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Fourth Sunday in Easter: “A Shrine to Peace”
Every morning since Monday, a 57-year-old retired man has boarded a bus from his home on Cape Cod for the hour-and-a-half ride to Boylston Street, the site of the Boston Marathon bombing. Ed Starbuck has given himself the job of unofficial manager of the makeshift memorial that has appeared at the barricade of the crime scene.
Flowers and crosses, running shoes and marathon medals, Red Sox hats and teddy bears line the metal gate. And flying next to the many American flags, a Buddhist prayer flag floats in the air—a symbol meant to convey peace, strength, and compassion to all.
Ed explains, “A couple of days ago, I was on the couch and getting mad like everybody else. And I decided to come and volunteer at the memorial.”
“It makes me feel a lot better,” he says. “When we get into these situations is when we pull together.”
And so I ask you this morning to stand at this makeshift memorial site with Ed and with me—to pull together and ponder what you are bringing to this shrine. To think about how you are commemorating this terrible, violent event through your conversations, your behaviors, your prayers.
Because whether we live in Boston or Incline Village, whether we know someone who was on the scene or are connected to it as fellow Americans, I believe the way each of us responds to this bombing matters. I believe the way each of us makes meaning out of this tragic story affects both our spiritual formation and our national culture.
Almost exactly four months ago, I spoke in this pulpit right after the Newtown shooting. I set aside what I had planned to say that day, knowing that we needed to grieve together. And I do the same today, with a heavy heart about yet another tragedy, following so soon after the last.
I’ve let go of plans for a dramatic reading about the 23rd Psalm. But I haven’t let go of that beloved text as our focus. It comes to us as a special blessing and guide this morning.
As a child, this “Good Shepherd Sunday” was one I could always look forward to. The 23rd Psalm was as familiar as a lullaby: short and soothing; comforting and protective; simple in its imagery, like a picture on my Sunday School wall. And over the years, perhaps as it has for you, this psalm has continued to arrive like a welcome friend—at prayer times and at ceremonies from baby blessings to funerals.
So as a cherished voice of comfort, let’s bring this psalm into our memorial this morning with intention. Let’s read it again in unison, this time in the name of all affected by this tragedy in Boston: the dead and the injured; the spectators and responders; the medical personnel, peace officers, and investigators; families and friends; residents of the Boston area; all those suffering. Let’s take a moment and read together from our bulletin insert:
The LORD is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.
He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.
Though I walk through the valley of
the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You spread a table before me in the
presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall
follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. AMEN.
I hope you do receive comfort from this beautiful psalm this morning. And I encourage you to return to it as the story of the bombing continues to unfold. More and more facts, opinions, and interpretations will be left in front of you.
Like Ed Starbuck at the makeshift Boston shrine, you’ll have to manage this jumble of meaning. If you’re tempted to immerse yourself in the story, perhaps you could intersperse some of your watching, listening, or talking about it with some peaceful reflection on the 23rd Psalm. Just keep your bulletin insert close at hand.
Because, if you’re like me, our national conversation about this crime might create a “valley of the shadow of death” within you. And this psalm can not only ease your fear and comfort you, but also direct your actions as you move through this time. And challenge you to grow.
What might this ancient poem show us about how to respond in a time of violence? First of all, it’s a profession of faith. As we say these words, we claim the Lord as our shepherd. We humbly and boldly say we will follow him as our teacher and guide—along right pathways. Toward goodness and mercy. All the days of our lives.
Now, we know from experience that’s easier to walk this way of peace in the “green pastures–still waters” times of life. But what about in these times of shock and disorientation? When we may feel vulnerable or enraged, terrorized or revengeful? How do we fear no evil—and also reject violence—in this “valley of the shadow of death”?
David, the psalmist, tells us that through dark times, the Good Shepherd carries two supports that I suggest we can take up too. He carries a rod and a staff that symbolize protective power. A rod of skill and a staff of compassion.
First, like the shepherd wielding his staff to aid and rescue his sheep, we too can wield the power of compassion. On Monday, we saw average citizens turn into heroes on the streets of Boston. In the face of evil, they showed no fear. Following the way of the Lord, they ran toward the source of danger to rescue others. Compassionately, they bound up wounds; gave away their warm coats, food, and phones; found lost children; even offered their marathon medals to runners who could not finish the race. Like good shepherds, they lifted others out of danger as best they could to bring healing to injury, to resist violence.
Their examples can inspire us on our spiritual path. Every small act of compassion we bring into the world lights up the dark valleys: when we interact with angry people without becoming angry ourselves; when we comfort friends who are ill or mourning; when we share what we have with strangers; when we give our time or money to help people in distress.
These acts work to make us all less afraid of danger, death, or violence. Because by practicing compassion, by looking out for and taking care of each other, we become stronger and more resilient—better prepared for life’s tragedies. We become good shepherds for each other.
We know we should show compassion for the injured. But how should we respond to those who cause violence? Here again in this horrifying attack, as in Newtown, very young men are responsible. And crowds cheer at their death or bloody capture. Do we demonize these criminals out of fear and anger? Or does this lead us into greater darkness?
Again, I look to the image of power we see in the 23rd Psalm. The rod the shepherd carries is not for dealing death, punishment, or revenge. He uses it as a tool, throwing it to drive away any threat of attack to his sheep. And so, for me, this rod symbolizes skillful nonviolence—powerful tools and techniques we can all learn to end these dreadful cycles of attack and anger, attack and revenge.
Soon after Newtown, Eric took steps to connect our parish to the Alternatives to Violence project, a program for which Rick Sorensen—a frequent visiting priest at St. Patrick’s—has long been a facilitator. And Monday, when the Boston bombing story broke, I happened to be closely reading the program manual, lifted up by its proven approach to nonviolence.
The program’s central philosophy is Transforming Power, a universal power available to all humans: always present in us and in our opponents. If we remain open to it and allow it to work through us, this power is able to transform potentially violent situations and behaviors into liberating, constructive experiences. When we tap into this greater power with patience and persistence, we reach for something good in others and find common ground.
For almost forty years, the Alternatives to Violence program has been changing the lives of adults and youth, one by one, through workshops in prisons and community centers, schools and churches, across the country and around the world. The program replaces violent reflexes with new techniques for managing conflict. It develops lasting skills of self-esteem, community building, communication, and conflict resolution.
It defuses the next crime in the heart of the next angry person.
This program is an entirely volunteer effort. And I plan to report fully to our Outreach Committee about its work and how we as a parish can support it. I know I will train to become a facilitator as part of my effort to change our nation’s culture of violence. And to become a more peaceful person myself.
I ask you to join me. Perhaps our support for this program of nonviolence is a way we can grow spiritually as a parish and make meaning from this terrible tragedy. Perhaps we at St. Patrick’s can symbolically contribute the Good Shepherd’s rod of skill and staff of compassion to Boston’s makeshift memorial. So that we commemorate this violent act with acts of peace. Amen.
~ Rev. Clare C. Novak
Associate for Interfaith Ministry, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church
Incline Village, Nevada
April 21, 2013