Anglican Church of Canada
March 17, 2019 Lent 2
So it has happened again. Friday morning we woke up to yet another atrocity: over fifty people gunned down at their Friday prayers in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. I don’t know what such news reports do to you. For me there is an initial shock, an oh-no-not-again feeling, a dread about what I am about to hear, a morbid fascination, and finally a nausea at the pit of my stomach that mirrors something going on with my soul: the feeling of being violated, that my bubble of innocence has been burst again, that my dearest convictions that life is worth living, that people are precious, that love is the engine that will redeem us, have been brutally trampled into the mud. Maybe worst thing of all: that these feelings are a bit less intense each time. We are getting used to this; the grotesque horror of this orgy of hatred and murder is becoming normalized. Because it happens so often. Charleston, Orlando, Quebec City, Pittsburgh, and on and on. And now Christchurch, another city whose name once conjured up human decency and the good life, and is now code for unimaginable murder. We’re so sick and tired of it.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Jesus’s words from today’s gospel are also a lament over a city that was the symbol of all that is good and holy for the Jewish people – and yet had become a place of horror, a place of murder and hatred. It is a cry from the heart – and for that reason it gives us a window into the heart of Jesus, who himself is a window into the heart of God.
Our theme for preaching this Lent is compassion. Last week Lynn spoke of the Exodus as that central Old Testament event that defines who God is. That is an event grounded in the compassion of God. You remember how the whole story begins when God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush: “I have seen the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.” God is moved to pity. This is the founding moment of Jewish faith, the bedrock of what the Old Testament knows and believes about God: that God is moved by the sufferings of the oppressed and marginalized, and that God wants to bring them to a place of safety and prosperity. And at the same time, the people of the Old Testament understand themselves, their own identity, as rooted in this compassion of God. “A wandering Aramean was my father” is the confession that Jews repeated generation after generation. They must never forget that they are at root refugees, saved by the compassion of God. We Christians have inherited this identity; we are called to share this compassion of God for the poor and disenfranchised, because that is who we are but for the mercy of God.
And, ironically, that is exactly who those people murdered in Christchurch were: refugees, called by God from the violence and poverty of Syria, or Somalia, or Iraq or Pakistan, called to a new promised land of prosperity and hope and supposed safety.
If the story of Exodus reminds us that compassion is at the heart of God, Jesus tells us today that that heart is broken. A heart that beats with compassion is a heart that is vulnerable, a heart that is open to pain, a heart that will be wounded, torn open, by every act of hatred and violence. Let us say it clearly: when that gunman opened fire in New Zealand, he did not just murder innocent men, women, and children gathered for prayer – each bullet also tore a hole in the heart of God. And indeed, the hatred and indifference that made this atrocity possible, each word of casual racism bandied about, each politician catering to our basest instincts – these too are an offense to God.
So when we find our hearts assaulted and offended by what we hear on the news, perhaps there is some comfort for us to remember that we are not left alone with our outrage over human hatred and violence. God is there alongside of us; God’s heart takes the bullet first for us; God’s compassion is grieving before we have to. And God is there with us in our shock and grief and outrage, holding us, just as surely as God held the children dying on the floor of those mosques in the arms of eternal mercy, and holds them still.
It is God’s eternal heart that takes the first shock of human hatred and reacts – how? With anger? Yes, I think, for it is right to be angry with what was done on Friday, right to feel a fierce burning rage at injustice and cruelty. But unlike so much of our human anger, God’s anger is not rooted in hatred, but at its deepest point in compassion and vulnerability. Hear the longing in Jesus’s words, speaking of Jerusalem, speaking of the hard hearts of those he knows will kill him: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Jesus is not afraid to look weak, even comparing himself with a silly hen, to express that wonderful tenderness that is at the heart of God.
And for us who profess to follow him? This is the most basic thing he asks of us. Not that we believe the creeds without doubt or question; not that we do all the right churchy things we do; not that we live model lives. These may be important, but they all lead back to this one fundamental thing he asks of us: that we share in this heart of compassion. That we let the tender love of God wash over our own lives; that we let it shape and form our own hearts, so that they grow more and more like the heart of God; that we look at the world around us with God’s eyes, with compassion and sorrow and love.
As long as life is fairly comfortable – and our life in this country generally is – we can so easily slip into thinking about church and our faith as simply a personal choice, something that is optional and maybe not all that important. Faith can become a bit of a hobby that we churchy people do. As long as we enjoy the music and get a mild buzz from the community, that will keep us coming. But the New Testament has another, much more urgent sense of what it is we are doing here. For the New Testament, the world is not a neutral, benign place. We are in a war zone. We are in the middle of a war, and the stakes could not be higher: nothing less than the integrity of our souls, and the soul of the world.
Now I get it, why we don’t generally talk this way about our faith any more. The language of spiritual warfare sounds over the top dramatic, and is so often abused. But looked at in the cold light of what has just happened in New Zealand, of the hatred and hopelessness that casts its shadow in so many places in this world, then the language of spiritual warfare begins to make a bit more sense. Because horrible events like this can wake up up to the seriousness of what is at stake.
Our battle is not with flesh and blood. Let’s be clear about that: this is not about going to war against any group of people, whether we call them terrorists or bigots or haters or whatever. Our battle is, the New Testament says, with the spiritual forces of evil: with hatred, and intolerance, and greed, and selfishness. In our context, the battle is with white supremacy, and Islamophobia, and homophobia: these are modern words, but really they’re just the latest masks put on by the same old forces of hatred.
And of course we don’t fight with weapons that seek to kill and maim and dominate. We cannot fight hatred with hatred – as soon as we do that, hatred has won. The weapons we are called to fight with are the ones Jesus modelled for us: compassion, and understanding, forgiveness and love. And if I call them weapons, it is to underline the urgency of what Jesus is trying to teach us. These are not just nice things to practice, things that will make us nice people who are likable and will get to heaven. They are weapons for the resistance, for the world-wide underground movement that is in full revolt against the hatred and intolerance and killing; that will stand up to protect the vulnerable and the abused; that will battle for God’s kingdom of justice and peace and mercy as though our very lives depended on it – because they do.
Let’s never forget that’s why we come here, to this place, week after week. Not just to sing a nice hymn and be a bit moved by a prayer and to see our friends – though those are all part of it. But at its root, really we are here because of events like Christchurch. We are here because we have joined the resistance to that kind of hatred, and this place is our boot camp. We come here to have our hearts formed in the compassion of God, to bear the grief for all that offends that compassion, and renew our commitment to love. We come here to care for one another. We come here to learn humility, to understand that we are not the centre of the universe – but are nonetheless beloved and valued. We come here to cultivate gratitude for the gift of life. We come here to experience awe at the sacredness of God in all life and all creation. We come here to practise truth telling. We come here to claim hope for a world that so desperately needs it.
Let us remember that these things are the reason we are here. Let us seek them together, and encourage one another, and build each other up. Let us use our time here wisely, so that every week when we go home we may find ourselves just a little bit strengthened and better equipped for the hard task of loving others, of practising compassion, of standing up for justice and peace. We are the resistance, we and millions of other ordinary decent people around the world – people of many faiths, and people of none. Together we can face down the horror of the hatred and the killing, together we can insist on the kingdom of love and understanding. And together we will overcome.