Shootings and Covenants

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Words from the pastors of Boulder, Colorado
Two days ago, there was a mass shooting in Boulder Colorado. Here’s a couple of quotes from churches in the community.
One pastor said, “Lord, there is sickness in this world, and this time it has struck in our town, grant us strength in this difficult hour.”
City Church Boulder encouraged its Facebook followers to “Reach out if you’re struggling. Reach out if it’s hard. Reach out if you’re not ok. You’re not alone.”
From Trinity Lutheran Church, ELCA: “Take care of yourselves and each other this evening dear church. This is a tragic day in the Boulder community. It is okay to feel what you are feeling - to be afraid, angry, tearful, shaken. Check in on each other. Reach out. Pray for all affected and their families. Sigh if you have no words to attach to your prayers this evening.”
Mass Shootings
It is a challenge to all that we are when a place we thought was safe suddenly became national news.
In light of Boulder, I did some research about recent mass shootings. It felt as though 2020 had perhaps offered some relief to such acts of gun violence in the face of Covid. So I looked at the statistics.
Before I get into numbers, there are several different definitions for what is considered a mass shooting. But in general, a mass shooting is defined as an incident where at least four people are injured or killed. Some definitions include the shooter as one of those four, some do not. Some define it specifically that four people must be killed, other definitions say they need only four injured.
However you define the events, they are traumatic moments for those involved, for the community it occurs within, and more distantly, for those hear the news through state or national venues.
According to the definition that a mass shooting involves four victims whether they are killed or injured and, yes, including the shooter among the victims among some cases, I did some research.
In 2019, There were 434 mass shootings in 2019 that fit that criteria. Of those 434 shootings, they resulted in 517 deaths and 1,643 injuries, for a total of 2,160 physically affected victims.
In 2020, There were 615 mass shootings, resulting in 521 deaths and 2,541 injuries, for a total of 3,062 victims.
As of yesterday, March 23rd, 2021, there were 107 mass shootings with 122 deaths, 325 injuries, and a total of 447 victims. Among those 107 shootings, one occurred here in Oklahoma, in Muskogee on February 2nd when a 25 year old attacked the home of his adult brother… killing his brother and five children, ages 1-9.
We can offer a lot of reasons as to why these events occur. Anything from too many violent video games, to family arguments, to poverty, racism, pandemic stress, political division… truth be told, we could probably spend a great deal of time on what causes these events.
Perhaps it was a child who was bullied throughout his life who finally had enough. Or a young man being pressed into a gang, trying to prove himself. Or a spouse who felt betrayed in a relationship. Or a person who had been given reason to feel they could no longer trust anyone and paranoia took over.
What ever leads up to these moments, many shooters show signs of a broken life. The shooters’ idea of what life could have been like had been shattered for one reason or another. And in response, they break the lives of others.
Jeremiah Context
Our reading from Jeremiah today does not deal with mass shooting events. But it does speak to a people who had experienced deep brokenness. The communities that they had felt were safe had been invaded as well. Not by a lone gunman, but a Babylonian army. Many had been killed and injured.
Many more had been pulled away from their homes, from their safe places, from their sense of security… and they had been taken away to Babylon to be servants and slaves.
But why had this happened?
That is the very question that Jeremiah put in front of the people of Israel. Why had they gone through such suffering? Endured such violence? Continued to experience the repercussions of that violence? Why?
Jeremiah answers his own question. And its an answer that is unsettling. He tells Israel not to look at the sins of the invaders… but the sins within their own lives… their own communities. He tells them to consider how they themselves, not the Babylonians, but how they themselves had broken the commandments given to them by God.
Jeremiah stated that the reason the people of Israel were experiencing such heartache at the hands of the Babylonians was because Israel had pushed the hand of God away. Why should God offer protection to a people who refused to honor the relationship they had with God?
And I want to be very careful as I say this, as I have also been talking about mass shootings. These are different contexts and different times.
But specifically to Israel… the attack from Babylon, in Jeremiah’s words, was punishment for the sins of Israel against God. This is a very different situation than our world today. And yet, as we listen to the stories of shooters, we can hear that at least in some of their cases, society had failed them.
Perhaps they had been mocked, or fed false information, or were not cared for as they needed… and so they responded in a way that goes beyond all reason or rationale as they sought to create pain for others. I believe their acts have less to do with God’s wrath and more to do with the brokenness of the world. So hear that difference.
Our Reading Today
But in light of this context of what Israel was going through, in light of the understanding that God was punishing them for their sins, I want you to listen to our reading one more time and then I’ll offer some thoughts:
Jeremiah 31:31-32
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord.
We hear God talking about the old covenant, this is the one God made with Israel during the time of the Exodus. We hear of how Israel broke it and we get this imagery of a spouse that was not faithful.
And in those days, if a spouse was not faithful, particularly a wife… what was the punishment? Death by stoning. For the people of Israel to hear that they were seen by God as being unfaithful in such a manner as that would have been terrifying. The might of Babylon coming against them would have been understood as God’s judgement against an unfaithful people. Death of Israel would not be out of the question here. In fact, it could perhaps be expected… deserved even.
BUT, God does something radical that was not expected nor deserved. Rather than simply washing hands of Israel and leaving the people to their punishment at the hands of Babylon, God says that God is going to make a -new- covenant.
Just as Israel’s sin and brokenness is being fully revealed to the world… just as Israel seems to be getting punished for having NOT been faithful to their covenant, their agreement with God, God steps in and says I’m going to not only renew my vows of this marriage between God and Israel… but they’re going to look different than they did before.
To begin understanding what that might be, we need to look at our next verse:
Jeremiah 31:33
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
First off, hear the difference. This new Covenant that God is talking about here is NOT one that is conditional. In other words, it’s no longer the idea that “If you follow my laws, I will protect you.” No. But it also isn’t a change of the content. God isn’t saying ok… remember those ten commandments? We’re going to cut it down to 3 and call it good.
What’s new about this covenant that God is making is not the content but the placement. It’s not that the commandments of God are going away, but that they are being instilled in the soul. God’s Word will be written not only onto golden tablets, but into beating hearts.
And we see the result of what this means in our next verse:
Jeremiah 31:34
No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
A world where Pastor Dan and I are out of a job. A world where there are no evangelism committees because… there’s no need. For everyone knows who God is and everyone knows that God’s forgiveness is -for- everyone.
That which causes separation and brokenness removed. And a utopia with God is all that remains. I don’t think we’re there yet though.
In the church today, we sometimes tend to jump to the idea that Jeremiah is offering a foretelling of Christ and what will eventually be the Christian Church that we have today. We want to assume that perhaps we are living in the finished product of this new covenant.
In some ways, yes that’s true. Christ certainly brings this new covenant. When we receive Holy Communion and the wine is lifted up we hear these words, This is the new covenant of my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin. It -is- the Covenant that God speaks to Jeremiah and the people of Israel about.
And, further, as Martin Luther lifted up in his teaching on the Priesthood of All Believers we hear not only a change in how God forgives but also in how we can talk to God.
In Jeremiah’s day a person could only access God through the favor of a priest. But after Christ we believe that all persons have equal access to God.
In other words, Pastor Dan and I don’t actually have a red phone hidden away beneath our desks that only we have access to… but that we each have a red phone that we can use to call and to pray to God and trust that God hears us prayers. And, additionally, believe we ALL are given gifts from God that we are each called to use in the world to serve our neighbor.
These are all pieces of that new covenant that we hear about in Jeremiah.
But… there is certainly still brokenness in the world. There are certainly people who do not know God or they believe God is full of anger and judgment rather than grace, love, and forgiveness.
And as we look around the world and we see the brokenness around us… whether it’s people in our communities who don’t have enough food to eat… or if we look to the hundreds of mass shooting events or millions of domestic violence cases each year here in the United States… we see that many do not experience the love of Christ… many do not know grace and hope as we have perhaps come to take almost for granted. We are still in a time when we need to yet be bearers of God’s grace to our neighbor because they might only know of God’s love through our words and actions.
We are in a time of there and not yet. We know the promises of God. We trust in the work of Christ crucified for ourselves and for the world… but we do not live in a utopia. There is much sin. There is much brokenness. There is much heart ache. But there is also hope in the promise of God’s love for this hurting creation.
Words from Boulder (Pastor Dione Stepanek of Trinity Lutheran ELCA)
As I bring the sermon to a close, I wanted to offer up the words of Pastor Dione Stepanek from Trinity Lutheran in Boulder Colorado who as we worship is currently leading a prayer vigil for the Boulder Community. Here’s an excerpt to her words to a hurting community:
“Words escape us and our hearts are broken. And yet, in the midst of all that is broken and through the tears, fear, anger, and pain, as Christians we have a promise that in Christ, this horrific event will not be the final story for our world. As we approach Holy Week, we are reminded that Christ knows suffering personally. He was crucified and died, and it looked as if death and pain had won. Then three days later, Christ conquered death, the one thing we know is final, and promised us a future of hope in the midst of despair.
Even as words fail us and all we can do is sigh, the Apostle Paul assures us that those sighs are some of the deepest and purest prayer, born out of grief and known by the Holy Spirit. So, know that if you are finding it hard to pray today or anger overwhelms you, that is okay. Those thoughts and feelings and numbness are faithful responses to unthinkable events.
Through this all, Paul also asks deeps questions of the soul. Will this separate us from the love of God? Will all the things that break our hearts and leave us speechless separate us from the light shining in the darkness? No, we are assured. No, the evil in the world that leads people to harm others and cause ripples of anger and grief through society and our hearts, does not win the day. Love does! Rather than separating us, God’s love unites us and draws us closer together. We need each other now more than ever. “
So how might we respond?
I think we respond as our brothers and sisters in Christ are from Boulder Colorado.
We live into being that priesthood of all believers with our sighs, our numbness, our grief, and our prayer.
We, each of us, look with hope to Christ amid uncertain moments.
We, each of us, lean on the strength not of ourselves, but of our God.
We, each of us, pray for God’s peace and healing for a world desperately in need of it.
And we, each of us, love, to the best of our ability, as Christ loved us.
May the Word of God written into each of our beating hearts inspire us into a broken world. May we examine our own sins. Our own culpability. Our own failings. But may we respond with the hope of God’s Kingdom and the love of Christ for all creation.
Peace be with you. Amen.
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