I was biking to church yesterday morning and on Cold Springs Road I passed a deer, dead, in the ditch. I bet many of you have seen it. On my bicycle I can see a lot. Because I go slowly, because I’m right up close, I could see the bluegrey sheen in her eyes. I could see where she had bled. I wondered what would happen in a bicycle/deer collision.
Actually, I don’t think there would be a bicycle/deer collision. On a bike we can turn on a dime, we can avoid a deer coming out of the woods, we can see more and adapt more quickly than in a car. Of course, if a deer and I collided when I was on my bike, I bet I would be hurt more than the deer.
I was biking to church yesterday morning so I could prepare this sermon, so I could figure out what to say to you all in a week of murder and anger and fear and blame. A week in desperate need of hope and direction, we come to church this morning to restore our faith and purpose. I’d been thinking every day of last week about what to preach, and each day another terrible thing happened. And Saturday morning came and I biked to church and thinking about how much I can see from my bike – I can look people in the eye, we can see each other smile. I couldn’t kill a deer with my bike. I’m gentle. So I started writing a sermon for you about how we can live more gently, look people in the eye. Live like we’re on bikes, treading lightly on this earth, moving with care.
And then Phillip called to tell me that after I’d left for church our dog Oliver had run down our long drive – he’d never done that before, it’s probably 1/3 of a mile to Cold Springs from where we live – but yesterday morning Oliver ran down that driveway and onto Cold Springs Road and as Phillip went down after him he met our neighbor coming up with the terrible news that Oliver had been hit by a man in his pickup truck, that he probably died instantly.
Phillip called and told me all that and there wasn’t much more to say but we stayed on the phone in silence until I could figure out how to work my feet and my hands and bike back home, and we buried Oliver up in the woods he’s loved since we moved here two months ago.
When someone dies so fast it just doesn’t seem real. It seems like there must be an undo button to push. I’m so sorry that most of you never got to meet Oliver. We loved him, we’ve loved a lot of dogs, but Oliver was truly exceptional. He was a champion Frisbee catcher. He was a gold-medal cuddler. Oliver could make friends with anyone. He got my parents, who are farm people, not pet people, to play with him. Oliver brought joy to our family and we expected years and years more joy with him.
We wanted to rewind, to undo. I wanted that all last week. To undo all the recent violence, Dallas, Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights.
As we dug Oliver’s grave he was wrapped in a sheet but still there were flies all around him. Scavengers like vultures and maggots that feast on death and decay give us the creeps.
I’ve heard white people say “five of ours for two of theirs” after the police were killed in Dallas. They’re keeping score on some fantasy race war from their armchairs. Vultures swoop in to watch a dying animal, they tear into road kill, they find satisfaction in another’s death. It’s their nature, they help this planet turn death into life. But when people do that, when people act like vultures and maggots in their armchairs it is distorted nature, diseased nature, it is sin.
Trucks and cars and guns. They’re all weapons, even when we don’t mean to kill with them. We make people wait 'til 16 and pass tests to drive 1-ton car weapons or 3-ton truck weapons. We know it’s a risk, but a calculated risk, we live with the 30,000 car-related deaths each year in this country. Even one death a year is a tragedy for that person's family. And we can also appreciate that the vehicle death rate has been cut in half over the past 50 years, thanks to seat-belts and safer vehicle bodies and stricter consequences for distracted driving .
Now at 30,000 deaths per year, US car-related deaths are about equal to US gun deaths per year, and gun deaths have been on the rise. Trucks and cars and guns, they’re all lethal, even when we don’t mean to kill with them. Guns are weapons by nature, but trucks and cars are lethal too. Americans love our cars and trucks, our interstate highways, we are people of the open road, romancing Route 66. Somehow we’ve adapted to safety features and legal restrictions regarding our vehicles, when will we agree to safety features on guns that will cut that death rate in half?
I wish we could hit the undo button on this whole week.
But it’s not just the week of killings, it’s been a month of killings that I wish we could undo. Ramadan ended last week. The holiest month for Muslims, it’s similar to our practice of Lent. Muslims fast from sunup to sundown, then break their fast with a feast each night. Fasting through Ramadan or Lent or any other spiritual fasting, is an opportunity for deep prayer and reaching toward God.
ISIS reminded the world how un-Muslim their ideology is by calling for increased killing throughout Ramadan. If anyone claiming to be Christian called for a Lenten spree of murders I trust we would doubt the sincerity of their Christianity. But countless people have killed in the name of Christianity, committed violence and abuse in the name of faith.
Ramadan’s nightly feasts are the best of what breaking bread together can be – families welcome each other with favorite dishes, call out to strangers walking past to join them in the iftar, the nightly feast of Ramadan. When I lived in Minneapolis Ramadan was a celebration across faiths, and local mosques held interfaith dinners for Christians, Jews and everyone to join them breaking bread.
Our Annual Conference theme this year was, beautifully, carry the light. We celebrate with Andy Murray this morning a powerful invitation for Brethren to carry the light of Christ into this world which so aches for Christ’s peace and love.
And Ramadan reminds us that we can feast at night, too. That light and dark are not simply opposites. That light and night interpenetrate, like the stars that the prophetic book of Daniel describes, in
Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.
Night is mystery, filled with the unknown. We want to shine a light on all of it, get danger out of the way, or at least see it coming.
We who have sight have a lot to learn from people who move through this world without sight. Did you ever take a trust walk, maybe at summer camp? Put on a blindfold and trusted a friend to guide you down a path? We give up control in the dark, in the night.
The nighttime feasts of Ramadan are bright stars in the dark of night. And breaking bread together is what we do as people of faith to build community, to foster trust, to feed our physical hunger after a long day of fasting. To feed our spiritual hunger for wisdom, for purpose. To feed our emotional hunger for intimacy. And breaking bread is no guarantee.
Along with the horror of the murders in Orlando, along with the unthinkable 280 people killed with one truck bombing in Bagdhad, this Ramadan we witnessed the terror of murder in Medina, one of Islam’s holiest cities. As night settled and Muslims began their iftar feast, friends invited a stranger walking to join them in breaking bread, and instead he detonated the bomb he wore, killing all of them.
Like the Christians who welcomed Dylan Roof to their Bible study at Mother Emmanuel church in Charleston and he killed 9 of them with a gun.
I was talking with one of you this week about all of this terror, and how we as people of faith still turn to one another, still bless and break bread together, and we asked rhetorically if we need metal detectors for communion this morning. We’re choosing to trust, in a week, in a month, in a year, in a world that is full of suspicion. We’re choosing to bless and break bread together because we gather in the name of Jesus and he told us to do this in remembrance of him.
When we talk about carrying Christ’s light into this world I recall that light is a spectrum. It’s not all or nothing. We might forget that, because we live in a wired world and flip light switches to suddenly fill a room with light. But when Jesus walked on this earth light didn’t work that way. Light came with oil lamps and candles and torches and the stars and moon were bright at night just like they are at the top of our lane near Huntingdon without city lights to dull their shine.
When we bless and break and share bread for our bodies and souls, we’re not flipping a light switch, we’re carrying a lamp. We don’t gather as church and suddenly redeem all the horrors of our lives. We gather and light our lamps, and kindle one another’s flames, and when we come together our light shines brighter than it ever could alone.
It will have to be enough, for today, to gather together and stoke one another’s light as we set out into this aching world. And we do that with the bright light of our joy and by sharing the sorrows that keep us up at night. I’ve just begun to journey with you, and we’re still getting to know each other, and you’re celebrating with Phillip and me today as we prepare for our wedding, and you’re grieving with us today as we mourn our beloved friend Oliver. And we are here with you to celebrate your joys and grieve with you your sorrows.
I wish I could preach a sermon today that would help us all make sense of the outrageous violence we’re living with. But all I can do is look for hope glimmering like candle flame, and hold this hope up to you, and ask you to hold up your hope, too. And first I had to tell you about Oliver, because I am consumed by raw grief this morning. And what’s the gift of this grief? Where is hope glimmering?
Well, I’m not comparing our dog Oliver to the people who have been killed this Ramadan, this week. It is a greater tragedy when a person is murdered than when a beloved dog is hit by a truck. But grief is grief. And what I can tell you about my grief is that I don’t get to hide it in anything else. There’s no one to be mad at. No one messed up. Oliver never ran down our lane before. Phillip and I had no idea we needed to protect him from this possibility. The man driving the truck couldn’t see him as he darted so fast from the beautiful thick trees of Cold Spring Road. There’s no blame to assign.
And there’s no legislation to pass. This was an accident, there’s no reason to widen the roads or lower the speed limit. The deer would probably appreciate both. I would appreciate both as I bike Cold Springs Road. But Oliver’s death was an accident.
So I can’t hide my grief in anger or guilt. My grief will work. We are divinely designed to grieve, and grief works on us. But sometimes grief gets stuck. I worked as a hospital and hospice chaplain for years and our technical term for it is complex grief. When grief is tied up in something else, usually guilt or anger, grief can’t work on us. Because we have to work through the anger or guilt, too.
How is your grief working these days, as you learn about the latest killing of a black man who was pinned to the ground by police? How is your grief working as you hear about police officers shot by a man with a sniper rifle?
Are you angry? Are you guilty? I am. We grew up with racism and militarism and we can’t flip a light switch and send all those monsters back under the bed.
It’s not just a month worth of killings we’d like to undo. We have to deal with guilt and anger and despair from generations of white privilege, generations of racial injustice, generations of putting our trust in weapons rather than relationships, rather than the light of Christ.
We can only flicker Christ’s light as little candles, gathering together to bless and break and share bread. And still, it is ours to do. We read in
The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, that shines brighter and brighter until the full day.
Our faith won’t simply or quickly fix the ache we’re living with. We're not here with a lightswitch. We're here with the songs of our faith, the rituals of our church, the prayers we share, guiding us on a path toward hope.