Luke 23:32-38, Jn 20:16
Our hearts ache yet again in the wake of a violent tragedy. This time in Boston. In a cruel and wicked plot to evoke terror and fear, two brothers laid multiple pressure cooker style bombs around the finish line of the Boston Marathon and timed their detonation to the precise moment when the greatest number of runners (and well-wishers) would be assembled, ready to exult in the simple victory of finishing the 26.2 mile race. The carnage was massive. Three dead, over 176 injured, 17 of them critically. In cruelest twist, many of the injuries were leg injuries inflicted by ball bearings packed in with the explosive. Many will never run, or perhaps even walk again.
On Monday, I cried. I wept for the loss and the senselessness of it all. I learned parts of the stories of those who died and my heart sank into deep sadness. On Tuesday, as I talked with Alistair about the events, helping him process his thoughts and feelings, my heart grew fearful of the wanton violence that seems to pervade our society. I felt my vulnerability, and the vulnerability of my children and family even as we go through our everyday routines. How can I protect my children when the rules don’t seem to apply anymore? On Wednesday, my fear turned to anger as I watched for news of the investigation and hoped for leads that would lead to an arrest. By Friday, when I saw the news about the death of “suspect #1,” my anger was sated with blood.
As the day unfolded and the second suspect eluded capture, fear overwhelmed me again, fear for the citizens of Watertown and for my friends in nearby areas. As the day wore on, I was anxious for resolution one way or another. I yearned for justice to be done. In the face of evil, I wanted right to prevail. Over time, all these emotions mixed together. Grief, fear and anger stirred in the pot of vulnerability with no answers in sight made for a toxic brew in my heart that yearned for more than justice. I thirsted for vengeance, that the responsible ones would face a fate worse than the one they inflicted on the unsuspecting crowd. And at that moment, I recognized that the violence of the bombers was not just out there somewhere in hearts corrupted by evil, it lay latent in my heart as well.
Acts of terror are designed to make us afraid, to make us feel vulnerable and exposed even in ordinary everyday kinds of places. How do we overcome our vulnerability? Here lies the crux of the human condition set over and against the way of Christ. Our human response to vulnerability is to overcome it with shows of strength, to make us feel stronger by exerting our power, to demonstrate our resolve by trying to control our situation and the world around us. Sorrow turns to fear, fear into anger, anger into a yearning for justice, a yearning for justice into a thirst for vengeance. And all of it, in the end, is about trying to maintain some sense of control over our lives, our families, our circumstances, our world.
I wonder whether we seek to control our environment and the world around us because we are afraid, in the end, that no one else is in control. We see tragedy and loss and we wonder, where is God? If God is a just God, and one who is in control, why do such unjust things happen? This question is not a new one; and there is great truth in the earliest stories of our faith that help us catch a glimpse of God’s nature at work.
When Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden, their two sons, Cain and Abel went to work, at God’s direction, tending animals and the land. Well, you know the story, Abel’s offering was accepted by God and Cain’s was not, making one brother jealous of the other’s perceived favor. Have you ever felt that jealousy raising its head in you? Jealousy of what someone else has, or resentment over what you do not have? Jealousy because you feel slighted, overlooked, passed over, ignored or put down as another is lifted up? Anger and resentment grew between the brothers. Cain slew Abel and tried to cover up the evidence. But God knew. God heard Abel’s blood crying out for justice from the ground. Yet yet how did God act? Did God strike Cain to take his life in vengeance? No. God cast Cain out to live a life apart from the land, apart from the thing he loved most. There were consequences for Cain, but they were not violent consequences. God did not use power to enforce the divine will, but to teach a holy lesson: mercy and forgiveness are more powerful than violence.
Generations later, one of Cain’s great-grandchildren took God’s mercy and turned it on its head, proudly proclaiming that he “killed a man for striking me, a young man for wounding me.” He took justice into his own hands, claiming the right not only to take a life for a life, but to take disproportionate vengeance. The law that one could take “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” was meant not to justify retribution, but to limit its effects. In our own constitution the eighth amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” This is one of the central tenets of law from the earliest civilizations onward. For humans, violence is one of the ways we try to right some wrong, to set the world in order, to impose our will on the circumstances around us. But violence is not God’s way.
God does not impose the divine will by force, but invites us into it by love. God woos us, calls us, invites us, longs for us, pursues us, but does not ever force us. God does not cause people to do violence; violence is not God’s will. We choose violence often because we feel vulnerable and want to be like our image of God, all powerful, all knowing, and able to impose order upon chaos or sometimes, to create chaos that disrupts an order we don’t like. When people choose violence, they make themselves into false gods, with the ability to execute judgment and consequence on the world that has hurt them. But violence is not God’s way.
When Jesus hung dying on the cross, slowly asphyxiating, the life draining out of him by the moment and the people who rejected him standing by jeering at him, mocking him, spitting contempt upon him, he did not have the strength for many words, but of those he spoke, one sentence says it all: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”
Even from the cross, he had the power to impose his will on his circumstance. He could have floated down from there, calling an army of angels to vanquish the Romans and retake the city by force, claiming it once and for all as God’s home among mortals. Yet violence is not God’s way. Knowing God better than we do, he pled on our behalf, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Now here’s the thing. Those who mocked Jesus from the foot of the cross knew what power he was supposed to possess. If he had floated down from the cross, they would surely have believed because he would have demonstrated himself more powerful than Rome’s best tool for public humiliation by execution. “If you are the son of God,” they shouted, “throw yourself down from there.” They expected God to respond with force against the violence of the cross. But that is not what God did. If it was the fear, anger, and violence of the human heart that put Jesus to death, what was God’s response?
Resurrection. Forgiveness. Love.
We threw our worst at Jesus and God said, “I don’t like the rules you are playing by. If you want to be ruled by fear and anger and violence, death is the worst you can do. I can do better.” So God took away death as the consequence of sin in the garden, inviting us to live by a set of new rules that are as old as the ages: mercy trumps judgment, forgiveness trumps condemnation, life trumps death. Violence may kill the body, but it cannot take life anymore.
On the morning of resurrection, Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. Through her tears she looked in and saw two messengers dressed in all white sitting where Jesus had lain, one had the head, the other at the foot. They said to her, “woman, why are you weeping?” She said, they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have put him.” She turned and ran straight into Jesus, but she did not recognize him. He said to her, “woman, why are you weeping.” Supposing him to be the gardner, she said, “Sir, if you have taken him away, show me where you have put him so I may take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” Then, the scripture says, she turned.
Violence is still very much a part of the human condition, as we saw on Monday. Violence kills and maims bodies, and strikes fear into the hearts of those who see it. If you think about it, the cross was Rome’s best terrorist threat, their best tool to inspire fear and impose their own form of order. There on public display, they could proclaim their power to bring death, even upon supposed kings.
Yet in the garden, Jesus came to Mary amidst her tears. He entered her pain. He understood what loss meant. He knew the fear that she and the others labored under. She did not recognize him because, well, who would? He had been crucified. He was dead. She was looking for a lifeless body. And yet there he stood next to her pool of tears, calling her by name, inviting her to see another reality, one that is not dominated by violence and fear, but one that springs from forgiveness and love.
She stood facing the tomb, a place that stank of death, a place that testified to the triumph of power and violence. He called her by name and the scripture says, “she turned.” Hearing her name called to her surrounded by death and despair, in the midst of tears and fears, she suddenly knew that the tomb was not the end, violence did not get the last word, love triumphed over death, so she turned.
She turned away from her fear. She turned away from all thoughts of retribution and resentment. She turned away from the ways of violence and death to face her teacher who brings life.
Repentance, as we often talk about it, is about turning away from sin. It is that. But fundamental to our sin is that we believe that we can be like God by imposing our will on the world around us. Violence is the ultimate tool to help us get our way. But it is not God’s way. Today, Jesus is inviting us to turn away from the ways of sin and death, our ways of taking control, of asserting ourselves, of trying to remake the world to our own advantage. Jesus is inviting us to turn away from our fear and to know the blessed assurance that death is not the end, that violence never wins.
One of those killed at the finish line on Monday was Martin Richard, a vivacious eight-year old cheering not only for those who won the race, but also for those who were simply able to finish the race. You may have seen pictures of him taken at his first communion in his church, holding a banner that speaks of God’s love made known in bread and cup, made known in sacrifice and self-giving, made known on the cross. There is another picture of Martin that has also made the rounds this week; it is of Martin and his wish for the world. Martin, who at age eight seems to know the heart of Jesus better than we do, is holding a sign that says, “No more hurting people: Peace.” From beyond the grave, Martin speaks words of grace imploring us to turn with him to Jesus, to turn away from the ways of violence and vengeance to seek peace through mercy and love. Father, forgive us. We do not know what we are doing.
So I invite you to pray with Martin and me. Pray for those who plot and perpetrate violence everywhere, while confessing the violence we ourselves harbor in the depths of our hearts. Pray that those who are afraid may find refuge in Christ. And pray for a peace that is greater than any cessation of violence, a peace that begins with the turning of the human heart to God.