Here we are again. Another school shooting. The death toll for 2018 keeps rising at an alarming rate.
Here we are again. Another week of pointing fingers. Another week of oversimplifying answers, blaming the other for not doing what we know will work. So instead we do nothing, until the fury dies down, and then it happens again.
Here we are again. Yelling past one another. It feels as though the roles in this debate are hardened and unmovable. We already know what everyone is going to say. We already choose to agree with some of them and disagree with others. We stereotype and overgeneralize and it ends up getting us nowhere.
Some of us, for example, are quick to blame the “gun-toting, NRA-loving, rednecks.” But when I hear that, I think of my Granddaddy. My Granddaddy taught me how to shoot and how to hunt. He had a little .22 rifle and a 20-gage shotgun. We would go out “pinging,” he called it, for the sound that the shot made when it hit the tin cans that he set up. I remember one time that he took me out rabbit hunting. I must have had a lucky shot, because I got a rabbit. I was happy, but Granddaddy was ecstatic! He was so proud, he told everyone how I “rolled a rabbit” and showed it off to everyone. Long after Granddaddy died, decades after that hunting trip, my parents were cleaning out the deep freeze at my grandparents’ house and they found that rabbit! Labelled with the date that we went hunting. Until the day he died, he had kept it. Granddaddy had guns. He was a member of the NRA. Some might even call him a Texas redneck. But he didn’t own guns to ever hurt people, or use out of anger. They were about family, about hunting trips, about pinging. And I think that there are a lot of people in our country are a lot like Granddaddy. What if instead of name calling and relying on stereotypes, we listened? Asked them to share their hearts instead of telling them they are wrong?
Or on the flip side, others of us are quick to blame the “fascists trying to steal our guns.” But I am struck after this shooting by the number of children and young people who have chosen to speak out against weak gun laws. These are not fascists, and they aren’t trying to take Granddaddy’s “pinging .22,” but they are children and they are tired of gun violence. One elementary student wondered out loud if he had to go to high school when he got older, if this is what happens there. Another wonders if politicians will do something about guns before it is his high school in the news. Another pleads for a higher level of debate, one that will actually get something accomplished. And these are not Facebook memes. These are not adult politicians scoring political points. These are children and young people that I know. That many of you do, too. Young people who are afraid for their lives, and pretty confident that the adults in their lives and their world either cannot or will not do anything to stop the violence that threatens them. And they are echoed by young voices nationally asking why they have to live in military lock-down in their schools in order to protect the so-called rights of those who aren’t lifting a finger to protect them or their friends.
But here we go again. Refusing to listen to one another. Refusing to do more than regurgitate talking points louder than our enemies do. And the whole system continues in perpetuity.
I think that this morning’s Scripture passage, chosen long before the events of this week, has something to teach us about how we might respond to such a painful reality. But the passage is a little tough to wade through, so bear with me. It is a three part passage, and it isn’t readily apparent what the three parts have to do with each other:
- It begins with a story about a fig tree. Jesus is walking with his disciples and they are hungry. So he walks up to a fig tree to get some figs. But there aren’t any figs on the tree, so he curses it. That’s about it.
- Next they enter into the Temple, where we see Jesus’ famous scene of overturning the tables of the moneychangers. If you don’t know the ins and outs of ancient Temple worship, you may not know that everyone was expected to bring an offering – an animal or a plant that they offer to the priests in order to receive forgiveness or favor from God. But pilgrims travelled a long way in order to make their offering at the Temple, and couldn’t well bring a bird or a goat or even a fresh offering of grain if they have been travelling for weeks or months. So, merchants would set up booths in the Temple to sell pilgrims their offerings. Pilgrims would pay sometimes exorbitant prices in order to worship, and this infuriates Jesus. This is not what worship is supposed to be about! It is supposed to be about prayer, not making a buck. So, he turns over the tables, and leaves the Temple in disarray.
- Finally, on the next day, Jesus and his disciples walk by the fig tree again. And it is already withered! Jesus’ curse has had an almost immediate impact and it is dead and withered. Jesus immediately launches into a teaching about prayer and how we should pray.
And the whole thing is a little weird, right? It’s not apparent how all of these things fit together. But let me give you my theory on what all of this means. If there is a theme here, perhaps it is this: bad systems wither good people.
Here are these poor pilgrims, the worshippers, the priests, and the money-changers, all caught up in this unhealthy system. No one group alone is to blame, but most are complicit in one way for another. Except there are those who suffer more than others in the wake of this system, withered by the system that was designed to help. And though it seems out of place, I think that the fig tree is a symbol of this teaching. This is the only miracle in the Gospels that results in death instead of life, in destruction instead of healing or wholeness. Jesus uses this miracle to teach a painful lesson: innocent things die. It isn’t the tree’s fault that it isn’t producing figs…Mark tells us that it isn’t even the season for figs! But here is the point that I get from Jesus’ teaching: innocent things, caught up in systems of brokenness and death, wither and die. Of course, we can see the clear foreshadowing to Jesus’ own death. But the point is more universal, is it not? Bad systems wither good people, and in a world where children are gunned down in their school, this should not come as a surprise to us. The world is filled with innocent victims…hurting, afraid, withered.
But that is not the final word of the passage. If part one is that bad systems wither good people, part two is this:
Prayer upends bad systems.
It seems even weirder, doesn’t it, that Jesus goes straight into a teaching on prayer? But if you understand Jesus’ conception of prayer, that prayer is a way to align ourselves to God’s work and prepare ourselves for the tasks of Kingdom work, it makes sense. So, look for this theme throughout the passage:
- The most obvious is Jesus turning over the tables. Jesus has spent much of his ministry in prayer. Mark tells us again and again that Jesus goes into the hills to pray alone. And now, aligned and prepared, he is able to take on the broken systems around him. Jesus sets to work upending that system, based on money and not prayer he says, sending the doves flying into the hands of those who simply come with hearts of worship.
- Then comes Jesus’s teaching about prayer. When we pray, says Jesus, it is like taking a mountain and upending it into the sea! God is at work in seismic ways, says Jesus, changing whole systems, whole mountains of disease and injustice. Prayer does this, says Jesus, and prepares us to take part in that work. If we have faith, we can pray for God to upend the brokenness that we see around us!
- Finally, Jesus’ last teaching on prayer follows this same theme. He tells his disciples that when they pray, they are to pray with hearts of forgiveness. “We cannot really pray,” says Jesus, “if we hold a grudge against our neighbor. We cannot really come into the presence of God if we are limited by a grace-less, forgiveness-less way of living. We cannot understand our need to ask forgiveness from God if we are insisting on retribution for ourselves. Perhaps this is the biggest mountain of all. For how often do we try and pray to God when we are at odds with a sister or brother. We come to God expecting an attitude of forgiveness, when we are living with an attitude of retribution. Perhaps this is the worst system for God to upend. But, according to Jesus, that is exactly what God is all about. Upending the broken relationships, broken community, broken fellowship, the pointing of fingers, the blaming of stereotypes, the calling of names, that has caused the death and withering of so many good people. Even the most innocent among us.
So, when we see the pain and the agony of the events of Florida, it seems that the answer is prayer. But what kind of prayer? That is the question. Peter Scazzero has a great description of how we actually pray. He says that our prayer life is usually marked in one of four ways:
First, many of us when we pray talk at God. We were taught when we were young we are supposed to pray, and so we parrot back to God something we remember from our childhood. When I was a child, I had these things to memorize and repeat rote. There was the pledge of allegiance. There was the phrase I was supposed to say when I answered the phone, “Hello, Sturtevant residence.” There was the simple prayer that we said at mealtime: “Thank you, God, for our food. Amen.” But I remember once, when I was a child, that I got my rote phrases mixed up. Someone called on the phone, and I rushed to pick it up. But whomever it was on the other end was shocked, I’m sure, when I answered it, “Thank you God, for our food. Amen.” Mortified, I did the only thing I could think of…I hung up the phone and ran out of the room! Sometimes, we pray at God, not really knowing what we are saying. Sometimes, after a tragic event like this last week, we hear plenty of people saying that they will pray for the victims. How often are they simply parroting back what they think they should say?
Next, says Scazzero, we talk to God. There are a lot of prayers like this in our world. “I want something. Give it to me.” It’s kind of like God is the person at the other end of the fast food ordering process. We yell into the box, hoping God gets our order correct, and of course we reserve the right to complain if God gets it wrong. They are our words, this time, but they are mostly about us. Again, when we see the news from Florida, what is our prayer? It is a prayer for God to make others believe the way that we want them to believe?
Thirdly, Scazzero says, sometimes we get to a different level of prayer. He says we listen to God. Now, the focus has started to shift. Instead of me and my list, it is a two-way relationship with God. What might God be telling me? How might God be changing me? We are moving the right direction, but we still aren’t there, yet. Have you ever taken part in a conversation in which you were so intent on what you were going to say next, you weren’t really listening. You were listening, but it was still pretty me-focused…listening to correct or defend. Most of the social media we see after a horrific shooting like last week is like that. Listening, but no real dialogue. Talking points flying past each other in the night.
But Scazzero offers a fourth step, a final goal. The most profound level of prayer: being with God. We are not listening in order to figure out what to do or say next. It’s not about us, at all. But about God. This is the kind of prayer that Jesus did in the hills of Mark’s Gospel. Solitude-driven, contemplative preparation and alignment with who God is and what God would have him to do. This is the kind of prayer that prepared Jesus to overturn tables, to throw mountainous systems into the sea, to live out a life of forgiveness, even forgiveness of those who would kill him. That only happens when we are with God in prayer – personally, communally. This Lenten season, and in this season of national grief, it is the only way to pray: with broken hearts, faithful eyes, and hands ready to overturn the injustice of our world.
Frederick Douglass was born a slave. He knew full well the reality of a system that was diseased and broken. He knew that it was a complex system, and it would not be overturned in a heartbeat. But he also knew that some suffered and withered in that system more than others. So he escaped. Ran away from his slaveholders in Maryland. He was free! Free to go and practice his God-given rights in the North. He could have lived the rest of his life in quiet freedom and not been blamed one bit. He could have remained in safety and prayed from a distance for those victims who remained.
But he didn’t. Douglass knew from his prayers that he could not bear to be free while others suffered. So he used the gift that God gave him – his voice. He spoke out against slavery and the systemic ways that it was rotting our country. He spoke for the equity of all peoples – black, female, Native American, or immigrant. He spoke even though it put him in the crosshairs of an anger that was deep and twisted. He spoke and agitated and reminded and pushed and overturned the diseased system of slavery. The mountain that no one thought would ever be pushed into the sea. And yet, his faith in God and a better way would not let him be silent.
But Douglass’s quote on prayer is profound: “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”
Today may we pray.
May we listen.
May we seek to understand those who disagree with us, instead of stereotyping and judging.
May we overturn the broken system that kills our children and terrifies a generation.
Today, may we pray with our legs.