Lament and The Violence in St. Louis
In today’s reading from Habakkuk, the prophet begins with lament. “Lord, how long will I call for help and you not listen? I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you don’t deliver us?” I would guess that some folks have come to church today, hoping to hear a word of hope. We preach the Gospel. We look for good news but I am not going to rush this week.
I have been wondering all week what to say when I climbed up to this lectern. On Monday my day off was interrupted by an email from Silas’ preschool, telling me they were on lockdown. The email said it was due to a “situation in the neighborhood.” We live in the same neighborhood as Silas’ preschool. Central Visual and Performing Arts is just across Tower Grove Park from our house.
This was the first time I learned of a school shooting because of a notification from my child’s school. I immediately texted Ellis, because my spouse also spends his time on a public school campus. His school, like many this week, faced heightened security after a false threat. False threats are common after a school shooting in your region. For the educators among us, this has been a tough week. For folks with school-aged children, or grandchildren, this has been a tough week.
Many of you know that I grew up near Columbine. I was in high school on April 20, 1998. I went to an alternative school in the district, but I had friends from elementary at Columbine. I remember the day, and the days that followed with the sort of vivid clarity that lingers around horrific events. I particularly remember all the prayer services I was invited to attend. It seemed every one of the big mega-churches in Jefferson County was holding a praise and worship service. I attended several. School was out of session while they worked on improving security. I missed my friends. Church was a way to be together.
But those services after Columbine made me really glad to have grown up Episcopalian. Something about the massive theater-seated sanctuaries, the praise and worship music, and especially the prayers and sermons written in those days after Columbine rang hollow for me. I told Julie this week, it felt a little like the churches were either trying to rush toward hope, or worse, were trying to leverage the tragedy to recruit new members.
I was grateful to have grown up Episcopalian, because the services I attended at my mom’s church in the weeks after the shooting felt less customized, less tailored. There might be an additional prayer, a change here or there, but mostly we prayed the old familiar words. We gathered in Christ’s name, read assigned readings, prayed for our community, the church, the government, and those who had died. We confessed our sins, those things we had done and left undone. We were assured of forgiveness, and even when it felt a strange thing to do, we gave one another Christ’s peace, with handshakes, and waves, and hugs before sharing the bread and wine made holy. In the end we were sent out into the world, and told to be of good courage. I was grateful for a structure that had less options and more familiarity. In times of tragedy and loss, it can be helpful to seek out what’s familiar.
Why we are in church
If you are here today looking for a space to pray, looking for a space for comfort, looking for the familiar, welcome. If you are here because the world outside these walls feels like it doesn’t make sense, welcome. If you are here because you are frustrated, and angry, welcome. If you are here because you just need a little space to breathe, welcome. The theologian Howard Thurman, a teacher of Dr. King’s has called by some the “mystic of the Civil Rights movement.” Thurman wrote that “Christianity, as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique for survival for the oppressed.” Our faith is a technique for surviving the most difficult of times.
That is why we gather, that is why we come to church, not to rush to words of hope, but to stand together when times are rough.
Anger and Hope
More than God’s answer to the prophet today, what strikes me about this reading is the faithfulness of Habakkuk. Listen to what the prophet says. After lamenting, after complaining (it is alright, necessary even, at times to complain to God), after airing his grief, Habakkuk says, “I will take my post…I will keep watch to see what the Lord says to me.” I will wait, the prophet says. Injustice demands an answer. Suffering demands an answer. Sometimes faithfulness means standing, waiting. I get the sense that Habakkuk is angry. Anger can be faithful. Sometimes anger is a necessary companion of faith.
It may seem an odd thing to do, but on the note of anger, I want to pivot toward hope. The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel said it is Habakkuk who helps us understand that anger and hope are “not opposites but correlatives.” Sometimes we discover we have hope because we are angry. We discover that we had the audacity to expect better, when we are angry at an outcome. Sometimes we are only able to write the vision of what should be because we see that the world as it is cannot be allowed to remain.
Anger and hope can be correlatives, they can exist together, they can feed one another, but only only if we are able to avoid cynicism. So much of our anger these days, so much of our desire to “just move on” is rooted in a toxic cynicism. I know I entertained some cynicism this week. For me, it went like this, “what happened was awful, but it isn’t likely we’re going to be able to do anything about gun violence. This is Missouri. Our state government will probably want to issue educators guns in response.” That was my version of cynicism this week. I need you all to work with God to prove my worst thoughts wrong. Because cynicism is toxic toward hope.
The value of not being a Cynic: or Climbing the Spiritual Tree
Habakkuk, standing on that tower, waiting for God, wasn’t a cynic. Zacchaeus climbing that tree wasn’t a cynic. There were a lot of cynics around him. I remember the Zacchaeus story from Sunday School. Frankly I don’t remember a lot from Sunday school, but I can remember being a kid and being delighted at this short little man who decided to climb a tree so he could see Jesus. Probably because I was short at the time, and I loved the idea that climbing a tree could be Biblical.
All around Zacchaeus, his neighbors have judged him. He’s a tax collector. He’s an agent of the occupying army. He has made a fortune collecting money to support the forces of oppression. Zacchaeus might be a cheat too, most tax collectors are, aren’t they. Of course his neighbors dislike him. Leave it to Jesus though, he goes and invites himself to supper with this wealthy awful little man. Doesn’t Jesus know Zacchaeus supports the enemy? He belongs to the wrong political party? Just by who he works for, they think, we know that he is a sinner. We know there is no hope. Cynicism runs amok.
I wonder how many of Zacchaeus detractors, when heard that the tax collector was giving away half of his possessions to the poor, decided the would be as generous. Any of them? Zacchaeus could have easily said, “Jesus, I’ve heard of him. Those neighbors of mine who follow him really hate me. He’d probably hate me too. I’ll stay home.” But Zacchaeus didn’t. He climbed that tree. He risked looking foolish.
Friends, if we are to get to hope, we have to make time for grief. We have to make room for anger. We have to allow ourselves not to move on too quickly. If we are to get to hope, after a week like this one, we are also going to have to risk looking foolish. We are going to have to climb some watchtowers to listen for God, yes, and we are going to have to risk climbing some metaphorical trees to see Jesus.
If you are tired, that is okay. If you are frustrated, that is okay. If you are angry, that is more than okay. If you are grieving, grieve. God can take all of our emotions. The strange thing about being a Christian is that we believe God has shared our human emotions. God knows what it is to suffer, to wonder why, to wait for justice. God knows our anger too.
This has been a tough week for St Louis. But in the days ahead, don’t let your anger devolve into a cynicism. Don’t just move on. Take comfort in familiar prayers. Seek out community. Seek space for grief and for courage. Let your indignation fuel your faith.
Can you yet let yourself believe that our kids, our educators, our community, all of us deserve better? Can your faith make you do things that might cast you as a little strange: write representatives, show up at a town hall, testify at a hearing, register voters? Will you risk looking foolish? Few people have made significant change without first seeming a bit odd. Be assured, if your neighbor judges you, you won’t be alone. God always has an eye out for the tree-climbers.