Last Sunday was a horrific day with yet another mass shooting, this time in a small Texas Baptist Church. During my years at Baylor, I served a small First Baptist Church very similar to the one where the domestic terror attack occurred. The feelings of despair and heartache for the Sutherland Springs community and the First Baptist Church, gave way to anger and resentment that as a country we seem unwilling to treat death by gun violence in general and death by mass shooting specifically as the epidemics that they are. The far too familiar assurances of prayer and support for those impacted by the rampage, while well intended, seemed particularly hollow coming on the heels of Las Vegas. Three of our nation's five worst mass shootings have occurred in the last year. All involved assault styled weapons with large capacity clips.
Perhaps expressing these thoughts are a form of therapy for me. And yet I wanted to speak to the tragedy. The problems of evil and suffering and where is God during such horror are issues that theologians, philosophers, counselors, physicians and we all have wrestled with in one way or another. While realizing my own limitations, I simply offer these thoughts and hope they will connect with you. Only those who have been through such experiences or through war can begin to understand the horror that took place in that church last Sunday. We do know the pain of losing loved ones and some know the pain of losing loved ones before their time. The guest preacher and his wife and six family members were all killed. His 86year old father who had helped raise these generations of his family, though exhausted by the night mare, shared his hope and faith. "All our family members, they are all Christian. And it won't be long until we are with them."
The evil of humanity’s inhumanity toward itself reared its ugly head in Sutherland Springs. And the world came crashing in upon the whole community. When have you experienced world crashing in on you? Certainly, the loss of a loved one crashes one’s world. A parent losing a child crashes one’s world. Injustice, illness, pain, cruelty, war, famine, racism, hate, sexual assault, homelessness – these all are terrible world crashers. The loss of a job, depression, rejection, familial turmoil, family estrangement, the list goes on and what would you add that has crashed your world? Our reaction to that which crashes our world or crushes our spirits is to wonder where’s God in all of this? Why would a loving God allow such evil?
Amos lived in the 750s BC, though a shepherd from just south of Jerusalem, he preached against the idolatry in Bethel in the northern kingdom of Israel, the failure of the justice system to promote equality for the weak and the poor, and an economic system that made the rich, richer and the poor, poorer. Could Amos be speaking to our economy and tax policies of the last
30-40 years? He said to the people of his day who were seeking the special day of the Lord that it would come as darkness and not light, destruction and despair, not celebration and joy.
In the gospel reading from Matthew, the disciples are sensing that a showdown is coming between Jesus, the religious leaders of the day and perhaps even the Romans and they are wanting to get in on the victorious reign of Jesus. When will you come into your kingdom, what are the signs of your coming and the end of the age, they ask? What follows from Jesus was not what the disciples were expecting, words about judgement, tribulation, destruction like that that came in Noah’s day. And then he tells this parable of the ten virgins which is weird to us, but not to his audience.
At weddings, the virgins or bridesmaids would have lamps to light the way for going out to meet the bridegroom and his party, often including eligible young men or future husbands from the bridesmaids’ perspective. In the parable, the prudent bridesmaids go out to meet the bridegroom and they take extra oil for their lamps. The others do not. I guess it is like hiking with those who do not bring enough water and you are left carrying their water, so to speak. The bridegroom is delayed, and the silly bridesmaids ask the prudent ones for some of their oil. The prudent ones respond, “Go get your own.” When the silly ones do so, they miss the bridegroom and the party.
The truth Jesus is trying to convey is to be always looking for when he comes into his kingdom and don’t expect it to be soon. The events that follow for Jesus are not days of victorious triumph over the religious and political leaders of the day. Instead it is a nightmare of biblical proportions one might say. They share a Passover meal, Jesus speaks of brokenness, the shedding of blood and a new covenant, then gets arrested, tried and crucified. The world of Jesus’ followers, Mary his mother, Mary Magdalene, James’ and John’s mother and others, is crushed by the events that destroy Jesus and their faith. The sense of being forsaken by God that Jesus expressed on the cross overwhelms them. As people of Easter we want to rush through Friday and get to resurrection Sunday, but Sunday comes only after death and loss.
Those of us who have experienced loss that crushes our world, struggle with the question of where’s God? Our faith teaches us that God walks with us, through heartache and pain, through suffering and loss, through illness and uncertain times. God never leaves or forsakes us. The writer of the poem “Footprints in the Sand” writes of dreaming about life and walking with Christ. The poet notes that during the most difficult times of life, there is only one set of footprints in the sand. The poet asks Christ, why did you leave me during the crises of my life? Jesus responds, “My child the footprints you see are mine. It was during those times that I was carrying you.”
Following the darkest moments of our lives, those times when we didn’t know if we could put one foot in front of the other, we look back and realize that by God’s grace we survived the trauma, the pain, the loss. We see that God’s Spirit sustained us, often through the presence of friends and family. We know that God was with us. And God was present with those in First Baptist Church, Sutherland Springs, TX last Sunday and we pray that God's grace will comfort those wounded and all who grieve the loss of family members and friends even as we have been comforted and sustained through our dark nights of the soul.
The epistle reading for today is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. It is now some 30 years after Christ’s death and many of the early followers of Jesus recognize that the arrival of the kingdom of God and the return of Christ are not going to occur in their lifetimes. Paul addresses what happens to those followers of Jesus who die before Christ’s return. He offers words of hope and assurance that those asleep in Jesus will precede those alive when Christ returns. And then the remainder will be caught up to meet Christ in the air.
Now I have no experience with rising in the air and do not expect this to literally happen. We are some 2100 years removed from the times of Christ. Maybe the vision of heaven in the novel The Shack as portrayed in the movie is a better idea of heaven. I don’t know for sure, but this I do believe that to be absent from this life is to be present with Christ. The author of out next hymn, “It Is Well with My Soul,” Horatio Spafford was a Chicago lawyer and businessman in the late 1800s who lost four children in a ship wreck at sea. He had been delayed from crossing over to Europe by business and was not with his wife and children when their boat sank. Upon learning of the tragedy, he sailed to join his wife who survived. When reaching the approximate sight of the sinking, the captain of ship notified Spafford and he was inspired to write: “When peace like a river upholds me each day, when sorrows like sea billows, whatever my lot you have taught me to say it is well, it is well with my soul.”