"High School Shooting"
September 24, 2017 sermon
First United Methodist Church, Mattoon, IL
Psalm 23, Matthew 5: 43-48
First, we are grateful that there were no deaths in our high school this past Wednesday, even though all the elements for a tragedy were present in that cafeteria that day. We can easily imagine that the churches in our community
might have been filled with weeping this morning. But instead, the sanctuaries of Mattoon are filled with thanksgiving...thanksgiving for God's divine deliverance.
Late Wednesday morning a troubled young man brought an instrument of death inside the school lunchroom and attempted to use it against at least one other student. But a courageous teacher intervened...as shots were being fired...a guardian angel.
We came within a fraction of a second of a massacre happening here that has happened in too many other places. Many lives could have been lost...and even more shattered. Trauma and post traumatic episodes might have been unleashed on Wednesday morning that would have affected dozens of people, young and old, for years into the future. We know from the experiences of other places that bitterness and blame (despite a community's determined bravado) would have seeped slowly into our community for years, poisoning our social covenant. But thank God! In Mattoon today, people of all faiths, and even people of little or no faith are raising prayers of gratitude.
This Sunday seems like a good time for us to not only give thanks to God but also to think about how Christ-like people respond to situations like the high school shooting. It also might be good for us to think about how dodging physical bullets may not be the only challenge our community needs to face.
On Wednesday morning, I was in Bloomington, getting ready to go under anesthesia for hand surgery. That's when I got the first text message that a shooting had occurred at the high school. By the time my surgery was finished, and I came to, I was very pleased to notice that Jordan and the other leaders of our church had rearranged Wednesday night plans so that people could come to First United Methodist church and pray and talk and encourage each other. A church is a good place to gather when we've been scared or feel troubled or need encouragement.
One of the reasons I am glad I'm a Christian, is because life is always throwing troubles our way. And Christians can constantly learn from Jesus how to handle life's difficulties. Thanks to the stories of Jesus, and thanks to the other teachings of our Scriptures, we are given power and fruitfulness, a trove of wisdom and practical advice to help us through those tough times we face.
When something difficult happens, Christians have three distinct ways of responding: personally, pastorally, and prophetically.
On a personal level, Paul is our guide, writting to the Romans that we should rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. In I Corinthians, Paul writes that "love bears all things." Jesus exhibits the personal response as he weeps with his friends Mary and Martha (when they gather to mourn the death of Lazarus.) Jesus also demonstrates deep anguish and even anger when he sees the sufferings of other people.
In other words, when hard times hit, Christians make room for other people's feelings. When an event occurs like this past week, it is amazing to witness the variety of different feelings that people have: ranging from panic to nonchalance. Anger was abundant. But there were variations on people's anger. Some people felt anger at the shooter, other people felt anger at the system, other people felt anger at parents or authorities whom they believed should have seen this coming earlier. Other people felt anger because of accusations of bullying. No two people ever have exactly the same feelings.
And that's okay. The feelings you and I have at any given time usually say more about our own personal experiences, our vulnerabilities, and our anxieties, than they do about what's happening.
As Christians, it's not our job to tell other people what to feel when hard times hit. It's our role, and our privilege to be gracious and accepting and understanding and encouraging...regardless of how people respond emotionally to situations.
If you have a different feeling or a different opinion about a situation then I do, that's okay. I can accept your feelings and your opinions as necessities that help you to cope with a given situation. Likewise, the opinions that I have and the feelings that I have, help me to cope with situations, based on the unique individual I am. The best thing I can do as a loving Christian, is to be accepting of your opinions and your feelings, even though I may not share them. Love bears all things: which means we can bear one another's variation in how we respond to troubled and anxious moments. To love one another begins with accepting and affirming the feelings that other people have, even though I may not entirely understand those feelings.
The first thing Christians do is to welcome each other's feelings and help each other process those feelings toward a healthy response.
The second thing Christians do in weeks like this is to act pastorally. It's not just the pastor's job to be a pastor. The word "pastor" means shepherd and in the church, we are all shepherds of one another. We have been reminded in a very poignant way this past week that life is dangerous. We pass through valleys and shadows of death all the time, and most of the time we are oblivious to the perils. And perhaps because we
are so oblivious, we especially need to be shepherds of one another.
One of the things we witnessed abundantly in our community this past week was people being Christ to one another, or in other words people being shepherds to one another. The church is at its best when people are pastoral with one another. When the whole church community is living out Psalm 23, we are truly being the body of Christ.
The primary story in the news this past week was of a young man who is deeply disturbed mentally. But there are other stories that are very real for our community. We not only need shepherds to help those who suffer from mental illness, but we also need shepherds for those who suffer from bullying. We need good and wise shepherds to help guide us through those conflicts rooted in race and gender. Our whole nation needs to be shepherded through this epidemic of gun violence. We need to be shepherded through our overreactions to social problems...which can exacerbate human misery. We need to be shepherded through our tendencies to focus on retribution and revenge which simply cause problems to become more violent from generation to generation.
Video games and computers and technologies are not the green pastures and the still waters that ought to be blessing our youth. Political parties and politicians, while well-positioned and well financed to help people, are nonetheless valleys of dry bones and death, echo chambers of bigotry and name-calling and vulgarity. Institutions and government units that ought to be safety nets for the most vulnerable people of our community are either under financed or so caught up in survival as to be self-serving.
When Jesus looked out upon the crowds he thought that they were like sheep without a shepherd. Who are the most vulnerable people in our community? And how might we as a community...as a church community...step forward and take up the mantle of the good shepherd?
Christians respond pastorally, in times of crisis, being a very present help. The pastoral dimension of being a Christian also leads us to the topics of mercy and forgiveness, and loving our enemies, and loving those who shoot at us, and loving those who bully us. There are not many people whom I would trust to handle these topics in a Christlike way. But I do trust people who sincerely and courageously try to follow the ways of Jesus no matter what other people maybe saying.
Thirdly, Christians respond prophetically. The prophet is the person who speaks the word of the Lord to the contemporary culture. The prophet is not one who predicts the future or is a fortune teller. The prophet is the one who delivers the Lord's message, the message we need to hear, whether we want to hear it or not.
How can God
not have a message for a society where mental health has become a public safety issue? How can God not have a message for a society where we see such rampant gun violence? How can God not have a message in a society where children are bullied day by day and virtually nothing is done about it? How can God and not have a message for a society suffering from such deep racial fissures, provoking racial hostilities that are continually erupting in violence? How can God not have a message to society where so many of our children are at such risk in so many ways?
The crisis at the high school this past week is a call to action, a call from God to our church to step up our game. Churches that have long been good at charity, like ours, if we want to be relevant in today's world, we need to learn how to be prophetic. The prophet doesn't merely hand out fish. The prophet insists that people learn how to fish. The prophet doesn't merely slap on a Band-Aid, the prophet turns over the tables of the healthcare system. The prophet may console those who weep, but more importantly the prophet battles those injustices that cause weeping in the first place.
A word of caution however. The church does not enter the realm of the prophetic by wallowing in anger or opinions or feelings. The way of the prophet is not our way. The way of the prophet is God's way. The message of the prophet is forged not in human anger but rather in human humility and curiosity and wonder.
In weeks like this, we often feel strong surges of blaming and anger. In other words, in weeks like this, we really feel like being prophetic! In weeks like this, we might hear all sorts of opinions and pontificating. Ignorant and harmful and divisive solutions get thrown about and listened to by young ears. Some solutions and opinions are as violent and abhorrent as the original incident that happened Wednesday morning in the school cafeteria.
The church is called be prophetic, but true prophecy can only emerge whenever we put aside our own most intelligent and inflexible opinions and wait upon the Lord in humility and curiosity and hungering for understanding.
What is the proper Christian response to a high school shooting? It is exactly what we saw this past week under the leadership our youth minister and our staff the day I was having surgery and not here to lead them. What is the proper Christian response to a high school shooting? It is the response we are giving this morning as we and all the other churches in town give God thanks and praise that there were no fatalities. What is the proper Christian response to high school shooting? It is in our honoring and respecting each other's feelings in all our diversity. It is in our being pastoral, shepherding the weakest and most vulnerable among us; and it is in our finding the pathway to share God's prophetic words that need to be heard in our community in the weeks ahead.