That’s not just the theme of the readings today. Get ready: we’ve got a lot to talk about.
We’ve always got a lot to talk about these days.
Slate Magazine posted a video recently detailing every push notification [or the ones that pop up on your phone] that the New York Times has sent out this year. The accompanying article details the ways in which the news cycle for the past year has sped up considerably, for nearly every person with even a passing interest in the news, no matter their affiliation.
This video of every push notification for the entire year comes with a prominent pause button, which viewers are explicitly invited to push. The article ends with, “We hope you’ll take a few minutes to explore …and reflect on the crazy year, [and] press the pause button when it feels overwhelming (because it will, and it was)…” (1)
Those who are less tuned in to the news might be tempted to advise the rest of us to turn off our push notifications, and I have certainly received this advice every time I’ve mentioned it anywhere. However, as one pundit put it, Washington news in its totality these days is similar to the various individual scandals that we’ve experienced in the past years, or even better, much more like a sports event, where our existential existence hangs on who wins. “We can’t turn away,” he said, “because as terrible as it may seem, it’s the most interesting thing in the world.” To some of us, to turn those notifications off would feel like we were sitting out history, unaware of what we will tell our children and grandchildren. To many of us, he said, it’s not as simple as “turn that off and you’ll be less stressed.”
We’re constantly alert and awake and ready for the next disaster, but that has, in one sense, made the world feel hopelessly stagnant. At least it does to me. I’ve been struggling with that this week, as we experienced yet another outburst of violence: this time, at a church — a small church, an environment not unfamiliar to us.
I know that we’ve all got something to say about guns, and believe me, I do too. But I was also taught, as a writer, that a piece of writing that takes on an issue where everyone’s got an entrenched opinion is a boring piece of writing. “Whatever you have to say about abortion or gun control,” my high school English teacher said dryly, “has been said before, and someone else has almost definitely said it better.” So if you’re interested in that, no matter your position, I’ve certainly got reading suggestions that might challenge you — just ask me at coffee hour. But you don’t pay me to be a policy wonk.
Public policy is a hobby. The health of souls is my vocation. And I don’t just mean “health” as in where you go when you die. I mean how your soul is, right now, and what outbursts of violence among American citizens has to say about the health of American souls.
Because it’s pretty easy to point at every killer and talk about how bad they were. How sick they were. How mentally ill they were. How they subscribed to some horrible, violent ideology. To put the problem outside of us.
But at some point, when a pattern keeps repeating among a people, we have to admit that it’s not a “them” problem, as much as we’d love to make it one. It’s not only about various flavors of fundamentalism. It’s not about the mentally ill, either. It’s about us.
Another article came out this week about how violence is not the product of mental illness — this is evidenced by the vast majority of people in treatment for mental illnesses who have never been violent, and the majority of violent criminals with no diagnosable mental illnesses. Is there an overlap between the two? Obviously. Humans commit violence. Humans get sick, including mentally. So obviously, yes, overlap is inevitable.
But it’s pretty undeniable that it’s primarily anger that makes someone, whether mentally ill or not, violent. My friend Dana, how a United Methodist pastor in Atlanta, commented thus on the aforementioned think piece about violence and anger: “I read this, and as a former mental health professional, I agree 100%. It also makes me wonder what the church could be doing to deal with this anger. I agree that anger management teaches useful skill sets, but I’ve also seen how anger burns a hole in someone’s soul, and I thought the church should have something to say about the health of our souls (and not just the question of whether you’re going to heaven).” (2)
That is, of course, not to blame the victims or to say that if someone had just reached out to this shooter or that shooter, everything would be fine. But whether a person commits violent crimes or not, it’s pretty undeniable that we — we Americans — have a problem with anger.
We are so angry that we cannot hear each other.
We’re so angry that push notifications make people humph and sigh and tense up. (I know this happens to me.)
We’re so angry that we’re miserable.
We are so angry that our souls are unhealthy.
We are a nation of angry, frustrated people. And I don’t think we’re ready to take care of each other.
There’s a podcast out there somewhere called Sincerely, X, and it features important stories that cannot be told publicly and are thus told anonymously.
One such story features a woman who, after a series of pretty blatant indignities stacked on top of a bad day, including being utterly disrespected by a pharmacy employee, completely lost it in the middle of a pharmacy. Seeing red, the woman barely remembers her rampage, in which she pepper sprayed several people. Finally, she collapses, and she hears a man’s voice command everyone to clear the area around her. What he says stops her rampage and makes her burst into tears.
Asked what he said, she said, “He just asked me what was bothering me.” (3)
Turns out, the man had been trained to respond to such crises. He immediately circumvented her anger by clearing everyone away and by treating her like a human. She was still charged with a crime and still paid the price and she makes no excuses for her actions, but she also acknowledges this man’s role in saving others from her rampage.
He was ready.
Our readings today look towards Advent, like they do every year in November, but this year I feel the urgency just a little bit more. The world always needs people who are ready to respond in love, but if our push notifications tell us anything, it’s that the world needs it just a little bit more these days.
In a reading that seems a little bit out of place in church but is fun to read if you ever get frustrated with a worship team, Amos, speaking for God, spouts off — “I hate, I despise your festivals! … take away from me the noise of your songs!” (Amos 5:21a, 23a). Um… welcome to church, everybody, and I promise God is happy you’re here, despite our OT reading.
The point of the whole thing is not that God thinks we’re bad singers, but that that people were — are — making themselves fat and happy while not actually effecting any real change in the world. They weren’t taking care of each other, but man, was their worship fancy!
And God hated it, and told them that if they were looking for the Day of the Lord, it wasn’t gonna be pretty for them.
Then in the Gospel reading, we hear about the ten bridesmaids — five wise, five foolish. We’ve heard it a lot, but it’s sort of a strange story if you get stuck in the details. I mean, for one, you’ve got bridesmaids going out in the middle of the night to buy more oil, which only doesn’t seem weird to you because there’s a 24 hour CVS in Chicopee. These folks didn’t live in the era of 24 hours service, so every time I read this parable, I can’t help thinking of the foolish bridesmaids, “Man, they’re really foolish. I mean, where are you going?! You’re going to miss everything.”
The point, of course, is to be ready. To be prepared. To keep your lamps trimmed and burning, because you never know when you’ll need them. When you can use what you have — whether it’s your money, your time, your training, or just your attention — to make a real difference to someone. To see them as human. To treat them as a human person with real concerns. After all, as we said last week, people do not live in the abstract. We are real people with real lives and real hurts and yes — real anger. And we have to be ready to take care of each other and the world around us.
The care of souls isn’t just a pastoral vocation, but a Christian one. Because the person who would never talk to a pastor about their anger may just talk to you.
All of us have to be ready.
And again, don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to tell you that if we just take better care of our neighbors it’ll be a magical way of preventing violent outbursts and getting rid of everyone’s anger. The Gospel is not a story about how we can fix everything if we just try.
The Gospel is not a story about us.
It’s a story about how the kingdom of heaven peeks through every now and then when we let ourselves be open to it, sure. But it’s also a story about our illogical, wonderful hope that someday, this, too, shall be made right. Where everyone is safe and loved and valued. Where no one is angry. Where no one mourns. Where justice really does roll down like waters in the desert.
A quote attributed to the Talmud says, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
This, of course, is just an exposition on the Micah passage that hands in our entryway.
We gather here because, at our best, together, we offer a glimpse into a future without pain, without anger, where all are cared for. And we gather here because the work will someday be completed, the bridegroom will come, and justice will roll down like waters.
I don’t know how. I lose sight of it sometimes in the midst of yet more bad news.
I get angry at the state of things. But it’s this gathered community that’s here to remind me, to remind you, to remind itself to stay ready, to keep caring — because the dawn is coming.
“Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13). Amen.
1. You can find the Push Notifications article and video (and it’s a good one) here.
2. The Rev. Dana Ezell pastors Trinity United Methodist Church in downtown Atlanta.
3. You can listen to the whole episode of Sincerely, X here.