In the name of Jesus, the bread of life. Amen.
There are times when a preacher sits down to write a sermon and all previous plans get cast aside. Times when a happening, something local or something global, takes center-stage and demands our full attention. Such was the case this past week.
Last Sunday, just as we were beginning our worship service here at St. Luke’s, a mass shooting took place at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin just over an hour north of us near Milwaukee. I was driving home from church when I got the text alert that something had happened, and called Kerry right away since the massacre took place so close to his hometown. Coming just over two weeks after another mass shooting outside Denver, Colorado, this event brought closer to home the terrifying reality that we live in a culture infected by fear, hatred and violence.
These are anxious times, to be sure, and anxious times too often produce anxious responses. Families stretched to find work or keep food on the table worry about competition for employment. Wave after wave of corporate downsizing leaves some resentful of jobs moved overseas. It doesn’t take much for people who are hurt and scared to begin to look upon their neighbor as their enemy.
This sort of fear finds its strength in racism and nationalism and calls it pride. It wraps its bigotry in a flag and calls it patriotism. It builds walls along the very same borders crossed by one wave of immigrants after another, forgetting how many of our ancestors arrived on these shores fleeing poverty and oppression and hoping for a better life.
“The shooting in Oak Creek reminds us that the forces of prejudice are loud. They sling bigoted slurs and occasionally bring 9mm guns to places of worship. But we are not a country of Wade Michael Pages [the man who carried out the attack at the Sikh temple].
We are a country whose first president George Washington, told a Jewish community leader that ‘the Government of the United States… gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.’
We are a country where Jane Addams welcomed Jewish and Catholic immigrants streaming in from Eastern Europe in the 19th century as citizens, not strangers.
We are a country where a young black preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr., learned nonviolence not only from Jesus, but also from an Indian Hindu named Gandhi and from a Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh.
And we must be a country where a new generation of leaders rises up to write the next chapter in the glorious story of American pluralism or else we will forfeit the territory to those who would shoot at our neighbors while they worship.”
That fact — that while we gathered in safety last Sunday a community of neighbors, separated from us by just a little geography and united to us by a great deal of shared humanity, were marked for death because of how they looked, where their families were from, or how they worshipped — that fact of history pushed aside the plans of many a preacher this week.
But our worship tradition calls us to listen to our sacred texts in weeks filled with sorrow and weeks filled with joy, so we turned to scripture this week wondering what, if anything, these stories and histories might offer in light of the present moment.
For the tenth week in a row we have been following the story of King David, his rise and fall. For the last two weeks we’ve heard the story of his abuse of power in taking Bathsheba and his avoidance of accountability in the murder of her loyal husband, Uriah. As we left the story last week, the prophet Nathan has brought a word from God saying that, because of David’s violence against Bathsheba and Uriah, the sword will never leave his house.
As we rejoin the story this morning, all that Nathan prophesied has come to pass. Tragedy has befallen David’s home, like a houseguest that refuses to leave. First the child born from David’s illicit relations with Bathsheba dies in its infancy. Then, in a series of crimes mirroring his own against the house of Uriah, David’s eldest son, Amnon, takes his half-sister, Tamar against her will — provoking her brother, Absalom, to murder Amnon at a dinner party for all David’s heirs. With that, the war of succession is on, and it becomes clear that Absalom’s appetite for power and privilege exceeds even David’s.
After engineering a return from exile, Absalom sets about building support for himself by playing on the ethnic prejudices and anxieties of the Israelites. Rising early and stationing himself by the gate to the city, Absalom would greet petitioners who had come to Jerusalem seeking justice and would ask them, “from what city are you?” When the claimants identified themselves as Israelites, Absalom would respond, “see, your claims are good and right.”
Some scholars have read into this evidence of ethnic tensions the nation of Israel. Though David had originally ruled from Hebron in southern Judah, he later moved the capital to a Jebusite city and incorporated Hittites and Gittites, foreigners, into his administration. When Absalom plots to engineer a change of regime, he begins by playing on the ethnic resentments of the hometown Israelites, demonstrating that race-baiting tactics are as old as human memory, and as deadly as ever.
We wish we could say that we’ve somehow evolved beyond these sorts of tactics, that as human beings living in the most materially wealthy civilization in the history of the world we have grown too savvy to the politics of division to be distracted by their frantic antics, but we have not. We continue to need the advice Paul gives the Ephesians when he writes to them,
“So then, putting away all falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another… Let no evil come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you 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 God in Christ has forgiven you.” (Eph 4:25,29-32)
As is so often the case, when events like the one in Aurora, Colorado or Oak Creek, Wisconsin demonstrate to us the horrors of which we are capable, there are voices that rise to show us the best in ourselves, that speak the truth in love and remind us what we were created to be. The voice that has provided the most encouragement to me these last few days hasn’t been either of the candidates in this fall’s presidential election, or any columnist or pundit. Instead, it’s been the voice of a 10-year old Sikh girl named Tarina from the state of Virginia who wrote,
I am only 10 and don’t know about all the religions but the recent shooting in Wisconsin got me wondering about other religions. I watched the coverage on TV (for once my parents seemed OK with it) and the reporter kept saying that temple seemed to have been mistaken for a Muslim place of worship. Then, I heard another person saying, “Sikhs are not Muslims.” I started thinking what if we were? It would still be wrong for Mr. Page to come in the place of God and shoot people.
I was not born then but have learned about 9/11. It was horrible when Osama bin Laden attacked the Twin Towers. A lot of Muslims were wrongly thought of. A lot of people think that if one person is bad in a religion, everyone in that religion is bad. I think that statement is not true. No matter what religion, we should never misjudge a person. If someone is a different color or is from somewhere else you should try to get to know them and you might learn something new. You will also make someone feel good and at home if you just talk to them and learn about their background.
I think that Mr. Page hurt Sikhs because he might have mistaken Sikhs as Afghani people. It doesn’t make it any less horrible as Afghani people are great people as well. We need to stop hurting each other and create a world of peace and tolerance. We are the only people who can change this world.
As David’s house fell apart, his son Absalom tried to consolidate power around himself by playing on people’s nationalism and ethnic prejudice. In the end, not only did he not win the crown, but he lost his life and divided the nation.
Consider, by contrast, what happened at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin just hours after their house was assaulted. As police officers and reporters converged on the scene, the very people who’d hid in closets and restrooms to avoid being killed offered them food and water as part of langar — the Sikh practice of feeding all visitors to the house of worship.
This morning, one week later, we gather at the Lord’s table to take part in the Christian practice of feeding all visitors to the house of worship, the one we call communion that reminds us, as Paul writes, “we are members of one another.” We share this meal in remembrance of the guru Jesus, who said, “It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’”