The Crucifixion Generation: A Defiant Hope

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018.

Mark 11:1-11

About a month ago, on Friday, February 23rd, I took my daughter Abby to the Bushnell to see the musical, The Bodyguard. Based on the 1992 movie starring Whitney Huston and Kevin Costner, the acting was uneven and the plot kind of silly, but the Whitney Houston music was fantastic, and it was a great father-daughter night out.

There was a point in the play when the villain came on stage with a large pistol. It had one of these red lasers affixed to it, so a red dot would appear wherever he pointed the gun. For what seemed like an eternity, the actor aimed the gun into the audience, the red dot landing on one person, then another, then another.

This was just 9 days after a gunman killed seventeen people and wounded seventeen more at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Every time the actor swung his gun in my direction, I winced and squirmed. I looked over at Abby, and she had completely disappeared down into her seat, curled into a fetal position. On the way home, I asked Abby about that moment, and she said that it had “triggered her PTSD.” Now, I doubt that Abby could give a clinical definition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but she sure as heck knew her own feelings of trauma. She had been traumatized by the shooting at the Parkland, Florida high school, and has been left fearing for her own safety. She is not alone.

Though Abby may not know the clinical definition of PTSD, Dr. Megan Ranney and Dr. Rinad Beidas do. One is an emergency physician and violence prevention researcher, the other a clinical psychologist with a focus on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and they are also parents. Together they just penned an article, Generation Parkland: How Mass Shootings Are Affecting America’s Children, And How We Can Help.

In their work, they observe evidence of trauma, not just in kids who have directly experienced gun violence, but in this so-called mas-shooting generation. They write, “Our combined experience and expertise make us particularly concerned about these events’ psychological effects on American kids.”

This generation of children, they say, “has grown up with turtle-time, lockdown drills, ALICE (Alert Lockdown Inform Counter Evacuate) maneuvers and the very real threat that a classmate will bring a gun to school.

As a parent, this knowledge makes me feel helpless, terrified, and angry.

As a preacher, I can’t help but bring my feelings and experience to my reading of the Bible. Thoughts of the trauma experienced by our children were weighing heavily on my mind, when I turned to this familiar and beloved story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.

Jesus’ followers lay palm branches before him and greet him with shouts of Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest! (meaning, “Saved! We are saved!). Like his disciples, this crowd is sometimes thought to be naïve or foolish. By this interpretation, his followers assume that Jesus is the promised king, God’s anointed, that has come to restore Israel to its former glory; and they fail to anticipate or understand that Jesus will soon be brutally executed on the cross.

But were they really naïve? Did the crowd really misunderstand?

I think an experience of trauma informs our understanding of this story.

Though they didn’t have 24/7 news coverage, and they didn’t have social media, Jews in first century Palestine were regularly exposed to something that was just as traumatizing as mass shootings today, crucifixion. If kids today identify as the mass shooting generation, it could be said that those growing up in Roman-ruled, first century Palestine were the crucifixion generation.

New Testament scholar Hal Taussig writes that “Romans practiced both random and intentional violence against populations they had conquered, killing tens of thousands by crucifixion.” Crucifixion got rid of those Rome perceived as threats, and fostered fear in the Jewish population as a means of social control.

First century Jewish historian Josephus writes that the Romans crucified thousands, sometimes on the walls of Jerusalem so all could see.

Television and social media bombard us with horrifying images, but imagine going about your day and seeing bodies, some of whom you recognize, hanging from Roman crosses dying, dead, and decaying.

Crucifixion is literally the background for everything we read in the gospels about Jesus’ life and ministry.

And crucifixion is the background for this morning’s well-known story about Jesus’ so-called triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

So, do we still think his followers were naïve? They would have been well aware of the tensions that had been building between Jesus and Jewish and Roman authorities, and knew full well what fate awaited those who were perceived as a threat.

So maybe Jesus’ raucous welcome into Jerusalem was not out of ignorance of the cross, but in defiance of the threat of crucifixion.

We know from other historical sources that Jesus’ was one of two processions into the city that day. At the same time Jesus was entering Jerusalem from the East, the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate was entering through the western gate at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and solders. Because the approaching Passover festival celebrated Jews’ liberation from an earlier empire, it was a time ripe for social unrest. So every year before Passover, Pilate and additional troops would enter Jerusalem to assert Roman power.

With crucifixion casting a traumatic shadow over daily life, and the acute threat of Roman power in the form of Pilate and a company of soldiers entering the city, Jesus chose this moment to enter Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. And knowing the threat, his followers responded with shouts of “Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest! Saved! We are saved!

The researchers Ranney and Beidas make four suggestions for what we should do to help our kids and our communities to be resilient after a mass shooting.

First, parents need to take care of themselves. In the way we are asked to put on our oxygen mask first during an in-flight emergency, we need to make sure we reach out for help to respond to our own fears before we can support our kids.

Second, set limits around TV and social media, specifically how much we allow our kids to watch and re-watch coverage of traumatic events like mass shootings.

Third, ensure our kids have social support available and don’t become withdrawn and isolated,

And fourth, kids must be able to create a sense of control that generates hope.

In the aftermath of Parkland, youth like Emma Gonzales, that remarkable, young woman with the shaved head, are leading a movement. This movement is critically important for American communities in more ways than one. It may well lead to an effective and lasting response to pervasive gun violence. But taking action is also important for this generation. It gives them hope, and gives us hope.

Not every child is Emma Gonzales, but almost every child can take some action to help feel in control and to help feel like they can make a difference.

On March 14th, one month after the Parkland school shooting, my daughter Abby participated with several hundred other Simsbury High students, and close to a million students around the country, in a 17-minute, #neveragain walkout. Though the school administration had offered its support, Abby was especially pleased that the walkout was meant to be held in the school gym, but all the students walked right past the open gym door to gather outside instead, contributing to a sense of control that fostered hope.

I felt that same control and hope as I joined millions of others around the country at yesterday’s student-led March for Our Lives.

Which brings us to today’s Palm Sunday message for us all, whether or not gun violence is among your trauma triggers. As did Jesus, we live in traumatic times. We don’t need to know the clinical definition of PTSD to experience the fear, helplessness, and anger that trauma brings. Maybe gun violence prompts your fear. Or maybe it is the threat of nuclear war. Or the devastating breakup of a marriage. Or maybe it is the loss of a spouse, or a child. Or maybe you are facing bankruptcy. Or maybe the affair that has been kept quiet is now public knowledge. Or maybe the addiction you thought you had under control is now threatening your life. Or maybe the world just feels like it is changing too darn fast. Too often our lives feel out of control; hopelessness threatens.

We aren’t naïve, nor are we foolish. As in Jesus’ day, crucifixion casts a traumatic shadow in our lives. We know that crosses await. But as people of faith, we also know that our story does not end with the trauma of the cross. And on Palm Sunday, with the faithful of every generation, we lay claim to hope and choose life, welcoming Jesus into our lives with joyous shouts of, Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest! Saved! We are saved!

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Love Yourself

shooting ghosts 2

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on October 29, 2017.

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

Matthew 22:34-46

I recently finished a book, Shooting Ghosts: A U.S. Marine, a Combat Photographer, and Their Journey Back from War, a memoir penned by retired Marine Thomas “TJ” Brennan and combat photographer, Finbarr O’Reilly. This is a powerful story of both men’s journey from the trauma of war to their subsequent recovery. Both men’s stories weave together from action in Afghanistan, back to the states, and into a lasting friendship. I found TJ’s story especially compelling.

Finbarr is present and takes pictures as TJ is knocked unconscious by a rocket-propelled grenade in a fire fight with Taliban fighters. After being treated for a concussion TJ is sent back to his unit even though he is still experiencing severe headaches and memory problems. Nevertheless, he manages to lead his unit successfully until his deployment finally ends. When he returns home TJ learns he has a traumatic brain injury (dead brain tissue the size of a golf ball), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and what is known as Moral Injury, damage to his mental health due to what he experienced in the war.

We learn that on a previous deployment to Iraq, TJ blew up a building with two Iraqi insurgents inside. When he went to confirm that they had been killed, in addition to the insurgents he found that two children had also been killed by the projectile he fired. He had killed two children.

Understandably, TJ develops severe depression, has nightmares, and in time attempts suicide. While the Marine Corps’ official channels encourage Marines like TJ to seek help, when they do they are ridiculed as weak by their superiors, shunned by their fellow Marines, and taken out of the units that give them their identity as Marines.

And though he couldn’t wait to get back to his wife and daughter, TJ finds it all but impossible to rekindle the love he once had for them. He is awful to his wife, pushing her to the brink of seeking a divorce.

Throughout the book, the photographer Finn tells his parallel story of trauma, and the rest of the book chronicles their long road back from these experiences of death.

You have noticed that I, like most preachers, take whatever I am reading, either in a book or the headlines, or experiencing, either in my past, my life today, or the life of the church, and hold it up next to the Bible passage for the week to see how one informs the other.

In this morning’s passage from Matthew a lawyer asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment? We will leave aside for the moment that the lawyer is trying to trap Jesus into saying something wrong and focus instead on Jesus’ response which is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

I would guess that this is one of the top five answers given when people are asked for their favorite Bible passage. Love God and love our neighbor. What a seemingly simple formula for faithful living.

But I have a hard time leaving well enough alone so I began poking at these so-called greatest commandments. In particular, I have always wondered about those two words, “as yourself.” Love your neighbor as yourself. Is this part of the commandment, to love your neighbor just as you are to love yourself? Does God command self-love, and if so what does this look like? An entire self-help industry has existed for at least fifty years purporting to teach us to love ourselves. I remember my parents had a book I’m OK – You’re OK. There it is, love your self – love your neighbor.

I dug into some commentaries about this passage. I will spare you the translation and analysis of the Greek word for as, but in short, the answer is no, Jesus is not commanding us to love ourselves. Instead, he is commanding us to love our neighbor the way we already do love our self. Jesus assumes we already love ourselves. Self-love is a given.

Well, that brought up another question for me. What does Jesus mean by love in these commandments?

In our lives today we think of love as a feeling, a strong emotion in response to something or someone outside us. So, love as we know it is passive and emotional.

But biblical love is neither. Love, as used by Jesus here, is not passive but a choice, and is not a feeling, but what could be called active mercy.

Bible scholar Clayton Schmit writes:

This means that, to those we do not know, to those who may be dirty or repugnant, and even to those who harm us, we can act according to the law of love. We can be merciful and gracious. To love the neighbor as ourselves is to make a conscious choice and act upon it. 

So what could all this mean to TJ? As I said, he has found it impossible to rekindle the powerful love he once shared with his wife, Mel.

TJ and Mel attend a fundraiser for the Semper Fi Fund. He is the featured speaker, and from the podium shares his story, their story. “I admit I’ve been a terrible person at times, that no person deserves to be treated the way I tormented Mel. I tried to emotionally destroy her. Misery loved company, see? She was the closest target. I burdened her with my own guilt, my shame. I called her names I now regret. I pushed her away.”

Though Jesus is not commanding us to love ourselves, he assumes a love of self as a basis for love for one another. And. remember, love here is not a passive feeling, but an active choice to show mercy. To treat his wife Mel with loving-kindness, TJ needs to act with mercy toward himself. He needed to learn to be patient, generous and gentle with himself.

Two important aspects of TJ’s healing come from telling his stories, even and especially those stories that caused him to feel guilt and shame, like the story of him killing the two children, and a story of hoisting a brick to bash in the head of a dying and helpless Iraqi soldier because of the diffuse rage that consumes him. At first he would share these stories with therapists, later in articles he wrote for the New York Times blog At War. It was TJ’s experience writing for this blog that piques his interest in journalism.

He gets a job as a reporter at a Jacksonville, North Carolina newspaper and begins interviewing other veterans about their experiences in war. They open up to him about their experiences, both their love for the comaraderie and excitement of war, and the wounds they still carry, both physical and emotional. TJ can relate to all of it. Hearing their stories affirms TJ’s identity as a Marine and reminds him that he is not alone in his struggles. Storytelling has been essential to TJ’s healing.

I tell TJ’s story, of course, because though his experiences of trauma are extreme, and his moral injury profound, we all experience hardship and the accompanying wounds. We can all be challenged, at some point in our lives, to love ourselves and so also, our neighbor.

Telling our stories, listening to each other’s stories, is a way to love neighbor and self. Telling our stories, listening to each other’s stories, communicates mercy, patience, generosity and gentleness.

In her book, Standing Naked Before God: The Art of Public Confession, Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette writes, “Every Sunday morning at our church, a person who is not a paid professional walks up the steps next to the ministers, stands in front of the microphone with their knees knocking and voice trembling, and begins, “Now is the time when we bring our own stories before God. And each gives a testimony – recent or from the distant past – about a sin they committed.”

“This is a book,” she continues, “about telling our stories – our real stories. Not the all cleaned up versions…but the stories of things that almost killed us and made us stronger, the stories of people who did unforgivable things to us, and, most importantly, stories of the unforgivable things we ourselves have done.”

People talk, she writes, about the “obvious” candidates like hatred, sexual sin, jealousy, greed, and arrogance, but also include things that aren’t necessarily sins such as clinical depression, anxiety, and addiction. Those these aren’t sins in themselves, keeping secrets from loved ones or refusing treatment, can be seen as sin as this breaks the bond of love.

Just as telling his own stories and providing an outlet for other veterans to tell theirs created opportunities for healing, so testifying about their sins to one another in Rev. Baskette’s church has set love of self and neighbor free. Beyond the positive effect on members of the church, it has grown and strengthened the community of the church. Her church in Sommerville, Massachusetts grew to over 300 members and had 80 people signed up to give their testimonies, a 20 month waiting list!

Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor begins with an assumption that we love our self. Do we? Do you? For TJ the path to restoring and strengthening love for his wife began by finding and renewing love for himself and the man he had become after the war.

Storytelling was central to this long process of restoration, each story a choice, an act of mercy toward himself or another.

I am just beginning Baskette’s book but am intrigued by her idea of testimony in the church. As I said, TJ’s healing, confessional storytelling began in private with a therapist, but ultimately became liberating when he shared these stories publically through his writing. My sense is that his public testimony was essential to the cause of love, as it was only then that he knew that his secrets had lost their power to guilt and shame.

TJ concludes his speech at that fundraiser with these words to Mel. “I love you. Thank you for saving me.” He steps down from the podium and he and Mel embrace. He writes, “I longed for Mel in Afghanistan. The few moments I hold her in my arms are the embrace I wish I had given her when I first stepped off the bus. For the rest of the night she glows. So do I.”

What would it require for you to share your stories? To listen to the stories of others without judgement? Could you share your stories with a best friend, a therapist, or your pastor? Can you imagine ever sharing these stories in public? Let’s think and pray about these things; our self and our neighbors depends on such acts of mercy.

Amen.

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