Keawalai Congregational Church
United Church of Christ (USA)
Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Sunday, October 3, 2010
The Rev. Kealahou C. Alika
Not too long ago Stephen Haines introduced our choir to the anthem, “Child of God.” A part of the lyrics include the following words: “I have called you by name, called you by name. You are precious to me. Child, you are mine.”
Every human being born into the world is a child of God - each a birth, a name, a life, a death.
Last Sunday the body of a Los Angeles teacher was found “at the foot of a remote forest bridge in what appears to be a suicide.” The motive is far from clear but some have speculated the teacher was despondent over the school district’s ranking of his performance as a teacher based on his students’ standardized English and math test scores. (The Maui News, Wednesday, September 29, 2010, A6).
On Monday, “a man who terrorized his estranged wife for months, threatening her with a knife and telling her she would end up in the morgue, killed the woman and four of his stepchildren (ages 10, 11, 13 and 14) during a middle-of-the-night rampage,” in Riviera Beach, Florida. (The Maui News, Tuesday, September 28, 2010, A5) A fifth stepchild, age 15, was also shot but is expected to survive. The man spared his biological children, ages 1 and 3.
On Tuesday, “four people, including a toddler, were fatally shot in a brutal crime that carried tones of an execution and shook up an already troubled neighborhood” in Boston. (The Maui News, Wednesday, September 29, 2010, A6). The police have not been able to determine a motive for the killings and there are no suspects.
That same day a 19-year-old man fired an AK-47 assault rifle on the campus of the University of Texas before fatally shooting himself. No one else was injured. The police are unsure of the gunman’s motive.
On Wednesday, a student at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey jumped to his death off a bridge. Two freshmen have been charged with illegally taping the 18-year-old in a sexual encounter in his dorm room and broadcasting the images via an Internet chat program.” (The Maui News, Thursday, September 30, 2010, A6)
On Friday the Army Suicide Prevention Task Force released figures indicating that fourteen suicides have been confirmed so far this year among soldiers stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. Six more are suspected, including four in the last week. A spokesperson for the Army indicated that they do not know what has caused the rash of apparent suicides, but there are indications that some have been struggling with financial or relationship problems and multiple deployments. (The Maui News, Friday, October 1, 2010, A7)
Time and time again the motive for each death is unclear. But what is clear is the response of those who are struggling to understand what caused such tragic deaths to occur. Each person has a name – a birth, a life, a death.
Of the teacher who apparently committed suicide it was said, “He was a very well-respected teacher. He took the pressure being applied to him to heart.” (The Maui News, Wednesday, September 29, 2010, A6).
Of the student who was found in the Hudson River just north of the bridge from which he jumped to his death others said, “We are heartbroken over the tragic loss of a young man who, by all accounts, was brilliant, talented and kind.” (The Maui News, Thursday, September 30, 2010, A6)
It has been a week of broken hearts for many – whether they are family members or colleagues at work. What are we to make of the death of someone that seems to make no sense? We may perceive the death of someone we love to an illness or disease as a “normal” loss and are therefore able to go through a grieving process.
But we know our lives are full of losses. Often such losses are unacknowledged and as a consequence the pain and distress is often “minimized, stifled, ignored, trivialized, made light of and not validated.” (“Unacknowledged Grief,” Erica Geenop, Grief Support Seminary, 2008, Seasons of the Spirit, Wood Lake Publishing Inc., Kelowna, B.C., Canada, 2010, page 55)
An earthquake measuring 5.4 on the Richter scale shook American Samoa and Western Samoa this week on the day marking the one year anniversary that left 194 people dead. The recovery is far from over.
The same may be said of Haiti. Nearly nine months after the earthquake that devastated that island nation, more than a million Haitians still live on the streets between piles of rubble. The loss of family, home and work and the inability of the government and aid agencies to provide adequate shelter and food have caused many to feel abandoned.
Floods and mudslides in Jamaica and in Mexico have killed dozens and injured many more. Others have died or been injured in the protest demonstrations over economic concerns in Ecuador, Spain and France. The war in Afghanistan continues and there is a sense that the peace talks among the Israelis and Palestinians may be derailed over settlements in the West Bank.
Whatever the circumstances may be – whether as individuals or as a people or nation – it is difficult to embrace life again after the experience of a loss. The toll is heavy on us and on those with whom we share our lives – “families, friendships, relationships, groups, workplaces and communities.” (Ibid.)
It has been said that “sometimes the pain is so deep and strong that it is very difficult to express it or even acknowledge it. Yet, we are (invited) to open our hearts, to grieve, and even to express our anger before God.” (Seasons of the Spirit, Wood Lake Publishing Inc., 2010, page 50) That is the lesson that comes to us from the writer of Psalm 137.
The warnings of doom by the prophet Jeremiah have come true. The year is 587 BCE. The Babylonians have sacked Jerusalem. The walls of the city have fallen and the temple has been destroyed.
What was the dynasty of King David has come to an end and the leading Hebrew citizens are taken to Babylon as exiles. Our reading from Psalm 137 is a lament that expresses the depth of their sorrow. It is a brutally honest expression of despair and anger before God without fear or shame.
It is by the “rivers of Babylon,” perhaps a stream of the Tigris or Euphrates rivers which we know today as Iraq, that the Hebrew exiles gather to remember their lives in Jerusalem. It is while they are in exile in Babylon that the ancient Hebrews are tormented by their captors: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” (Psalm 137:3)
The exiles refuse to sing, but they do not forget. They choose to remember who they are and who God is. They pray for God to remember and to share their pain. (Psalm 137:7)
“Rather than take the matter into their own hands, they take their anguish to God for understanding and healing, being honest with God about the depth of their feelings.” (Op. cit.) The anguish is so deep they think nothing of saying, “O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:8-9)
Biblical scholars contend that such a shocking statement is made by the Hebrew exiles who witnessed and suffered such cruelties at the hands of the Babylonians. The level of anguish is so profound some have said that there is a need of the victims to have others understand and acknowledge the depth of their pain.
Having said that one would hope that the peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians today will take into account the pain and suffering that have plagued the men, women, and children for whom Jerusalem is a geographical and spiritual home that they share. The grief of the Hebrew exiles then is the grief of both the Palestinians and Israelis today.
If healing is to come to the Middle East or to any of our lives, it will come when we are able to recognize and acknowledge our pain and suffering before God. Healing will come when we are able, in our own pain and suffering, to empathize with the pain and suffering of another.
As we gather to share the bread and cup on this World Communion Sunday, we come mindful of the pain and suffering of Jesus Christ, the One who became flesh and dwelt among us, conquering sin and death that we may be reconciled to God, to one another, to ourselves. God has called each of us by name – in our birth, in our living, in our dying.
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