Ten years ago today, a troubled man barricaded himself inside a small schoolhouse in West Nickel Mines, PA. He killed five children and severely injured five others, then killed himself. Afterwards, the grieving Amish community responded to their horrific losses in a surprising way. This morning we’ll reflect on their response, in light of today’s Lectionary reading. We’ll begin by listening to an interview of the killer’s mother, Terri Roberts, as heard on NPR’s “Morning Edition” this past week.
“I will never forget the devastation caused by my son” she said. The devastation inflicted upon the Amish, upon the Roberts family and their entire community. It wasn’t just the loss of loved and innocent lives, but the loss of innocence, the loss of the identity they thought they had. Their rural existence, isolated from the tumult and pains of the outside world, was replaced with the isolation of their grief.
On that day, Terri Roberts, the ordinary mother of an ordinary man, living an ordinary life, in an ordinary little town, became the mother of a mass murderer. She later wrote “I was – always will be – his mother. Surely if anyone could spot signs of trouble it would be the woman who gave birth to him.” But she didn’t, no one did.
We see these same emotions: guilt, grief, unresolved and unresolvable questions, in this morning’s reading. The surviving Jews in Psalm 137 are exiles in Babylon: strangers in a strange land. Their homes and their stable and prosperous lives are gone forever.
Why were they spared when so many of their friends and family died? Their city and nation are destroyed. Their identity is gone. Even their God is gone. The Temple that connected them to their Creator and Protector is in ruins.
Evil is sneaky. It rarely announces itself at the door. It sneaks into our lives through the pain and the loss we all encounter every day. Grief is not to be minimized or ignored. It is a valid emotion. Essential, in fact: because all things have an opposite. For light, there is dark. For wealth there is poverty. For evil there is good. For loneliness there is companionship. We cannot really know one until we know the other.
So, grief must exist; otherwise, we would never know what it means to be loved, like the unexpected and redeeming love that the Roberts family received in the midst of their devastation. Until then, and like their Amish neighbors and the Jews of long ago, their grief and loss left them feeling isolated: alone, empty, betrayed, guilty.
When Terri first heard the news, she fell down on the floor. She curled up in a fetal position and howled. How could her son have done this to these innocent children? How could he have done this to her?
She later wrote “I’ve said to God, I simply don’t understand how you could let it happen. You could have given his car a flat tire. In the end, I’ve had to admit that there can be no understanding. I’ve chosen to trust God because there’s nothing else I can do. I have no understanding of why.”
Neither did the Jews understand why as they sat there by the waters of Babylon, weeping, just like Terri wept, lying on that floor. Neither did the Amish understand why. Their children had gone to school that morning, laughing and playing, happy, but never returned.
How could God do this to them, how can God do such things to us? There is no understanding Evil.
Assurances of healing and redemption and glory in the afterlife – “they’re in a better place” – are bull. Offering cheap grace doesn’t fix the problem, it only deepens the grief of the very people we need to help.
I imagine almost no one was at the funeral of Terri’s son that day, besides the minister and a very few family members. And yet suddenly, dozens of Amish: the mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts of those who were hurt and killed, show up. She talks of the love that poured out of them, and how healing that was – even though she will never forget what her son did to them, and her. Nor will they.
The Amish knew the Roberts family was just as lost, alone and grieving as they were. Their faith (and ours) teaches that we must forgive. And, so they came. They knew that to move forward, they must confront their grief – not ignore or hide it. They knew it is not good to grieve alone. And, they knew they could not ignore the grief and losses of their neighbor.
The opposite of Grief is Love. The opposite of Isolation is Companionship. And, the opposite of Evil is Good. The Amish offered the Roberts family companionship. They offered love and identity to replace what had vanished forever on that evil morning.
Hiding that grief and loss lay at the heart of what had gone wrong. In Charlie’s suicide note, he said he could no longer live with the past hurts, past evils, that had been done to him. They were things his mother had never known about, that no one knew about. He did not know how to ask for help. He did not know who to ask for help. He did not know where to go for help. He was lost in the darkness, without hope, without light.
Evil isolates us, cuts us off from those who love us, from those who want to help. Evil results from the lie that we are alone, that no one else can help, that no one else cares, that there is no hope for the future.
And what is our Faith about after all? This is World Communion Day – a Day that emphasizes Community; focusing our thoughts upon our unity with all our sisters and brothers all around the world, regardless of who they are or what they believe. We are reminded that we are united through God’s love for all of Creation, and through Gods love for each of us individually, as well. We are not alone, not forgotten.
Even our worship here or in our daily lives reflects what Christ’s ministry is all about – walking with each other, being physically present for each other, and for those around us. It is about caring for each other; sharing what we have – whether good or bad. We reach out and minister to each other, especially when the journey is too much for us to continue on alone, any more.
When I first selected this image for this point in the sermon, it seemed very out of place – a humorous slide in the midst of a discussion of grief and loss. But there is a deeper message here, and so I think the choice was a good one: Yes, we will hit the key, but we won’t continue.
Any student of the functioning of the mind will tell you that when unacknowledged pain is buried within us, it will always eventually pop up in unexpected ways, and unexpected times, with unexpected consequences – and never good ones. We can’t stop that from happening.
It is far better to deal with our pain and grief proactively than to wait for it to explode out of us on its own. And that’s what this slide tells us: “Hit any key to continue” – sure. With a sledgehammer – obviously! Taking revenge upon a lifeless piece of equipment out of misplaced anger and long simmering grief. We’ve all done it.
We see this in our reading. I know so many ministers and people of faith who hate the ending lines of Psalm 137 – the poet’s imagining dashing Babylonian children against the rocks. What a terrible ending to such a beautiful poem. Why is it here?
I’ll tell you why. The poet is dealing with his own grief, anger, and guilt, not burying it. By expressing how he felt, he was letting out the pain that darkened every bit of his soul. He was finding his healing. The Amish know this and helped Terri and her family to realize it, too. Terri’s son never learned this lesson.
Don’t bury your anger – don’t throw or smash things either, at least not valuable ones. Acknowledge how you feel, talk it out, because that is what everyone around you here this morning, all of whom are people who love God and love you, are ready to offer. We will listen. We’ll give you a hug, dry your tears, walk with you, hold your hand, share a meal. That’s what we do. That’s what God calls all people of faith to do: to love and commune with each other, even when it hurts. It all starts with just showing up, just like the Amish did that day.
Let’s listen to the end of Terri’s interview:
Out of their mutual grief and loss, the Roberts Family and the Amish, have moved forward. They’ve built new identities, new relationships and new reasons for living. The evil, the devastation and their grief will never be forgotten, but does not control who they are now.
That’s what our faith is all about. That’s why we celebrate World Communion Sunday. And, that’s why the Jews survived their Babylonian exile. That’s why their faith still lives on in their descendants today, and in us as well. When all else failed, they still had each other, and they came to realize that even with the Temple gone, they still had God, as do Terri and the Amish. As do we.
To repeat what Terri said at the end of the interview: “…Their choice to allow life to move forward was quite a healing balm for us, and I think it’s a message the world needs.”
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, Sunday, October 2, 2016. (World Communion Sunday)
A Decade After Amish School Shooting, Gunman’s Mother Talks Of Forgiveness (as heard on NPR’s Morning Edition, 9/30/2016)
Psalm 137 (NRSV) “By The Waters of Babylon”
Copyright (c) 2016, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)