Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24
1 The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; 2 for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.
3 Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? 4 Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. 5 They will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation. 6 Such is the company of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob.
7 Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. 8 Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle. 9 Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. 10 Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.
Good morning! My heart is still heavy from the shootings in Pittsburgh last week, as well as the murders of two African Americans in Kentucky. My heart breaks for all of those who were murdered in these attacks, as well as the loved ones and friends who mourn their passing. I cannot imagine the depth of their grief.
I can’t begin to fathom the hatred that lies in the hearts of these shooters.
I know that none of you pulled those triggers, nor did any of you encourage any of these heinous acts, but we all have a responsibility in these troubled times.
The sad truth is, we grow numb to these tragedies. If this hadn’t happened in my hometown, I don’t know if this would be at the front of my mind. I would love to set this aside and give you a happy sermon for All Saints’ Day. But I can’t. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings… indifference to evil is worse than evil itself… in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” We must refuse to go numb, because if we stay numb, nothing changes. If we stay numb, we ignore Jesus’ words: blessed are the peacemakers. This is part of our identity in Christ.
Psalm 24 is also about identity. It’s concerned with who may enter God’s temple or any other holy place. It begins by declaring that all of the earth belongs to God, as do all of the people who reside here. The psalmist doesn’t make distinctions between Jew and Gentile. As we said in our Affirmation of Faith a few weeks ago, in life and in death, we belong to God.
The psalmist states that only those “who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully” may enter the holy places:
“Heart” refers to what we would call the mind. Matters of the heart, in Hebrew, have to do with the will, not feelings or emotions as in our culture. Similarly, the adjectives “pure” and “clean” that belong to the sphere of ritual in our way of thinking, in the psalmist’s culture are matters of morality and suggest that the proper qualifications will be concerned with integrity and honor.
In other words, only those who possess honor and integrity may enter into the holy places and receive God’s blessing.
On Saturday, October 27th, a man entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh shouting “All Jews must die,” and then he opened fire. When the shooting stopped, eleven people were dead and another six were wounded, including four police officers who responded to the shooting.
This shook me to the core; I was shocked on so many different levels. Tree of life is located in a neighborhood called Squirrel Hill; it’s the center of the Jewish community in Pittsburgh. The last time I counted, there were nine synagogues in Squirrel Hill. There are also at least seven Christian congregations in Squirrel Hill. The neighborhood is less than four square miles in area, yet there are over 26,000 residents, approximately 40% of those residents are Jewish. This is a place where differences are celebrated, where people are glad to live in such a diverse community; this is Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.
After I had some time to sit with this awful news, I wondered why the shooter targeted Tree of Life. It’s not one of the bigger congregations, nor is it on the busiest street. If the shooter had wanted to kill more people, there we other synagogues he could have attacked. Why Tree of Life?
It turns out, the congregation at Tree of Life was involved with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS, a resettlement agency that rescues Jews and non-Jews who suffer persecution around the world. According to media reports, the shooter was obsessed with HIAS; before the attack he posted on social media: “HIAS likes to bring in invaders that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.” It seems that his “people” are white, native-born Americans. The so-called “invaders” of which the shooter spoke are the caravan of about 5,000 Central American migrants that are moving north through Mexico. It appears that the shooter was obsessed with reports about this caravan and the hysterical coverage that it is receiving in some parts of the news media. He believed that he was justified.
In that same week, a white man walked into a grocery store in Kentucky and murdered two African Americans. Prior to that, the shooter had attempted and failed to gain entry to a black church. It seems like he was intent on murdering black people. Like the shooter in Pittsburgh, he planned to enter a place of worship and open fire. No doubt, the shooter in Kentucky felt he was justified, too.
I don’t know if either of these shooters had any religious convictions. I don’t know if they tried to twist the scriptures to justify their acts of hatred. There are no satisfactory answers; these murders are senseless. Yet the acts of senseless violence continue.
I want to cry.
I want to turn off the news.
I want to have a drink and grow numb to the pain and suffering around me.
Of those three options, only my tears are an appropriate response to these horrific events. We cannot grow numb to these senseless acts. Nor can we close our eyes and ears and hearts. When a scribe asks Jesus which commandment is greatest, Jesus replies that the first and greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart and soul and strength.
Love the God who created the entire world and said that it was good.
Love the God who created each and every one of us in God’s own image.
There are no exceptions to any of this!
Jesus also says that there is a second commandment just like the first: love your neighbor as you love yourself. In fact, we show our love for God by loving our neighbors—because they were created in God’s image, too. There are no exceptions to this commandment either.
I saw a great picture on Facebook from one of the prayer vigils in Squirrel Hill, immediately after the shootings. It was a picture of an African American man holding a sign that read, “Jewish lives matter.” He was standing on the front steps of a Presbyterian church—Mr. Rogers’ home church.
Jesus doesn’t say “all lives matter.” Jesus demonstrates that all lives matter by saying that children’s lives matter and Samaritans’ lives matter, and gentiles’ lives matter. Jesus heals unclean people. Jesus eats with tax collectors and prostitutes. Jesus affirms each particular group that was on the fringes of society, and in doing so, Jesus points us to the deeper truth—everyone is our neighbor and we must love them as God loves them and we must see the image of God in them. And yes, I realize that this isn’t in the text of the Twenty-fourth Psalm, but it all flows from the idea that all of the world belongs to God, that each and every one of us belongs to God.
Rabbi Heschel said, “some are guilty, all are responsible.” It’s easy to blame political leaders and the news media for these acts of terrorism, but only the shooters are guilty of pulling the trigger. It’s easy to wash our hands of these murders, but we are all responsible to some degree for the culture and society in which we live.
As I said before, when we see suffering in the world, our tears are an acceptable first response. We must always stand with the victims—if not the families of those who were murdered, we must at least stand with the communities that have suffered these terrible losses. We must stand with them and listen to their pain. We have to listen.
We are also responsible for healing this broken world and working for reconciliation. Grieving with those who mourn is part of that work. Another part of that work is tearing down the walls of hostility that separate us from one another. Let’s face it, we live in a culture of fear. We are afraid of our neighbors. We are afraid of people who look different from us or who don’t speak English. We want to pretend that we’re not obligated to reach out to them. We want to listen to the news media and our elected representatives who tell us to be afraid, because then we don’t have to do anything; we don’t have to change.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says to the disciples, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” The disciples respond, “Lord, when did we see you as a stranger and welcome you?” Then Jesus says, “Whenever you welcome the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you welcome me.”
Here’s the thing that most of us miss. The word that we translate as stranger is the Greek word xenos. It means foreigner. Jesus is also saying, “I was a foreigner and you welcomed me.” Or, “I was a migrant and you welcomed me.” Or, “I was a refugee and you welcomed me.”
The shooter in Pittsburgh seemed to believe that our nation was under grave threat because of a caravan of 5,000 migrants, headed through Mexico, hoping to get asylum in the United States. He seemed to believe that he could change this by murdering Jews in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Every bit of that is crazy—including the notion that our nation is under siege.
We live in a nation of 325 million people. Unemployment is at a record low. The notion that we can’t accommodate another 5,000 souls is ludicrous. And the notion that we shouldn’t welcome them runs counter to the scriptures that we hold sacred. It is our responsibility to counter the false narratives in this culture that tell us to be afraid. It is our responsibility to remind our elected representatives that if they want to take the name Christian, they have to create policies that welcome the stranger, the foreigner, and the refugee.
The psalmist tells us that only those with clean hands and pure hearts, those who do not lift their souls up to what is false may ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in his holy place. We must lift ourselves up to the work of reconciliation. Mr. Rogers said that when something bad happened and he was scared, his mother told him to look for the helpers. After the shootings at Tree of Life, there have been a lot of helpers in Pittsburgh. I think that’s a pretty good start. Let us look for the ways that we may transform this culture and heal the division in our society. Thanks be to God. Amen!
Prayers of the People
On this day, let us lift up the saints who were slain in these senseless crimes.
Vicky Lee Jones, 67
Maurice E. Stallard, 69
Joyce Fienberg, 75
Richard Gottfried, 65
Rose Mallinger, 97
Jerry Rabinowitz, 66
Cecil Rosenthal, 59
David Rosenthal, 54
Bernice Simon, 84
Sylvan Simon, 86
Daniel Stein, 71
Melvin Wax, 88
Irving Younger, 69
The Rev. Dr. Laurie Ann Kraus, the Coordinator for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, wrote a prayer for times such as these. I have adapted it slightly for recent events. Let us pray:
God of mercy, whose presence sustains us in every circumstance, in the midst of unfolding violence and the aftermath of terror and loss, we seek the grounding power of your love and compassion.
In these days of fearful danger and division, we need to believe somehow that your kingdom of peace in which all nations and tribes and languages dwell together in peace is still a possibility.
Give us hope and courage that we may not yield our humanity to fear, even in these endless days of dwelling in the valley of the shadow of death.
We pray for neighbors in Kentucky and Pittsburgh, who, in the midst of the grace of ordinary life—while at work, or at play, have been violently assaulted, their lives cut off without mercy.
We are hostages of fear, caught in an escalating cycle of violence whose end cannot be seen.
We open our hearts in anger, sorrow and hope: that those who have been spared as well as those whose lives are changed forever may find solace, sustenance, and strength in the days of recovery and reflection that come. We give thanks for strangers who comfort the wounded and who welcome stranded strangers, for first responders who run toward the sound of gunfire and into the smoke and fire of bombing sites.
Once again, Holy One, we cry, how long, O Lord? We seek forgiveness for the ways in which we have tolerated enmity and endured cultures of violence with weary resignation. We grieve the continued erosion of the fabric of our common life, the reality of fear that warps the common good. We pray in grief, remembering the lives that have been lost and maimed, in body or spirit.
We ask for sustaining courage for those who are suffering; wisdom and diligence among global and national agencies and individuals assessing threat and directing relief efforts; and for our anger and sorrow to unite in service to the establishment of a reign of peace, where the lion and the lamb may dwell together, and terror will not hold sway over our common life.
In these days of shock and sorrow, open our eyes, our hearts, and our hands to the movements of your Spirit, who flows in us like the river whose streams makes glad the city of God, and the hearts of all who dwell in it, and in You.
In the name of Christ, our healer and our Light, we pray. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to break down the walls of hostility that separate us from one another. So go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Abraham Joshua Heschel. “The Reasons for My Involvement in the Peace Movement.”
 Mark Throntveit, “Commentary on Psalm 24,” retrieved from: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3823
 Bari Weiss, “A Massacre in the Heart of Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood,” New York Times, October 27, 2018, retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/27/opinion/synagogue-shooting-pittsburgh.html?rref=collection%2Fbyline%2Fbari-weiss&action=click&contentCollection=undefined®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=collection
 Laurie Ann Kraus, “A Prayer for Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad,” The Presbyterian Outlook, Nov. 13, 2015, retrieved from: http://pres-outlook.org/2015/11/a-prayer-for-paris-beirut-and-baghdad/