Summit Presbyterian Church
May 8, 2011
Acts 2: 14a, -42b
Cut to the Heart
There's a question that human beings ask no matter where they live, when they were born, or what language they speak. It comes up whenever bad things happen to good people-- and mostly bad things happen to good people. That question is: who's responsible?" Who's to blame when a child dies, when famine hits, when the earth shakes, when cancer strikes or the economy tumbles? Who's responsible? The answers are just as different as the situations, but there are some standard, cross-cultural ones. God is often held responsible - or the gods. If God created the universe, sends rain to fall and sun to shine (or not) -- surely bad things that happen are ultimately under divine control. Especially in times of natural disaster or personal illness people often point to the divine. Another common answer to the question, "who's responsible?" is the victim. This takes many forms: I won't list them. Often blaming the divine and blaming the victim go together: when we believe God is responsible for suffering (and most of us point to God at one point or another) also want to give God a good reason for inflicting it. So we search the lives of victims - including ourselves - to see where a foolish choice or misbehavior led to ruin. Another cross cultural answer to the answer of "who's responsible?" is the bad guy: the evil one, man or woman, the demon in human form. Often it's plural - those bad guys -- and they're almost always from across the sea or of a different tribe. Usually, we disagree on "who's responsible." It's often hard to tell, and it's often, "all of the above." After all, God created an earth with tectonic plates; victims often make foolish choices; there are evil-doers in this world -- and it gets even more complicated. Asking "who's responsible" may be necessary if we're to combat or relieve suffering. We need to understand how it comes about - but the answers are often elusive and divisive.
9/11 was something of an exception to that. People disagreed over the secondary or underlying causes of that tragedy: some suggested that our nation's arrogance, our imperial muscle-flexing fueled the anger that led to Al Queda; others suggested it was our freedom that made people jealous. Some pointed to Islam; others to fundamentalism of any kind. Some people thought George Bush and his cronies orchestrated the attacks for political gain; George Bush blamed Saddam Hussein. Jerry Falwell claimed that homosexuals were responsible for somehow forcing the hand of God to discipline us. But despite these differences nearly everyone agreed on one thing, including the few who cheered the fall of the towers: Osama Bin Laden was the single person with the greatest responsibility for those 3,000 deaths. He may have been a villian or a hero, but Osama Bin Laden was the man. So there was a certain unity in the world-wide response. Some people questioned if he should have been captured rather than killed; others protested that the US violated Pakistan's sovereignty; the relatively few Al Queda supporters vowed revenge. But most people agreed that an evil-doer was stopped: few people in this country at least were saddened by his death, except insofar as any death may sadden, or the whole situation is sad. Indeed, the main question, especially for people of faith, has been: should we celebrate?
Most religious leaders solemly said, "no." Oh, some said oh don't be so pious, self-righteous and hypocritical. God's hand was in it (Faith in Family; Rick Warren). but most religious leaders called for sober reflection. Most agreed that we could be relieved, thankful that evil had been stopped, even grateful to the Navy Seals, but they objected to dancing in the streets. The prophet Ezekiel was widely quoted, who said God takes, "no pleasure in the death of wicked people," preferring only that they "turn from their wicked ways so they can live." I was struck by a statement made by Albert Mulher, the president of the flagship Southern Baptist Seminary. Rev. Mohler was one of the architects of the right-wing takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. He's a fundamentalist, opponent of women's ordination, hater of all things homosexual, someone I never thought I'd never quote approvingly in a sermon but today I'm going to. Here he is speaking about the celebrations in the street: "Such celebration points to the danger of revenge as a powerful human emotion. Revenge has no place among those who honor justice . . . . The reason for this is simple, - God is capable of vengeance, which is perfectly true to his own righteousness and perfection - but human beings are not. We tend toward the mismeasure of justice when it comes to settling our own claims." My favorite quote came form a Buddhist: Ethan Nichtern, director of a buddhist teaching center in New York: "My initial reaction is like everyone else's - this is a good thing . . . But Buddhism says there is no monster that exists on his own, without cause. And that every living thing is sacred, including monsters. So I would chalk this up as one of the most intensely confusing moments for Buddhists so far in the 21st century." I'd say it's an intensely confusing moment for Christians as well, or at least this Christian.
On most Sundays when there's a public event I feel called to comment on, the lectionary just doesn't apply -- any attempt to make a connection beween them twists the text (not that I've been above that). But this Sunday I don't believe that's the case. The lectionary speaks to the moment.
According to Luke, Peter is preaching to a crowd of fellow Jews: hundreds if not thousands of them. He's telling them of Jesus Christ, and in his sermon he asks the question: who killed Jesus? (It's not the focus of his sermon, but he asks it). In the passage we just read, Peter refers to "this Jesus whom you crucified," but earlier he says more. "This man," he says, "handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law." So God had something to do with it; the Roman state did the actual deed, but Peter is also saying they share in the responsibility. Most of the folks in that crowd could have said, "what do you mean, I did it? I never even heard of this Jesus of Nazareth. I live in Phrygia. Or I came from Pamphylia" Others might have said "No. I watched the crucifixion with sadness. I had nothing to do with anything some of our chief priests and elders did." Others could have pointed out that the Roman governor was in charge, and it really didn't matter what the Jews wanted -- the Roman governor held the cards. And they would have been right. "They" did not kill Jesus, just as "the Romans" didn't either, even though the crucifixion was ordered and carried out by Pilate and his soldiers. Tragically, Peter's words - and other words in the New Testament - combined with plain old ignorance and sinfulness - were used by Christians for centuries to blame "the Jews" for the death of Jesus. Most churches have since repudiated that teaching, saying that "The Jews" were not responsible for killing Jesus, neither the Jews of that time nor the Jews, as a group of any other time, and that in fact God has not revoked God's promises to Israel. But that came later: through the centuries, Christians blamed "Jews" for killing Christ, and also blamed them for just about everything else. The plague, famine, all kinds of misfortunes that haunted Europe. They punished them accordingly with pogroms, ghettos, and more. Now, there were also times when Christians and Jews lived in harmony, but anti-Jewish Christian teaching caused much harm. In this case, asking "who's responsible," led to payback and vengeance with tragic results.
But back in those early days after the resurrection, when Peter was speaking as a brother, when there were not yet "Christians" and "Jews," an "us" and a "them" the crowd who heard Peter didn't protest - at least according to Luke. He says they were "cut to the heart," and asked Peter, "Brother, what should we do?" We don't know exactly what caused them to ask that question. Something about the story of Jesus, of his death and resurrection, touched them and made them want to make a change. And Peter tells them: repent, and be baptized, so your sins will be forgiven and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. And this promise is for you, for your children, and for everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him. Peter doesn't offer a threat, he offers a promise. He preached the opposite of that circle of violence and blame that so often comes when we ask "who's responsible?" He preached turning and new life in Christ.
On the occasion of Osama's death, we can listen to Peter. Repent. Recognize that we live in a broken world. Even when we're "innocent" we're sinful, complicit in suffering even if we don't mean to be. Turning from God, harboring fear or vengeance in our hearts, certain that we know things when we don't, indifferent or apathetic in the face of evil and suffering. But we can turn to God in Christ and know forgiveness, and not be governed or controlled by sin. We don't have to be oppressed by guilt or remain stuck in the cycle of violence, forever seeking revenge. Jesus suffered and was killed but Christ came back alive to offer forgiveness and new life. To offer peace rather than war, love rather than hate. Even as Christians we have trouble believing that. We can be just as vengeful in the name of our God as others in theirs. Indeed, the two wars that our country has entered into since 9/11 have killed thousands, including many just as "innocent" as those killed on 9/11, whose families have grieved just as much. But it doesn't have to be the case for us or our children. Instead, we can live into our baptism and turn from the ways of death.
My favorite statement on the death of Bin Laden comes from the Vatican.
"In the face of a man's death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred"
So - let's look at the death of Osama Bin Laden as an occasion for the further grow of peace and not of hatred. Between Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Between neighbors, between families; Between the United States and Iraq and Afghanistan. There is another way, and we can see it in the life of Jesus and we can live it through the power of the Holy Spirit. A way of peace, not war.