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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

A Time to Weep
November 19, 2015

The Bible reminds us that life’s cycles are such that there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh.” (Ecclesiastes 3:4) As the western world reels from the Paris terrorist attacks last week, it is certainly a time to weep. We weep for the injured and bereaved, as well as for a city and country gripped by icy talons of fear. We weep also for the throngs of refugees whose resettlement in safe lands will be delayed and possibly thwarted by new security lock-downs.

This coming Sunday is the culmination of the church year, which the church observes as “Christ the King” or “Reign of Christ” Sunday. The following Sunday begins a new church year with the first Sunday of Advent. This Sunday, royal pageantry and victory garlands seem apropos as we celebrate the one whom hymns hail as “King of kings and Lord of lords!” Yet the day calls for something far less triumphalist than we might initially imagine.

As his followers herald him as their King on Palm Sunday, Jesus responds not with a coronation address but with tears. (Luke 19:41) A few days later Pilate questions him about the claim that he is a king, and he responds affirmatively, with the clarification that his kingdom is not from this world, otherwise “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over” to those ready to condemn him to death. (John 18:36)

Jesus knows that worldly kingdoms are gained and maintained by force, and will have none of it in his kingdom. His rule, he tells Pilate, is established instead by testifying to the truth. Its power is displayed not by what it repels, but by what it embraces.

Cries for vengeance against terrorists are certainly understandable. The greater and nearer the attack, the louder those cries become: “An eye for an eye! A show of force is the only language they understand.” Paris is near enough to home for us to feel the attackers’ breath on our neck. We weep for their victims and their loved ones like we have never wept for the countless thousands who have fallen to swords of terror in more-distant Asia and Africa.

Bringing this close to home, we may not engage in literal swordplay, but do we not resort all too easily to verbal violence when engaging people with whom we disagree in the church? We may not use sticks and stones to beat each other, but name-calling can be even more injurious.

We learn this manner all too well from the world outside the church’s doorsteps. Political campaign ads and talk radio are but two manifestations of our society’s penchant to resort to attack rhetoric under the guise of debate. We question not just the ideas and programs, but the integrity and motives of those whose viewpoints differ from our own.

There are many ways in which the church has flouted Paul’s warning against conformity to the world (Romans 12:2), but this is one to which we can be especially blind. Without blinking, we manifest within the church the world’s penchant for polarization, dividing into parties of the like-minded that demonize those with different viewpoints. Does mistrust, rather than love, characterize our relationships with brothers and sisters with whom we differ? Do we think more highly of others than we do of ourselves (Philippians 2:3) – but only if they agree with us on certain issues?

Under Jesus’ reign, being aggrieved is no warrant to be aggressive in return. Jesus demonstrates this in his royal identity as a servant-king, as one who came not to be served, but to serve and to lay down his life for the sake of others. (Mark 10:45) We follow a leader who chose to weep over misguided brothers and sisters rather than to resist or condemn them.

The tears we shed over that which is grievous can be truly holy. They can dissolve calcified deposits of hatred more quickly than we can imagine. “Weep with those who weep,” Paul implores us, after urging us not to be conformed to the world. (Romans 12:15) Let our hearts break for that which breaks the hearts of others – whether in Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, Nigeria, or right here in Pittsburgh. With tender hearts we are far less likely to add our own harm to whatever harm folk have already suffered.

The world has yet to see in fullness the reign of the One who invites us to turn the other cheek instead of demanding an eye for an eye. (Matthew 5:38-40) While the canons of his “not of this world” kingdom may not easily transfer to today’s realms of politics and international relations, I submit that the church of Jesus Christ is precisely where the terms of his reign can and should rule. How is it among us, beloved of God?

For the sake of Christ’s kingdom,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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