Monday, August 19, 2013

Sermon: Response to the Boston Marathon Bombings (April 17, 2013)


So, I've never quite figured out why, but I was hit so hard by the Boston bombings back in April. Even though no one that I knew was there, I felt physically sick for about two weeks afterwards. In order to cope, I wrote this.


I do not understand this. At all. The more hate I see surrounding me and my loved ones, the less certain I am that we’re not actually all living in a horrible dream. I feel all the feelings that go along with a truly awful nightmare, too. Confusion, disorientation, groundlessness, helplessness…all multiplied exponentially when I imagined what it must have been like there at the finish line.

The question on everyone’s lips is “why?” For a while, it was literally the only thought that I could put words to. The answers are painfully slow in coming. It also happened to be the only prayer that I could offer during that first day. I wanted to make sense out of everything, to articulate what I was feeling, to beg God for some measure of comfort for myself and for my city. But all that came out of my mouth was that one syllable, “Why?”


I know that God was there, I know that God didn’t cause this, and that God was and is hurting along with us. I also knew that if there were answers to be had, God had them.

But still…silence.

I’m quite sure that I was not alone in this feeling. Even the hands at the end of your own arms seem invisible if it’s dark enough. All of these “whys” hanging in the air, leaving us unsatisfied and uncomforted.

Could we be looking for the wrong answers? Are we looking in the wrong place for comfort? We grasp for logic, reassurance that this was a fluke, an exception, an inhuman animal unusually full of hate rather than a human being like you and me. We crave justice, believing that we can sleep easier once the perpetrator is found, tried, and punished appropriately.

But there is a chance, a disturbingly good chance, that even if we figure out a motive, catch the bad guys, and serve justice, we will never understand. No matter how many reasons or facts we are given, we may never comprehend the motivation to take another human being’s life.

But not understanding does not mean that there are no answers. They may not seem like the answers we want, or be the answers we expect, but they are the answers we need.

One such answer that I got was in the form of an internet meme that made the rounds on Facebook that evening. It was a picture of Mr. Rogers with a quote that I had heard several times before. It read, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping'.”

Now, you might think that I’m about to tell you that this beautiful quote helped me come to terms with my feelings and find that desperately sought-after comfort.

I’m not.

I hated that quote. I was angry with that quote. As much as I loved that cardigan wearing, slow-talking, Presbyterian minister of a man, I could not deal with his words. I had no idea why. In the past, that very same quote had seemed insightful, helpful even. But on this day, the words sounded saccharine, ringing superficially in my ears.

So I added it to my pile of “whys”: why is it that even the things intended to be comforting are painful to me?

After taking some time to process my feelings a little, I slowly began to better understand why I reacted so strongly against Mr. Rogers’ innocuous words. I realized that, in my desperate efforts to find answers, I was settling for anything. Anything at all that could pass for a silver lining. And this silver lining did not satisfy me.

If the “helpers” in this situation are our saving grace, if this is truly the highest good that we can find in the midst of such completely unmerited violence, then I truly do despair for humanity. Please don’t misunderstand me: every single person at that scene on Monday acted magnificently, and there was a lot of good done that day. But the problem for me is that help is reactive. If I had my way, I would rather not need of the heroic help demonstrated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon this year, thank you very much. The thought of a world that operates in a “tragedy-response” model feels so hopeless.

I realize that this quote doesn’t have to make me angry. Because it isn’t the highest good. It’s not claiming to be the highest good. It’s not the answer that I was looking for—but it was pointing to the answer. Like the miracles that Jesus performed in the gospel of John, the helpers are signs, pointing towards the highest good. I could make peace with Mr. Rogers’ mother once I was able to look beyond the literal meaning of her words and catch a glimpse of what they were pointing to.

It’s love.

In the face of hate, ugliness, pain, and tragedy, love is still there. Love is being done on the streets of Boston, Love as a verb. The helpers are acting as representatives of God through their love. It is not us versus them; it’s not about sides or enemies or goals. It’s about the strength of God, the power of goodness and love, and how no amount of darkness and evil can ever overcome it. And it is our job, our job, to act as signs pointing to that love.

What does this love look like, you ask? This is an answer we have. For this answer, I defer to a greater authority than myself:

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

This is a transformative power that is given to us by God. Why on earth would we not use it?

A friend of mine brought this truth home for me several hours after the attacks occurred. That night, her son had shared his understanding of how the “bad guys” could have done such a terrible thing. He said, “I bet they’ve never been loved, or they would never do this to people.” From the mouths of babes, eh?

Beloved, here is our answer. It is a message that we will all be hearing over and over again in the days to come, but it must be shared. It is the answer that we seek but do not expect. It is not new, but it is still radical. Love. Love fiercely and without reservation. Love as if the world depended on it, because it just might.

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