Monday, August 13, 2012

Members One of Another in a World Going Mad

Scripture for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost includes II Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

We’re nearing the end of King David’s saga. Today we hear and feel the raw pain of a father’s grief. You may recall that the prophet Nathan, many years before this, confronted David in his moral collapse when he stooped to arrange the convenient death of his loyal soldier Uriah so as to take to himself Uriah’s wife Bathsheba. Nathan foretold future anguish for David, rising from the mess he had made of things. Today’s portion shows very dark storm clouds rolling in.

There is civil war, David’s grip on his kingdom threatened, and his own son Absalom has joined the rebels. We witness a slaughter in the forest of Ephraim, and in the course of that mayhem Absalom is trapped, caught in the limbs of a great oak. It’s such a bizarre incident: it’s as if the mule Absalom rides colludes with the oaks (remember how the Bible uses that tree as a symbol of righteousness), as if nature itself defies the treasonous Absalom. No mercy is shown him as David’s men arrive on the scene.

David has been torn between the demands of his kingship and the reality of his indelible love for this hotheaded son. David’s heart is torn open by this news from the front. As we’ve seen before, the royal house of David is not the House of Windsor. There’s no hiding behind a stiff upper lip here. David is plunged deep in grief. He expresses what has been felt by many parents in anguish after the death of a child: “Would I had died instead of you, my son…”

It is out of this deep dark place that today’s first lesson speaks. The psalmist echoes the theme: “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.” Tradition ascribes authorship of the psalms to David (though that’s taken with a grain of salt, much like claiming Moses to be the author of the first five books of the Bible). The salt on these verses is the residue of bitter tears, and whether or not they bear David’s DNA, they echo his pain.

In our long summer of senseless mayhem, and with sacred texts like these, perhaps our own pain can be laid open. Was it just two Sundays ago that we were reeling from the slaughter in a movie theater in Colorado? Then, last Sunday, Sikh worshipers were targeted in a brutal assault in their temple in Wisconsin.

This latest shooting suggests a similarity to King David’s plight. Perhaps we too are witnessing a civil war, a torn union. In our present moment, the rebels are not well organized. But while Aurora shooter James Holmes seemed to be a deranged individual, Wade Michael Page appears to have been a committed and highly networked White supremacist, a frustrated neo-Nazi , an American who felt compelled to take action to save his country from perceived threat.

He played in bands called Blue Eyed Devils and Definite Hate, and in 2005 created a group called End Apathy. The BBC reported that in 2010 Page talked about the lyrics of the songs he wrote, songs about how “the value of human life has been degraded by being submissive to tyranny and hypocrisy…” As vague as that sounds, Page’s lyrics are precise in their reference to killing Jews, black people, gay people, and minorities. He apparently longed for a racial holy war.

Like Holmes, Page’s style was one of a lone ranger; but Page’s background makes it clear that his action was the outbreak of a movement, not so much, as with Holmes, the breakdown of a human being. When authorities spoke of this incident as domestic terrorism, they used language that suggests a guerrilla war in which Page was both commanding officer and foot soldier. His vision of what this nation should be was not the isolated view of one person. He represented many more.

White Supremacy is active in many other nations. Other brands of ethnic supremacy spawn guerrilla violence in yet more countries. In worst cases on this fragile earth governments sponsor ethnic cleansing—and seem to get away with it with impunity. From a God’s-eye perspective, the human race is in civil war against itself.

Some years ago, you may remember seeing the billboards of a religious ad campaign. One memorable display, white letters against a black background, bore this quote, allegedly from God: “Don’t make me come down there…”

Given the role that religion often plays in ethnic supremacy-- distorted religion, extremist religion, ignorant religion—such a threat of violence from God, even if tongue-in-cheek, would fit right into a world going mad.

Which is why the Christian Gospel needs to be heard clearly and creatively. Imagining God looking out onto our world of strife, Madeleine L’Engle gave us her version of what God might have said.

“In my mind’s ear I can hear God saying to God, ‘Can I do it? Do I love them that much? Can I leave my galaxies, my solar systems, can I leave the hydrogen clouds and the birthing of stars and the journeyings of comets, can I leave all that I have made, give it all up, and become a tiny, unknowing seed in the belly of a young girl? Do I love them that much? Do I have to do that in order to show them what it is to be human?’

L’Engle answers that question: “Yes! The answer on our part is a grateful Alleluia! Amen! God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son…”

And our Gospel today sums up his global mission: “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Our mission, in a nation rife with divisions and in a world gone mad, is expressed perfectly in our reading from Ephesians.

Put away falsehood. Speak the truth to all neighbors, make clear that we know that we and they are members one of another.

Let our message build up and give grace to those who hear, dispelling rather than feeding anger.

And this in an election year: Put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as you have been forgiven by God.

Imitate God as beloved children.

This mission, this code of holy behavior, rises from Christ’s self-offering but is spacious enough that it shares much common ground with other religions, and offers a radically gracious vision to counter toxic worldviews that tear people apart.

For we are members one of another.

So we remember six beloved children of God, and tell the truth that, as far away as Oak Creek, Wisconsin, is from the Berkshires, and however like and unlike St. John’s Church is to the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, out of the painful depths of this violence we affirm that these six people were our neighbors.

Satwant Singh Kaleka, 65, temple president who was shot as he tried to fend off the shooter with a butter knife.

Ranjit Singh, 49, and his 41-year-old brother, Sita Singh, two priests whose families were back in India and whose lives in America revolved around their faith.

Suveg Singh Khattra, 84, a former farmer in India who was a constant presence at the temple.

Prakash Singh, 39, a priest who was remembered as a fun-loving personality who enjoyed telling jokes.

Paramjit Kaur, 41 who worked 66 hours a week to provide for her family, but also found time to pray every day for at least an hour.

We are indeed members one of another.

In that unity, we are called to use the tools of peace to disarm those who want civil war, ethnic war, racial war. Those tools of peace include safeguarding rights of all to religious assembly, respecting the rights of all to freedom of conscience and speech, achieving intelligent gun control, fostering interfaith relationship to dispel fear, and education to detoxify prejudice.

And because foot-soldiers of ethnic war are also our neighbors, understanding what motivates them is among our responsibilities in a civil society, where all are members one of another in a world that all too often appears to be going mad.

(Madeleine L'Engle's words are taken from her "Penguins and Golden Calves".)