Responding to Paris

I originally planned a very different sermon than this one.  I preached it yesterday in response to the Paris attack.  Several people found it helpful.  The end refers to a parishioner whose funeral I did on Thursday the day before the attack in Paris.  Her Bible was stuffed with papers on which she wrote references to scripture passages, pamphlets, and other artifacts, including the bookmark I referenced at the end.  I used 1 Samuel 2:1-10 and Mark 13:1-8 as the readings.

I was writing my sermon on Friday as news trickled in about the terrorist attack in Paris. Coordinated attacks throughout the city. Scores dead. Hundreds wounded. A city, a nation, and indeed a world is in shock.

There is no question that what was done was a heinous act and has been roundly condemned by political leaders as well as religious leaders across a spectrum of faiths, including Muslims.

Let’s be clear that violence perpetrated in the name of God is a perversion.

A terrorist attack by its very nature is designed to invoke fear in the general population. It seeks to force changes in a community contrary to its cherished values and to set people against each other. In their wake, the Massachusetts State Police issued a statement within hours of the attacks to reassure the public that they have taken steps towards heightened security.

Let’s also not forget that in the other day there was an attack in Beirut, Lebanon where 40 people were killed in a bomb attack and earlier this month the Russian airliner was blown out of the sky with a bomb on board. Fear is palpable. The pope said that this is evidence of a piecemeal World War III.

When we make decisions in fear, they are rash. Think about what happened in the wake of 9/11. Remember the colored lights that would tell us the likelihood of a terrorist threat that day? Or the desire to monitor the books we borrowed from the library? Or that we waged a war for which we are still paying its price.

Biblically, people might take these attacks as a sign that the end times are near, especially those on the conservative side of the theological spectrum. We could very well hear words which will condemn homosexuality and that this attack is a sign of God’s anger. But even for those who are not theologically conservative, this attack could spur people to condemn all Islam. Over the coming months we’ll probably see people seeking publicity by burning Qurans or protesting in front of mosques or uniting to keep mosques from being built. People will seek to bar Syrian refugees from our shores, even though they overwhelmingly want nothing to do with ISIS. Consider this, though, from our Christian perspective. People who shoot doctors who perform abortions and claim they do it because their understanding of Christianity compels them or the truly awful Westboro Baptist Church members who protest at soldiers’ funerals are not Christians we would recognize. We would disassociate ourselves from those who perpetuate this destructive practice as many Muslims are doing today in the wake of these attacks. As I said, it is perversion in the name of God.

Reading the papers yesterday and listening to a bit of radio, it seems that the Paris attack changed the political understanding of ISIS. Whereas it was seen as limited to the Middle East, specifically the region around Syria and Iraq, international political leadership is recalibrating its assessment. We may see more aggressive military action in that region. It is even possible that given the nature of Friday’s attacks, some sort of terrorist attack could happen here. The thought is frightening.

However, we should not let fear dictate our lives. Hannah placed her full trust in God. Though she could not conceive a child, she prayed mightily. Giving birth to a child was central to her womanhood, even more than raising a child. She promised God that should she give birth to a son, she would give her son to God. And that happened. She gave birth to Samuel and once he was weaned she left him with Eli in the temple. Each year, she and Elkanah would make a pilgrimage to the temple to offer their sacrifices. She would also bring a robe she made to give to her son, thus she saw him grow.

Granted Hannah did not fear a terrorist threat, but Hannah was oppressed by her status as a woman. Peninnah, Elkanah’s other wife, tormented her. Even though Elkanah loved Hannah, he didn’t understand the depth of her despair over her barrenness. Her only outlet was to turn to God. God was her only hope.

We are never alone as we always have God. Even in the midst of fear, there is God as long as we trust God. And we can easily lose sight of God in the midst of fear, and that takes us off track. We get pulled into behaviors we would normally eschew. Our responses should be consistent with Jesus’ teachings about peace and justice rooted in steadfast love.

Hannah prayed a prayer for hope. Hope in God’s grace and power to upend injustice and a reminder that the world in which we live now is not the world that God seeks for any of us. Furthermore, though this prayer resembles the Magnificat in its tenor, it should remind us that the ministry of Jesus Christ has deep roots in Judaism. Jesus would have known this prayer, not the one sung by Mary. While the prayer applied to Hannah, it also applied to Israel. Indeed, the prayer applies to all people who struggle in the Middle East today: the people who have lost hope and have become refugees, people who can’t escape and are in fear for their lives, people who are oppressed because their autocratic governments are corrupt. Even the people who have become enamored with a warped view of Islam are embraced in this prayer. For them hope is letting go of a truly sick understanding of Islam to embrace it as love, peace, and justice. The prayer applies to all people who need hope, even to us.

Fundamentally, what will right the world in the midst of this turmoil is love beginning with our care for those who are closest to us and then radiating out from that to embrace strangers, and even enemies. We must be bearers of hope in order to combat the nihilism that feeds terrorism. Furthermore, as a nation we must be willing to be truthful and honest about our allies: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emerites whose political and business leadership provide the funds for these radical Islamic groups. Seeking their survival in an unstable situation, they bankroll terrorist groups to ensure their security. Saudi Arabia funds the religious schools, madrassas, in places like Pakistan and other predominately poor Muslim countries to teach Wahabbism, a particularly conservative, fundamentalist version of Islam. Furthermore, our government knows this because it was confirmed in a 2009 US State Department document revealed in the Wikileaks scandal.

But the national political stuff may be too much for us to handle among ourselves right now. What we can do, however, is not get pulled into the vortex of fear-mongering, which we will certainly hear during the next several months. We have to acknowledge that though we wish to be safe at all times, that isn’t possible. Even God can’t make that promise. What really secures us is living with hope and infusing our lives with gratitude and generosity. Living in this manner, eschewing fear, offers us hope for a world that brings us closer to the realm of God here on earth.

Let us continue to pray for the people in Paris, the people in Beirut, the victims of the Russian plane crash. Let us pray for people whose lives are defined by violence. Let us pray for refugees regardless from where they began their journeys. Let us pray especially for those who perpetuate violence in the name of God that they might see how truly they have perverted God’s desires. Let us pray for ourselves that we will not lose sight of Jesus’ teachings in our fears. Let us pray that all will have hope and all shall know true peace and justice rooted in love.

The other day I presided over Elsie Chilson’s funeral. Duane lent me her Bible in which I found these words embroidered on a bookmark.

God hath not promised
Skies always blue
Flower-strewn pathways
All our lives through.

God hath not promised
Sun without rain
Joy without sorrow
Peace without pain

But God hath promised
Strength for the day,
Rest for the labour
Light for the way
Grace for the trials
Help from above
Unfailing sympathy
Undying love


About Quentin Chin

Eclectic interests: religion, technology, food, music, current events. I live in the reality-based world.
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