“Making Sense of the Senseless”

August 12, 2012


Genesis 4:1-16

I John 4:16b-21


In the wake of tragedy, we seek to make sense of the senseless.

It’s a very human response. We are creatures who need to make meaning out of seemingly meaningless events. We want to explain what seems to be unexplainable. We want to answer the question “Why?”

Confronted with a tornado’s destruction, a war’s devastation, or the disaster of a mass shooting, we want to bring some kind of order to the chaos, we want to see some purpose in what seems without purpose.

At such times, some will say that everything happens for a reason—even if that reason remains unknown.

Others will speak of evil, which is certainly a powerful force, or of God’s will.

We start with stories.

The ancient Hebrew people who compiled the Book of Genesis, looking at the brokenness, enmity, and hatred that are a part of the human condition included the story of Cain and Abel, a story of the first murder, in their sacred texts. It is a story about family discord that is still all too familiar to many. It is also a story about the religious strife that increasingly marks our own modern world as well.

We watch as a religious motivation compels one person to kill his brother. Sensing that God’s favor is with Abel rather than with him, Cain is furious. His solution to this problem is to attack and murder his brother.

This story and the reality it represents has haunted people for thousands of years. As troubling as it is, it seems to end with—what?—the promise, the hope of redemption. As one person puts it, God protects Cain in “an effort to stop the violence from spiraling out of control by intensifying the workings of the moral order….God’s mercy embraces the murderer.”[i]

A surprising conclusion to this story. One that still gives us pause.

When the early Jewish Christians sought to understand the violent death of Jesus by crucifixion, they had to rethink what they understood about God and God’s ways with human beings. They expected a leader who would triumph over the Romans who occupied their land. Instead they found that the One they followed revealed strength in weakness. They told the story of how Jesus came as a king riding on a donkey, of how he triumphed over death by dying.

Again, a surprising, unexpected conclusion to the story.

Such stories help us to reimagine our world and the tragedies that fill it. They don’t immediately answer the question “Why?” But they allow us to slow down, take a second look, and see something new.

Today our story tellers are often television anchors or newspaper reporters. The stories they tell come so quickly that it often seems we simply move from disaster to disaster, from tragedy to tragedy with little time in between.

It helps, then, in our time, not only to let the light of scripture shine upon our darkness, but also to look at the connections that we have with one another. In those connections we might gain new understanding and see new possibilities.

So let’s start here:

Earlier this summer, as you know, members of our congregation joined with members of First Christian Church in Coralville on our annual mission work trip. They traveled to Joplin, Missouri to help in the rebuilding efforts after the terrible tornado that swept through that town last year. Signs of destruction were still very much there, but so too were signs of hope and restoration.

This past Monday Joplin was hit with a new form of destruction. Early in the morning someone set fire to the Islamic mosque in Joplin. It burned to the ground. There had been earlier attacks with fire, including an attempted arson on the Fourth of July. We are currently in Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, so Monday’s fire, which would have been devastating at any time, had the impact of setting fire to a church during Holy Week.

Susan Campbell, who grew up in Joplin, wrote this past week: “ We are fiercely private and fiercely independent, and yet the tornado forced on us the goodwill of people we’d never met, and gave us connections we never thought we’d have….Because we’re from Joplin, as President Obama said at this year’s high school graduation, we know what it’s like to see the goodness of people—all of them, and not just the ones who look, smell, and sound like us.”

As a result of connections that were made through the work of people such as members of this congregation, the people of Joplin are making sense out of senseless situation. When a goal of $250,000 was set to help with efforts to rebuild the mosque, over $285,000 was quickly raised. And Christians in Joplin came together this past week to make sure that the Muslims there would have a place for their Ramadan observances. They held an “iftar”—a breaking of the Ramadan fast—at the Episcopal Church. Members of the South Joplin Christian Church, who hosted the group from Iowa City in June, also participated in this act of interfaith solidarity.

Connections between people make us strong in the face of tragedy and evil.

Of course, the arson in Joplin was just one more example of the anti-Muslim violence that has grown in our country after 9/11. Mosques and individual Muslims throughout the United States continue to be threatened.

And that hatred gets even more twisted.

Recall that the first person murdered in the United States in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks was not a Muslim, but a Sikh—a gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona named Balbir Singh Sodhi who was shot five times. In the past eleven years more than 700 Sikhs have been attacked. Sikhs are members of the fifth largest religious group in the United States. Zealots still seeking some misguided revenge often mistake Sikhs for Muslims because of their beards and turbans.

This confusion takes our thoughts to suburban Milwaukee where last Sunday a gunman opened fire on Sikhs as they gathered for worship. Here again, the shooter, a white supremacist, seems to have confused those men and women for Muslims.

It is always disturbing when violence comes to a place of worship—when a doctor is shot in a Lutheran church by an anti-abortion activist, when a synagogue is bombed, when a mosque is burned, or when Sikhs are killed.

The coverage of this latest mass shooting has not been as extensive as that of the recent shooting in Colorado. One reason for this that has been suggested is that those who cover such events “are not Sikhs and don’t know many, if any Sikhs. They can imagine their friends and relatives—and themselves—being at a theater watching a Batman movie; they can’t imagine being in a Sikh temple.” That is to say, in a sense, people are not seeing the connections between themselves and the Sikhs.

This past week, however, gatherings have been held across our nation under the motto “We Are All Sikhs.” People of many faiths—and no doubt some with no faith at all—came together in Milwaukee to show their support for the Sikh community. I lived about four miles from the sight of the shooting when I lived in Milwaukee. I know that city has a long history of racial tension and violence. But it also has a history of strong and positive interfaith relations. The support in recent days has been a powerful way of showing the common faith that love is stronger than hate, that life is stronger than death.

Change is possible when tragedy makes us aware of our deep connections with one another, when we nurture those connections, and make them visible to a growing number of people.

Our calling here is to continue and strengthen our own efforts toward interfaith understanding and cooperation, to, as our Muslim friend Shams Ghoniem puts it, “always look for the commonalities.” And yes, to some extent it’s easy to stand up before a United Church of Christ congregation in Iowa City and speak about the need for interfaith cooperation. We are, after all, members of the Consultation of Religious Congregations, the organization of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim congregations in this area that for years has facilitated people of different faiths talking together and working together. But I remember that last year one organization listed us on their “Apostasy in Churches” web page because our participation in the Faith Shared event that lifted up the importance of interfaith cooperation. Religion can still divide and threaten as much as it can unite and heal.

So, if not in this particular space, at least in the public square it will continue require a degree of courage for us to be a voice and a force for positive interfaith relations, maybe even here in Iowa City.

Our calling, then, is an old, familiar one: to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Perfect love, an early Christian writer tells us, perfect love casts out all fear. We may not have such love yet, but we move forward, hoping by God’s grace not only to have such love but to show it to this world.

Only in this way can we make sense of the senseless.

[i] NIB, Genesis, pg. 374