Innocence Lost

Quick verbal 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.

forgiven_frontTen 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.

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Sermon: Bede’s Sparrow

Let us be clear: there is no magic wand that will make everything in this life better. God is not going to come down and make it as if we – meaning all of us – never made all of the mistakes (and good decisions) we’ve made that have gotten us to this point. We cannot escape responsibility for what we’ve done to each other, or to God’s Creation.

The command to “Love our Neighbor” means acknowledging this, and so embracing compassion for ourselves and others as a way of life. It means conscientiously making room for “The Other” – for those who are different from us. We can begin by opening our minds and our hearts to what they have to say.

“Bede’s Sparrow” by Carrie Wild

This past Friday evening, George Takei was preparing for a performance of his musical which opened on Broadway a few days ago, a very personal story of the terrible price George and his family paid for being of Japanese ancestry and living in America during World War II.

On hearing of the attacks in Paris, Mr. Takei wrote: “…I’m writing this backstage at Allegiance, my heart heavy with the news from Paris, aching for the victims and their families and friends.

Aziz Abu Sarah
Aziz Abu Sarah, Peace Activist

My friend Aziz Abu Sarah, who, like George, spends his life urging peace and building bridges to span the gaps separating people around the world, and whose family has also paid a very heavy price through years of terror and oppression, had this to say: “Two days of ongoing terrible news… From Beirut to Paris, bombs, murder and dozens of victims. Its another heartbreaking day.”

My lifelong “older brother” in spirit, Ahmed, said this in his email to my parents yesterday morning: “We are all distressed as Paris has become our home .… I am flying there on Friday unless the borders are closed. France has been openly at war with Islamists for a number of years and terrorist attacks were expected. But they can never be predicted or controlled. I expect life in France will change following the latest carnage.”

Ahmed’s wife, Lena, who is in Paris at the moment, posted this on Facebook yesterday: “Tears this morning. With a very heavy heart I start the day.”

All of these people have labored their whole lives to bring peace and justice into this world. They’ve all worked diligently against poverty, oppression, despair and injustice. They have all taken firm and often costly stands against the dehumanization of “The Other” that lies at the heart of these attacks. Some of them are hurt and despairing, as you heard. But I think I can give voice to what lies in all of their hearts by quoting this from Mr. Takei’s message:

“There no doubt will be those who look upon immigrants and refugees as the enemy as a result of these attacks, because they look like those who perpetrated these attacks, just as peaceful Japanese Americans were viewed as the enemy after Pearl Harbor. But we must resist the urge to categorize and dehumanize, for it is that very impulse that fueled the insanity and violence perpetrated this evening.”

Now. let’s skip back 1400 years, to a time when England was a collection of little Kingdoms, almost 300 years before they would be united under King Alfred the Great and his heirs.

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Sermon: Forgiveness

Our God is a God of second chances, a God of Healing not just for us, but also for those who hurt us. We cannot deny the pain they cause, nor should we, but we can receive God’s healing. We begin this process for ourselves, and those who sin against us, through forgiveness. Forgiveness is God’s love in action.

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773) by Pompeo Batoni
The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773) by Pompeo Batoni

With the recent mass shooting in Charleston and the death sentence for the Boston Marathon Bomber we are once again witnessing the spectacle of one who is a purveyor of hate being confronted by those who have survived their brutality and evil. Some say such monstrosity can never be forgiven.  Others say that while justice must be done, it is wrong to answer evil with evil.  Both are correct.

We’ve seen the survivors in Charleston confronting the unrepentant murderer, and forgiving him. They’ve been lauded as an example of what Christian forgiveness is really all about. But is that true? Doesn’t their forgiveness seem too soon, perhaps even forced?

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Grief

… it is OK to feel that anger, it is OK to allow ourselves to experience it, just as it is OK to experience the grief and sadness. It is part of what being human is all about. Our emotions are a critical part of who and what we are. Without emotions, we could not love, without emotions we could not create, and we could not grieve; but also, without emotions, we would not destroy and we would not hate.

One of my favorite songs of all time is Don McLean’s rendition of “Waters of Babylon” – a beautiful, haunting, sad three part canon that mourns the loss of Zion and the captivity of the Jews following the Babylonian’s destruction of all they had known and loved, including the Temple and the City of Jerusalem, in 586 BCE.

The lyrics are taken from Psalm 137 in the Bible, which I quote in full here (using the New Revised Standard Version):

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!’
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!}
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

It is times such as the recent shootings in Newtown and this week’s bombing at the Boston Marathon that bring back this song into my mind in all its power and beauty – the events and the music working together to forcefully remind me of how frail and fragile our human existence is; that our time on earth, and the lives of us and all of our fellow human beings, are far too precious to waste.

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Remembering My Daughter

My daughter in late 2004

February 12th is both a happy and a sad day for me, happy in that it is the day I celebrate the birth of my daughter, but sad in remembering that our relationship has been sundered for well over 7-1/2 years now.  She has now been lost to me for nearly a third of her life.

Every parent constantly worries about their child – are they healthy, will they succeed in school, can they make the team…  I do too, but sadly, there is no feedback.  I have no way of knowing anything about the state of my daughter – where she is, what she’s doing, whether she’s healthy, happy, sad … anything.  All I know is that for some reason, a couple days after her mother and I split, all communication stopped.

Without communication, there cannot be relationship.  Without communication, there cannot be reconciliation.  Without communication, there cannot be healing.  And, in my case, without communication, I do not even know what caused this break, nor what I can do to resolve it.  It is a position of powerlessness.

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A Memorial Day Prayer

Given at the regular Sunday Worship Service at First Parish, Lincoln on Sunday, May 30, 2010…

Before giving this morning’s pastoral prayer, I’d like to read you a poem that inspired my prayer and, I think, fits well with this Memorial Sunday.  It was written by Sgt. James Lenihan, a veteran who passed away in 2007.  He is known to have written only one poem in his life, describing his feelings after killing an enemy soldier in 1944.  Here it is:

A Warrior’s Poem: “Murder–So Foul”

I shot a man yesterday
And much to my surprise,
The strangest thing happened to me
I began to cry.

He was so young, so very young
And Fear was in his eyes,
He had left his home in Germany
And came to Holland to die.

And what about his Family
were they not praying for him?
Thank God they couldn’t see their son
And the man that had murdered him.

I knelt beside him
And held his hand–
I begged his forgiveness
Did he understand?

It was the War
And he was the enemy
If I hadn’t shot him
He would have shot me.

I saw he was dying
And I called him “Brother”
But he gasped out one word
And that word was “Mother.”

I shot a man yesterday
And much to my surprise
A part of me died with Him
When Death came to close
His eyes.

On this Memorial Day weekend, we remember all those who fought and died for this, our Nation, but we also remember that those who died fighting against us had mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, spouses, sons and daughters – just like us – who are grieving their loss, as we grieve ours.  We remember that in War there is loss and pain for all involved, affecting a community that extends far beyond the battlefield in time and in space.

Holy Spirit, we come before you this morning, remembering the losses we and those we love experience as a result of War.  We remember the pain and anguish that many, soldiers and loved ones alike, have endured for years after those battlefield experiences.  In doing so, we honor the sacrifices that so many have made in the name of freedom and in defense of this country.  We ask, Holy Spirit, that you work in us, and in those we confront as enemies, to bring peace, healing and understanding, so that armed conflict and hate no longer come between us.  Instead, let Your Love and understanding embrace and fill all of us.

We also lift up those who are battling in other ways at this time: justice or job loss, illness, and other crises in their personal lives: battling the effects of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; and those who are still seeking to recover and rebuild from the effects of the earthquake in Haiti and other natural disasters.  We ask that your spirit, love and healing fill and strengthen them, and enable us, individually and as a community, to support them in their times of spiritual and material need.

Thank You, Holy Spirit, for Your presence, Your guidance, Your Love, and Your healing power working in and through us.

Amen.

 

Copyright (c) 2010, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).