Look for the Helpers

Boston Marathon bombing-flagsOn the video, the first thing one notices is the brightness of the sky.  It is a near perfect day.  The sun is shining, and the temperature reaches a crisp and refreshing fifty-four degrees.  On this same date last year, the thermometer soared into the nineties, leading to a medical tent overflowing with heat-related illnesses.  But not this day.  This day is a near perfect day.

The second thing one notices is the discrepancy between the few people running in the road and the multitudes lining the sidewalks.  Two-thirds of the runners have already finished their race.  Those who remain on the road are the determined, the dogged, the ones for whom merely competing in and finishing this historic route has been a lifelong dream.  One is a seventy-eight-year-old man.  Even so, the crowd lining the sidewalk has not thinned.  These final runners are cheered as though they’re about to win the Olympics.

The third thing one notices is the array of colorful flags waving in the breeze.  From the vantage point of the video I’m watching, I count thirty national flags, and there are more extending beyond my line of sight.  They represent the runners, the spectators, and all of us who look to events like the Boston Marathon for reminders that occasionally the best impulses of humanity emerge.  Runners from across the globe gather not only to compete but also simply to share in this iconic experience.  Kenyan standing next to Canadian standing alongside American all shout encouragement for the runners and, really, for the whole human family.

It is an earthly approximation of the heavenly vision in Revelation.  St. John the Divine tells us, “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…”

Those colorful, international flags are waving in the breeze when the bomb goes off.  The force of the blast shreds some of them.  The seventy-eight-year-old runner crumbles to the ground.  Three people are immediately killed.  Hundreds are wounded, many gruesomely so.  In an instant, the world is shattered.  Essayist Patricia Adams Farmer reminds us, “If we live long enough and deep enough, at some point in life, we will experience a quaking and breaking of everything we considered solid and sure.”[i]

True indeed.  But must it happen so often?  I have only recently joined you from Roanoke, Virginia, just down the road from Blacksburg, where the Virginia Tech massacre is still so recent its pain is searing for many.  I have just returned from the North American Deans Conference, where the dean in Oklahoma City tells me his parishioners are still, so many years later, reminded daily of the grotesque attack on the Murrah Federal Building, which killed one hundred sixty-eight people including nineteen children.  And there is Columbine.  And there is Sandy Hook.  And there is 9/11.

Add to such news-worthy events all the mundane tragedies of our lives—the illnesses, the accidents, the failures, the injuries we do one another—and it seems that Patricia Adams Farmer is wrong in one respect.  We don’t really have to live very long or very deep to experience the quaking and breaking of everything.

As news of the bombings in Boston quickly spread on Monday afternoon last, countless people succumbed to such reflections.  I did, too.  But then I watched The Boston Globe’s video of the explosion a second time, and when I did, something new stood out in stark relief to the carnage.  I have no idea who held the video camera.  I don’t know his name, his occupation, or what he had for breakfast Monday morning.  What I do know is that exactly two seconds after the first bomb detonates—two seconds—the cameraman breaks into a run.  But he does not run away; he does not run for cover.  He runs toward the blast; he runs into the smoke.  And as his video camera jostles and shakes, we can see all around him the multitude of people doing exactly the same thing.  They run toward those shredded flags representing so many peoples and nations.  They run into the chaos.

"Look for the helpers."

“Look for the helpers.”

The beloved children’s television host Fred Rogers shares this: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.”[ii]

And with new eyes I look back upon all those tragedies, the headliners and the personal ones, and I see the helpers.  I see the group of people who tackled the knife-wielding assailant at Lone Star College just last week so he couldn’t harm anyone else.  I see the clients of The Beacon—homeless men and women—who rushed into the busy street to protect our own parishioner who was clipped by a hit-and-run driver three weeks ago.  I see the stranger bringing an exhausted father a cup of coffee in a surgical waiting room.  And I see—until my dying day I will see—the hundreds of emergency responders who rushed into the hell of two smoking towers in lower Manhattan a decade ago.

In Revelation, St. John asks his angelic guide who the multitude might be, streaming to and surrounding the throne of God.  The guide says, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  For this reason they are before the throne of God.”

It turns out Monday’s scene at the Boston Marathon truly was an earthly vision of that heavenly scene.  Those who streamed into that great ordeal represented a multitude of peoples and nations.  Some of them undoubtedly pray to God-in-Christ; some pray to God by other names; some likely don’t know what to call God at all.  Regardless, it wasn’t the smoke that attracted them; it wasn’t chaos for chaos’ sake.  They ran into the ordeal, and they washed their robes in the blood of the wounded, because they were attracted by love, instinctively and overpoweringly.  And God is love.White-robed martyrs

On his blog, Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes responded to the Boston Marathon bombing by saying, “It’s not easy. Love is not quick, and does not produce immediate results. It’s a marathon. It takes dedication and training and a lot of commitment. It’s not for the faint-hearted…Love takes guts. It takes faith, confidence that a greater love is at work even when we cannot see it. And it takes patience, like a marathon—the willingness to go the distance, to keep at it when your body cries, “Quit!,” when your mind thinks of better things to do, when pain and weariness make you want to give up —it takes guts to keep going anyway…To share in the world’s pain and sadness, and still keep up hope and love—that is the world’s oldest marathon. The good news is that we do not run alone. Nor do we run on our own energy: we are moved by the desire of God for the healing of the world.”[iii]

The final promise of Revelation today is that, in God’s good time, the ordeal will end.  “[We] will hunger no more, and thirst no more…for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be [our] shepherd, and he will guide [us] to springs of the water of life.  And God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.”

I believe that promise.  But we live in the meantime, in which two misguided young men possessed by anger and fear set off bombs and destroy near perfect days.  The author Frederick Buechner, never one to sugar-coat, says, “Here is the world.  Beautiful and terrible things will happen.  Don’t be afraid.”[iv]

We need not fear, even in the meantime, because God is love, and God has disciples who will always stream into the chaos on behalf of that love.  Look for the helpers.  There are so many of them.

A Horror Story with a Twist

Under the right circumstances, we like to be scared.  In a controlled space, like a movie theater or gathered around a campfire, fear can be thrilling and even fun.  As a scary story is told, tension slowly mounts; goose bumps rise on the arm; cold sweat gathers on the brow.  Finally, the moment comes when the storyteller yells “Boo!” or someone jumps from the shadows.  We shriek and spill our popcorn.   We’re surprised at how fast our feeble courage fails, and we’re secretly relieved that the fright was only an artificial one.

Over time, certain standard motifs have developed in scary stories.  As soon as they appear, we know what’s coming next.  But rather than diminish our fear through their familiarity, these motifs raise our level of ominous foreboding.

Edgar Allan Poe published "The Tell-Tale Heart" in 1843.  It's still scary after all these years!

Edgar Allan Poe published “The Tell-Tale Heart” in 1843. It’s still scary after all these years!

One such motif is the returning, haunting voice or sound of one thought dead.  Remember Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Tell-Tale Heart”?  It was, I think, the first really scary tale I ever read.  The narrator kills his elderly housemate and hides the body under the floorboards, and when the police pay the murderer a visit, the murderer plays it cool and thinks he fools them.  But then he hears—first softly in the background and then crescendoing to a fevered pitch in his ears—the steady heartbeat of the man he’s killed.  He can’t get the sound out of his head.  The murderer, clawing at his ears, finally breaks down before the policemen and admits his crime.  (I’ll tell you, the night I read that story, I didn’t sleep a wink.)

Another standard motif in scary stories has a frightened group of people fleeing some horror: a vampire, the blob, a flock of mad birds, until the terrorized group find themselves barricaded and cornered in a closet or a phone booth or a room at the end of the hall.  They are trapped.  There is nowhere else to go.  And something wicked this way comes!

Remember “The Shining”?  The movie begins with a happy family arriving at an idyllic mountain lodge where the father is to serve as winter caretaker in the off-season.  This happy beginning doesn’t last long, though, as the father slips into madness.  Who can forget the scene late in the movie, when Shelley Duvall is trapped in the bathroom.  A snow bank outside blocks the window.  She can’t escape; she has nowhere to run.  And a clearly deranged Jack Nicholson shuffles down the hall toward the bathroom door with an ax in hand.  It is scary stuff, no matter how many times you watch it.The Shining

Too dark for the Sunday after Easter?  Well, no scarier than the beginning of the Gospel today.  If we have eyes to see, St. John actually utilizes the same motif as Stephen King.  For us, a full week has passed since Easter, nine days since the horror of Good Friday.  But not for the disciples.  Today’s reading takes place on Easter evening.  All these events have just happened.  Let’s think back for a moment and reconstruct their experience.

On Maundy Thursday, the disciples gathered with Jesus in the upper room, likely the top floor of a house, with the only access being a single door and a narrow back stairwell.  The week had been a glorious one, with parades and adoring crowds and their leader Jesus repeatedly besting the authorities whenever they tried to debate him.  Eating and drinking in the upper room on Thursday had been like a celebration.  The disciples had no inkling that it was a “last supper.”  Sure, Jesus had tried to talk to them of somber things and trials to come, but John tells us the disciples murmured to one another, “We don’t know what he’s talking about.”  And we get the impression they didn’t try very hard.

When Jesus tells them he will soon find himself all alone in the world, Peter speaks with bravado saying, “Lord, I’ll lay down my life for you!”  And the others agree with a hearty harrumph.  Dinner ends with rosy cheeks flushed with wine.  Except for Jesus, everyone is cheery, lighthearted and glad.

It really is like the early scenes in scary movies, like that idyllic mountain lodge in “The Shining” or the guilt-free fun at Crystal Lake in the first half of “Friday the Thirteenth.”  But as in those movies, we can sense that something horrible is about to happen.

And, of course, it does.  We don’t need to rehearse all the events in the Garden of Gethsemane and on Good Friday.  We know that the horrors of those days exceeded anything Hollywood could put on film (though Mel Gibson certainly tried).  Jesus is killed, brutally and torturously so.  But then, on Easter morning, Mary Magdalene discovers that Jesus’ tomb is empty.  Seconds later she meets a strange man who, to her shock, turns out to be Jesus alive again.  She runs back to town and tells the disciples.

And this is where John’s story veers from the other Gospels.  In John, when Mary tells the disciples what she’s seen, most of them do not then run to the tomb to see for themselves.  What do they do?  They cling to one another and flee back to that upper room, the scene of such revelry just a few days before.  They clamber up that narrow staircase, furtively looking over their shoulders.   They huddle together and barricade the door.  John tells us, “The door was locked for fear of the Jews.”

I once heard Marty Field, who is now the Bishop of West Missouri, discuss this passage.  Bishop Field offered an eye-opening insight: “Just which Jew,” he asked, “do you suppose the disciples were most afraid of?”

Think about that.  The disciples rode Jesus’ coattails into and through Jerusalem.  They basked in his fame and they siphoned his power.  They swore with bravado never to leave him.  They created and projected this image of who they were, and it centered on being almost as good as Jesus himself.  And then as soon as the mob arrived in Gethsemane, the disciples fled into the night.  Their bravado crumbled like cheese.  They hid in shadows.  They abandoned Jesus at his trial.  They forsook him on the cross.  They did not protect him or even hold vigil for him.  They ran away, and he died.

Disciples in the Upper RoomAnd then Mary Magdalene comes and tells them he’s not dead after all.  He’s alive, and he’s coming for them.  Would we be excited in those circumstances?  Would we await Jesus with a smile and open arms?  I doubt it.  The man who knows best their false image is coming back.  The man who was on the receiving end of their failings is returning.  Were it us, I suspect the tension would slowly mount; the goose bumps would rise on our arms; our hair would stand on end.  And then we’d run headlong to some place of perceived safety—like the upper room—and barricade the door.  Which Jew are they afraid of?  The disciples are terrified of Jesus!

We like to be scared in pretend.  We enjoy campfire ghost stories and B movies.  But what about the real bump in the night that jars us awake?  Or, what about those moments in our lives when life catches up with us and we feel cornered and pursued?  What are we afraid of?  We’re afraid of the same thing that undid the disciples.  We’re afraid that the image we project to the world will fail us.  We’re afraid that our false bravado will crumble, that our secret moral failings will come to light, that we’ll flee when the moment comes for us to stand firm for good and for God.  That real terror can paralyze us, and it is, I believe, the real reason we Episcopalians get nervous when talk turns to Jesus. We’re afraid he might be alive after all.  Easter might just be true, and if it is, what might Jesus think of us—what might he do to us—when he shows up and sees our failings?  That might scare us to death.

The disciples are cornered in that upper room.  The door is locked, and they huddle in fear.  Before they know it, and passing through the locked door as though it is smoke, Jesus appears.  The disciples’ pulses are racing.  The combination of their fear and flight response must be dizzying.  Jesus raises his hand and opens his mouth to speak.  And this is what he says:

“Peace be with you…Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.  Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Fear melts.  It’s not that Jesus doesn’t know the disciples’ failings.  It is, rather, that Jesus does know them; he forgives them; and he loves the disciples anyway.  Most importantly, Jesus redeems those failings.  You see, he knows the disciples could not be of any use to him or to God until those false self-images and false bravado were shattered.  Only now, when the disciples know who they truly are, when they have seen how far they can flee and that God still seeks them out in acceptance and love, can they do Jesus’ work in the world.  Only now—at that moment when fear flees and peace settles in—do they receive God’s Holy Spirit within them and truly become disciples.

It is the surprise twist to a passage that began as a horror story.  It upends the expected motif, which is, after all, what God is all about in our world.  It replaces fear with peace; failing with acceptance; the old bravado with a new mission in life, for the disciples and for us, to serve the living Christ in honesty, in humility, and in love.