Death is real and death is harsh.
In August, 1966, 14 died at the University of Texas; In July, 1984, 21 died in San Ysidro, CA; In Edmund, OK, 14 died in August, 1986; 23 died in October, 1991 in Kileen, TX; at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA, where my oldest daughter once attended, 32 died; do we still remember the 26 children and adults killed at Sandy Hook, Newtown, CT in December, 2012?; or the 14 who died in San Bernadino, CA, December, 2015?; or at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, FL? 49 people died there. Now Las Vegas, NV, October, 2017– 59 killed. These are the top 9 mass murders over the years. Unfortunately, a list of other incidences is much longer.
The FBI defines mass murder as the murder of three or more persons during one event. Since 1984 there have been 52 notable mass killings in the U.S. Firearms cause an estimated 31,000 deaths annually in the United States. This, of course, does not include the thousands who have been wounded– more than 500 in Las Vegas alone.
Lazarus has died, and his body lays in the tomb. If we stand before the tomb, as Jesus did, and cry “Lazarus, come out” [John 11:43], as Jesus did– for us, it is a cry of futility; we plead for death to be reversed. No matter how hard we try, WE can’t call him out, WE can’t reverse death. We were created in the image of God; we were created as a reflection of God, but we were not created AS God.
So once again we lower the flags to half-mast in national mourning; once again we read the names of each person and once again we toll the bells for each death; we don’t know how to acknowledge the grief and anger we feel otherwise.
We feel helpless in the face of death; our anger and grief have no power to assuage the death of so many innocent lives. We watch as coffin after coffin is lowered into the ground; we see the grief on the face of mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, neighbors and strangers… and we do not know how to bring them comfort.
This is the definition of despair; this is the definition of hopelessness.
But we are taught to be a people of hope… even in the face of apparent hopelessness. We are taught to be a people of hope, not despair. As we read in the Bible, God’s promise of a hope-filled future might be challenged from generation to generation, but God’s promise remains real, is still ours – even in the face of death. We have a future because of God.
Violence, whether physical, or emotional, or spiritual, is evil and leaves behind it an anger and bitterness that defeats, destroys, and brings chaos into our lives, but God does not will our lives, or any life, to be full of chaos and darkness.
When we listen to the stories of creation; of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Rachel, Leah and Jacob, of the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, we are listening to the story of God. When we hear these stories of men and women, all of them fallible, all of them very human, all of whom brought chaos and darkness into their lives, and the lives of those around them, by their own actions, we need to see that God is still speaking, still working through us even as God is still creating, healing, redeeming humanity. We do not need to be perfect, or especially holy, for God to work in and through us. Because God is a God of grace and mercy, we can be a people of hope.
We were created in God’s image, in God’s reflection; unlike the rest of creation, we were created with the potential of being one with God; we were created with freedom and a strong will. We have been created with reason, with which we can guide our actions and judgments. The creation of humanity was not an afterthought, or as just another element in the larger scheme of things. Humanity, we here, along with our sisters and brothers of all colors, traditions, cultures, races and abilities, have been given to each other that we might multiply the best of times and share in the worst of times. We were created for a future, for the fulfillment of a divine promise, as a community, as a people. Each of us is a sister or brother in God’s extended family. Each of us is a neighbor for whom we are directed to love as much as we love ourselves.
The theologian and philosopher Henri Nouwen writes: “What makes us human is not our mind but our heart, not our ability to think but our ability to love.”
When we fail to show compassion or empathy, when we fail to love another person– the hurting, the lonely, the disturbed, the angry, the left-behind, the ignored, the overlooked– we fail to love God and we fail to love Jesus. There is an old Peanuts comic strip which shows Snoopy shivering in the cold.
Charlie Brown and Linus come over to Snoopy and say “Be of good cheer, Snoopy” and then walk away… with Snoopy still shivering in the cold. “Be of good cheer”– is this all we can say in the face of tragedy? “Be strong”– is this all we can say when people are hurting?
In the reading from John, when Jesus met with Martha, and a bit later, Mary, both said the same thing: “If you had been here, my brother would never have died!” [John 11:21, 32]. Where were You Jesus? Where were You at Colombine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and now Las Vegas? Where were You? We thought You loved us Jesus. Then the words, “And Jesus wept.” [John 11:35] “…Jesus wept.”
God feels our pain, our sorrow; God feels our disconnect, our hurt, our confusion. As we read God’s story, we learn the truth that God is not out there somewhere distantly apart from us, unfeeling, uncaring. We learn that time after time, God takes our sin, our brokenness, our hurt, our anguish, our evil, and redeems it to bring about good.
Fifty-nine more violent, unnecessary, deaths; fifty-nine more graves to be dug, fifty-nine more caskets to be lowered down into those graves, fifty-nine more vaults to be sealed, fifty-nine more monuments to be raised in memory of their lives. Are they the price of freedom as some try to rationalize them, or are they the cost of sin? What possible good can come from those deaths?
Death is real and death can be harsh. But death must not have the final word. Death must not silence us. The culture of greed and death is strong in our society. We must find our voice and begin to speak on behalf of life; we must begin to speak out on behalf of the voiceless, and for the rights of all who are vulnerable; we must speak out on behalf of justice and fairness. It is not enough to be satisfied with “our thoughts and prayers are with you” whenever we face tragedy– our words and our actions must follow.
Jesus gave us only two commandments: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. We cannot love our neighbor, sister or brother, without caring deeply about that which hurts or demeans them; we cannot love our neighbor until we are willing to see our neighbor as neighbor, unless we see ourselves connected to our neighbor. Until then, we will be helpless in our anger, grief and despair– and death will have absolute power over us. But that is not who we are meant to be– that is not the promise, the future, we have inherited from God.
For “In the bulb there is a flower, in the seed, an apple tree; in cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free! In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.” [Hymn of Promise, UMH 707, vs.1]