"Terrible. Beautiful.": A Lenten message the day after a school shooting

Following is text of the sermon given by the Rev. Kate M. Malin at the first service in the Cathedral Church of St. Paul's "From Fear to Hope" Lenten preaching series on Feb. 15, the day following the school shooting in Parkman, Fla.  Malin is the outgoing dean of the Concord River Deanery.  The Scripture lessons for the day were Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 1 and Luke 9:18-25.

What a terrible world. What a beautiful world.

These words are lyrics from a song titled “12/17/12” by the American indie-folk band the Decemberists.  It was written in response to President Obama’s national address after the Sandy Hook shootings. Since that December day when a gunman killed 20 children, six adults and himself, there have been nearly 300 school shootings in America, or about one a week.

The latest was yesterday, at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.  A photograph from the scene is already iconic on social media. It shows two mothers embracing, faces twisted in grief, one with a cross of ashes on her forehead.

Today we begin the 2018 Lenten preaching series at the cathedral.  Our theme this year is “From Fear to Hope.”  I will start with fear.  I hope I get to hope.

Preachers in this modern moment have grown accustomed to our own Saturday night massacres, by which I mean tearing up the Sunday sermon you’ve written, proofed and printed because of something terrible that happens on Saturday.  A natural disaster.  A terrorist attack.  A mass shooting.  Events in our world that, though they may not impact us directly, cross our screens in real time, seizing us by the throat and flooding us with fear.

It is the preacher’s job to name that fear and then deliver again the sacred message pronounced to God’s servants and handmaidens throughout history:  Fear not.  Fear not.  Which is easier said than done.

We human beings respond to fear in one of two ways:  paralysis or panic.  We either freeze in our tracks like a deer in headlights, or we lose all sense of direction, blindly lashing out or making a mad dash for safety.

God’s charge to us in fearful times, carried on the lips of angels and prophets, remains the same.  Do not be afraid.  Do not be frozen and do not be frantic.  Make your choice, then make your move.

The choice is between the God who longs to save us and the idols of this world that tell lies about what we deserve and what makes us special and whose fault it is that we’re not happy.  Moses lays out the choice to the children of Israel in stark relief.  There are two pathways through the wilderness.  Life and prosperity. Death and adversity.  Blessings.  Curses.

Choose this one.  My right, your left.  Choose life, the life God created you for.  Choose to go high, choose to do kindness and love justice, choose to put God at the center of things, not yourself, choose not to be spiteful or selfish and instead to tell the truth and stand up for what is right.

If the prophet Moses commands us to make a choice, our Lord Jesus tells us to make a move, and his words are perhaps a little more difficult to unwind.  “If any want to become my followers,” says Jesus, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”

A blunt directive that is easily misunderstood.  Jesus’ words can suggest a kind of self-martyrdom.  A silent bearing of our tough luck, or loss, or interior agony, or abuse at the hands of others.  It can lead us to platitudes like “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”   Or, “God wouldn’t give you what you can’t handle.”  I find that picture of discipleship quite bleak.  I imagine a bunch of grim and trudging people burdened by a world of pain bestowed by a God to toughen them up.  Who in their right mind would move in that direction?  Who would willingly follow that God?  

The question I hear Jesus asking in our Gospel lesson today is, “What is killing you? What is breaking you apart or stopping you in your tracks?”

Jesus is not talking about some momentary frustration or setback to your personal goals.  He means “What is eating you alive?”  Your bad marriage?  Your drinking problem?  Your arrogance or self-loathing or cheapness?  Your rage or grief or complacency?  Your decision to let the toxic news of a broken world infect you, in tiny doses, day after day, and make you afraid and unloving and unlovable?   

That thing that is killing you, whatever it is, is killing God.  And so, Jesus says, make your move.  You cannot save yourself.  You cannot deny or bury or wish away the instrument of your own undoing.  What you can do is know it, pick it up and bring it with you as you follow your Lord.  Fear not.  God will redeem it. The instrument of your little death will become the vehicle of your salvation.

In Lent, we followers of Jesus are asked to lift up our chins, set our faces toward Jerusalem and lead with this cross we bear on our foreheads.  The invisible cross of our Baptism, traced by some long-ago thumb, and the ashen cross of our mortality that marks each one of us, these days, as a bit of a fool for claiming this truth:  that we follow a God who shoulders with us our every condition, our every affliction, our every delight.

“Where is your God?” others around us may ask.  “What kind of God would allow (fill in the blank) to happen?”  And we are told to hold on to hope, to one another, to goodness, to our memories of God’s loving-kindness in our lives.  We are to recall that the world God made is a terrible world and a beautiful world.  We are to believe that God our creator will not leave us comfortless.

I wonder if those who ask “Where is your God?” once trusted in their own belovedness.  Even the most accomplished non-believers, boldly self-sufficient and in charge of their destinies, even they were born thirsty.  Even they were created to be restless, to be driven toward light and truth and the divine, though they may not ever utter God’s name in prayer.  They, like us, are incomplete.  And when cruelty and tragedy strike, their mouths are open and empty.

So let our mouths be open and full.  Full of songs of lament and love.  Full of praise for a God who invites our complaints and tantrums as well as our hopes and rapturous delight.  We, like poets and songwriters, have the words the world needs.  The sounds, the melody, the meaning.  Yes, words are not enough, yes, it is time to act, no question about it, but first we put our trust in God, we stoop to gather up in our arms the very thing that has the power to destroy us, and we lift it to God, opening our mouths to sing our song of hope.

Hope for heartache and fury to be transformed into deeds of righteousness, not just remembrance.  Hope that meets the skeptics’ question “Where is your God now?” with the clear and confident reply, “My God is in a Florida High School, on the streets of Charlottesville, in a first-grade classroom.  My God is with displaced Puerto Ricans, victims of sexual violence, at an LGBT dance club on Latin night.  My God is always with the persecuted and the vulnerable.  My God suffers with those whose flesh is torn and whose lives are recklessly, callously snuffed out.  My God doesn’t discriminate.  My God is light and truth, and I am going to follow and be part of righting the wrongs of this terrible, beautiful world.”  A world that thirsts for the living God.  A God who says to all creation, “Fear not. Choose life. Follow me.”

May our mouths be full of praise this Lent. May we all make our choice and make our move to enact God’s justice, even as we sing our songs of lament and love.

What a terrible world, what a beautiful world.

What a world you have made here.