“How do we respond…” – Gospel and Sermon for Sunday, May 29, 2022

Here is the manuscript for today’s sermon:

A plague killed somewhere between 5-40% of the population.  Imagine what that does to a society.  

The Peasant’s Rebellion and the long-standing wars throughout the continent on a constant basis that ripped young men from families, caused death and great destruction throughout the land.  Imagine what that does to people and families.

Everyday life was shrouded in what scholars called a culture of violence in which violence was a normal part of everyday life.  Many people personally knew someone who had been murdered. Imagine how exhausting and hopeless that must feel. 

Corruption within the church, to the point that many religious leaders lived luxurious lifestyles that the lay people could only dream of.  These so-called holy men had concubines on the side with which they had children, and they covered up abuses.  Imagine how much trust was eroded.  

A technology that allowed for fast and wide distribution of information – often unchecked for accuracy and truth.  Just imagine the crazy conspiracies that were spread far and wide.

Rampant racism and religious intolerance in which violence was not only condoned but expected – all done in the name of God, nonetheless.  Imagine how confusing and exhausting it must be to claim to follow the Prince of Peace while using violence and dehumanizing those that are different from yourself.    

You can imagine how the combination of these things would envelope a society in anxiety and stress on a large scale.  And it was in these conditions that great societal change would come in the 1500’s.  Change came in spite of those with power and influence and money who would do anything they could to maintain this status quo which they thought they benefited from at the expense of suffering by the masses.  But they couldn’t stop it.  Those that try to maintain abusive systems of control over others, especially through the means of violence, always end up on the wrong side of history.  

When we take an honest look at the past, we find that humanity hasn’t really changed all that much, we just have better technology, more lethal weapons, and can get information quicker.  As we have seen in recent years, humanity is just as susceptible to disease, war, violence, corruption, cover-ups, lies, scandals, power grabs, rebellion, controlling what people can learn and talk about, conspiracy theories, racism and intolerance as at any time in human history.  

The question that presents itself is this – what do we do?  How do we respond in spite of the overwhelming odds, unbelievable violence, abuse, and so much more?  How do we go on living in a society that seems hell bent on exhausting us to the point where we want to just give up?  

501 years ago, this past week, Martin Luther answered those same questions when he stood in front of the emperor and church leadership when they demanded that he recant his beliefs and submit to their authority so they could secure the abusive status quo.  In the face of that, he declared “Here I stand.  I can do no other. God help me.  Amen”.   And his answer would come with great cost.  He was immediately branded an outlaw, condemned to death.  But his stand would bring about great change.  And others would join him.  We’re never really alone when we take a stand for what it right in spite of the odds, when we proclaim the Good News, offer hope, and when we invite people into a different way of living and being in community.  

So, what do we do?  How do we respond?  Especially when we are exhausted and just want to quit?  These weren’t just questions for Martin Luther.  They are questions for us too.  

What do we do in the face of a mass shooting in a grocery store – a heinous act done by a white man who held white supremacist beliefs, resulting in the death of 10 people who were targeted because of the color of their skin and many more injured?  How do we respond to this?    

What do we do in the face of a shooting at an elementary school in which 19 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders and a teacher were killed by an 18-year-old who had no trouble getting assault style weapons, and injuring so many others?  How do we possibly respond and go on from that?  

It’s not just the immediate victims that suffer from these losses and acts of terror. On Friday we learned that the teacher’s husband died from a heart attack, leaving behind their four children.  The church they were a part of claims he died of a broken heart.  The ramifications of this will continue to stream out.  

Each week in our prayers, we lift up the communities who have suffered as a result of mass shootings.  I got to tell you, some weeks I really struggle saying how many have died and how many are injured and reading each community especially when the list just seems like it never ends.  

This goes beyond just the immediate families and how they suffer.  I can guarantee that you saw that this week through your own conversations, through people reaching out just needing to talk and commiserate with someone, on social media, and more – so many affected by these horrific shootings that happened within the course of two weeks.  We’re all in a state of shock, layers of trauma added onto existing layers of trauma.  How much more can we possibly take? 

Societal changes come with great upheaval, are never smooth, and feel like the world is coming apart.  It seems as though the old ways that have sought to control others through violence and the use of force are making a last grasp to hold on to anything they can before a new way takes shape.  Like a person drowning in a pool who flails about grabbing onto anything they can, not caring who gets hurt or who they take down with them. 

Honestly, I don’t want to talk about mass shootings, white supremacy, racism, and such things.  I’d much rather tell a joke or a nice happy story in the sermon.  But we can’t ignore these things.  They are a part of our reality.  And if we can’t talk about them here, then there really is no where we can.  And we won’t.  So, what do we do?  How do we respond?  

In the reading from Acts, Paul and Silas were in Philippi – a city with a façade that displayed itself as a wonderful place, a Roman colony with all the advantages that came with it.  A place that the emperor could trust because there were many who were loyal to Rome and all that it stood for, had much wealth, and the community looked pretty stable.  

But underneath the veneer, we hear the truth about Philippi.  It had an economic system that abused and exploited people for profit.  It used violence to maintain this status quo.  It maintained law and order through scapegoating and religious intolerance.  And saw nothing wrong with shaming people in dehumanizing ways and unjust imprisonment.  It’s all right there in today’s reading. 

And the question was raised to Paul and Silas – Now what?  What are you going to do?  How are you going to respond?  Are you going to give up because it feels overwhelming and there is no hope when you are locked away in the innermost cell in shackles to be forgotten?

The answer was no.  Not because Paul and Silas had strong wills, or were great orators, or there was anything special about them.  Rather, they were given the very same thing that was given to Martin Luther when he faced similar circumstances – faith.  

And it’s the same thing that has been given to each of us.  See, faith isn’t given to us for the good times, the times when everything is going well.  No.  Faith is given to us for the times when all hell is breaking loose, when there appears to be no hope, when violence and abuse are at their worst.  When the mass shootings feel like they couldn’t possibly get more sinister and then they somehow do.  Faith is made for a time like this.  Because it’s in a time like this that we finally admit that we are powerless and we don’t know what to do.  See, You don’t need faith when you know what to do.  

It’s time like this that we can finally listen.  Faith is made for such a time as this when it seems like the scourge of white supremacy that has claimed the lives of countless people cannot be stopped.  Faith is made for such a time as this when it seems like any hope for even reducing mass shootings anywhere, but especially in such common places as grocery stores, and yes even schools is so distant.  Faith is made for such as time as this.

Remember, we come up against the same thing that Martin Luther and Paul and Silas and so many others throughout history have encountered who are living out faith.  

There will be people who are so caught in bondage to these abusive and deadly systems and ways that they will fight tooth and nail to maintain them – using whatever means they can, including violence, scapegoating, injustice, and willful stubborn resistance.  They will protect the things that they think they benefit from no matter who it hurts.  In spite of that, we have to continue to see the humanity in these folks.  If we can’t do that, then we become the very thing we are fighting against.  

So, what do we do?  How do we respond?  

We keep going because Jesus gives us what we need.  To take the next steps in spite of whatever obstacles and powers and people get in the way.  Jesus gives us the faith we need for a time like this just as he did with Paul and Silas.  Faith empowered them to pray and sing hymns to God when it looked like there was no hope.  The other prisoners heard and listened.  Paul and Silas may have been shackled in the innermost cell of the prison, but they were not alone.  Faith changed the situation – resulting in the baptism and conversion of the jailor – freeing him from the abusive and deadly system that he was protecting and in fact kept him in bondage just like the prisoners that he guarded.  Paul and Silas continued to see his humanity, which opened the door for transformation.  

Jesus gave faith to Martin Luther to stand up in the midst of overwhelming odds when it looked like all hope was lost.  Jesus empowered him to take a stand.  To risk it all.  To start a movement with a message of hope that sets people free. 

What do we do?  How do we respond?  How do we go forward in the midst of a society that wants us to just give up, to accept violence, racism, white supremacy, and mass shootings as expected and normal?

We can’t on our own.  The burden is too great for us individually.  But we aren’t alone.  There are many people, maybe even you, that are tired and just want to give up.  The shooting at the school is just too much to bear on top of all the other things that rip at your very souls.  I know, I feel it.  

I don’t know what the answers are.  I don’t know what to say or what to do.  But I do know this: the systems that exist – systems based on violence, racism and white supremacy, all the things that have a stranglehold on our nation and have for a long time, are all designed to exhaust us, so that we just give up.  

But Jesus empowers us with faith to keep going.  To refuse to give in.  We are not alone.  We are empowered with something much greater than these evils – faith.  Faith empowers us to sing aloud and pray when it looks hopeless.  Faith empowers us to stand up and speak up in the face of evil.  Faith empowers us to put the prayers we speak into action.  

Faith gives us hope.  And it empowers us to proclaim boldly that the best is yet to come.  Not as some kind of toxic positivity in which we tell ourselves that everything is just fine.  No.  Faith see reality.  And faith gives us hope that mass shootings are not the norm and we will do what is needed to stop them.  Faith gives us hope that racism and white supremacy are not normal, but are sinful, and we will do what is needed to end them.  And we won’t be silenced.  We won’t be intimidated.  We won’t be stopped.  

Not because we know what to do, or because we have some kind of incredible strength on our own to do these things.  We will go forward because Jesus gives us faith to be our guide, our source, our inspiration, our courage, and our strength.  Jesus empowers us with faith in the face of terror and anguish, violence and oppression, exhaustion and hopelessness.  Jesus empowers us with faith to take a stand and proclaim Good News, hope, and a new way that will change the world, our communities, and our very lives.  

We go forward because Jesus is leading the way. We follow his lead.  He’s giving us faith.  And there’s no stopping him or us.  Amen.  

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