I was at Punch Pizza with my family when I received a text message from our office administrator, Donna, saying she hoped all of the Bryn Mawr Church folks were safe. I texted back “why?” thinking the weather was too nice for a tornado to have struck the neighborhood , oddly that was the first thing that came to mind, then fire. When she wrote back about the violence I created my own scenario in my head, which was of course inaccurate. When I got home I began to see Facebook postings and soon I received a phone call about what had happened. Was there something for the church to do? Be a gathering place it appeared, for the mayor to speak to the neighborhood, for neighbors to gather with candles. A place where silence could be observed, details could be conveyed, stories shared, emotions could begin to flow as the reality sank in. Violence, with great force, had come to the neighborhood. It had come without warning on an otherwise beautiful afternoon. Lives were cut short, a business was abruptly halted, one lone individual cried out “pay attention to me” and he used the great equalizer to make his point, then silenced himself so we could learn no more directly from his lips.
When the mayor spoke he was clearly shaken, having met Reuven, the business owner, just a month earlier. A neighbor, was very emotional as she recounted the experience of having one of the Accent Signage workers seek refuge in her home. We hear about violence every day, we see it in the news, it is a big part of what many of us consume as entertainment, and yet we mostly avoid it, thank God. When it comes close we are shocked, absolutely jolted from our reality and we take stock of what is important, who is important, and we live for a while with that reality until we slowly move back to the way things used to be. Unless of course we were witnesses to the violence, or we had a loved one injured or killed in that building, or our loved one committed the violence and then our lives are changed forever. For many in the neighborhood the death of the UPS driver brings the tragedy closest to our homes and our hearts. Many of you knew him well and will miss his kindness, his smile and his willingness to go out of his way to serve you. For now a heaviness lingers in our hearts. What is our response to such an act of violence?
Our first response is typically to seek safety for ourselves and those we love. But depending on our circumstances it is often also to come to the aid of those who are in need. Brave police officers and paramedics entered the building without knowing whether they would be safe or not. Their first thought was for victims and for anyone trapped in that building. Others responded by offering refuge to those who had fled, like the neighbor who opened her home to the employee who was in shock and seeking shelter. Others responded by setting up a fund for victims, some by bringing candles to the gathering on the church lawn, others by reaching out to the grieving and those who have loved ones in the hospital. Even the family of the perpetrator expressed their sorrow and regret. In the midst of the pain and despair, there were signs of hope, acts of compassion and kindness.
That leads us to the text for today which gets our attention with its violent metaphor. Jesus’ disciples are upset because there are others who are casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Perhaps they were jealous. After all, it wasn’ t too long ago that the disciples tried to cast out demons and failed. Alyce McKenzie, who teaches at Perkins school of theology, wonders if they failed because they forgot to pause and pray before they began. Perhaps they were too consumed with their own desire for power and being first that they forgot to call on the power of God. (McKenzie at Goodpreacher.com) Maybe if they couldn’t do it, they didn’t want anyone else doing it either. “It certainly seems as if the disciples have taken a step beyond allowing their self-centeredness to impede their own ministry. They have progressed to impeding the ministry of someone else. “ (McKenzie) Or maybe they felt that only the ones who were staying with Jesus were allowed to perform such acts, but clearly there were other miraculous acts of cleansing and healing going on in the name of Jesus and Jesus was just fine with it. In fact he wants them to know that there is no exclusivity when it comes to healing. “Whoever is not against us if for us. . . . whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” Then he proceeds to tell the disciples just how serious he is. Do not hinder the children, or the most vulnerable in our midst. It would be better for you to have a millstone tied around your neck and thrown into the water than to cause one of them to stumble. Could he state in more plain terms? Obviously he could. He tries even harder to get their attention and uses very graphic, even violent language to get their attention – it’s very effective you know. He says if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. If your eye causes you to stumble – well you get the picture. Jesus is trying to get the disciples to let go of anything that gets in the way of them offering healing and mercy. And anything that gets in the way of others offering healing and mercy. Why the need for such gruesome imagery and threats of all kinds of other awful outcomes? Perhaps because Jesus really wanted his disciples to stay focused on the essentials of offering a cup of cold water to the one in need of refreshment. And it is so easy to lose sight of that and get caught up in grand debates and lofty goals and political and theological wrangling. Alyce McKenzie says. “You don’t think to offer a cup of water if you are arguing about your superiority to those around you; it’s tough to offer a cup of water if you have no hands, feet and eyes. Offering the cup of water is the point. Being avenues for the healing presence and power of Christ. Anything that impedes that gift needs to go.”
Which is why in the midst of tragic violence and loss we will need to talk, and wonder and question and despair. But we will also need to do as we have done and will continue to do, and that is to move forward in hope. Continue to offer hope not just with our words but with our witness of hope that is exhibited through our gifts, our outreach, our service. It will show up in the way we greet the new UPS driver, in our contributions to the peacemaking offering , in the ways we further the work of people like Lois Swenson. In the way we reach out to the isolated and the lonely. In the ways we help people see that there are many paths through pain that do not lead to violence. Now for the community, for the victims and their families, for the first responders and for all who are in need of healing this day. Lord in your mercy . . . hear our prayer.
— Jamie Schultz, September 30, 2012.