United Church of Jaffrey
To hear this sermon as preached from the back of a pickup truck in the UCJ parking lot, please press play below:
I begin my sermon this morning with a trigger warning…
During the course of this sermon I intend to do something that I’ve never done before. .
I am going to use a word that Christian minister’s don’t usually say from the pulpit.
I ask for your forgiveness in advance.
I do not speak words like this from the pulpit, because I respect the norms of the institution of the church.
These norms exist for a reason.
A good reason.
If the church is to be respected and have its say in the public square, it must have its integrity, and integrity is earned by maintaining a culture of discernment and respect.
Generally speaking, four letter words do not inspire the kind of respect that earns the universal deference that we hope the church can maintain.
Why then, would I break this institutional norm?
I certainly do not want to compromise the integrity of the church!
Well — first of all, I don’t think I will do any lasting harm — and second of all, I do it in service of a larger, more important truth.
The word that I am going to use is common enough.
It rhymes with Spit.
I use it often, but never from the pulpit.
Now I’ve just got done saying that institutional norms are very important.
So they are!
One of the hard earned lessons that we have learned over the last four years is that immense damage that can be inflicted when institutional norms are widely and publicly abandoned.
But while this is undoubtedly true, there is another equally true concern about institutional norms.
They can be a problem too.
A big problem.
This problem occurs when we respect these institutional norms so much that we make the error of mistaking them for truth itself.
Norms are not truths.
Norms exist to serve truth.
What do I mean?
There is a Buddhist parable that helps explain this quite clearly.
A man comes to the edge of a wide river. He sees that the far side of the river is a beautiful lush landscape — he would like very much to live there. But there is a problem. He cannot swim. So the man does what any reasonable person would do in that circumstance — he builds a raft. Using the raft, he successfully travels to the far side of the river. Upon reaching the other side of the river, he looks down at the raft. It was a good raft. The raft was crucially important. But now that he is on land, it is useless to him. Picking it up and carrying it with him would make no sense. So the man turns to go, leaving it behind.
The church deserves our respect — but — and this is crucially important — we must never make the mistake of thinking that the church is the same as God.
The church is not God.
The church serves God.
God is truth…
The church is a collection of cultural norms and practices that we humans have set up to discover that truth in our lives.
And, as Jesus points out in today’s gospel lesson from the 23rd chapter of Matthew, religious norms and practices are themselves susceptible to human vanity and hypocrisy.
So, as important as institutional norms are — and they are important — it is equally, if not more important to keep in mind that the norms are not the end in themselves. They are the means. They are part of the raft that gets us to the other side.
It so happened that I was teaching at University of Massachusetts in April of 2007 when the news came in about the mass shooting at Virginia Tech.
You can be forgiven for forgetting the details about that event — there have been so many mass shootings since.
At the time, though, the 35 fatalities made the Virginia Tech shooting the worst mass shooting in American history. Now, sadly, that somber title has been taken by the Las Vegas shooting where almost twice that number were killed.
Be that as it may, I recall the Virginia Tech shooting this morning because it was the occasion of a personal experience that has subsequently become an important part of my faith journey.
As I was preparing my lesson plan for the following day, it occurred to me that my students and I would be gathering together in a classroom at a public university, and that, as such, we would be replicating, with a chilling similarity, the scenario that the 35 young Virginia Tech students had innocently enacted, moments before their death.
It occurred to me that this chilling similarity gave me an opportunity — an opportunity to give my students what those innocent victims did not have — a safe space. It felt like something that I owed them — and that I owed the dead students too — a safe space to discover something about themselves, or about their society. What did this trauma mean to them? Did it challenge them? Frighten them? Inspire them to seek change? I would let them speak and see what came of it.
There were about twenty students in my class. I introduced the discussion in much the same way as I have framed it for you today. When, at length, I gave them the floor, most of the students gazed down at their feet. I was expecting this, but I was also expecting someone to start the conversation. Finally, after a long and uncomfortable silence, I said, with some exasperation: “Doesn’t anyone have anything to say about this?”
There was a young man who always contributed to discussion more than anyone else. You know the kid I’m talking about. He is not the smartest kid in the class by any means, but because he is not afraid of speaking up, he becomes the spokesman for the class. He answered my question with two words. He said:
Really? I thought… Is that all these kids can come up with? Is that the extent of our ability to reflect on the terrifying violence that exists in our midst?
I was angry.
I went up to the front of the classroom, picked up a piece of chalk (there was still chalk back then) and I drew a vertical line down the middle of the blackboard.
On one side of the blackboard, in big block letters, I wrote three words:
“Give a shit.”
Then on other side of the vertical line and I wrote four words:
“Don’t give a shit.”
Then I turned to them and asked them a question…
“Which of these statements is harder? Is it harder to give a shit, or to not give a shit?”
Someone said: “It’s harder to give a shit…”
“That’s right,” I said. “It’s much harder to give a shit. It requires a great deal more of you. If you want to go sit on your couch and watch netflix all day, you better not give a shit. In that case you better decide not to give a shit. You’ll have a much easier life. Ask yourself if you are willing to do this though. Ask yourself if you are willing to just sit it out and let everyone else take care of things. Is that what you want out of life?
The problem with the “Shit happens” attitude, is that it is entirely passive. It doesn’t suggest that anyone is doing it, or that it is being done to anyone — it just happens in the course of nature. There’s some truth to that.
But in the case of Virginia Tech, someone — a person — was pulling the trigger. And people — kids — were being killed. It wasn’t just happening. Someone was doing it.
We need to care about that. If we don’t care, we give up on our lives.
If we don’t care, we won’t do the work to build the raft. We won’t seek truth. If we don’t care, we will languish.
This was a religious moment for me. I often think of that moment as one of the moments when I realized that I was called to the ministry.
It was abundantly clear to me that I needed to care. Not about myself, but about others. The focus had to be outward, not inward. I wanted to be a part of an institution that was based on this idea — that we are all called to “go and do likewise.”
It’s not easy, but it is the only way to live a real life.
I knew, at that moment, that I needed to help articulate the important message to as many people as I could reach.
This is what a Christian life is. A life that cares. A life that acts upon the demands of that care.
This week especially! My dear ones, I ask you to search your hearts. To care, and to act upon that care.