May 12, 2019
The Fourth Sunday of Easter
(Revelation 7:9, 14-17; John 10:27-30)
If you can, try to remember how you felt when you heard the news about each of the following events:
• The massacre of 28 at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut in December of 2012;
• The killing of 17 students and staff and the wounding of 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida in February 2018;
• The slaying of 10 people at Santa Fe High School, in Santa Fe, Texas in May 2018;
• The gunning down of 11 people and wounding 6 others at Tree of Life Synagogue, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania , in October 2018;
• The killing of 13 and the wounding of 12 others at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California, in November 2018;
• The killing of 1 and injury of 3 at the Chabad synagogue, in Poway, California last month.
• The killing of 1 and injuring or 8 others at the STEM School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado this past Tuesday.
There are many, many others in between that I could mention, but obviously there are so many that we would need all day to list them. I merely picked some that came to mind. A great majority were shootings. We could also talk of the churches in Louisiana that we set on fire. The hate and evil that is running ramped in our country is astonishing. It seems like we are no longer a civilized nation.
If you’re like most people, you experienced a sense of deep shock and dismay on hearing the news of the first of those events. But unless you were personally connected to a victim of one of the subsequent tragedies, it’s likely that each one had progressively less emotional impact on you. In fact, by the time the last of these was reported, your reaction may have been little more than a sad shake of the head and a weary utterance of, “Oh, no. Not again.” And you probably turned your attention away from the news much more quickly than you did after Sandy Hook.
That isn’t surprising. We’ve lived through 9/11. We frequently hear body counts from terrorist activity. By way of television and the Internet, we’ve witnessed such awful stuff that our shock threshold has been raised. Now when we hear of such tragedies as the most recent slaughter of innocents, our reaction is more controlled – or is it numbed disbelief?
Following the Virginia Tech shootings some years ago, columnist Daniel Henninger, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, and commented on this growing numbness to bad news. He said that “it may be that as a nation we’ve reached tilt with tragedy. ‘Tilt’ is the famous metaphor drawn from the old pinball machines, which shut down if one banged on them too hard. Pinballs could survive plenty of random shocks to the system. But there were limits. Of late, we have been banged on hard.” Later in the same column, he wrote, “Our capacity for shock at genuine violence has been recalibrated.”
When tragedies become commonplace, it just isn’t humanly possible for us who are at a distance from them to experience the same level of emotional distress as those who are close at hand. And our lessened reaction has nothing to do with not caring or a lack of empathy. It’s that we have a survival function that causes us to become protective of our emotional energy. We cannot continue to dump it out day after day on extreme events and have any left for daily living.
And so a kind of numbness creeps in, and to some degree, it needs to. It’s a defense mechanism that keeps us from reaching our personal tilt point.
That said, such numbness also gives us a jaded view of life, a pervasive pessimism that whispers to us that the cards really are stacked against us, and that no matter how much we think we’ve organized our lives, the forces of chaos and destruction will ultimately prevail.
We hear some of those whispers after almost every one of these shootings. Some commentator says the incident should reignite the debate about gun control, but those of us who’ve been around awhile find ourselves thinking something such as, “Yeah, this latest tragedy might cause some debate, but even if some changes are made, it won’t make the kind of difference we need. People who are determined to kill others will always find a way to do so.” But do you hear in that admission deep pessimism — that nothing could have prevented it, or something like it — that neither arming everybody nor disarming everybody would make much difference?
I wonder, at times, if we have taken this whole “Second Amendment” thing a bit too far. I don’t think our fore-fathers were intending people to just go wild-west and start killing people just because they don’t like them. Yet, we can’t seem to get anywhere on this topic.
That’s a fatalism we don’t wish to surrender to, but it nibbles at the edge of our minds when we contemplate awful things. Fully developed, it can cause us to doubt God’s existence, or at least his goodness.
Against all that, there’s the vision that John of Patmos had of the eternal age to come, where a multitude of people — so great it cannot be counted — with representatives from every nation, tribe, peoples and language group, stand worshiping before the throne of the Lamb of God. And they cry out good news: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:10) When John seeks to know who these people of this multitude are, he is told, “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
In the context of John’s time, the “great distress” likely referred to the bitter experiences — the bad news — that befell the followers of Jesus at the onset of the Jerusalem war in A.D. 66. But we can read it in our own context and apply it to the bad-news distresses of our own time. In contrast to the pessimism that first-century distress might have engendered, however, this Revelation passage sees the brightness, the good news, beyond it. These people, who have come through that great distress faithfully, “will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike them. For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water.... ” (vv. 16-17). They are the ones who were numbed by the battering of bad news in their day, but in the realm to come, they are “un-numbed.” In fact, they have no need for defensive numbing, because “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (v. 17).
But what about us? If this passage is to fit into our existence somewhere, it has to be read as belonging to some future that we cannot see and can only, like John, envision. And then we can only hold on to that vision with the most slender of threads, those of promise and hope, and maybe even wish.
However, the multitude in Revelation sees this brightness because they are gathered around the throne of God in worship together. Maybe, in that time to come, that throne is the place where they get their questions about life answered. But what John’s vision shows us is that in that place of worship, they jointly perceive what they need to know, that the Lamb is their shepherd.
As we live on this side of eternity, what we need to know is that God is still here in this life, that he hasn’t left us, that he is our shepherd, too. And corporate worship can bring us that assurance; it can give us a glimpse of the divine perspective.
It’s significant that we don’t go to church for private devotions. We go there as part of a congregation, and we get some of the uplift we need from fellow worshipers.
Following the shootings, some schools reacted by holding a convocation, by creating a place for people to come together and talk about God. In an essay on Foxnews.com after one tragedy, religion correspondent Lauren Green wrote, “So where is God? He is in the prayer vigils. He is in the rivers of tears flowing from everyone affected. He is in the community coming together to offer support to the families. He is at work in the love and strength people are offering each other. God is with us.”
We shouldn’t discount the power of corporate worship to help us when numbing news bombards us. A study by a Harvard researcher, in conjunction with a UC San Diego researcher, gives us some evidence in that direction. In 2003, this pair gained access to some old papers found in a storeroom in Framingham, Massachusetts. They were the handwritten records of 5,124 male and female subjects from a heart study done in that community in 1948, looking for risk factors for heart trouble. It wasn’t so much the heart information that caught the attention of the latter-day researchers, but rather some clerical information on the forms. The original Framingham researchers had noted each participant’s close friends, colleagues and family members simply so that if the participant moved away, the researchers could contact the friends to locate the participant.
Looking at that information, the 2003 researchers realized it could be transformed into a detailed map of the human relationships of those folks. Two-thirds of the adults in Framingham had been included in the first phase of the study, and their children and grandchildren had participated in subsequent phases. Thus, almost the entire social network of the community was chronicled in these old records. It took nearly five years to input all that data into a computer format, but once that was done, the current researchers were able to construct detailed diagrams of the social networks of the Framingham residents. As they began tracking those people as an interconnected network rather than as a mass of individuals, they discovered that the social networks influenced the behavior of the people involved, even as the participants spread out over a larger geographic area.
Because the study had kept track of the subjects’ weight, the current researchers first analyzed obesity trends. They found that in 1948, fewer than 10 percent of the residents were obese. By 1985, 18 percent were, and today, 40 percent are. That equates with national trends, but looking at it from the social-network angle, the researchers realized that while the whole group discovered fast food at the same time, the social-network effect was what caused obesity to begin to spread, almost like a virus. In other words, when your friends change their eating habits, it’s likely that you will, too.
They found a similar trajectory with smoking. In the early ’70s, 65 percent of Framingham residents between the ages of 40 and 49 smoked regularly. But by 2001, only 22 percent did. The researchers found that friends and family had a positive influence, and that people quit together.
Both eating habits and smoking are behaviors, but the researchers went further and found that such things as happiness are also influenced by our social networks. Because the original study asked people to describe their moods, the latter research showed that essentially, happy people have happy friends and unhappy people have unhappy friends. In other words, gloom is contagious, but so is joy.
It doesn’t take much thought to apply that same dynamic to people who worship together. One thing that helps us maintain hope when soul-numbing bad news is all around us is that we’re coming before God in company with others who share that hope.
So it’s no wonder that in the eternal age to come, those gathered around God’s throne aren’t described one by one but as an uncountable multitude. They grew to be so many because they were already following Jesus in company with each other when they were on this side of eternity.
There have been enough awful tragedies caused by somebody with a grudge, or paranoia or evil in his heart, or a desire to get even or whatever, that we assume similar things will continue to happen from time to time in some place in our society. Evil is real, sin rages in people’s hearts, madness descends, despair begets chaos.
Further, there’s no guarantee that we or our loved ones might not someday be among the victims.
But standing here among the people of God, in the place of worship, we can sense the truth: that good is stronger than evil, that there is something — something — that cannot be taken from us because God has given it to us. And furthermore, we together know that nothing — nothing — can separate us from the love of God.
It’s that knowledge that helps us not tilt when bad things happen.
Let us pray.
We pray that in our daily lives we are never far from Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness so that we can reap the reward of eternal life which he so clearly promises. May we embrace the “radical love of Jesus” by emulating His example! We pray to the Lord.
For all Mothers and for those who have shown us a mother’s love: that God will grace them with every gift, bless them with health, happiness, peace and joy of heart. We pray to the Lord.
For healing and justice for those harmed by violence, abuse or neglect, especially those in the shooting in Highland Ranch Colorado: that they may be embraced by the peace and love of Christ. We pray to the Lord.
For all who mourn the death of a loved one, may they find comfort in the joy of Jesus’ Resurrection. We pray to the Lord.
For those on our parish prayer list; that they may find consolation through Christ’s healing presence. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Loving Father, you call each of us to serve you with faithfulness and joy. Hear our prayers, and bring us to the joy that never ends. God of Mercy, Good Shepherd, may those whom you have called to the Christian life be ever true believers in your Son and the power of his Resurrection. Loving God, you cared so much for us, your children, that you sent your Son to us to be our shepherd. Listen to the prayers of your flock, and grant them through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA