Sunday, July 22 – A Letter to the Congregation

Dear Friends in Christ,

I wrote you a sermon yesterday.  I promise.  It was about how busy we are, how tired we all are, and how we all long for more rest in our lives.  I was going to ask you a question and have you all talk about it with a person next to you, because I figured that would buy me sometime in the sermon.  I was going to be funny and witty.  I was going to talk about how busy all of our lives are and how important that makes us all feel, but also how, in the end, we all are really really tired and in need of rest.  Then I was going to talk about how Jesus’ words in our gospel text were music to my ears this past week when he says, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”  I planned to tell you how much I needed to hear those words because of how busy my life is.  And then I was going to have you take the notecard that was handed to you and ask you to write down 1 thing that you would not do this week, so that you can take sometime to rest. And then I was going to ask you to write down one thing you would do this week that would help give you that rest. That’s the sermon I wrote for you yesterday.  After worship, I figured you all were then going to shake my hand and tell me how you thought it was the best sermon you had heard in years and that you couldn’t wait to get some intentional rest this next week.  That was the plan I laid out.

But then I went on Facebook.

On Facebook, I saw a friend post an article written by a fellow Lutheran pastor.  Her article was an open letter written to all the people suffering through the horrible tragedy of the theater shooting in Aurora, CO.  Here is what she said,

You don’t know me. I’m a pastor at a Lutheran congregation 65 miles north of you, in Fort Collins. You may have your own pastor, or rabbi, or imam. You may not believe in God. But I am also your neighbor–and like many of your neighbors in Colorado and across the country, my heart breaks for you today.

We, your neighbors, may not have been in that movie theater, but we could have been. It could have been our children, our friends. We want to share words of sympathy, but we know no words can erase what has happened to you, as you grieve for the dead and wait in hospitals for news of the injured. What words we do share may bring little comfort.

I am only one of many voices who will speak to you, and about you, in the days to come. As a pastor, a parent, and a neighbor, here is what I want to say.

To the victims, the survivors, and their loved ones: I am so sorry. I cannot imagine the terror of being inside the theater in those deadly moments, or the anxiety of not knowing at first whether someone you loved was among the victims. I pray for the hospital staff and emergency personnel who continue to treat your wounds, and I pray for your healing. And for those who have received the worst possible news, the news of death, my head bows in sorrow.”

Suddenly, in light of that article…complaining about how busy we are and how tired I am felt pretty lame and pretty meaningless.  So I threw the sermon away.

I don’t know how it affects you when tragedy like this strikes in such a way that it really feels like it could have been you.  I don’t know if you hear about it and simply move on with your busy life.  I don’t know if you just avoid thinking about it all together, or if it disturbs and disrupts your life in some way.  Sometimes I find that I imagine myself in the situation and wonder what it would be like or what I would have done.  Sometimes, I wonder, will something like this happen to me in my lifetime?  Now, after being a pastor for a year, I ask myself, I wonder what this is like for the pastors in the community.  What would I say? What would I do?

I heard on the news that there was a 4-month-old child who was injured in the shooting.  And so, I held Elliot a little closer and a little tighter this weekend.  I think things like this always bring up big questions for us about God.  I think this Lutheran pastor does a nice job of addressing those questions.  Here is what she goes on to say:

In the coming days and weeks, you will probably encounter well-meaning people who will say to you, it is all part of God’s plan, even if we don’t understand it now. Everything happens for a reason. If these words are helpful for you to hear, I’m glad. But if these words tear at already-raw places in you and fill you with anger or despair, please know this: not all people of faith believe these things. I do not believe them.

The God I know in Jesus Christ does not use natural disasters or human-caused massacres to reward some and punish others. I believe God is able to reach into sin and death and pull out healing and life; this is a different thing from engineering tragedy for a so-called greater purpose. The God I serve and proclaim to others does not cause or desire human suffering.

I also suspect many of you, like us, may be asking why. Why did this happen? The media and the justice system will do their best to answer this question in the literal sense, trying to determine why James Holmes apparently entered a movie theater and began shooting at random. In a sense, however, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, because even if we get a “why”–an explanation from the shooter, or a more comprehensive understanding of the circumstances that comes with time–these answers will still not be enough.

In its deepest sense, the question “why?” is not a request for a logical explanation; no logical explanation will justify or make sense of what is indefensible and senseless. It is a cry of the heart, an expression of grief. It is a cry as ancient as it was new again this morning. In the Bible, it is “Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15).

As a person of faith, I say to you: there is holiness in grief, in tears and in anger. In the refusal to be comforted, there is the understanding that these bullets have torn a rent not only in individual lives but also in the fabric of life itself, in an understanding of community as it ought to be. Such refusal proves that we have glimpsed and can imagine a better way of being together in the world. The fact that this event is one of many tragedies and episodes of suffering around the world doesn’t diminish its magnitude; in many ways, it makes it sadder.

One of the twelve dead in the Aurora shooting was aspiring Colorado sportscaster Jessica (Ghawi) Redfield. On June 5, after she had narrowly missed being present at a similar shooting at a Toronto mall, she blogged about the event, asking, “Who would go into a mall full of thousands of innocent people and open fire? Is this really the world we live in?”

Is this the world we live in? Yes. And no. It is a world in which evil and tragedy erupt with shocking frequency and brutal intensity. It is a world in which, despite our attempts to separate “good people” from “bad people,” the truth in writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s words stands: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.”

And yet, this is also a world in which immense kindness and compassion can wash over us in times of greatest need. For those whose trust in humanity has been shattered today: as you remember a young man bursting into a place of supposed safety and turning it into a place of destruction, may you also remember communities, places of worship, neighborhoods and individuals bursting into this situation with love and support. May these times testify not to the power of evil to destroy community, but to the greater power drawing a community together to stand with one another. I call that greater power God; but whether or not we share the same faith, let us share that commitment to life and love that render hatred and evil ultimately powerless.

In the end, whatever his motives, Mr. Holmes will have neither the first nor the last word. Nor will I. That honor belongs, I believe, to the indestructible love of God.   

The truth is the sermon that I wrote for all of you is true.  Many of us are too busy.  And many of us are all tired.  So take out that card you were given at the beginning of worship.  On one side, I ask you to take a moment and write down something that you can give up this week: one evening you will shut down you computer or turn off you cell phone, one appointment you will refuse to make, one obligation you will pass on.  Now, flip the card over.  Write down something you will do with someone important in your life instead. Maybe you take your kid to the park instead of their music lesson this week.  Or maybe you’ll call your daughter that you aren’t getting along with and tell her how much you love her.   Maybe you’ll walk with a friend or spouse, or play a game with a neighbor.  Or maybe you will take the opportunity to just sit, not in front of the television, but in front of the world around you, praying prayers for all that you see.

I want you to do this not so that you can get some rest, like I originally planned.  But do this so that you can slow down and spend some time with the people you love.  As we’ve learned once again this week, this blessed and holy life is just too darn fragile.

Sincerely, and with great love for all of you,

Pastor Jon

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2 comments on “Sunday, July 22 – A Letter to the Congregation

  1. Jason says:

    Nicely done, JD.

  2. Cindy Halvorson says:

    Thanks!

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