Last week a young man entered the cafeteria of Chardon High School in the Cleveland OH suburbs and discharged a firearm instantly taking the life of one, sending two to the hospital where they later died, and wounding two others. Many are still scratching their heads and asking why, and what did we miss, and how can this continue to happen. But we’ve been asking these same questions for years. Northern Illinois University at DeKalb IL in 2008, 6 dead. Virginia Tech at Blacksburg VA in 2007, 33 dead. The Amish School shooting at Nickel Mines PA in 2006, 6 dead. Red Lake Senior High School at Red Lake MN in 2005, 10 dead. Columbine High School at Littleton CO in 1999, 15 dead. Westside Middle School in Jonesboro AR in 1998, 5 dead. The University of Iowa at Iowa City IA in 1991, 6 dead. The Cleveland School at Stockton CA in 1989, 6 dead. The California State University at Fullerton CA in 1976, 7 dead. The University of Texas at Austin TX in 1966, 16 dead. There were many more such events that we didn’t hear about, probably because the casualty count wasn’t deemed newsworthy. But ask any of the victim’s family or friends, and you will be met with a sense of utter and total disbelief. Each and every one of these killings was tragic, all of them sad and outrageous and incomprehensible. People of faith ask where God was in all this. No one can adequately reassure us, that something like this will never ever happen again, because it is so far from what our God desires. Yet our faith teaches us to keep trusting God, to believe that he truly cares for us and knows our needs. It’s not that easy to walk away from sadness and outrage and vengeance, to extend peace and forgiveness to the perpetrators of these crimes, and embrace the unknown with faith.
And as we look back upon these last few years, we can remember a number of devastating and disastrous events – terrorist attacks, civil wars, the global financial meltdown – none of them completely accidental, rather likely the result of criminal neglect or malice or evil intent. Still our faith teaches us to let go of fear and keep trusting our God, to acknowledge our sinfulness, to reach out to our neighbors in need, and to reaffirm our reliance on Divine Providence. It’s not that easy to walk away from outrage and resentment and discouragement, in the face of human pride and selfishness and greed, to raise our hearts and minds to God, and embrace the unknown with faith.
Then there were natural disasters that we cannot blame on anyone, the recent tornadoes in the Midwest, the earthquake and tsunami last year in Northern Japan, and the nuclear reactor crisis that followed, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008, hurricane Katrina in 2005, the tsunami in Bali Indonesia in 2004, and recent earthquakes in the last few years in China, Pakistan, New Zealand, Chile and Peru. We can sometimes be filled with anguish, overwhelmed with frustration, and stunned into silence, that even God seems far away, or we are unable to call on him in our disbelief and indignation. But our faith teaches us we are in God’s hands, that he protects those who are his own, that we can call on him and he will grant us grace and strength to fight against temptation. It’s not that easy to walk away from fear and outrage to run with faith in our hearts into the compassionate arms of God.
So we can imagine Abraham’s shock upon hearing God’s request. God was asking him to surrender the child of his old age, to offer up as a holocaust his only true heir, and to snuff out the light and joy of his life. Chances are Abraham never spoke of the true purpose of their journey to his wife Sarah, or the boy would never be permitted to leave their home ever again. As perplexing and outrageous and utterly repulsive as God’s request was, and we can never truly understand the mind of God, Abraham did not walk away. Instead, he listened and did as he was instructed. And despite his heavy heart, he placed complete trust in God and embraced the unknown with faith. And God proved he did not truly desire the boy’s death. But he got our attention.
Jesus was mindful of the suffering and death he would face in obedience to the Father. He knew his closest friends would most likely be stunned with fear and anger, that he believed they would benefit from a little encouragement, that catching a glimpse of his glory as God’s own Son, they would not be tempted to lose hope. Instead, they would place confidence in the Father’s wisdom and mercy, and embrace the unknown with complete faith in God.
Paul in his letter to the Romans writes of his own confidence in the wisdom and mercy of the Father. He was convinced God would never take back his favor, that God would be true to his promises to those he had chosen for his own. “If God is for us, who can be against us? … Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones? It is God who acquits us, who will condemn?” So even in the face of much uncertainty, he undertook the mission to bring the gospel to the gentiles. He would later detail the hardships he endured, the shipwrecks, the beatings, the rejections. And as he himself placed total confidence in God, so he encourages us to do the same.
There are among us those who have known much trial and tribulation in life, having suffered injustice or betrayal or persecution or danger, having come face to face with human weakness and illness and death. The world’s response to the tragedy we have known in our lives could be anywhere from bitterness and vengeance to indifference and hardness of heart. And our faith teaches us difficult lessons sometimes – to let go of resentment and to pray for those who persecute us, to turn the other cheek, to have compassion on our fellow women and men, to forgive our neighbor’s trespasses as we call on God to forgive ours. We are invited to place our trust in God, despite the darkness and despair that surrounds us, despite the taunting of unbelievers, despite the silence of God. Abraham is for us an example of courage and a model of faith to imitate. He did not always understand what God was trying to accomplish, yet he embraced the unknown with faith in God’s wisdom and mercy. The apostle Paul invites us to place our trust in God, and reminds us that God will always be faithful. God will not abandon those he has chosen. He himself will not condemn us because it is he who saves us. And giving us a glimpse of his glory, Jesus encourages us in the face of darkness and tragedy and persecution and danger. This world we live in, as amazing and wonderful as it sometimes is, is not meant to last forever. There will be darkness and tragedy and persecution and danger around us. And our faith invites us to place our trust in God, to turn away from fear and outrage, and to embrace the unknown with confidence and faith. Give it a try. What have you got to lose?