Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Sabbath, June 18, 2016
Sunday morning Karin and I were sitting in the kitchen when Bonnie came downstairs with the news. There had been a shooting in Orlando, the most horrific mass shooting in modern American history.
I felt sick to my stomach.
It was like the morning when my son came in and told me planes were flying into the World Trade Center. I have never watched video of the event, but my imagination shows me planes and flames and people leaping to their deaths and other horrors.
It was like the day I heard on the radio that America had begun bombing Baghdad. And I felt the tearing of flesh and the devastation of families.
I sat there stunned. Silent. I did not look at video. I did not listen to the radio. I did not need to. People were killed. Huge, painful caverns were being created in families and circles of friends.
Evil was afoot.
Over the next hours I read comments by various people, friends on Facebook, the president of the North American Adventist Church. Over the next days, I heard on the radio and read in the newspaper comments by political figures, preachers.
I am a writer. I put things in words. But last Sunday, I hesitated. What could I say that would not be misunderstood? What could I say that I might not later regret when more information came to light? Were there any words that would not add to the storm of hurt, outrage, and horror? Finally, late, sitting on my porch in the twilight, I found in my heart these three sentences:
I am grieving. Holding my words, sensing they cannot be large enough to carry my grief, fearing they might say things unworthy or unwise. So tonight I grieve.
Today, a week later. I have only slightly more to say.
I have listened to the swirl of words. Outrage, anger, impatience, denunciations, ridicule, bombast, shouting. Gun control. Gun rights. Immigrants. Muslims. Gays. Young men. Gay rights. The evils of liberal thought. The noise is understandable. When we are suddenly confronted with horror, we react instinctively. So when I hear loud, angry voices in connection with Orlando I think, it’s only natural. But it is not wise. It is not beautiful. Mostly, it is not helpful. Anger is a blind guide.
When we are in the presence of evil, if we are not careful, our words and actions will be shaped more strongly by the evil in our environment than by the holiness of our faith. It is possible, if we engage too quickly with evil, that our own efforts to fight evil will be tainted, permeated even, by the very evil against which we war.
Sunday, as I heard the news from Orlando, I found myself in the presence of evil. So did you. How shall we respond?
First, silence. And in our silence, grief.
People died. People were killed. Shot. Lots of people. Everyone who died created a circle of loss, a circle of pain. In our grief we connect with the mothers and dads, the sisters and brothers, the lovers and husbands and wives and grandmothers and friends and co-workers and colleagues who were bereaved by bullets on Saturday night.
As Adventists, we understand our grief as an echo, a mirror, of the grief of heaven. God is bereaved by every death. God’s living intimacy with his human children is interrupted by death. Their voices have been stilled not just on earth, but in heaven itself. They no longer pray or worship. Every death leaves God with an emptiness. The emptiness of a mother. The aching grief of a father. God is bereaved. We are bereaved. Our grief is a participation in the grief of heaven.
The first words appropriate to grief are silence.
In our silence we pay attention to the loss. We acknowledge there are no words adequate for the loss. No words “can make it all better.” In our silence, we keep company with those struck dumb with grief. And our awareness of the sweep of grief includes even God.
If we discipline ourselves to be silent. If we take time to grieve in the face of evil, I think we will feel the terrible contradiction between our faith and the world around us.
As believers we hold to the vision of God: The promise that justice will triumph, the promise of redemption. We know the words of Scripture:
The lion and the lamb will feed tranquilly together.
They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.
The high and exalted will be brought low; the lowly will be exalted.
There will be no more sorrow, crying, grief, or pain.
The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as waters fill the sea.
In all things God is working for the good of those who love him.
In the days of those kings the God of heaven will establish a kingdom that will fill the whole earth and he will reign forever.
When evil leaps suddenly into glaring attention in our world, if we take a few minutes to be quiet, we will be struck with the contrast between the news and the good news, between reality and the Gospel. We will be troubled. We SHOULD BE troubled. This is not how it should be.
We will direct some of our anger and frustration at God. Where was God? Where is God? By raising our questions in the presence of God, our natural anger will be elevated. Our impulses to strike and wound and kill will be tempered by holiness.
Evil often does invade our lives. News media specializes in bringing evil to our attention. Sometimes the horror that confronts us is unspeakably evil. We are dumbfounded by the monstrosity of wickedness. When this happens, if we will quiet ourselves as our first reaction, If we quiet ourselves and seek company with the God whose world is the venue of this evil . . . If we refrain from immediately starting to shout about all those other people who are wrecking the world . . . If we give attention to the difference between the world of God’s hope as pictured in the visions of the prophets and the world that is tangibly with us . . . We may hear the question: What can I do? What can we do? How can I help?
One of the common characteristics of the presence of evil is the way it swamps our mind. The noise and horror of evil can be so powerful that we react as if it were everything, as if it were the whole of reality. If we start speaking and acting while this sense of overwhelming evil is still with us, we risk being seduced by the very evil that we loathe. Our actions may mirror the evil we hate.
It is appropriate for us to allow our outrage at particular instances of evil to goad us out of complacency and into action. But let us find our guidance for what to do in the beautiful vision of the prophets not in the ugly horror of the evil that is present with us.
We cannot escape the presence of evil. If we turned off our TVs and refused to read the newspaper and disconnected the internet, evil would still find us. It is part of the inescapable reality of this world. This truth lives at the center of our faith. Jesus was crucified. Our master, the Holy One, was executed as a criminal. We live under no illusions that our privileges or even our virtues make us immune from horrific evil.
On the other hand, as followers of Jesus we embrace a radical commitment to the pursuit of goodness. We may die, but we will not become killers. We may be mistreated, but we will not become haters. We are vulnerable. We grieve. But we will not allow fear or outrage to dictate our words, to own our lives.
In the presence of evil, we remain committed to the ideals of Jesus.
Stubbornly. Resolutely. So help us, God.