Proper 10 / Year B
A shocking headline caught my attention earlier in the week: 233 Killed, 618 Injured by Gun Violence over Holiday Weekend. These statistics are compiled by a group known as the Gun Violence Archive. There is some ‘good’ news. This year’s violence is 26% less than last year’s. According to the GVA website, over 22,000 people have died from gunshot wounds so far this year. It is sobering to note 12,000 of these were self-inflicted. No matter what the numbers suggest to you, doesn’t it feel like our world is becoming harsher, more reactive, less kind, and less rational with each passing day? It all seems so senseless.
How do you make sense of senselessness? This is the question I have been living with as I pondered this morning’s gospel reading. The death of John the Baptist at the hands of King Herod, with all the intrigue playing out behind the scenes, is a completely senseless event. Along with the crucifixion of our Lord, it is one of the two darkest stories told in Gospels. But unlike the crucifixion, this one seems to have no redeeming value (other than John’s disciples give his body a proper burial).
I googled the question “how do you make sense of senselessness” and was taken aback by what came up: story after story over the past decade or so with various writers trying to come to grips with horrific events: the shooting in Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, Parkland, George Floyd, the church in Texas, the Surfside collapse. It felt like I was taking a crash course in modern tragedies.
One writer offered this thoughtful insight:
There is definitely a need among us to talk about and make sense of an incredibly senseless act. In times of crisis and disbelief our humanity calls us to ask the questions – Why? How? What can we do to prevent this from ever happening again?
There are no easy answers. No quick and painless solutions. No neat, precise, clear responses that can take the pain and shock away or keep evil from threatening us again. But this national conversation is an important one to have. Even if the answers are not readily apparent or forthcoming, it is necessary to begin to search our hearts and our souls and ask the tough, difficult and uncomfortable questions that will ultimately lead to answers that will enable us to be a better society. We must not stop asking these questions and searching for the insights that will bring us healing, comfort and clarity.
Another cited this bit of wisdom from Fred Rogers:
In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.
And another writer noted the importance of respect and compassion as we come together to seek wisdom. This too feels increasingly difficult in our society where we seem to act like, “If me and mine are in charge, then I am ‘fir’ it. But if me and mine are not in charge, then I am ‘agin’ it”; which, as a mindset, does not engender healing and hope, but only adds to the senselessness.
In today’s first lesson we hear God tell Amos a divine plumb line will be set to reveal where society has lost its way. In the hands of a skilled worker a plumb line can reveal subtle deviations which, if not corrected, will result in dangerous structural deficiencies. In our day and age no special tools are needed. The problems are visible to the naked eye. What we lack is a means of correction to unite us in working toward a better world.
We who embrace Jesus Christ hold something from beyond is at work in the world to counter the senselessness. It is articulated so beautifully in today’s reading from the 85th Psalm:
I will listen to what the Lord God is saying,
for he is speaking peace to his faithful people
and to those who turn their hearts to him.
Truly, his salvation is very near
to those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.
Mercy and truth have met together;
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Truth shall spring up from the earth,
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
We choose to open ourselves to what God offers to the world: to be a people of truth who exhibit mercy, a people who seek what is right as a means of creating peace. This is our response to senselessness. It is to join God’s team, to march in the parade God is leading, to sing in the chorus God conducts.
The Crucifixion. At Tuesday’s Evening Prayer from the Northumbria Community we read the lyrics of a song by the English writer and worship leader Godfrey Birtill. Consider how what he sees in the cross differs from the senselessness of John’s death:
When I look at the blood
all I see is love, love, love.
When I stop at the cross
I can see the love of God.
But I can’t see competition.
I can’t see hierarchy.
I can’t see pride or prejudice
or the abuse of authority.
I can’t see lust for power.
I can’t see manipulation.
I can’t see rage or anger
or selfish ambition.
I can’t see unforgiveness.
I can’t see hate or envy.
I can’t see stupid fighting
or bitterness, or jealousy.
I can’t see empire building.
I can’t see self-importance.
I can’t see back-stabbing
or vanity or arrogance.
I see surrender, sacrifice, salvation,
humility, righteousness, faithfulness, grace, forgiveness,
love! Love … love…
When I stop! … at the cross
I can see the love of God.
This speaks powerfully to the difference between the two deaths. Jesus’ death was redemptive, John’s was senseless. Everything Birtill says he can’t see when he looks at the Cross – abuse of power, manipulation, selfish ambition, hate, envy, vanity, arrogance, etc. – are found in spades in John’s death. The actions of Herod and those around him make John’s death seem cruel and meaningless. Jesus’ death on the cross is cruel to be sure, yet it becomes the clearest symbol possible of God’s love for the world.
In 2006 a man walked into a small Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster, PA and took hostages, killing five and shooting another five before taking his own life. Most don’t remember his name, but we do remember how the Amish community reached out the killer’s wife, children, and family. We remember how they extended forgiveness and expressed compassion. We remember how they took something senseless and transformed it into a symbol of God’s love.
This is how we choose to live and move and have our being in this world… aligned with the salvation our Lord offers in order for God’s glory to dwell in our land. May God empower us to reflect God’s light in the darkness of these senseless times.