Interfaith re-dedicate the finish line near Old South Church.

Sermon for April 21, 2013

Based on Psalm 23 and written after the Boston Marathon Bombing

Tuesday afternoon a Gazette reporter called to ask about my thoughts about the Boston Marathon bombing.  “I hope this is not insulting to ask, but does this kind of attack shake your faith, or do you see it as an opportunity to reaffirm your faith?”  I wish he had printed my first few sentences.


I said this not the first time we thought about violence or evil.  We already had two vigils planned for Tuesday due to violence in the world.  We have been meeting for nearly five months every Tuesday to listen for God regarding the nature of violence in the world, and we were also meeting at 6:30 on Tuesday to ring the church bell for the funeral of Demetress Villiers, a boy kidnaped and murdered in Haiti.  Every week we pray in solidarity with innocents suffering everywhere, from civilians killed in drone strikes in our name in Pakistan to Newtown to Haiti to Copley Square.  We weep, we get angry, and frustrated, and we also find inner peace and courage through which we try to make a better world.


I’m wasn’t insulted by the question, but I am puzzled.  Why would our faith fall apart every time an earthquake, madman or some evil befalls us.  People ask, “How can you still believe in a loving God if this happens in the world?” My answer is-You should read our scriptures sometime.  We follow Jesus, who did not flinch at evil; who died a tortuous death at the hands corrupt religion and empire, and we believe that was not the end of him.  We gather monthly to symbolically eat his body and drink his blood, so we believe he is raised in us to overcome evil in the world.  Our faith has survived the empires of Egypt, Babylon, Rome, Germany and Japan, and we will probably survive terrorism and the American Empire.  We are not here just for the stained glass and organ music.  We are here because God is still speaking.


I mentioned Psalm 23 in the conversation, in part because people know it, but also because it is a blend of comfort, realism and hope.  God is our good shepherd, who will lead us to green pastures and still waters to restore our souls.  We know the valley of the shadow of death is real, and we know evil will come our way.  But we don’t live in fear because God walks with us.  God prepares a table for us to have a banquet when enemies gather to make us feel isolated.  We count our blessings like an overflowing cup in the midst of our tragedies.  Of course life is tough, but surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.  Contrary to misperception, we are not an escapist, magical, narrow-minded religion, we are actually quite resilient.  I would say that is the major message of Psalm 23.  We can be resilient in all things because we believe God’s steadfast love will give us the strength and wisdom we need.


I am glad to see that we as a nation are becoming more resilient in the face of evil.  We witnessed the best of human nature in Boston.   Terrorists should know better than to mess with marathoners, perhaps some of the strongest willed people on the planet.  A 76 year-old man, got up after being knocked over by the blast and finished the race.  Others crossed the finish line and ran two more miles to the hospital to donate blood.    First responders and police officers disregarded danger and put their lives on the line.  Hundreds of people placed ads on a Google doc saying they had couches or rooms available for stranded strangers in town for the marathon.  Area restaurants fed people for free, and even the IRS gave a three month extension on their taxes to all Boston marathon runners.  See, we are truly an open and generous-hearted people.  Many of those folks are probably religious, and some respond out of a basic human instinct of compassion and courage.  We are hard-wired to be compassionate to others, at least when we are not afraid.  Giving into fear, greed and hatred is what allows evil to seize the day.


Which brings us to Congress.  Wednesday, a minority of Senators blocked a very, very modest gun control bill focused on universal background checks   It doesn’t matter that 90 percent of Americans, including gun owners, think this is a common sense law.  What matters is NRA cash.  So it is still harder to buy Sudafed, a Budweiser, get a fishing license or adopt a puppy, than it is to buy an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle?    (You many think the sermon is getting political here, but part of my job is constantly being asked to pray for people, especially for the victims of violence.  I’m not very good at praying about something and then doing nothing.  If I’m asked to pray for the victims of Newtown and the Boston Marathon, don’t ask me to stop there, because I take prayer seriously.  I believe prayer changes my heart and leads me to action.  So be careful with your prayer requests!  You might change me!)


Let me say what is bothering me about this vote.  Background checks are only modestly important, and this legislation was going to fundamentally reshape gun violence in our nation.  It was just a small bill with limited impact.  What frustrates me is that in the face of an epidemic of violence we cannot get Congress to come together a do anything.  Two Senators with perfect NRA scores, one Democrat and one Republican, sat down, talked and tried to discover what kind of legislation to stop gun violence, could get passed in the Senate?  As it turns out, nothing.   Even with the fresh painful memories of teachers holding small children, their bodies bullet-ridden, the Senate can’t do anything.   Powerful lobbies with cash and single-minded commitment can block majorities, and we feel powerless. This bothers me more than sociopaths with bombs and guns.


So I found myself returning to the words of Psalm 23 several times this week, and finding a resiliency within myself, that come from trusting in the steadfast love of God.  The phrase that has really sunk in is this: God restores my soul.  This is what I need more than anything else-a restored soul.


I found a restored soul in several ways this week.  As I first heard about the marathon attack on Monday afternoon, Jeanne and I were preparing for our final session of the “Couplehood as a Spiritual Path” class.  My soul was restored as I saw how four couples have a wonderful commitment to one another, and engaged in truly listening and understanding.  After all, in we cannot live with peace and justice at the heart of our most intimate relationships, how do we expect to overcome the greater brokenness of the world?  It felt like a way to immediately respond to the brokenness of the world by creating greater wholeness.


All week long, I kept saying to myself, what do I need to do let God restore my soul today?  Some things were simple.  Friday, my day off, I pried myself away from Facebook and all the news pouring in and said to myself, they will catch these guys at some point and tell us, whether I’m listening or not, so we got on the bike and went to the new bagel place in Easthampton for lunch, and we invited people over for dinner who we wanted to get to know better, and we cooked a great meal and talked till late at night.  Saturday I was struggling with how to finish my sermon, and was tempted to cancel going to the new gardeners question and answer session.  I’m glad I didn’t.  I’m ready to plant living things in the dirt and watch them grow.


Maybe that isn’t going to save the world, change any senator’s minds or stop the next attack on innocent people.  But don’t count me out yet.  My heart is full and I’m ready to plant the seeds of justice and peace as well.  A restored soul is the most valuable asset we have.  Do whatever you need to do to be in the presence of God, beside still waters and green pastures.  That is why you are here isn’t it?  We do this work of restoration so that when we walk the shadow of death we are strong and read to deal with evil.  This is what we need to offer the world, that is so desperately needed, a place of holy restoration.


Where is the place that can happen in society?  I don’t believe it is only the fearful, angry and paranoid that can develop the passion, commitment to accomplish their goals.  This is an opportunity for the church to recover a relevant role for 21st century.  We need to model an alternative community to the world that shows the glory of God.  As we go about our business, we need to make sure we do not look like Congress- arguing, breaking into factions, avoiding the real problems and creating an environment where things don’t get done.  We need to show forth love- at the communion table where all our welcome, feeding the hungry, and in how we work together to make sound decisions, even when we are talking about budgets, boilers and windows.  Let us be the place of sustained passion, a community that celebrates, grieves, visits the sick, educates children and sustains a community that stands for human values in the face of evil, greed, selfishness.  We may get knocked over on the way, but let us run this race.