New Testament lived, a world of persecution; and that they worshipped as their Shepherd the Lamb who was slain, the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for them.

lamb of god

Today’s Gospel, John 10, has this Good Shepherd, Jesus, speaking at the Feast of Hanukkah – which remembered the courage of those willing to lay down their lives against the evil of Antiochus Epiphanes. Judas Maccabaeus led the resistance, and Judas and his family were made kings as a result. Ever since then, this Feast was a time to think about God and liberation and kings.

maccabean-revolt

And to this context, Jesus comes and says:

“I am the Good Shepherd … My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

“I am a different kind of King,” Jesus says, “bringing a different kind of rule. In me, you are eternally secure, enter into an eternal relationship that produces a different kind of liberation – liberation from evil without AND within.

The response of the original listeners to these words was try to stone Jesus, which bore bleak testimony to the truth of their message of our need to receive freedom from violence, not only without, but within.

Thich Nhat Hanh founded the School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS), a neutral corps of Buddhist peaceworkers who went into rural areas of Vietnam to establish schools, build healthcare clinics, and help re-build villages, in the midst of the devastation of the Vietnamese War. He wrote this poem in 1966 after an attack on the School of Youth for Social Service by a group of unknown men with grenades and guns.

Those That Have Not Exploded

I don’t know,
I just do not know
why
they hurl grenades
at these young people.

Why wish to kill
those boys with still innocent brows,
those girls with ink-stained hands?

What was their crime?—
to hear the voice of compassion?
to come and live in a hamlet,
to help the villagers,
teach the children,
work in the rice paddies?

Last night when those grenades burst,
twelve young people fell
with mangled bodies and burst skin.
One girl’s flesh took more than 600 metal bits of shrapnel.

We accept death and sorrow.
But listen,
brothers and sisters,
those grenades have burst
and ripped apart the sky.
Those boys and girls are gone,
leaving a trail of blood.

But there are more grenades
than those that burst last night.
There are more grenades
caught in the heart of life.
Do you hear me?
There are more that are yet to burst.

They remain
still
in the heart of man —
unknown, the time of their detonation;
unknown, when they will desecrate our land;
unknown, the time they will annihilate our people.

And still
we beg you to believe
there is no hatred in our hearts,
no rancor in our souls.
What the world needs,
what we all need
is love.

Come, hear me,
for time grows short
and danger is everywhere.
Let us take those grenades
out of our hearts,
our motherland,
humankind.
Let us stand.
Let us stand
side by side.

Powerful words about our need to be set free from evil within!

The evil of this past week has many asking questions like, “How can God allow this?” But, I wonder, are we so sure which side we’re on?

I so easily ignore or excuse the evil in my own heart, my complicity and participation in evil.

Last week, we heard Jesus speak to us through the Gospel of John the commission to feed one another as his sheep, to love one another as he has loved us.

This week, he is speaking these same words through young Martin’s poster: “No more hurting people”!

I am challenged to live this way.

No more hurting people:

No more hurting my family with hasty words or neglect.

No more hurting those I put out of sight and out of mind, so that I can remain comfortable.

I am challenged to care enough to create a world in which these words are a true descripton.

I am called to repentance – a repentance that starts in the mirror.

Donald Miller tells the story in his book Blue Like Jazz of an action taken by a group of Christian students on Reed, one of the most notorious party campuses in the US, at one of the most notorious parties of the year called Ren Fayre. Up to this point, this Christian Group had largely ignored or held in ridicule, but what they did at this party transformed their relationship with the students at the University.

Some of the Christian students in our little group decided this was a good place to come out of the closet, letting everybody know there were a few Christians on campus.

They decided to build a confession booth in the middle of campus and paint a sign on it that said “Confess your sins.”

But this was a confession booth with a difference! Unbeknownst to those who went to the booth, the person in the booth from the Christian Group, who was dressed up in a monk outfit, was not there to hear their confession, but to confess to them! The first person from the group to sit in the booth was Miller himself. For a long time, no one came, and Miller was just about to call it quits when a student arrived.

“What’s up, man?” a guy sat himself on the chair with a smile on his face. He told me my pipe smelled good.

“Thanks,” I said. I asked him his name, and he said his name was Jake. I shook his hand because I didn’t know what to do, really.

“So what is this? I’m supposed to tell you all of the juicy gossip I did at Ren Fayre, right?” Jake said.

“No.”

“Okay, then what? What’s the game?” he asked.

“Not really a game. More of a confession thing.”

“You want me to confess my sins, right?”

“No, that’s not what we’re doing.”

“What’s the deal, man? What’s with the monk outfit?”

“Well, we are, well, a group of Christians here on campus, you know.”

“I see. Strange place for Christians, but I’m listening.”

“Thanks,” I said. He was being patient and gracious. “Anyway, there is this group, just a few of us who were thinking about the way Christians have sort of wronged people over time. You know, the Crusades, all that stuff …”

“Well, I doubt you personally were involved in any of that, man.”

“No, I wasn’t,” I told him. “But the thing is, we are followers of Jesus. We believe that he is God and all, and he represented certain ideas that we have sort of not done a good job at representing. He has asked us to represent him well, but it can be very hard.”

“I see,” Jake said.

“So this group of us on campus wanted to confess to you.”

“You are confessing to me!” Jake said with a laugh.

“Yeah. We are confessing to you. I mean, I am confessing to you.”

“You’re serious.” His laugh turned to something of a straight face.

“There’s a lot. I will keep it short,” I started.

Miller went on to confess how he had betrayed the Lord by judging, by not being willing to love the people he loves, and only giving lip service to human rights.

“I know that a lot of people will not listen to the words of Christ because people like me.”

“It’s all right, man,” Jake said, very tenderly. His eyes were starting to water.

“Well,” I said, clearing my throat, “I am sorry for all that.”

“I forgive you,” Jake said. And he meant it.

“Thanks,” I told him.

He sat there and looked at the floor, then into the fire of a candle. “It’s really cool what you guys are doing,” he said. “A lot of people need to hear this. I am going to tell my friends about this.”

“I don’t know whether to thank you for that or not,” I laughed. “I have to sit here and confess all my crap.”

He looked at me very seriously. “It’s worth it,” he said. He shook my hand, and when he left the booth there was somebody else ready to get in. It went like that for a couple of hours. I talked to about thirty people, and another member of the group took confessions on a picnic table outside the booth.

Many people wanted to hug when we were done.

I think that night was the beginning of a change for a lot of us.

In fact, this action was the beginning of a transformed relationship between the Christian group and the larger student body. The group continued to seek ways to connect, organising activities such as regular visits by students to a local homeless shelter, to feed those who lived there, and actually had often to turn volunteers away because too many wanted to participate!

It starts with us. This repentance makes a difference in our families, our community, as we choose to say “No” to hate and death, and say “Yes” to the path of life and love.

St. George’s Day takes place on April 23. George is the patron saint of England, who himself was martyred some time before Constantine.

williamblakeConnected with this for many is the great hymn “Jerusalem,” based on the poem written by William Blake against the oppression in society. Referring to the legend that Jesus accompanied Joseph of Arimathea to England as a boy, Blake penned:

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

But then he added, “Ah, but if Jesus did this, then he walked where there are now atrocities that have marred this beauty!”:

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

The-Rev_-Dr_-Gary-NicolosiGary Nicolosi shares story about the difference this hymn made in the lives of one group of men in their own struggle against darkness:

Years ago when I was visiting a friend in England, a neighbour came over for tea and spoke of his experience in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. 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, who sang in a church choir before he went into the military, 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 “Jerusalem.” The guards did not know the tune, so the song meant nothing to them. But to the prisoners, the tune evoked freedom, hope and new life.

Soon the whole camp was humming the tune each day on the way out to work, with the guards oblivious to its revolutionary significance.

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land

This must be the conviction of our heart, the character of our lives.

God promises, not to prevent us from going through pain and death (which we all face), but that life is stronger than death; God promises that pain and death and hate do not have the last word, but wholeness, life, and love do; and God promises to be with us, sharing this life with us, to give us strength in the midst of all we face, to walk with courage the way of love and life now and for ever.

May we all disarm the bombs and slay the dragons that plague our hearts and our planet, and build the beautiful world that fulfills Martin’s vision of no more hurting people, together. Amen.

(This is adapted from the sermon at our April 21 Services. Miller’s book, Blue Like Jazz, is available for borrowing from the Book Nook outside my Office. The photo in this posting of Archbishop Michael Peers is of his apologizing as Primate on behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada for the suffering caused by the Residential School system. The painting by William Blake, immediately below the last verse of his poem, is his “Angel of the Revelation,” but the posture of the angel makes me think of the vow of which Blake writes. Embedded below is the hymn “Jerusalem” in its entirety, which we sang at our 8:30 and 10:00 a.m. Services.)

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