There is quite a swirl of feelings going on in this room now. There is anger, some focused at particular individuals and some unfocused. There is fear: what will happen now? There is dismay: how could this happen? There is sadness, there is bafflement, there is a sense of betrayal. Some of you feel more than one of these at the same time; all of you will have shifting feelings not only throughout this service but in the days to come.
What is the Gospel message for these communities of faith today? Pastor Sara and I thought a primary concern would be what the Scripture for today should be. I have heard a number of suggestions.
- The story in John 8 (2-11): Some very righteous men catch a couple in an adulterous liaison and they drag the woman to Jesus for judgment (no word of what they do to the man). They say to Jesus, "The Law says that she is to be stoned to death. What do you say?" Jesus replies, "Let whichever one of you has never sinned throw the first stone." They all leave. Now, the folks who suggested this one were focused on the forgiveness aspect: If you have never committed a sin, then you may throw the first stone. As one person put it, we all have secrets we are keeping from everyone; would we want them exposed like this? But there is another part of the story: Jesus said to the woman, "I do not condemn you. But go your way and do not sin again." I trust that we all learn from this situation lessons we may live by in the future.
- Another suggestion was a variety of laments. You probably don't get exposed to the Bible's laments all that often; they are beautiful expressions of sadness. There is the weeping of Rachel for the people of Judah (Jeremiah 31:15) and some other good moments in Jeremiah, including his crying out, "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?" (8:22). My favorite lament is Psalm 88; it begins:
O Lord, my God, my Savior, by day and night I cry to you.
Let my prayer enter into your presence; incline your ear to my lamentation.
For I am full of trouble; my life is at the brink of the grave. (1-3)
It says later:
You have laid me in the depths of the pit, in dark places, and in the abyss.
Your anger weighs upon me heavily, and all your great waves overwhelm me. (6-7)
And there is more like that. Now, nearly all laments in the Bible conclude with a confession of faith and words of praise. Not Psalm 88; it concludes:
Your blazing anger has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me;
They surround me all day long like a flood; they encompass me on every side.
My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me,
And darkness is my only companion. (16-18)
And that is why I love Psalm 88. When I am feeling overwhelmed by sorrow or loss or anger, I don't want to give it up too quickly. I don't need someone telling me how to feel better; I need my lament to be respected. Psalm 88 lets the lament sit there.
Feelings are to be respected, and I respect whatever you are feeling right now. I do ask, however, that you stop and think before you take action on those feelings. Rarely do you and I regret stopping and taking a deep breath before acting on, for example, anger. People have often regretted acting on their anger or sorrow or fear without taking time to think and pray. Take a deep breath. Pray. Think. When you're ready. For now we can sit in the lament. Just be sure to take that deep breath and to pray and to think before you act.
- Finally, I also came up with a Scripture thought, which may strike you as strange, but I believe the Holy Spirit wants us to hear this. This experience we are having affects us all. We are going through a difficult time. Benson Presbyterian Church has been through difficult times. Presbyterian Church of the Master has been through difficult times. We were generally happy at how well things have been going: we're anticipating a building program (we still are); we're looking forward to a new adventure in Sunday School (we still are). We're looking to expand our ministry with young adults (we still are) and our worship life (we still are). But there is evil in the world that does not want the Church to do well, and so Jesus said to Peter, when Peter declared that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, "On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18).
The gates of Hades try to bring down the Church, but the rock that overcomes the gates of Hades is faith that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. It is easy to praise Jesus; it is hard to follow him. Now we need to follow him. What will we do in relationship to our brother and to his family? We must follow Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of the living God. How will we move forward as churches? We must follow Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of the living God. For the promise of Jesus is true: when we put our trust in him, then the gates of Hades cannot prevail against us. I mean that not only for us as congregations, but for each of you as individual followers of Jesus. You belong to Christ; you can count on Christ; the promises of Christ are good and true for you and for us together. Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, the Son of the living God, shall prevail.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Benson Presbyterian Church
Omaha, Nebraska Translation from the Book of Common Worship of the Presbyterian Church (USA), © 1993 Westminster John Knox Press.
To the reader: We heard difficult news earlier in the service. One of the elders of Presbyterian Church of the Master pleaded guilty to a crime and he will likely be sentenced to prison. In the service, I read a statement from the Session; it told about the crime and the actions the Session is taking now. I believe these are sufficient details for the sermon to make sense.