February 18, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
This is a slightly different sermon than I planned on preaching because as you know, this past week, in an event that is becoming despairingly frequent, a young man walked into a high school in Florida and opened fire, killing 17 people. When the news broke, our hearts also broke… again as they have so many times over the past few years. There has been so much killing — sometimes the violence has been racially based as it was in Charleston, or directed at people of a different sexual orientation as in Orlando; sometimes its been politically motivated or terrorist based, and sometimes as apparently is the case for Wednesday’s shooting, it is simply grounded in anger and mental instability. Whatever the cause, each time we have been left reeling, hurt, and broken, and thrown once again into chaos as we argue over causes and solutions. We have been here so many times and expressed our thoughts and prayers to so many victims, and I know that often in the aftermath of such horrific scenes, we came to church seeking comfort.
But no matter how much we may crave comfort, there are times when comfort is not what we should be hearing or what the church is supposed to preach. Sometimes the gospel calls us to stay with the pain and turmoil and allow it to unsettle us, allow it to move us to action, let it instill us with determination to do better, and force us to change. If we move too quickly to comfort, we risk the danger of offering empty platitudes and meaningless gestures that provide no real healing and no possibility for a different kind of future. We risk the danger of seeking our comfort in a numb acceptance that things that cannot change and so we will say a prayer for the hurting, and then bury our grief and move on. Comfort may make us feel better for the moment — those of us who can stand at a little distance from the tragedy and experience only the grief of sympathy — but unless our words of sympathy also offer the hope of real change to those whose lives have been torn asunder, comfort has no power to heal. We saw that in the angry response of one of the students of the Parkland high school who rejected the tweets and condolences of politicians saying, “I don’t want your condolences … my friends and teachers were shot. Multiple of my fellow classmates are dead. Do something instead of sending prayers.”
I am not suggesting that “thoughts and prayers” are empty words; they can be important words and powerful words that are able to lift a little of the darkness of somebody’s grief. Back in 1999, after the shooting at Columbine, the students at Columbine and the families of the victims accepted the nation’s prayers as a sign of support in their grief, and for many, the outpouring of compassion in those days was healing. To know that you are not alone in your grief can be tremendously helpful as you learn to try to restructure your world after a tragedy. Members of our own congregation can give witness to how important it has been for them to know that we have included them in our prayers when they were diagnosed with a serious illness or sent them cards of condolence when a loved one died. But our comfort should only be offered as a substitute for action when we acknowledge that the only thing we can do is to be present with them in their pain. In 1999, the families of the Columbine victims were comforted by our presence with them because they believed — we all believed — that Columbine was an aberration. What else could one do, we thought then, but shed tears over the strange confluence of circumstances that somehow led to that senseless tragedy? As horrific as it was, we all wanted Columbine to be an anomaly and so offering comfort through prayers for the victims was appropriate. Now, however, after almost three decades of mass shootings at malls, nightclubs, concerts, movie theaters, college campuses, high schools, and even elementary schools, our young people are unwilling to accept the cold comfort of “sympathy for their pain.” They refuse to accept that the only response we can make is to bow our heads with sad acceptance of an evil world, and have instead chosen to channel their hurt into action. Cameron Kasky, a junior at the Parkdale High school, started a “Never Again” campaign on Facebook that shared stories and perspectives from students who have survived school shootings. High schoolers around the country staged walkouts this week to protest Washington’s inaction in protecting students and teachers, and are calling for a national walkout on March 14th at 10 am, one month after the Parkdale shooting. One gun control advocacy group said it had been so overwhelmed with requests from students that it is setting up a branch specifically for students who want to become involved in political action. These things may look to us discouraged tired adults like simply the anger of the innocent who have not yet had to confront just how intransigent evil is, but don’t be mistaken — what it really is is hope. These young people who have been the victims of too much violence have chosen to believe that a different world is possible and they have decided to put their grief and anger into work toward making that new world a reality. Even as we sink into our despair, they have chosen to hope. The determination of these children — and they are still children — should shame us adults who are tempted to allow our grief to harden into depressed acceptance. They understand that hope lies not in rushing to comfort but in finding a way to create something meaningful out of the chaos of the pain.
And so I will not offer you comfort this morning but I will remind you that as disciples of Christ, we are in the business of hope. We follow a Christ who was nailed to a cross, who died a most brutal death at the hands of an empire built on blood, and yet who said to his disciples, “No matter how dark and impossible the future seems, don’t give up.” And then to prove that hope never dies, he rose again. And he called us to follow him in our insistence that no matter how discouraging life might become, we will insist that somewhere ahead a new way of living is awaiting. No matter how tempted we are to say, “Let the next generation deal with these problems because I just can’t find it in me any more to believe anything will ever change,” we are called to be disciples of Christ, ambassadors of his belief in our ability to change, and so we must, once again, push our despair aside and insist on hope.
It is appropriate that this Sunday, we are beginning our Lenten program on the Art of Hope. The writer, Madeleine L’Engle, defines an artist as a person who creates “cosmos out of chaos.” Like God creating the world in Genesis, she says, out of the chaos before creation, an artist takes the raw materials of chaos and brings life out of them. And all artists — whether they are musicians, writers, painters, actors, dancers — will tell you that the act of creation often begins in the willingness to stay with the pain of the chaos and not give in to despair. Maybe it is a myth that only those who suffer can be artists, but it is not a myth to say that all artists suffer because all art begins with the pain of chaos. An artist may have a vision of what he or she wants to create but the process of bringing that creation into reality is a struggle through the chaotic stew of uncertainty, frustration, false steps, and the voices that shout, “You can’t do this, it’s not working, it’s impossible.” If the artist is to have hope, he or she must be willing to endure the pain of that chaos and not give into despair, believing that a new creation can and will emerge.
The sculpter, Gutzon Borglum was most famous for his work on Mount Rushmore but he was also commissioned to sculpt a head of Lincoln for Theodore Roosevelt’s White House. One day, a young girl was visiting Borglum’s studio with her parents as he worked on the bust. As she looked at the face of Lincoln emerging from the huge block of marble, she stared in astonishment at the piece and then said to the sculptor, “Is that Abraham Lincoln?”
“Yes, it is,” he replied.
The little girl looked at the sculptor in wonder and asked, “But how did you know he was in there?”
Though we smile at the girl’s innocence and bewilderment, we do so because we admit a similar wonder at an artist’s work. A sculptor turns a block of stone into a man, a painter creates a landscape from splotches of paint, a writer bangs away at a computer and produces a fictional world as alive to us as the real one, a musician arranges random tones into melodies that grip our hearts, and even simple story tellers with their simple words create images in our mind’s eye that have the illusion of life. We are amazed at the artist’s ability to create life out of lifeless materials and it looks to us like magic but the artist will tell you that the process was not magical at all. The beauty we see only emerged because the artist was willing to slog through the chaos of uncertainty, doubt, and frustration until their vision was made a reality.
Jesus was an artist of hope; he chose to create new possibilities through the art of story-telling. In his parables, he invites us to experience the pain and the chaos of life at it’s worst — the son who rejects his father’s generosity and love and squanders his life on selfish living, the man beaten by bandits and left for dead on the road to Jericho, the man who decides to throw a great banquet but his friends are too busy and too self-important to have time to spare for him. Jesus’ stories speak to us because in their simple words, we feel the heartache of being human. Jesus was able to capture the chaos of our lives, the hurt, fear, and suffering of a world that has failed to live up to God’s vision. Like Cameron Kasky who is posting to Facebook the stories of students’ experiences during school shootings, Jesus knew that stories can help us to fully enter another’s pain and chaos and to see it with new eyes. And once we have been willing to be awake to that chaos, Jesus uses the story to create “cosmos” — to create new possibilities for us. The prodigal son realizes his stupidity and returns home to his father who showers him with unexpected forgiveness. The unconscious man by the roadside is rescued and cared for by a Samaritan of all people. And when all of the invitees to the banquet blow off the host, he invites the poor and the lowly and they feast in joyous delight together. Like all artists, Jesus used his stories to call us from the chaos to a new way of living together, and in so doing, he gave us hope.
Jim Wallis, founder of the Christian magazine Sojourners, says that he believes the great spiritual struggle of our time “is between cynicism and hope. It’s ultimately a spiritual choice,” he argues, “and one which has enormous political consequences…. Hope is not a feeling but a decision made on the basis of what you believe at the deepest levels,” Wallis continued. “You choose hope, not as a naive wish, but as a choice, with your eyes wide open to the reality of the world.”1
As we begin this season of Lent and our program, “The Art of Hope,” I invite you to give thought to your own calling. You may or may not be an actual artist but as a disciple of Christ, you are called to be an artist of hope. Christ calls you to stay with the pain of the chaos of your anger, discouragement, sorrow, and confusion and seek ways of bringing cosmos out of the chaos. Let the chaos and struggle move you continually to pursue Christ’s vision of a different kind of world; a world that is safe for rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight, for people of all races, all sexual orientations, all religions; and a world where our children do not need to be afraid to go to school each morning.