Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Real News: Grace in the Midst of Tragedy

A Sermon for the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, October 4, 2006

Galatians 6:14-18, Matthew 11:25-30

May only God’s word be spoken.
May only God’s word be heard and believed.

When we remember the school shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, we count thirteen dead—twelve students and one teacher. We don’t count the shooters.

When we count the number who died on September 11, 2001, we count 2,973 dead and 24 missing. But we do not count the nineteen hijackers.

So this week, when a man enters a one-room school house in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and shoots ten schoolgirls, killing five…what happens?

Members of the Amish Community go to the home of the family of the shooter to tell them that they forgive him. They ask the world to pray for him and his family.

The real news in this unspeakable tragedy is not that evil happens. As shocking and as horrifying as it is to hear that for some unknown reason, a father and husband can meticulously plan the execution of ten of his neighbors daughters, that's not the real story. The real news is the response of the Amish community to the tragedy. In the face of unspeakable tragedy the neighbors and family members of the victims seek to forgive the perpetrator and ask for the world’s help in praying for him.

The real news is that in the face of evil, we witness grace.

None of us would blame these people if they sought revenge or retribution, but all of us are astounded when they seek to forgive. When we have seen our big tragedies, we wipe away the memory of the perpetrators. In our anger, we don't even count them as statistics. It is easy for us to imagine that the enormity of this massacre might cause even the most peaceful Amish farmer to throw down his pacifism and strike back. That's how it works in the movies, after all.

But the response of the Amish, as traumatized as they are is so quiet that it turns our world on its head. The media seems almost speechless in the face of the Amish creed to live and let live. They are new territory.

As a matter of fact, I am too. I don’t know if I could do what they seem to be doing. I don’t know if I could live peaceably and I don’t know if I could forgive. I don't even know if I could try. I mean, I get mad at the guy who takes my right of way…how would I feel if it were my children who were taken from me?

In watching this community from afar, I notice that there are some things about the Amish communities that may equip them in ways that we ordinary people are not equipped. They seem different to us, but if we read the Gospel closely enough they are not unfamiliar.

First, they are a community. The Amish live, work and make decisions communally. There is certainly their own kind of hierarchy and there is ritual, and I am certain that it is not perfect. At the same time, everything seems to be built around an attempt to live a life of both obedience to God and unfolding holiness of living.

Because of that, they attempt to simplify their lives. Amish are thought to eschew all technology, but anyone who has bought their produce or their furniture knows that they certainly know how to use technology. It is how they choose to live with and without certain things that is remarkable. Amish communities, whether Old Order or New, seem to want to use as little of it as they need so they can stay focused on that obedience to God and cultivating holiness. The Amish seem to us to live in another world. They strive, instead, to be in the world and not of the world.

Living simply and unencumbered requires intentionality. With all of our technology and busy-ness, we seem to live reactively.

Fourth, their community works together. As I have heard descriptions of how they will care for their dead and for each other, I am struck at how physical and immediate everything is: they will make the dresses the girls will be buried in, they will dig the graves they will lay them to rest with, they will gather as a whole community to mourn together and afterwards to eat together, they will dress in particular ways for a period of time after the funerals, and, from what I hear, they will together tear down the school house and build a new one together. There will be no outsourcing, and also no hiding of their loss. It sounds as if everything they do will serve to at once build community, make meaning, and grieve well.

Finally, these are people who are pacifists and who value forgiveness. The Amish I have heard this week and read about understand that as we have been forgiven, we ought to forgive especially the people who have hurt them the most. As we have been given life, we ought not to take life, even in self-defense. And life and death are under the sovereignty of God. This causes them to do something that we could not bring ourselves to do after Columbine or 9/11 or numerous other times when senseless violence touched our lives: forgive.

As we remember St. Francis of Assisi today, I am mindful of the fact that these values—of peacefulness, of a forgiving heart, of community, of simplicity of living—are Franciscan values. Not that the Amish or the Franciscans or anyone else has a monopoly on these, and yet they are both hallmarks of something deeper. They are the most startlingly radical expressions of what it means to be followers of Jesus Christ.

Well before Francis was considered saintly, he was considered crazy. His devotion was costly: his father disowned him and he became penniless. We think of Francis and we think of animals and birdbaths, but Francis was focused on caring for the poor, for lepers, and for bringing others to faith.

The Amish were themselves persecuted and run out of their native lands for their beliefs. Their pacifism was a threat to the social order, don’t you know. It was unrealistic and unworkable. That’s why they’ve been in rural Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana all these years.

Imagine living so that we might boast of nothing except Christ. Imagine taking on Christ’s yoke, knowing that the final burden of sin and death has already been borne by him. Imagine forgiving instead of striking back. Imanige living in a commnity where the decision to use or not use some piece of technology turned not on its convenience, but on the cost of its use on the resource of our souls. Imagine being so unencumbered, so present, that we would have real tools to confront the real challenges and even unspeakable tragedies with grace and strength.

I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to imagine.

And yet standing in this community, around this table it is not so far-fetched.

St. Francis and the Amish teach us something of what living a life of radical obedience can mean, even when the chips are down. Just as choosing to live without lightbulbs is difficult, so is choosing to live as a follower of Jesus Christ. In choosing to follow Christ, whether in Assisi, or on Amish farms or in well-lit cities, carries a cost. We trade away some of the baubles of the world because we confess Christ.

But in this trade-off we gain something much more than we lose. We gain the companionship of Christ and the power the Holy Spirit. We gain life in community that shows off God's grace in the midst of tragedy, such as during the tough moments when we have been there for each other. In our baptized life, we have come to see that extraordinary grace comes in ordinary packages. We already live in a community that finds healing in impossible places.

To live as the world does is to accept that reactivity and codependence must neccesarily come with the convienence of getting whatever we want at the flick of a switch. To live as a follower of Christ means that we give ourselves over God to be molded into the people God made us to be. In giving up some of the assumptions of the world--that the only way to fight evil is with evil, that we must only look out for number one, that we are slaves to our feelings-- we find that we gain the tools to face all of life, even the tragedies and the sins, with grace.

The real news is that for the Christian in community our relationship to creation is changed into an expectation of grace within the embrace of God's never-failing love.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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