Sunday, November 15, 2015

the destruction of the illusion of security

St. Thomas' Church, Whitemarsh
Proper 28, Year B, 2015

Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down" (Mark 13:2).

After the Israelites escaped from slavery in Egypt and were making their way to the Promised Land, God traveled with them in a tent. When they finally made it to the Promised Land, the Israelites were able to build a proper temple in which God could reside. The temple in Jerusalem was a sign of God’s presence among the Israelites. They believed God dwelt in a sacred space within the temple, called the Holy of Holies. The Israelites felt safe knowing that God was right there with them, that God was on their side. 

Now, the stones that made up the temple were massive. They were not small like those that make up the walls of St. Thomas’, but were several feet long by several feet wide by several feet tall. They weren’t easily moved; God’s dwelling place was secure, and so the people of Israel were also secure.

But in 70 AD, the temple was destroyed by the Roman army in response to a rebellion, and any illusion of God’s divine protection vanished. As Jesus predicted, the stones were thrown down, and it seemed to dash the Israelites’ hopes, as well. I imagine they must have felt abandoned by God.

a mourner at one of the sites in Paris

The past few days have been difficult. On Thursday, 67 people were killed by a truck bomb in Baghdad, Iraq. Also on Thursday, suicide bombers killed 43 people in Beirut, Lebanon. And on Friday night, 132 people were killed in multiple suicide bombings and shootings in Paris, France. The last one, in particular, seems to have struck a chord throughout the world. Like the Israelites in the aftermath of the sacking of Jerusalem, our temple, our illusion of security in the West, has been shattered. We have once again been reminded that just because we are faithful Christians or decent human beings doesn’t mean that we are immune to bad things happening to us and to the people we love. Unfortunately, this is not the way the world works. Like the Israelites, we may be feeling abandoned by God, too.

I can’t tell you why God doesn’t prevent bad things like this from happening. I can’t tell you why God allows us to commit these violent crimes against each other. I do believe with all my heart that God doesn’t want to see us suffer, and indeed that it must tear God up inside to watch us destroy one another this way. After all, God created this world, God “knit [us] together in [our] mother’s womb,” God counts the number of hairs on our heads and calls us each by name (Psalm 139:12; Luke 12:7). But God didn’t create us to be automatons; God wanted us to love freely, and because we are flawed creatures, this means that we are free to make both good and bad decisions, free to love as well as to inflict pain.

God does understand what it means to be human, though. What it means to be faced with difficult decisions and to see people you love treated poorly. To know that for every one person you help, there are 10,000 more who need it just as desperately. How it feels to be betrayed and abandoned and abused and tortured and finally killed.

If we put our faith and hope solely into this world, we will come away disheartened. But as Christians, our hope is not in this world; Jesus spoke of another, greater existence—the kingdom of God. And if we look closely, there are signs of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God—and of God’s presence—all around us, even and perhaps especially in times of tragedy.

The much-loved Mr. Rogers once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” When the attacks in Paris happened, a hashtag that translates to “Open Door” began surfacing on twitter, offering people stranded in the city a safe place to escape from the violence. Taxis turned off their meters and drove people to home or to safety free of charge. Yesterday hundreds of Parisians lined up to donate blood to assist the more than 350 people injured in the attacks. And perhaps the best example of all, last Thursday, right after the first suicide bomb went off in Beirut, Adel Termos left his daughter’s side and tackled a second suicide bomber headed for the crowd, saving hundreds of lives by giving up his own.

Love is not merely a feeling; it is an action. Love put into action is a sign of the kingdom of God breaking into our world. The love put into action in Paris and Beirut and the many examples of people all around the world, from India to Israel to Korea to Iran, expressing sorrow in solidarity with Parisians, is where I find hope in the midst of this tragedy.

Jesus warned his disciples, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed…” (Mark 13:7). This is perhaps easier said than done, but I think what he was trying to convey to his disciples is that they should not be “thrown into an emotional uproar,” to be overcome by all the evil that exists in the world. Despite our best efforts, the world will never be a truly peaceful place, and there will never be a time when the world is in complete harmony.

Several of my friends have been sharing this poem by the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire:

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered 

We are reminded daily that this world that we live in is not the kingdom of God.

And yet. 

And yet God is calling us to overcome the evil we experience by putting our love into action and helping to bring about the kingdom of God. To be the voices speaking against violence and working to bring about justice and peace. To show compassion for our neighbors, which as much as I hate to admit it, includes our enemies.

If the task seems too great, if the cause seems hopeless, if all of the pain and suffering and death is too overwhelming, remember that we do not walk this road alone. Jesus showed us the way of peace, love, and mercy, and promised that we would never be abandoned on this path, though it may feel that way sometimes.

We are assured of God’s abiding presence in the Old Testament (Psalm 139, 6-9):

Where can I go then from your Spirit? *
    where can I flee from your presence?

If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *
    if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

If I take the wings of the morning *
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there your hand will lead me *
    and your right hand hold me fast.

God is with us.

And we are assured of God’s abiding presence in the New Testament (Romans 8:35-39):

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
    we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

God is with us.

All this death and destruction is “but the beginning of the birthpangs” (Mark 13:8). And what follows the birthpangs? A birth, of course! In two short weeks we will begin the season of Advent, in which we prepare for the birth of Jesus, Immanuel, God with us. It is also the time of year in which we prepare for Jesus’s second coming, when God and God’s kingdom will once again break into the world, and we will see a new heaven and a new earth, God will make all things new, God will wipe away every tear from our eyes and will—once and for all—put an end to suffering (Revelation 21).

Until that day, we carry on, putting love into action, doing our part to bring about the kingdom of God.

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