Lisa Romero Muniz
Kurt Von Tillow
Brennan Lee Stewart
Bill Wolfe Jr
Tara Roe Smith
Derrick Bo Taylor
Thomas Day Jr
Rocio Guillen Rocha
I recall that on the evening of December 14 and the morning of December 15 2012, the Reverend Ken Edwards and I exchanged a series of emails. You might remember on the morning of the 14th that a 20 year old male shooter murdered 20 young children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It happened right in the middle of Advent, a few days before Christmas.
The lectionary offered up texts from the prophets Zephaniah and Isaiah for that upcoming Sunday that followed the mass shooting at Sandy Hook. Kens sermon was written before the massacre but when such things happen, sermon rewrites are a must. The challenge was, what do you say according to the gospel of Jesus Christ when children are murdered en masse?
The prophet Zephaniah spoke of joy and exultation that Sunday. It didn’t seem right to speak of joy knowing so many families wouldn’t have their loved ones home for Christmas or any other holiday for that matter. Ken and I conversed over what word of Christ our people needed to hear in the wake of tragedy. I wanted a firm word that stood toe to toe with evil and denounced the cancerous madness of violence; Ken offered the church a word that proclaimed that there will deep gladness one day. There might be heartache and grief today, but the day of the Lord’s salvation is just over the horizon.
His words from that Sunday: “God will save us. God will prevail. God comes as one who understands our profound suffering, our deep sadness, and our disillusionment. We remember that even the darkness of Good Friday gives way to Easter possibility and in knowing this we experience the deep gladness of God. I believe this! Together we must lay claim to this hope in God!”
The challenge remains: what can be said of God having heard the cries of thousands fleeing against the background of over 10 minutes of automatic gunfire? What can we say about the reign of God in the world knowing that the families of each name I read are mired up in unspeakable grief? Is God just? Does God feel the unimaginable pain wrought on those killed and injured in Las Vegas? When will God’s reign extinguish the evil that is manifested right before our eyes?
These questions of evil, justice, and the presence of Jesus Christ are some of the heaviest and most challenging ones that can be raised in the life of faith. We often find ourselves asking them in the wake of great suffering, tragedy, and loss of life.
In the Book of Job, amidst great loss of life and property, Job is met by several friends who come to console him. Job is grieving the loss of everything around him. Job curses the day he was born because he is so mired up in grief and then his friends start in with theological rationales as to the nature of his suffering. While well intended to ease the pain of Job’s suffering, the application of their theological explanations is shallow. Job, you must have sinned terribly for God to punish you in this way. And your children must have done some unspeakable things as well to have been killed in their house. God was punishing them too. But Job resists this simple explanation for the arbitrary disaster that has come upon his house. He insists on his innocence and ability to stand righteous before God-he knows that good fortune doesn’t always come to people whom we call good and that justice and punishment doesn’t always come to the people we call bad.
Why was a west Tennessee nurse of Henry County, Sonny Melton, gunned down as he tried to get his wife out of harm’s way? He should have returned to the hospital this past week to continue his calling to help people and save lives of those who are sick. A man of great integrity in a helping profession loses his life. There’s no sense to be made of that.
The complexities and texture of each victim’s life upend the shallow explanations of Job’s friends. When evil acts are perpetrated as they were last weekend, folks get caught up in their whirlwind for no other reason than being somewhere at an unfortunate time.
This week a public and shared conversation about good and evil has been resurrected as is often the case in times such as this. We know without any shadow of doubt that the shooter committed heinous acts of evil. There is no question about that. On the other hand, what hundreds and thousands of neighbors did to save and heal one another in an 11 minute corner of hell was divine. Remember what Jesus said to his disciples, ‘For there is no greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for a friend.’ There is no shortage of stories of sacrifice of spouses, parents, even strangers giving themselves for others in complete acts of selflessness.
Unfortunately, we’ve heard a plethora of stories describing the horror perpetrated by one sick and demented man. Was the shooter evil incarnate? I think he was flesh and blood just like you and me who monopolized on his creative capacity to cause death and destruction. Over fifty souls dead, hundreds more injured. And with the weapons on hand, it seems like the shooter hoped for more devastation. Almost unimaginable for one human being to cause such destruction. It’s hard to venture a guess as to what motivation was at play as the shooter meticulously planned how to inflict such suffering.
It’s hard to imagine the intensity of hatred that leads human beings to harm one another in ways that bring life to an end. Living with a burning hatred of another human being is hell-it’s isolation from any sort of community and loving relationships that bring joy to life. In my own anger at the devastation wrought on so many families, I hope that there is a special corner in Hell for folks who act like the Las Vegas shooter. I want the scales of moral justice to balance and that would mean punishment gets dished out one way or another. Maybe some sense of eternal punishment would soothe the broken hearts of families immersed in grief this Sunday morning. Then again, the possibility of the shooter’s eternal isolation from God doesn’t bring their loved ones back.
However God’s eternal judgment unfolds, it’s clear already the shooter was living in a pitch black darkness captivated by fantasies of death.
I wish that the tragedy in Las Vegas, the violence of a murderous mass shooting, was something we had never seen before. But we’ve seen it time and time again over the years, each time more deadly than than the one before. An insidious encroachment of evil is for us to become accustomed and expectant for schools, houses of worship, and now places of recreation to be terrorized by shooters. Gods reign is eroded when our neighborhoods are terrorized. Our gospel of Christ is watered down and cheapened if the only response we can imagine to the terror in Las Vegas is to prepare for more violence. We are peacemakers. We are healers. We are Christ’s living body that believes in a beloved community where relationships among neighbors are made whole.
The terror in Las Vegas or Burnette Chapel Church of Christ shakes the foundations of life-we’re not sure how safe we are anymore. We may be more inclined now to retreat from our neighbors, to shy away from sacred houses of worship, to see everyone stranger as a threat, to escalate rhetoric of force and violence simply because we’re scared. On this side of Easter and in the midst of terror and tragedy, we still believe that the grace and love of Jesus Christ is the most powerful force for good in the world. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can break the bond of love that Christ has for you. As sure as I am that Almighty God feels the suffering of those terrorized, and has brought those murdered in Las Vegas into everlasting peace, I’m sure that the grace of God will one day fully reign over a new creation.
Bless you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.