Hebrew Scripture Reading
Thoughts and Prayers
This is an incident that competes in numbers to slaughters of Native Americans, African Americans, and other minority groups in some of our country’s darkest times.
At a time when we want to pride ourselves in our wonderful, civilized culture, we continue to slide back into patterns of hate from centuries gone by.
“Thoughts and prayers” has, oddly, become a bit of a controversial phrase.
Every time there is a tragedy - a mass shooting, a natural disaster, the fire at Notre Dame, children being removed from their parents when trying to seek shelter in a new place, even a personal crisis like illness or death - people talk about offering their “thoughts and prayers” to those affected.
Forty-nine daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, partners, parents, and friends were murdered by a man who couldn’t see their humanity through his inexplicable anger and hate.
Murdered by a man whose hate and fear wound up taking his life as well.
The reason this has become controversial is that it can sound like a bit of a cop out.
It’s like telling a hungry person, “I pray you’ll find some food soon” rather than feeding them like Jesus tells us to do.
Pray for people.
But feed them too.
That is what this is really about.
That’s what all of these mass murders are about, from Wounded Knee to Sandyhook to Orlando.
They are about sin: hate and fear clouding one person’s ability to see the humanity of the people around them.
When you do a google search for how many people were killed last week in the Pulse nightclub shooting, most of the results you’ll get say there were 49 people killed.
But there were 50 people killed that night.
One of them died after killing the other 49, but 50 people still died.
It’s easy to forget the humanity of the shooter in our desire to remind the world of the humanity of the victims.
The shooter was a sick man, but he was still human.
It’s terrifying – fear begets fear after all.
Anger begets anger.
Violence begets more violence.
And so we are left wondering. . .
When we are faced with overwhelming problems in our world that clearly go against God’s intentions for humanity, how do we move beyond a facebook profile picture frame supporting the latest victim?
How do we figure out where we should jump in and where we can really help?
Very few of us will ever be in a position where we’ll be called to be direct responders to a situation like 9-11 or the Charleston church shooting.
Not many of us are able to pick up and move to Uganda like my friend Kathryn who is an attorney defending women against gender based violence.
And it’s rare for a person or even a congregation to have such a firm sense of identity and calling that they are able to grow into their full God-given potential.
So we’re left feeling helpless, frustrated, and even numb to the horror of what’s happening in the world around us.
We can and must stand up for what’s right.
We can and should champion the cause of compassion, justice, unity, and grace.
We can and should build our lives on faith, hope, and love.
And very few people out there – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, atheist or other - will disagree with what I just said.
So why do hate, injustice, prejudice, and fear still run rampant in our world?
Why do we still have extreme hate groups like the KKK and Westboro Baptist Church out there?
If they are the minority, why is their voice louder?
Why is it that most churches are seen as irrelevant peddlers of “thoughts and prayers”?
I think that G. K. Chesterton hit the nail on the head when he wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”
It’s not that there is anything wrong with standing up for what’s right.
It’s good to champion compassion, justice, unity, and grace.
It’s lovely in theory to live a life built on faith, hope, and love.
But man, it’s hard.
It’s easier to just offer thoughts and prayers without actually changing anything about what we are doing or saying.
While the lead up in Elijah’s story is quite different to our own, he’s left feeling the same sort of way.
This prophet called by God to stand up for what is right and true did not find the road easy.
There are enemies out to kill him, there is violence and bloodshed all around, and he’s stuck in a cave by himself trying to figure out “now what?”
The prophet who, just previously had shown up a whole slew of the false God Ba’al’s prophets, was now a terrified mess.
The prophets of Ba’al had been slaughtered for their inability to make good on what they’d said they could do, but instead of receiving some sort of accolades for outing their falsehoods, Elijah was now on the run from an evil queen.
He stood up for what was right.
But the evil was louder.
Queen Jezebel is a bad guy of Disney-like proportions.
And even after doing what God called him to do, Elijah finds himself hiding in a cave waiting for further instruction from God.
Then we fast-forward to Galatians and this word about being “heirs to the promise.”
Scripture says that if we belong to Jesus, we are heirs to the promise.
What the heck sort of promise is this that lands a powerful prophet in a cave?
That gives us the task of speaking out against hate – a dangerous and unpopular job indeed?
In the midst of turmoil, it can be hard to listen for God’s voice.
Perhaps that is why God didn’t speak in the wind or the earthquake or the fire.
In the midst of the turmoil, Elijah must have been too shaken by the power and danger of it all to listen.
God needed Elijah to see past the drama to see the future.
Elijah’s faith needed to come not just out of the turmoil, but out of the hope of the future, the place of peace, the quiet rest in God when the dust settles.
In Simon and Garfunkel’s song “The Sound of Silence”, there is a sense of loss and lament over the unheard voices of the oppressed and hurt.
It is one of the most deeply heartfelt and theologically relevant pop songs I can think of.
They nailed it when they sang that we need to stop and listen more, to hear the unsung songs, and to break the silence.
But the song just sort of drops off a sad cliff at the end.
It is a call to arms, but there is no resolution offered.
It’s sort of like saying “My thoughts and prayers are with. .
Thank God for Jesus Christ – the ultimate resolution.
You see, Galatians tells us that we are all equal in Christ.
Not the same!
This isn’t about not seeing the differences between people – that’s silly – but embracing everyone equally for who they are and giving everyone a voice.
We have to shut up and listen in the silence because that’s where God speaks - outside of the drama.
We have to listen to voices that haven’t been heard or haven’t been allowed to speak because God speaks through them.
In our book of order, we read:
“. . .
and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world” G-1.0302 says that “A congregation shall welcome all persons who trust in God’s grace in Jesus Christ and desire to become part of the fellowship and ministry of his Church (F-1.0403).
No person shall be denied membership for any reason not related to profession of faith.
The Gospel leads members to extend the fellowship of Christ to all persons.
Failure to do so constitutes a rejection of Christ himself and causes a scandal to the Gospel.” says that in Christ, “28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
1” The diversity of the church is a reflection of the Kingdom of Heaven”
This isn’t about being politically correct.
This isn’t about taking a side as a liberal or a conservative.
This is especially not about letting a political party tell you what is and isn’t moral or right or just or who is worthy of compassion and who is not.
This is about humanity.
This is about the fact that in Jesus, we are all equal.
There is hope for absolutely everyone and absolutely everyone is a precious creation made by God.
We have to listen to the voices of those left behind by the tens of thousands of Americans who die yearly from gun violence.? We have to listen to the people who are showing up at American borders seeking asylum from war and poverty and gangs.
We have to give voice to the men and women who can’t afford a few hundred dollars for bail and are being held without conviction at the county jail.
We must listen to the gay couple who was just refused service know that.
Pittsburgh’s increasingly large numbers of immigrants from around the globe deserve a voice.
Did the description of any one of those groups of people raise up anger or discomfort for you as if they somehow deserve to be disliked or are less worthy of justice and compassion?
Did the thought of spending time with one of these groups of people make you uncomfortable?
Are you afraid that in listening to them, you might have to back down or change a long-held belief or let go of fear?
Because when we look at Galatians today, they are all beloved by God.